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When Did They Decide? The Wannsee Conference in the Context of Nazi Antisemitism

Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution

by Peter Longerich, translated from the German by Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes

On January 20, 1942, SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, presided over a meeting at a villa on the shore of the Wannsee, a lake in an affluent Berlin suburb. Of the fifteen participants, eight held doctorates. They represented important ministries in Berlin, German occupation administrations on Polish and Soviet territory, and various SS agencies. The two sources for our knowledge of what transpired in this meeting are a surviving protocol (a summary of discussion points—some detailed and some very brief—but not a verbatim transcript) and the postwar testimonies of one participant, Heydrich’s adviser for Jewish policy, Adolf Eichmann.

The conference opened with a monologue by Heydrich, who announced his appointment “to take charge of preparations for the final solution” and asserted Himmler’s “overall control of the implementation.” He then noted that Jewish emigration, the previous policy for “the exclusion of the Jews” from Germany, was now banned. “With prior approval from the Führer” it had been replaced with the “evacuation of the Jews to the East,” which would eventually encompass 11 million Jews from every country in Europe. “As part [italics mine] of the final solution…Jews fit for work” would be separated by sex and forced to do road construction, “in the course of which the majority will doubtless succumb to natural wastage,” and “the remaining Jews…will have to be dealt with accordingly” to prevent “a new Jewish regeneration.” The protocol is silent on the other “part” of the Final Solution, namely what was to happen to Jews not fit for work. Eichmann subsequently emphasized that Heydrich had heavily edited the text of the protocol before thirty copies were circulated.

Following Heydrich’s monologue, several other participants made comments. The only issue over which actual discussion and disagreement occurred was the fate of German half Jews and German Jews in mixed marriages. Heydrich favored deporting half Jews; the secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, Wilhelm Stuckart, favored sterilization of half Jews and compulsory dissolution of mixed marriages. Ultimately none of these proposals was adopted; Hitler, who was more cautious than any of the conference participants about the complications that might arise from killing or sterilizing half Jews so connected to non-Jewish society or dissolving their parents’ marriages and killing the Jewish partner, left policies toward half Jews and mixed marriages (especially exemption from compulsory wearing of the Jewish star and deportation) unchanged.

Only at the end does the protocol ever so briefly touch upon important topics that I assume occasioned longer comment at the meeting. Joseph Bühler, the secretary of state for the General Government—the German colonial regime in occupied Poland headed by Hans Frank—“would welcome it if the final solution” were to begin there because this would involve “no significant transport problem.” Moreover, “the operation would not be impeded by labour issues” because “most [of the Polish Jews] were unfit for work.” In short, despite the silence of the protocol, it was obvious to all the participants that most Polish Jews were to be killed immediately, near the ghettos in which they were then confined.

The protocol concludes cryptically, “Finally, the various possible types of solution were discussed.” Eichmann admitted that this was a cursory and euphemistic formulation: “During the conversation they minced no words about it at all…. They spoke about methods of killing, about liquidation, about extermination.”

Read entire article at New York Review of Books