'Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution'
They met on January 20, 1942, at a luxury villa on park-like grounds overlooking Lake Wannsee, a recreation site a half-hour’s drive from Berlin. Built by a wealthy industrialist, the villa was now held by an SS (Schutzstaffel) foundation. They were 15 top officials of the Nazi state – among them were nine lawyers and eight with doctorates. In that idyllic setting, in a meeting that lasted 90 minutes, they decided the “Jewish question”—how to deport 11 million people to labor camps and kill any who survived. If they differed, it was on the details. Never on the intent—mass murder.
Holocaust expert Peter Longerich’s illuminating book Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution begins by describing the meeting on that wintry day. The description brings out Nazi cynicism and cold-bloodedness as they convened at a pleasure spot to plan genocide. Longerich draws on the only remaining record of the meeting: the “minutes” prepared and distributed by Adolph Eichmann with instructions for destruction after review. One minister disobeyed, and the U.S. Army discovered his copy in 1945. The document summarizes the main lines of discussion and the decisions reached; it estimates Jewish populations in 30 countries, sets out specific territories where fit Jews should be made to work in labor gangs subjected to “natural wastage”; and says survivors would be disposed of in an unspecified manner.
The participants at the Wannsee Conference, called by Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, broadly represented all facets of the Reich. They did not actually initiate the Holocaust; it had already been haphazardly set in motion by disparate factions of the Nazi machinery. What they achieved was consensus. Those horrified by plans for exterminating Jews were pressured into compliance as evidence of their commitment to the Nazi goal of purifying the German volk.
Reichstag president Hermann Göring had made Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA), directly responsible for the “final solution.” But even before the Wannsee Conference, deportations had begun at Fuhrer Adolf Hitler’s behest in October 1941. The first extermination camps had already been built. Agencies of the Reich were carrying out uncoordinated campaigns of mass murder and competing to propose radical solutions. The conference defined “Jewishness” for the Nazis’ base purposes, decided on what to do with half-Jews, and created an RHSA-led master plan for eliminating Jews. It channeled intention into a systematic extermination program.
Right from the time they came to power in 1933, the Nazis instituted discriminatory policies to remove Jews from public life, boycott their businesses, impose curfews on them, force them into labor, and harass, humiliate, intimidate and exploit them. Enacted in 1935 and imposed the next year, the Nuremberg Laws included statutes that forbade marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans and decreed that only those of pure German blood were eligible to be citizens of the Reich. Hitler’s Four-Year Plan of 1936 expropriated Jewish property for financing rearmament. And Jews were already forced to wear yellow Stars of David well before the Wannsee Conference.
According to Longerich’s book, the conference should be seen in the context of two significant factors: the outbreak of the Second World War and the rivalry between Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler, another architect of the Holocaust.
The Second World War, which began on September 1, 1939, brought about a significant change in the Reich’s Jewish policy. Germany still had 190,000 Jews, to which the victory in Poland added 1.7 million Polish Jews. In 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and, with the early gains of territory, he was thinking of how to deal with the population, which he viewed as a collection of racially impure Slavs, Asiatic crossbreed, and Jewish Bolshevists. Deportation plans—even one to ship Jews to Madagascar—were being considered. Death squads called Einsatzgruppen were charged with murdering all Jews and ‘impure’ races in conquered territories. In the late summer and autumn of 1941, it became increasingly clear that the U.S. was likely to enter the war. By year-end, at least 500,000 people had been killed in mass shootings but Hitler was now desperate and the Nazis were exploring options such as gassing, large-scale crematoria, and the use of toxic Zyklon B.
Heydrich and Himmler were vying for power and Hitler’s approval. They differed in their objectives as well—so Heydrich did not invite Himmler to Wannsee. Heydrich favored postwar extermination of Jews and wanted to exploit them in concentration camps, then remove them to Soviet territories via transit ghettos, hoping they’d perish from forced labor, hunger, and poor living conditions. He even planned for old people’s ghettos to spare elderly, disabled Jews, and Jewish veterans.
Himmler, on the other hand, was all for a racially motivated war of annihilation on an enormous scale. His message was it’s us or them: Germans face extinction if the “Jewish world enemy” is allowed to exist. For him, war was not to “create the conditions for the final solution but rather the final solution was being placed in the service of war.” Heydrich and Himmler both drew authority from the Fuhrer but, eventually, history saw Himmler’s views prevail.
Longerich combines extant models of analyzing the conference minutes to present a “more complex” explanation that the Holocaust was “not set in motion by a single decision from the center,” but must be seen as the “result of a decision-making process in which Hitler, acting in close cooperation with other parts of the power structure” gradually developed what was a “vague intention to destroy the Jews into a concrete program to murder them.”
He demonstrates how the Wannsee Conference was a focal point of this process, effectively deciding the when, how, and where of the final solution. When: during the war itself, not after. How: by gassing, mass executions, and setting up extermination camps. Where: chiefly in occupied Poland. The conference also decided that decisions on mixed marriages would be made on a case-by-case basis, with compulsory divorce and sterilization as choices.
The day after the conference, Heydrich informed Himmler of the important outcomes, including the plan for a progression from transit ghettos to evacuation further eastward and the combing of Europe “from West to East.” In a few days, Himmler ordered 150,000 Jews from Germany into concentration camps to provide labor for the SS’s construction plans in the eastern territories. A month later, Hitler was prophesying that the war would end with the Aryan nation prevailing and the Jews being exterminated. Heydrich’s original plan escalated into mass murder on an unprecedented scale, and after his assassination by the Czech resistance in June 1942, Himmler got a free hand for his plan for total annihilation.
During the Nuremberg trials, the Wannsee Conference minutes had not yet been discovered. Participants claimed they couldn’t remember the proceedings or denied being present. Some said they had heard nothing about a “final solution.” A state secretary (the highest bureaucrat in a ministry) testified that, for the sake of the German nation’s reputation, Heydrich wanted Jews to be resettled “in a humane fashion.” The surviving copy of the minutes put paid to those lies.
Longerich’s book provides context and analysis to that important document to plausibly explain the convergence of diverse decisions by components of the Nazi regime into the enormity of a radical solution—the Holocaust.