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The Wannsee Conference

(January 20, 1942)

The "Wannsee Conference" was a high-level meeting of Nazi officials that took place in Berlin on January 20, 1942, to discuss the "Final Solution" of the Jewish Question.

Called by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Security Main Office which controlled both the Gestapo and the SD, the conference was originally called for December 9, 1941, but fallout from the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and a temporary worsening of the situation on the Eastern Front led to its postponement. The gathering of 14 senior SS officers, Nazi Party officials and civil servants finally convened on January 20 at a splendid villa on the shores of Berlin's Lake Wannsee.

One of Heydrich's subordinates, Adolf Eichmann, took minutes, thirty copies of which were evidently distributed among the participants and other interested parties in the following weeks. The only surviving copy, marked No. 16 out of 30, was found in March 1947 among German Foreign Office files by American War Crimes investigators. After that discovery, the minutes, or "Wannsee Protocol," rapidly attained postwar notoriety.

The document's resonance derived above all from the coldly bureaucratic clarity with which it articulated a pan-European plan of genocide. The minutes are summary rather than verbatim, so we cannot be sure of all that was said, but the principal element of the conference was evidently Heydrich's lengthy exposition of past, present, and future policies. Some parts of the minutes were shrouded in euphemism, as when Heydrich discussed what the Protocol refers to as "new possibilities in the East." A table slated 11 million European Jews, listed by country, for inclusion in these "possibilities." Because of such euphemisms, Holocaust deniers among others have claimed that murder was not on the agenda, but elsewhere the Protocol is unequivocal:

In large, single-sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastwards constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise, by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.

As far as we can tell from the minutes, other contemporary sources, and postwar testimony, none of the participants, many coming from dignified, well-established ministries that had long predated the Nazi state – the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice, the Foreign Ministry, and the Reich Chancellery – protested. For the U.S. investigators after the war, a leading member of whom was Robert Kempner, formerly a high-flying (Jewish) civil servant in the pre-1933 Prussian Justice Ministry, it was almost incredible that such educated and apparently civilized men, eight of them holding doctorates, had concurred with such a plan. As a symbol of the calm and orderly governance of genocide, the Protocol remains without parallel.

For all the minutes' shocking clarity, historians have found it hard to reach agreement over the Wannsee Conference's function and significance. Some copies of the invitations to the meeting survive, and both their wording and Heydrich's opening remarks suggest that the Wannsee gathering was needed to clarify fundamental issues before the full "solution" was inaugurated. For early postwar observers, credence was lent to the idea of Wannsee's centrality in planning the "Final Solution" by wartime statements of the governor general of German-occupied Poland, Hans Frank, which had already come to light before the Wannsee Protocol itself was found. Around the time the Wannsee meeting had originally been scheduled to take place, Hans Frank had alluded to fundamental discussions on the Jewish question concurrently taking place in Berlin. When coupled with the Protocol's systematic listing of all European Jews slated for "solution," many postwar observers believed it was at the Wannsee Conference that genocide had been decided upon. Yet what made this unlikely was the fact that mass killings of Jews had begun on the territory of the Soviet Union six months before the meeting, and that by the time Heydrich and his guests convened in Wannsee preparations for the Belzec camp were well underway, and the Chelmno death camp was murdering at full tilt. Moreover, there was the question of who had the power to make such decisions in Nazi Germany. Neither Heydrich nor his guests were in a position to unleash the Final Solution. Historians tend to believe those decisions lay with Hitler and Himmler.

Historians have therefore long debated how to interpret a meeting that claimed fundamental significance yet came so late in the day. The absence of any record of a clear Fuehrer order to kill Europe's Jews, and the rather ragged process by which killings expanded from shootings in the Soviet Union to a pan-European shooting and gassing program, have led historians to a variety of interpretations of the Holocaust's origins. Thus their conclusions about Wannsee's function have differed in line with their broader understanding of the Final Solution. Those who believe a fundamental command to kill Europe's Jews was given in July 1941 or indeed earlier, for example, see the Wannsee meeting as at best of secondary interest and sometimes as an almost entirely symbolic affair. For those scholars, by contrast, who believe that a decision to murder all European Jews – as opposed to the Soviet killings – crystallized piecemeal over the second half of 1941, the meeting's timing makes more sense as a response to an emerging consensus among Nazi leadership about the way to go forward. Something that may also have affected the timing of the meeting was the negative reaction among some Berlin officials to the rapidly disseminated news that Berlin Jews had been included in mass shootings in the Soviet Union toward the end of November 1941. These shootings in Kovno and Riga in November signaled the first mass executions of German Jews, something that had a different psychological significance than the already familiar content of reports about the murder of Russian and East European Jews. Wannsee may thus have been convened partly to ensure that the Reich's ministries were on board with the program.

What we can say with certainty is that Heydrich had invited many of the agencies with whom he and his RSHA staff had regularly clashed over lines of authority. Indeed, representatives of Hans Frank's civilian authority in the Polish General Government were, along with their SS counterparts, added only as an afterthought after an SS representative from Poland visiting Himmler in Berlin complained about Frank's resistance to the SS mandate. Heydrich's aim was clearly to impose the SS' and specifically his leadership on the Jewish question. To suppress any latent opposition to the deportation of more German Jews, he wanted to obtain agreement on any special categories to be exempted – highly decorated Jewish veterans from World War I and so forth. A substantial element of the Protocol consists of detailed discussion of how to deal with special and borderline categories. Echoing proposals long articulated by Party radicals, Heydrich sought to overturn most of the special exemptions for the so-called Mischlinge (half-Jews and quarter-Jews) and also for Jews in mixed marriages that the Ministry of the Interior and the Reich Chancellery had thus far managed to maintain. This was the one significant area in which the Protocol records any counter-proposals to Heydrich's own suggestions, although in advocating the "compromise" of sterilizing all half-Jews, the Interior Ministry's Wilhelm Stuckart went much further in Heydrich's direction than had previously been the case.

Historians disagree too about the Conference's impact. Some contemporary documents as well as postwar testimony suggest that Reinhard Heydrich was very pleased with the meeting's outcome. It is certainly the case that both the deportation of German Jews, and the killing rate of Polish Jews rapidly accelerated in the spring, though how far this had been facilitated by the meeting itself is unclear. On the matter of the Mischlinge, follow-up meetings showed that considerable resistance to their being equated with "full Jews" remained, and in this regard Heydrich did not achieve the breakthrough he had hoped for.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

C. Gerlach, "The Wannsee Conference, the Fate of German Jews and Hitler's Decision in Principle to Exterminate All European Jews," in: O. Bartov (ed.), The Holocaust. Origins, Implementation, Aftermath (2000), 106–61; H.R. Huttenbach, "The Wannsee Conference Reconsidered 50 Years After: SS Strategy and Racial Politics in the Third Reich," in: H. Locke and M. Littell (eds.), Remembrance and Recollection. Essays on the Centennial Year of Martin Niemoeller and Reinhold Niebuehr and the 50th Year of the Wannsee Conference (1996), 58–79; J. Eberhard, "On the Purpose of the Wannsee Conference," in: J. Pacy and A.P. Wertheimer (eds.), Perspectives on the Holocaust. Essays in Honor of Raul Hilberg (1995), 39–50; M. Roseman, The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution (2000).