Reading 6

The Wannsee Conference

A previous version of this newly revised reading was titled “Blueprint for the Final Solution.”

The Nazis did not record the exact date of their decision to annihilate all of the Jews in Europe, but historians believe this decision had been made by Hitler and the highest-ranking Nazi leaders by the end of 1941. Once the goal had been established and approved by Hitler, it was up to other German leaders to coordinate the details necessary to make it happen.

In January 1942, German officials, including representatives from the SS [the Nazis’ elite guard], the Einsatzgruppen, the Justice Ministry, the Office of the Governor General of Poland, and the Foreign Office, met in a lakeside neighborhood of Berlin called Wannsee. They had come to discuss the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The highest-ranking German leaders—Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels—did not attend. Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, led the meeting.

Adolf Eichmann, the head of the Department for Jewish Affairs, prepared the minutes of the meeting based on a transcript made by a stenographer. He later revealed that the words he used to write up the minutes were not the words the participants had actually used. They spoke “in blunt terms” with “no mincing of words,” unlike Eichmann, who relied on euphemisms in the minutes:

In the course of this final solution of the European Jewish Problem, approximately 11 million Jews are involved. . . .

Under proper direction the Jews should now in the course of the Final Solution be brought to the East in a suitable way for use as labor. In big labor gangs, with separation of the sexes, the Jews capable of work are brought to these areas and employed in road building, in which task undoubtedly a great part will fall out through natural [means].

The remnant that finally is able to survive all this—since this is undoubtedly the part with the strongest resistance—must be treated accordingly since these people, representing a natural selection, are to be regarded as the germ cell of a new Jewish development. (See the experience of history.)

In the program of the practical execution of the Final Solution, Europe is combed through from the West to the East.1

At the time of the Wannsee Conference, the Nazis were already killing Jews in enormous numbers and by a variety of methods. Now that the destruction of European Jewry had become official German policy, the purpose of the Wannsee Conference, according to historian Doris Bergen, was to coordinate the details and establish the central role the SS would play:

The SS, Heydrich made clear, was in charge of destroying Jews, but other agencies and offices also had key roles to play. Moreover, by their very presence those bureaucrats, party functionaries, and occupation authorities demonstrated that they understood what was going on and endorsed it . . . 

No one at the conference objected to the policy and practice of annihilation, although it was presented openly, starting with the announcement that Estonia was now "free of Jews." Instead participants spent their time on practical matters, above all on who would be included in the category of Jews to be “evacuated to the East” for killing. . . . This was the bureaucratic face of genocide, people’s lives and deaths reduced to categories and lists.2

In 1942, the Nazi mass murder, especially of Jews, became more efficient. By spring of that year, the killing centers—camps designed not for imprisonment or forced labor but only for mass murder—were operating. By summer, Polish Jews living in ghettos were being transported to the killing centers. By the middle of 1943, Polish Jewry was mostly annihilated. Scholar Michael Berenbaum points out, “As these fifteen men gathered at Wannsee, four of five Jews who were to be murdered in the Holocaust were still alive; fifteen months later in the spring of 1943, four of five were already dead.”3

Citations

  • 1 : Minutes of Wannsee Conference, 20 January, 1942, NG-2586, Trial of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, XIII (Washington, DC, 1952), 212–13.
  • 2 : Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 209.
  • 3 : Michael Berenbaum to Facing History and Ourselves, memorandum, January 4, 2016.

    Connection Questions

    1. What was the purpose of the Wannsee Conference? How does it illustrate the concept of “working toward the Führer” (see reading, Working Toward the Führer in Chapter 5)?
    2. Adolf Eichmann uses the term “Final Solution” in his conference minutes to describe the task of killing the Jews of Europe. What does this term make clear? What does it tend to hide? What other euphemisms does he use?
    3. Many widely read accounts of the Wannsee Conference claim that it was where the Nazis decided to murder the Jews of Europe. Historians disagree, pointing to evidence that the decision had been made before the meeting at Wannsee. Why, then, was the meeting significant? What effect did it have on the “Final Solution”?

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