It is often supposed that Hitler formulated a master plan for all of his major policies, from the creation of a World War to genocide against the Jews, as early as the writing of Mein Kampf. To be sure, most of his subsequent decisions are consistent with the spirit of that work, but many choices were occasioned by unforeseen circumstances, such as an Anglo-French declaration of war over the invasion of Poland. Furthermore, Hitler’s preference for Social Darwinism extended to administration, and he created multiple agencies with overlapping spheres of influence to encourage competition among his underlings. This often resulted in confusing inconsistencies, and nowhere were these inconsistencies thornier than in the policies concerning the Jews. The Wannsee Conference was an attempt to standardize these policies.
Removal of the Jews from German society had always been a goal of the Nazi Party. With the victories of 1939 and 1940, the boundaries of the Third Reich had grown substantially, and it became possible to consider the removal of the Jews from Europe entirely. There was, however, no system in place for doing this. Killings certainly occurred, often casually, but for most, some form of ghettoization was the norm in this period.
The invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 changed the circumstances. For one, the scale of the fighting strained German resources; for another, the addition of conquered territory in the east increased the number of Jews on land controlled by the Reich. In a tradition going back to Tsarist times, Jews were permitted to live only in the Pale of Settlement, an area limited to Byelorussia, Ukraine and that part of Poland that the Russian Empire had controlled. While the restriction was no longer binding under the USSR, it remained that the bulk of Jewish population lived in those territories that the Germans captured in 1941.
Already in July 1941, the SS received direction to begin killing Jews in newly conquered territories. This led to the formation of Einsatzgruppen, or special-purpose teams that were designed to kill civilians, rather than military targets. Then in September, it was decided to deport Jews from elsewhere in the Reich to occupied territories in Poland, the Baltic States and the Soviet Union. These deported Jews became the responsibility of the local authorities, and in Poland especially, the General Government already felt overwhelmed. Gradually, it became clear that the defeat of the Soviets would not ba a rapid affair, and authorities in Poland and the Baltic States could not anticipate sending Jews further east. Murderous alternatives sprang up in various places, ranging from the decision to shoot Jews immediately after leaving the trains in some locations to the establishment of the first true death camp, Belzec.
The absence of a coherent policy created confusion for the petty officials and junior officers who carried out these processes. Even hardened killers sometimes hesitated to kill decorated World War I veterans, for example. Some of these questions required a definitive answer on the national level, and it was for this reason that the Wannsee Conference was scheduled.
Adolf Eichmann sent out the invitations on November 29, 1941, on behalf of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the RSHA (the Race and Resettlement Main Office) within the SS. It is often stated that the meeting was held at the former Interpol headquarters; this is not correct, but the confusion may be the result of a clerical error on Eichmann’s part. It may indeed have been intended for the former Interpol location at Kleinen Wannsee 16, but instead, Eichmann invited the attendees to a mansion at Am Grossen Wannsee 56/58, which had already been appropriated by the SS as a recreational center. The destination remained, but the intended date, December 9, did not.
More major, and at least partially unforeseen, political events developed. On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, creating a state of war with the United States. Hitler had anticipated that war with the United States would come eventually, but this Japanese action forced him to make a decision sooner than he might have liked. The German declaration of war was issued on December 11, two days after the intended date of the Wannsee Conference, but it seems likely that it was postponed because other important decisions were being made. One was the declaration of war itself; others have left no paper trail, but one is clearly reflected in the speech that Hitler gave on December 12, in which he blamed the Jews for creating another World War and predicted that it would end with their own destruction.
The conference was convened on January 20. Heydrich served as host and chairman, with his aide Eichmann overseeing the details. They were joined by a fellow member of the RSHA, Otto Hofmann. Heinrich Mueller of the Gestapo, Eberhard Schoengarth, and Dr. Rudolf Lange were also members of the SS; Lange had extensive experience with the Einsatzgruppen in the east. Another key group consisted of administrators from eastern territories, such as Josef Buehler and Dr. Leibbrandt. The remainder came from national ministries and other governmental or party authorities. In such cases, the representatives were highly placed but they were not the heads of their ministries or agencies. It would seem as if there were a conscious effort to avoid involving the highest levels of authority in this conference; the roles of Hitler, Himmler and other key figures of the Nazi regime remain the subject of debate today.
One name was directly invoked: Heydrich announced that he had been given the responsibility to formulate a Final Solution concerning the Jews by Reichsmarschall Goering. These instructions had been issued on July 31, and in the intervening months, Heydrich’s team had worked out a set of proposals that kept the bulk of the work within the SS, but required a certain measure of cooperation from various governmental agencies that were, accordingly, invited to the conference.
In all, the conference lasted only a couple of hours, perhaps as little as an hour and a half. The minutes of the conference were kept under Eichmann’s watch, and a redacted version was subsequently issued to each participant. In the official transcript, words like extermination are not used, but because of the editing that took place, it is not clear how frank the language was in the original meeting. Still, history has a reasonable record of the course of this meeting because one of the copies was not destroyed, and came to light at the end of the war.
The conference saw the establishment of many details, giving the SS the authority to carry out a systemic treatment for Jews deported to the east while demanding the cooperation of other authorities, but it failed to resolve one open question: where to draw the line between using the Jews as slave labor and total extermination. This question was never resolved, even within the SS. Heydrich’s own comments at Wannsee suggest that he meant to get as much work out of deported Jews as he could; among his specific proposals was roadbuilding in occupied western Russia, where the absence of roads had already done much to hamper the speed of the German war effort. Heydrich expected many to die along the way, but here too the Social Darwinism of the Nazi ideology came into play. It would be expected, according to Nazi ideology, that the survivors of such extreme conditions would became the parents of a superior generation of the Jewish people, and that prospect was intolerable. Any survivors, who would be the hardiest or craftiest, would be eliminated.
With Heydrich’s proposals accepted, the meeting adjourned. Heydrich, Eichmann and Mueller remained for a short time, discussing the results of the meeting. It seems that Heydrich was gratified by his success, but he would not have long to enjoy it; on May 27 he was mortally wounded in Prague. By then, however, the Final Solution was already part of the machinery of the SS, and it carried on into 1945.
Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001
Butler, Rupert. Illustrated History of the Gestapo. Motorbooks, 1993
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Yale, 2009
Taylor, James et al. The Third Reich Almanac. World Almanac Books, 1988
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