HCH 20 / January 2018
The Significance of the Wannsee Conference, by Jared Sorhaindo
(The villa where the Wannsee Conference was held: 56-58 Am Groβwannsee, Berlin)
On January 20, 1942, 15 SS officers, Nazi party officials, and civil servants met at a villa at 56-58 Am Groβwannsee in a Berlin suburb. They were convened by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA – Reich Main Security Office), which incorporated the SD (SS intelligence) and the Security Police, itself made up of the Gestapo and the Criminal Police.
Heydrich was Heinrich Himmler’s deputy who had been charged by Hitler and Hermann Göring to implement the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in the German sphere of influence. Heydrich was renowned for his ruthlessness even in the Nazi context: contemporaries called him the “blond beast,” a “young, evil god of death,” “wolf-like,” “predatory,” and “demonic.” He has gone down in history as “The Hangman” and “The Butcher of Prague.” When one reads about Heydrich, the overriding theme is his singularly ferocious drive to “cleanse” Germany and then Europe of the Jews. While Nazi policy twisted and turned before settling on the comprehensive extermination of European Jewry, I highly doubt that Heydrich would have had qualms about such wanton murderousness from the very beginning.
(Heydrich caricaturized on the cover of TIME Magazine: February 23, 1942)
The purpose of the Wannsee Conference does not appear to have been to begin the extermination program – it did not represent the culminating decision to embark on mass annihilation. Jews were already being shot in the Soviet Union – a million were murdered between the onset of the invasion in June 1941 and the end of that year. Jews were also being gassed at Chełmno in Nazi-annexed Poland and the construction of the Bełżec death camp began the previous November. Plans for gas chambers and massive crematoria were drawn up for an extermination camp outside of Mogilev in October 1941 (when these plans were later scrapped, the crematorium ovens were rerouted to Auschwitz-Birkenau). Jewish men were being systematically shot as hostages in Nazi-occupied Serbia. Rather, the purpose of the meeting was to make clear to all relevant parties that the SS was responsible for the regime’s Jewish policy.
How did it come to this? Rather than always having been envisioned by Hitler from the time he wrote Mein Kampf, if not earlier, the extermination of the Jews was not always foretold in Nazi policy. There is no historical consensus as to when, or even if, there was a discrete order by Hitler to murder the Jews. The policy before the war was to persecute and isolate the Jews by forbidding them from certain professions, the forced “Aryanization” of their businesses, strict segregationist policies, and the prohibition of intermarriage. There was certainly violence, particularly during the Anschluss in March 1938 and, most ominously, during Kristallnacht in November 1938, during which Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues were attacked, nearly 100 Jews killed, and about 30,000 thrown into concentration camps. But at this stage of the Nazi dictatorship, concentration camps, while certainly no joke, were not death sentences and prisoners could be, and were, released. The purpose of this massive violence, whose flames were fanned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, was primarily intended not to kill the Jews, but to induce them to leave the country. At this point in time, it was Adolf Eichmann’s job, in Vienna, Prague, and then Berlin, to force the Jews out of German-controlled territory.
When the Germans invaded Poland and took control of two million more Jews, the Nazis first planned a Jewish reservation near Lublin and then a colony in Madagascar. These would have been murderous and were clearly genocidal, but did not bear the hallmark of the later Final Solution that makes it so unique. For their inchoate Final Solution, the Nazis forced the Jews into major urban areas near rail lines, perhaps most infamously at Warsaw and Łódź. This was pursuant to a Heydrich directive from September 1939. But the back and forth among ghetto administrators and between the ghetto administrations and Berlin, and between other channels of communication, make it readily obvious that there was no master plan at this point. Hans Frank, the governor of occupied Poland, clashed repeatedly with the SS and with Nazis such as Arthur Greiser, who wanted to deport all the Jews under his control to Frank’s fiefdom, the General Government (the thrust of the Wannsee Conference was to sort out such clashes). When Frank learned of the Madagascar Plan, he was delighted and gloried in the possible deportation of Jews from his territory and ordered that ghetto construction cease. When the Madagascar Plan fell through due to the Nazis’ failure in the Battle of Britain, Frank glumly conceded to maintaining the ghettos. The Jews were shunted from towns and villages into major cities (or vice versa as in the Lublin and Kraków districts) to be deported somewhere: but where?
The Germans and their allies/co-belligerents invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. This was to be a “war of extermination” between competing worldviews; the gloves were off. As the Nazis, among others, conflated Judaism and Bolshevism, the war against the Soviet Union was also a war against the world Jewish conspiracy in which the Nazis genuinely, and fervently, believed. The invasion of the Soviet Union was therefore a watershed event in which the Nazis could gain Lebensraum, hegemony over continental Europe, and a reckoning with the Jews (and also, as a desired strategic effect, cause a truce with the British). The East would be, in Hitler’s words, the German “Garden of Eden” – the wheat fields of Ukraine would feed the Germans, and the Slavs would either die or serve them. The Jews would be sent to some abstract “East” – there was obviously no room for them in this utopia. The Jews were to be dealt with after the war, which the Germans thought would be swift; they soon realized otherwise as their tanks sunk in the mud in the autumn and their soldiers froze on the outskirts of Moscow in the winter.
Following the German armies into the Soviet Union were mobile killing squads created by and under the direct orders of Heydrich. As an aside, the image of the “desk killer”’ is a false one – the fanatical young intellectuals who made up the personnel of the RSHA were largely eager to put their ideology into practice by commanding these killing units. This was true of the head of RSHA Amt (Office) I, Bruno Streckenbach; the head of the Criminal Police, Arthur Nebe; and the head of Amt VII, Franz Six, a professor of sociology. Hannah Arendt’s misleading analysis of Adolf Eichmann as an unthinking desk killer, unmotivated by ideology, influenced later views of the “typical Nazi” who would send the Jews to their deaths because it was “their job.” Indeed, it was their job, but it was a job they did with relish, a job they sought to accomplish with proficiency. These mobile killing squads, and their accomplices among local populations, killed some two million Jews during the Second World War in the occupied Soviet Union in locations such as Riga, Vilnius, Kiev, Minsk, Mogilev, and Kamenets-Podolski.
After prodding from Heydrich and Goebbels, in September 1941 Hitler (who was hesitant on this point) agreed to marking German Jews with the now-infamous yellow star and deporting them to the east. In certain cases, German Jews were shot on arrival; in most cases, they were sent to the Łódź Ghetto, Lublin district, Riga, and Minsk, where they replaced the local Jews who had already been killed, either by gassing in Chełmno and Bełżec or shot. In October 1941, Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo, ordered that Jews were no longer to be allowed out of German reach. Previously, that had been the aim of Nazi policy; now, the Germans wanted them close to hand. And given the convergence of circumstances that I have just outlined, at this point, the Rubicon had clearly been crossed. Due to the military circumstances alluded to above, the war was not going to end any time soon, which even Hitler realized. At some point, he came to the conclusion that it would be best to murder the Jews during the war and in areas already under Nazi control.
The Wannsee Conference was largely about bureaucratic infighting, of paramount importance in the Nazi universe. Heydrich, and by extension the SS, insisted on running point in the extermination of the Jews. Other agencies were brought to heel. The other agencies that participated in the conference included the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Justice, the General Government, the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories (Ostministerium), the Reich Chancellery, the Führer Chancellery, the Office of the Four-Year Plan (Göring’s economic empire), and the Race and Resettlement Main Office (tasked with reordering the racial makeup of Nazi Europe). It was essential for the SS to work with all of these agencies, and then some, to accomplish the Jews’ murder. Officials in the General Government, as discussed above, as well as the Ostministerium, had squabbled with the SS over jurisdiction of the Jews, and had jealously clung to their authority. Hermann Göring, in his capacity as overlord of Germany’s war economy, insisted that the priority should be for the Jews to work as slave laborers, and he got Frank’s back in disputes over Jewish labor in the General Government. After having proved itself over six months of having the most radical and, in their eyes, effective solution to the Jewish question, the SS had “earned” the “bona fides” to steer the ship. The rest of the agencies were reined in and, in the following months and years, followed suit.
After the conference, the Jews of Poland were obliterated in the camps of Aktion Reinhard (Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka), administered from Lublin and named in “honor” of Heydrich, who was assassinated in Prague in June 1942. Further sweeps by the mobile killing squads in the spring and summer of 1942 further decimated the Jews of eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. Jews from all over Europe from the Channel Islands to Poland were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose geographic location in the center of Nazi-occupied Europe made it perfectly suited for its task. After two years of frantic killing, the last large Jewish population was in Hungary: its members were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in a murderous frenzy from May to July 1944. The mass murder of the Hungarian Jews (some 400,000 were killed in the just-mentioned time frame) was Eichmann’s moment in the sun, his magnum opus.
While it is not clear when the Nazis finally had their “a-ha!” moment about murdering the Jews of Europe, the Wannsee Conference had the effect of clarifying who would be in charge, who would be murdered (the attendants argued about the merits or lack thereof of murdering German quarter- and half-Jews, a topic that was not decided and was dealt with at a subsequent, lower-level meeting), and the necessity of bureaucratic cooperation in the endeavor. It was decided that 11 million Jews, from areas under Nazi control or that of their allies, or in neutral countries, would be subject to the Final Solution. This was not parallel or subordinate to the Nazi war effort: the Jews’ destruction was a major war aim. Over a million had already been murdered by the time these men sat around the table at Wannsee – the conference simply cleared the path to a process already set in motion and already hurtling into the abyss with devastating speed.