On February 20th of 1942, senior Nazi government officials and key members of Waffen SS (Protection Squadron - Military Wing) met for one day in an elegantly columned official residence (stolen from a Jewish family) set among gardens near the shore of Lake Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin. The purpose of the meeting? Formalizing plans for “the final solution of the Jewish Question.” It was officially known as the Conference of State Secretaries. The true objective was the efficient murder of all Jews, not just in Germany’s living space, but on the entire land mass of Eurasia - from Belfast to Vladivostok, no Jews. Not one.
There was never a piece of paper from Adolf Hitler directing specific steps to the Final Solution. His authorization came in conversation. Joseph Goebbels’s diary reveals the sentiment: “As far as the Jewish question is concerned, the Führer is determined to clear the decks. He prophesied to the Jews that if they brought about another world war, they would thereby experience their own annihilation. That was not just waffle. The world war is here, the annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence. This question is to be contemplated without any sentimentality. We are not here to pity the Jews but to pity our own German people. Now that the German people have lost another 160,000 dead on the Eastern Front, the originators of the bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives.”
The idea that Jewish people caused World War II was as impressive an example of pretzel logic as humanity has ever seen.
The chair of the Wannsee Conference was occupied by one of the darkest figures in all of the Nazi hierarchy, SS-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, second only to Heinrich Himmler in SS ranking. It seems impossible to imagine a more arrogant, evil human being. An ice-cold technocrat, for Heydrich Nazi ideology appeared to be something utterly impersonal; an unquestioned set of ideas and attitudes that was his ambition to put into effect with cold, passionless efficiency.
Most of his underlings and colleagues were afraid of him. Even Himmler, who was all too aware of his subordinate’s intellectual superiority, was intimidated. So brutal was Heydrich’s rule in Czechoslovakia in his role as Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in the last months of his life, he earned the title “Butcher of Prague”. Czech partisans, trained by British commandos, succeeded in assassinating the Butcher three months after Wannsee. The Nazis responded by razing two Czechoslovakian towns and shooting every male citizen over 15 years of age.
The other 14 conference attendees included SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, the Gestapo's operations chief, and State Secretary Wilhelm Stuckart who was the co-author of the infamous anti-semitic Nuremberg Laws. The rest were key officials from various Reich Ministries (including the Foreign Ministry, the Ministries of Justice and the Interior and civilian occupation officials in the Government General (German occupied Poland) and the Reich Commissariat Ostland. Heydrich’s right-hand-man Adolf Eichmann organized the meeting and the secret distribution of the meeting’s notes. Unfortunately, Eichmann continued as director of the program after Heydrich’s death.
Reich Marshall Hermann Goring provided General Heydrich with the written mandate to finalize plans for the Holocaust’s implementation. With the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, an action named Operation Barbarosa, Nazi Germany embarked on a war of annihilation against its arch-enemy in Europe, Soviet Communism. Heydrich believed that Soviet Jewry formed the “biological basis” for the Soviet state. He created Einsatzgruppen (Operations Groups) of the Security Police and SD - secret intelligence service. They followed the Wehrmacht (regular army) as it swept through eastern Europe and summarily executed anyone and everyone they considered enemies of the State, including Jews, Slavs, Freemasons, Gypsies, homosexuals and anyone else they considered inferior by skin color or facial features.
Additionally Heydrich gave explicit orders that the four Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police execute all Jews holding positions in the Soviet Communist party and the Soviet state apparatus. In actual practice—and perhaps in accordance with a pre-invasion verbal understanding—the Einsatzgruppen casually shot most Jews of arms-bearing age from the very first days of the invasion. These activities were mostly hidden from Wehrmacht soldiers. It was thought that these atrocities would be bad for moral. As the ferocity of the killing mounted, shooting these “undesirables” was increasingly seen as an inefficient use of bullets.
All of this was in place when the Wannsee Conference convened to steeply sharpen the efficacy and speed of the killing. Poland was home to at least 2.5 million Jews as the war began. In his opening remarks, Heydrich spoke of the Reich’s problem with storing all these Jews that other nations refused to allow to emigrate in numbers that would satisfy the Nazis, including Palestine (under control of the British) and the United States which had recently turned away a shipload of German Jews who escaped before the borders closed to them.
Heydrich then outlined an intermediate step: Having successfully suppressed Jewish participation in the national life of Germany, he now asserted that Jews would be eliminated from expanded German living space (lebensraum). Of immediate interest were Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine. Jews were beginning to be enslaved in those precincts to work on roads headed east. They were underfed, exposed to the elements and overworked; and were thus expected to die in the process. If they couldn’t work, or didn’t die as a result of work, they were summarily executed en masse. In some cases the SS soldiers handed their rifles to Latvian gentiles who gleefully took on the role of firing squad against their own countrymen and women - and yes, children. The words, evacuation and murder, were quickly becoming synonyms.
But over French wine and an elegant buffet lunch the Wannsee conferees discussed methods of gassing the millions of human beings they intended to eradicate from their world. A precedent had been set years earlier by the Nazi’s “T4” program in which children and adults born with congenital “defects” such as Down Syndrome and autism were removed to special medical facilities, and there given lethal injections, or were experimented upon with deadly gas. Their families were told they succumbed to natural causes. Eugenics, the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics, enjoyed wide approval in Nazi Germany. The conferees went on to discuss mobile gassing units consisting of closed-bed trucks into which the exhaust was diverted. Some members of the group thought this method promising, but Heydrich thought it inadequate and revealed the development of a new gas, Zyklon-B, along with new extermination facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
A large portion of the afternoon session was given over to a dull, pedantic dissection of who should die immediately due to the percentage of Jewish blood in their veins, and who because of age might be sent to Theresienstadt, for example, to allow death to come more slowly.
Most Wannsee Conferees were highly enthusiastic about the ultimate goal. One exception was Dr. Friedrich Kritzinger, deputy head of the Reich Chancellery, who thought the plan barbarous, and expressed shame after the war. But Heydrich got what he wanted; unanimity concerning methods and logistics - the trains ran and the gas chambers were built and heavily utilized. He also sought and received the acquiescence from all sides that the SS would be the lead agency in all Final Solution matters.
It’s important to understand that prior to the Wannsee Conference, the effort to rid Germany of Jews was ad hoc, decentralized and inefficient; sort of a cottage industry. After Wannsee, it quickly expanded to an industrial scale, with all significant directives and operations under the thumb of the Waffen SS. The Wannsee Conference was the pivotal event of the Holocaust. It was there in that conference room that shooting small groups of people who happen to be Jewish turned into gassing huge numbers of defenseless men, women and children in death camps. They might very well have succeeded in eliminating Jewry from their sphere of influence if the Nazis had won the war.
How do a few mediocre men, who in other circumstances might have been board members of the largest bank in a small city, orchestrate the crime of crimes? Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “No man can struggle with advantage against the spirit of his age and country, and however powerful a man may be, it is hard for him to make his contemporaries share feelings and ideas which are counter to the general run of their hopes and desires.” The Holocaust was the defining feature of German politics and political culture during the Nazi period, the most shocking event of the 20th Century, and the most difficult event to understand in all of German history. I’ve studied it for years now. The barbarity of the Holocaust loses none of its power to stun as time goes by.
As my daughter Anna pointed out to me, if we assume the SS executioner to be only a monster, incapable of human emotion, we absolve him of all responsibility. Perhaps there’s no way to understand Man’s worst impulses. What we CAN do is honor the memory of all who suffered and died in the Holocaust, in Jim Crow America, in South African Apartheid, in Japanese and Russian prison camps and at sites of genocide in many places on Earth, by being open and loving to everyone.
Gerry Dionne is a writer, musician and coffee table philosopher who moved to our area when he was 18. He's in his 70s now, so y'all give him a break.