It is, perhaps, not as well-known as other prewar and wartime gatherings of the World War II era---Munich, Teheran, Cairo, Moscow, Casablanca or Yalta—but the quietly-held meeting of top Nazi bureaucrats at a secluded villa on Lake Wannsee in the Berlin suburbs on Jan. 20, 1942 was just as much a landmark event as they. Indeed, perhaps it was even more so, as it institutionalized an event that has since come down to history as the Holocaust, the Nazi extermination of six million European Jews during 1942-45. In fact, the Wannsee Conference, as it has come to be called, was in effect the Holocaust in executive session.
In declaring war on Poland in the German Reichstag (Parliament) on Sept. 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler had asserted once more that the Jews would not live to survive the war’s outcome, and the Wanssee Conference was called six weeks after America’s entry into the war to convince Nazi Germany’s bureaucracy that now there was no turning back, that for all of them it was either victory or the hangman’s noose. The meeting was officially hosted by the SD (Security Service) of the SS.
Ironically, because of the notoriety attaching itself to the 1960 Israeli kidnapping of the man who ordered the minutes kept—SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann—his place in history has almost come to overshadow that of his boss, and the Holocaust’s chief executive officer.
This was SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, 38. Historians continue to debate the possibilities of his own partial Jewishness, but it is certain that he was entrusted by Reichsfuhrer (National Leader) SS Heinrich Himmler with the planning and implementation of what the Nazis euphemistically called “The ‘final solution’ of the Jewish problem’” or question.
It was so-termed because the other, prior partial “solutions” had included confiscation of property, forced emigration, imprisonment in concentration camps, mass shootings, gassing in trucks and being burned alive in buildings.
Now, Eichmann had discovered a new, more efficient method of disposing of the unwanted 11 million Jews still in Europe: gassing them in fake “showers” through the pouring of common insecticide---Zyklon (Cyclone) B---through the shower heads in the ceiling. In this way, millions would be killed, and Himmler’s SS men spared the mental anquish (and ammunition) of having to shoot them. The dead bodies would be cremated in ovens.
Of course, none of this unsavory business would be openly discussed at the Wannsee Conference, but the SS nevertheless achieved its goals under Heydrich’s able chairmanship in the crowded meeting hall: a free hand to do what he liked, without interference from the “responsible” agencies of the traditionally conservative government that the radical Nazi Party had taken over—but not fully cowed—in 1933.
But far more important than that, Heydrich achieved “shared complicity” between his actual killers and the revered official agencies of the Reich government, according to the excellent new book by Mark Roseman, The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution : A Reconsideration. Thus, the number two man in the SS wanted and got “Shared knowledge and responsibility” by the end of the one-and-a-half hour meeting that snowy day of Jan. 20, 1942.
Although Roseman asserts that “The Holocaust was the best documented murder in history,” he also admits that “We do not know why it took place” and asks, “Was the descent into genocide the result of a long-established plan ?”
Whatever the process, when Heydrich issued his invitations to the meeting in November 1941, he added the following statement: “On July 31, 1941, the Reich Marshal of the Greater German Reich (Hermann Goring) commissioned me, with the assistance of the other central authorities, to make all necessary organizational and technical preparations for a comprehensive solution of the Jewish question and to present him with a comprehensive proposal at an early opportunity. A photocopy of his instructions is attached to this statement…”
Heydrich himself was assassinated by Czech parachutists six months after the Wannsee Conference, and Goring’s instructions to him of July 31, 1941—if no other document—was enough to hang the Reich Marshal at Nuremberg’s International Military Tribunal in 1945-46.
Originally, the meeting was to have been held on Dec. 9, 1941 at Interpol Headquarters, since Heydrich at that time was Interpol chief, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the stalling of the German armies before Moscow caused it to be postponed. Roseman theorizes that Hitler had been holding European Jewry hostage in order to keep the United States out of the war, but after American entrance at least into its Pacific phase was assured, the Fuhrer honored his pact with Japan and declared war on the US in the Reichstag on Dec. 11th.
The meeting was then rescheduled for Jan. 20, 1942 at an SD guest house on the lake after Hitler had personally taken over the command of the German Army on the Eastern Front and stabilized events there. In his diary on Dec. 12th, Dr. Josef Goebbels had written, “The world war is now upon us,” and with it the opportunity to eliminate the Jews by killing them all within the “German sphere of influence in Europe.”
Since the end of the victorious Polish campaign in September 1939, two million Polish Jews had fallen into German hands, and at Wannsee Heydrich bemoaned the fact that the Third Reich simply could not feed them all, while the representative of Hans Frank’s Nazi Government-General there pleaded that Occupied Poland not be used as a “dumping ground” for more European Jews.
Heydrich explained that the problem was to be solved by shipping them all further “to the East”—i.e. to death camps in Poland---where they would be “resettled.” As pointed out by author Roseman, the German Army, too, had tacitly cooperated already with the Fuhrer’s plans of extermination, since it saw the masses of captured Jews as “useless eaters.” (Another good reference on the military’s role is the 1999 book The German Army and Genocide: Crimes Against War Prisoners, Jews and Other Civilians, 1939-44.)
By the time of the period June-August 1941, the period of actual mass shootings by Heydrich’s killing squads in the Baltic states and the invaded Soviet Union was fully underway, or, as Roseman states, “The era of genocide had begun.” September 1941 was the turning point for the overall mass murder in the East to intensify in earnest.
As for the disputed role of Reich Chancellor Hitler in all of the this, Roseman contends that “He asked for regular reports on Einsatzgruppen (Operations Units) activities and a shooting may even have been filmed for him.”
And yet—again according to Roseman—“Overall, the evidence does not support the idea that there was one single clear-cut order to murder all Jews,” but at the center of the effort nonetheless in progress there was the axis of the Hitler-Goring-Himmler-Heydrich-Eichmann chain of command from top to bottom and on into the bureaucracy as assembled at the Wannsee Conference.
Who were these actual men by name, and what departments did they represent ? They were: Dr. Meyer and Dr. Leibbrandt of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories (i.e., Russia, to be ruled by Alfred Rosenberg); Dr. Stuckart of the Reich Ministry of the Interior, presided over by Dr. Wilhelm Frick(replaced in August, 1943 by RFSS Himmler); State Secretary Neumann of the Four-Year Plan (which Goring headed); Dr. Roland Friesler of the Reich Ministry of Justice (who would preside over the trials of the July 20, 1944 plotters who tried to assassinate the Fuhrer); Dr. Buhler (Office of Frank’s General-Government); Dr. Hans Luther of Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; SS Senior Col. Klopfer and Ministerial Director Dr. Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery headed by Dr. Hans Heinrich Lammers; SS Lt. Gen. Hofmann of the Main Office for Race and Settlement; SS Lt. Gen. Heinrich “Gestapo” Muller and Lt. Col. Eichmann of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA); SS Senior Col. Dr. Schonfarth, Chief of the Security Police and SD in the General-Government; and SS Maj. Dr. Lange, Commander of the Security Police and the SD for the General District of Latvia, and Deputy Chief as well for the Reich Commissariat of Ostland (East Land).
Of the attendees, it is interesting to note that two-thirds had university degrees and over half were lawyers—hardly ignorant SA Stormtrooper street-fighter types.
Hitler had stopped meeting with his official Reich Cabinet as a body in the mid-Thirties, the better to prevent debate over his policies and even a vote to oust him as would occur with Benito Mussolini in Italy on July 25, 1943. He also forbade the Cabinet ministers to meet in executive session without him: they were responsible to and reported directly to him as Fuhrer (Leader) and Reich Chancellor. The daily, official business of government had to go on in some way, however, and this is where the number two men in each of the various Reich ministries played a very important role, as pointed out by Roseman.
“Meetings between the State Secretaries were in effect a substitute for Cabinet government.” In early December 1941, he further asserts, Hitler finally decided to murder all European Jews, and it was at the Wannsee Conference that Heydrich was to announce this intention, as he did.
When put on trial at Nuremberg, the surviving State Secretaries denied that murder had been discussed, but in his own trial at Jerusalem in 1961, Eichmann asserted that it had been.
He also added, “According to the practice until then, all the offices were always trying, for departmental reasons, to delay things and make reservations—in other words, there was always a whole series of individual discussions in the long drawn-out deliberations held until then. Those were dragging on, and there was never a clear-cut solution achieved right away. This was the reason why Heydrich convened this Wannsee Conference, in order, as it were, to press through, on the highest level, his will and the will of the RFSS and Chief of the German Police(Himmler.)”
Some had their own hidden agendas. For instance, one of Rosenberg’s top men, Brautigan, concluded as early as January 1942 that Nazi Germany could not win the war, and thus wanted the full blame for the killing of the Jews shifted entirely to the bloody hands of the SS—as, indeed, happened after the war.
Noted Eichmann at Jerusalem, this is what occurred, and Reinhard Heydrich was exceedingly pleased over it: “The Conference of Wannsee was very important, for here Heydrich received his authority as the person in charge of the solution, or the final solution, of the Jewish question. From this point he regarded himself as having the authority in all these matters,” states Roseman.
On Apr. 17, 1942, Himmler ordered the building of the first death camp, at Treblinka. Heydrich died in June. On July 14th, the RFSS met with Hitler and launched killings by gas at Auschwitz in Upper Silesia four days later. Noted Eichmann in 1961, “Each individual wave”(of shipments of Jews eastward) “had to be ordered afresh…the entire matter of trains had to be dealt with.”
Notes Roseman, “In September and October 1941, transports were dispatched without a clear idea of what would happen to them, and to areas where there was no clear policy of what was to happen…Once transports resumed in March 1942, all such tentativeness was gone. No one was sent to a region where their ultimate fate was uncertain…”
He believes that “Wannsee was a transition from murderous deportations to a clear
program of murder…Wannsee itself was not the moment of decision. Nobody at Wannsee—not even Heydrich himself—was senior enough to decide on such matters…Rather it was a signpost indicating that genocide had become official policy…The State Secretaries had really cleared the way for genocide.”
The war ended on May 8, 1945. In March 1947, during research for the IMT at Nuremberg, American staffers discovered Copy # 16 out of the original 30 that had been made that later became known as the Wannsee Protocol, the minutes of the meeting. Eichmann had given strict orders that they be destroyed, yet Dr. Luther’s copy survived.
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