In the Southwest of Berlin, on the border with Brandenburg province, the Havel river has two bights, a smaller and a larger one, which are known in German as the Kleine Wannsee and the Große Wannsee, respectively. The shores of these not-quite-lakes are popular outdoor hangouts for Berliners.
Along a stretch of the Grosse Wannsee’s western shore runs the street Am Großen Wannsee. The eastern side of the street is taken up by sailing club houses etc.; on the western side stand, aside from a clinic, many opulent villas with a lake view, including the former house of Expressionist painter Max Liebermann at Nr. 42 (today a museum dedicated to the painter).
Perhaps the largest villa, at Nr. 56-58 (today the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site), used to belong to a disgraced (non-Jewish) German industrialist named Friedrich Minoux, . From prison, he sold it under duress to a front organization of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), which turned it into a guest and conference house.
Eighty years ago to this day, a group of senior ministerial officials — most of them “state secretaries” or “ministerial directors” [*] — met here. The meeting was chaired by the head of the RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Reich Security Main Office), SS-Obergruppenführer [General] Reinhard Heydrich [y”sh].[**] Minutes were taken down by Heydrich’s underling in charge of Jewish “Emigration”, Obersturmbannführer [Lt. Col.] Adolf Eichmann [y”sh].[***]
Let me be clear: this was not the meeting where the decision to proceed with the Shoah was taken. The first major phase of the Shoah, what some historians refer to as the “Holocaust by bullets”, had started already in the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the USSR): the grisly works of the Einsatzgruppen [“task groups”] and their local auxiliaries would ultimately claim up to 2 million people. [Daily progress reports sent to the Reich Chancellery have been preserved: this was most emphatically not a “rogue operation” but something happening with the blessing of the dictator himself.]
No written order in Hitler’s [y”sh] hand was ever found: the closest thing we have was a July 31, 1941 letter from Hermann Göring, writing in his capacity as deputy Führer (this was after Rudolf Hess’s bizarre flight to England), charging Heydrich to “submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the phrase Endlösung der Judenfrage occurs in any official document.]
This letter, and a large collection of relevant documents, can be downloaded at the website of the Wannsee memorial site.
The German historian Peter Longerich, following his appearance as an expert witness at the Irving v. Lipstadt trial, turned his testimony into the brief but fascinating book “The Unwritten Order“. I could not find a digital version to link to, but as a reviewer on Amazon summarizes:
No “smoking gun” direct written order from Hitler for the annihilation of the European Jews has ever been found. Dr. Longerich however assembles a very large collection of circumstantial evidence (Goebbels diary notices, notes from meetings, progress reports of Einsatzgruppe killings being sent to the Reich Chancellery,…) that the impulse to escalate from expulsion to physical extermination came from the apex of the leadership pyramid (i.e., AH himself); that AH verbally gave instructions to Himmler et al. and was kept in the loop, including written progress reports to the Reich Chancellery; and that Himmler and his subordinates explicitly invoked AH’s name down the command chain.
Also, Longerich rightly points out that AH would temporarily apply the brakes on earlier anti-Jewish measures when those interfered with his other policy goals at the time — for instance, he froze the deportations to the Generalgouvernement in the lead-up to Barbarossa, such as not to interfere with troop movements and invasion preparations. He pointed did not interfere in this manner when things escalated from deportation to Einsatzkommandos in the wake of the armies invading Russia: this is a “smoking gun by omission”, since we know “Ereignismeldungen” (event reports, in context: progress reports) were sent to the Reich Chancellery.
Longerich also discusses the overall context, namely, of the General Plan East for a mass culling of the Soviet population (plans spoke of 30 million) through an engineered famine. It is hard to say which is more staggering, the callous inhumanity of such plans or their megalomania.
Finally, Longerich argues that no program on this scale and entailing such resources — while invoking the name of the Führer, at that — could have been conducted in the Third Reich without the Führer’s approval if not outright instigation.
So what was this meeting about then? Basically, an organizational and logistical meeting about escalation to the next phase: gathering all Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, and transporting them to “special treatment” at purpose-built extermination centers in occupied Poland. This latter Sonderbehandlung is just one of many bureaucratic euphemisms that can be found in the minutes: German historians call this Tarnsprache (literally “camouflage speak”).
While some of the participants were hardened murderers — such as Einsatzkommando 2 commander Sturmbannführer [Major] Rudolf Lange — others were senior bureaucrats representing the “Justice”, Interior, Foreign, and other ministries. Did anyone even raise a voice in protest?
One participant, Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, a career civil servant who represented the Reich Chancellary, tried to resign his post (his resignation was refused), and after the war claimed that he had vocally raised objections at the conference. (He was a witness at the Nuremberg trials, and died shortly later of natural causes.)
The State Secretary in the Interior Ministry, Wilhelm Stuckart, made a more ambiguous “deal with the devil”. At the time, he was the de facto Interior Minister, as the nominal minister Wilhelm Frick had lost favor with the Führer. (In September 1943, the Interior portfolio would be given over to Heinrich Himmler, who aside from being Reichsführer-SS was already the supreme head of all German police.)
Stuckart had been instrumental in drafting the Nuremberg Laws and other discriminatory legislation. And there is no evidence that he objected to the fate of “full” Jews. What probably saved him from the noose after the war was that he managed to represent himself as the savior of Mischlinge (“half-” and “quarter”-Jews), and of those living in mixed marriages (only within the Reich itself). Stuckart claimed that Heydrich was in favor of consigning them all to destruction, but that he at the Wannsee conference (and at a March 6 followup meeting on this specific issue) managed to push through his compromise that first-degree Mischlinge (those with two Jewish grandparents) would be sterilized forcibly instead, but that this would be deferred until after the “final victory” (which thank G-d never came), as there were not enough resources. Was he claiming credit for a decision made by others on purely practical grounds? At any rate, he managed to sow enough “reasonable doubt” in the eyes of the court that he was sentenced to time serve in pretrial detention and released. On November 15, 1953, he was killed in a car crash — there has been speculation that his demise was not entirely accidental.
Stuckart’s own deputy, Hans Globke, after the war became the longtime right-hand man and enforcer of the Federal German Republic’s first chancellor, the impeccably non-Nazi Konrad Adenauer.
As I was about to post this, I found this lecture (in English) by the acting head of the memorial site:
I cannot repeat this quote from Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” often enough:
That old saw “to understand all is to forgive all” is a load of tripe. Some things, the more you understand, the more you loathe them.
לעולם לא עוד
[*] In German administrative parlance, a “state secretary” is something like what in the US would be called a “Permanent Under-Secretary”, i.e., a combination deputy minister and director-general of the ministry
[**] Heydrich wore a second hat as the Deputy [and in fact true] Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, i.e., occupied Czechia. Half a year later he would be assassinated by Czech SOE operatives in Operation Anthropoid.
[***] Eichmann [y”sh] was not a deputy of Heydrich’s but three levels down the hierarchy, head of “Referat” [freely: Desk] IV_B4, a sub-department of the Gestapo.