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How Significant Was The Wannsee Conference? – Essay

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Published: Tue, 11 Apr 2017

The significance of the Wannsee Conference has been one that historians today have left relatively uncontested. The documentation that survives from the time is vitally important in understanding the bureaucracy of the Nazi regime, “No other document from the National Socialist regime sets out so clearly the complete plan for the extermination of European Jewry” [2] . The conference itself had almost gone into the mists of time undetected; it was not until 1947 that the minutes of the conference were discovered, and not until the interrogation of Adolf Eichmann in 1962 that the entire conference could be assessed. When uncovered, the minutes were initially regarded “as perhaps the most shameful document of modern history” [3] , as there had never been a bleaker rendition of the orderly governance of murder, and to this day resembles a hallmark of the Nazi way of committing genocide.

The Wannsee Conference did not, as is often confused, mark the beginning of the Final Solution. The Final Solution had been in effect since 1941, evidence shows that an estimated 537,000 Jews had been forced to emigrate from Germany up to the point when Hitler closed the boarders and forbade any further emigration [4] . As well as this, Einsatzgruppen (Task forces) had been set up immediately following the 2nd June invasion of the Soviet Union. These task forces, comprised not only of the Waffen-SS, but also of reserve battalions of the police forces, were tasked with the “systematic destruction of German Jews beginning with men of military age” [5] . By August and September, this had extended to include women and children, and by October this had expanded to include the liquidation of entire Jewish communities, such as the murder of 1,800 Jews in Józefów, Poland, by the Reserve Police Battalion 101 [6] . These task forces were also responsible for the murder of the Serbian male-Jews and the mass executions in the Reich province of the Wartheland in autumn 1941. It was also in this period that the extermination camps Belzec and Chelmno had been constructed, and in September Hitler approved a plan to deport Jews “to the East” to be the first into these camps [7] . By December, evidence shows that Hitler had “decided to sweep the floor clean [regarding the Jewish question]”, and that “Judenfrage | als Partisanen auszurotten” [‘Jewish question | to be eliminated as partisans’]” [8] .

As these fragments of documentary evidence reveal, the genocidal intent by the Nazi leadership in the lead up to December 1941 is plain to see. It is also obvious that as of yet, there was no formulated plan in dealing with the immense deportation to the East, nor of the method of execution, nor of any realistic timeframe. Hans Frank, ‘Governor-General of the General Government for the occupied Polish territories’, spoke regarding the Jews in his Generalgouvernement: “We can’t shoot these 3.5 million Jews, we can’t poison them, but will have somehow to take steps leading to a success in annihilation” [9] .

The Wannsee Conference was hosted in January 1942, which was much later than the decision to start executing the Jewry. Thus it is significant to note that it was not at this conference that it was decided to implement the Final Solution, rather it was a meeting to ascertain the logistical difficulties that arose from the implementation and to address them. It should also be noted, that following Germany’s declaration of war on the United States on December 11th 1941, that the circumstances had been met for Hitler to follow through on his threat of January 30th 1939. He had stated that “If the world of international financial Jewry…should succeed in plunging the nations into another World War…The result will be the extermination of the Jewish race in Europe.” [10] , this declaration of war would therefore legitimise the extermination of the Jews, and would thus necessitate a meeting such as the conference at Wannsee.

The majority of those that joined Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference were members of the ministries that had direct responsibility for the Jewish question. Dr. Stuckart of the Interior Ministry, Martin Luther of the Foreign Office, Dr. Bühler of the General Government and Drs. Meyer and Leibbrant of the Ostministerium were in attendance, as well as State Secretary Freisler, Ministerialdirektor Kritzinger and State Secretary Dr. Neumann. As well as civilian members of the meeting, also present were various SS members such as: Gestapo-Chief Heinrich Müller, Otto Hofmann of the Race and Resettlement Main Office, Dr. Schöngarth of the General Government, Dr. Lange of Einsatzkommando II, State Secretary Oberführer Klopfer, as well as Adolf Eichmann, the RSHA’s deportation expert, who was the lowest ranking and had the task of producing a written record of the meeting. Ironically, it was Eichmann that would later go on to become the most infamous of those in attendance at the meeting, and it is primarily with his help that historians were able to rebuild the conference, and to understand the atmosphere in which it was held. It is very important to note that “No less than 8 of the 15 participants held the doctorate. Thus it was not a dim-witted crowd unable to grasp what was going to be said to them.” [11] 

Heydrich opened the Wannsee Conference by recapitulating that Göring had given him ultimate authority in dealing with the “final solution of the European Jewish Question”, and explained that the meeting was to clarify and co-ordinate organisational arrangements. He went on to explain the efforts taken so far in dealing with the Jewish question, such as the forced emigration. His next point was that “In place of emigration, the evacuation of Jews has now emerged” [12] in direct reference to the mass murder committed from the Summer of 1941. Looking on the minutes of the conference in retrospect, despite the euphemism of ‘evacuation’, they unmistakably contain a plan for genocide. Heydrich declared that the efforts in the Final Solution would eventually come to embrace around 11 million Jews living in Europe, including the Jews living in neutral countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and Spain. This number included those that had already begun to be executed in 1941. He continued that the Jews were also already being ‘evacuated’ to the East where they would be formed into labour groups, and then sent to build roads, “whereby a large part will doubtless fall away through natural diminuation. The remnant that finally survives all this…will have to be dealt with” [13] because of the danger that they might constitute a nucleus for a Jewish renewal. Heydrich’s point was clear, all Jews selected for these labour groups are to die, one way or the other. During the opening section of the conference, Heydrich also mentions that more efficient methods of killing and disposing of the Jews were needed, stating “even now, practical experience is being gathered that is of major significance in view of the coming final solution of the Jewish question” [14] . Despite the fact that the Einsatzgruppen were continuing the executions as ordered, there was a great effect on morale: “the regular soldiers who had witnessed these atrocities were beginning to show signs of unrest” [15] , as well as “the local populations were getting upset, fearing they might be next.” [16] As well as this, there was a greater need for ‘camouflage’, whilst the mass shootings had been easy enough to get away with in the East and the Soviet territories; there was no reason to believe that it would work in Central and Northern Europe. This was because the participants at the conference recognised that anti-Semitism was far less virulent in these areas than in Eastern Europe, which led them to believe that the types of brutality necessary for mass executions such as the one at Józefów would not be tolerated. Whatever had to be done had to be done in the East. The transport issues would not prove a problem, as simple coordination amongst the Ministry of Transportation, the army, and Railroad timetable commission would enable events to run smoothly, and the Jews could be held in temporary holding locations in Minsk. The forced labour marches were only one of many methods of execution that had already begun, as evidence shows that “Mobile gas vans were busy murdering Jews in the death camp at Chelmno in Poland, and gas chambers were under construction at Belzec” [17] . This supports the premise that the Wannsee Conference had not been convened to decide whether the Final Solution should be implemented, as it had already begun. The Wannsee Conference was extremely significant because despite the euphemisms, it was the first time documented that the genocidal implications were totally and utterly clear: “It aimed at killing every last Jew in Europe from Ireland to the Urals, and from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.” [18] 

The second half of the conference was dedicated solely to expanding on the definition of “Jewish”. The progeny of mixed marriages brought complex problems with it, the Reich “having wrestled with it for years in order to determine criteria for its resolution, but without success.” [19] Heydrich supported the idea of ‘deporting’ half-Jews (that is, murdering them), and to allow quarter-Jews residence in the Reich so long as they didn’t look like Jews. Stuckart and Hoffman objected at this, supporting instead the involuntary sterilisation as an alternative to ‘deportation’. Stuckart also proposed a resolution declaring all mixed-race marriages null and void to be followed by the execution of the Jewish spouse. However, these issues were not resolved and were later the cause of two further conferences held in March and October 1942.

It is at this point that the testimony of Adolf Eichmann becomes invaluable to the historian. Eichmann was under orders from Heydrich to ensure that the minutes of the conference were censored according to the ‘language codes’, so within the minutes of the conference itself the historian cannot find specific mention to the “elimination” or “liquidisation”. However, we know from Eichmann’s testimony that at this point “the discussion became quite freewheeling and unstructured” [20] , the atmosphere in the room became more relaxed and Eichmann mentioned that “…people would go around, butlers, adjutants, and would give out liquor…I don’t want to say that there was an atmosphere of drunkardness…but nevertheless it was not one of those stiff, formal, official affairs…” [21] . Bühler specifically requested that the first area to have the Final Solution implemented would be the General Government, some 3.5 million Jews who were mostly “incapable of work” that he wanted “‘removed’ as quickly as possible.” [22] He would get his wish, and over the coming months the “regionalised killing in the districts of Lublin and Galicia was extended by spring to the whole of the General Government” [23] . Neumann also expressed concern that Jews that were vital to the war economy might be ‘deported’ before a replacement could be found, to which Heydrich concurred, and allowed them to stay. Eichmann later testified as to the accuracy of these statements, saying “…these gentlemen were standing together…and discussing quite bluntly, quite differently from the language which I had to use later in the record. ..they spoke about methods of killing, about liquidation, about extermination.” [24] Finally, we see once more the callousness that these men were able to discuss genocide with the simple fact: “The meeting closed with drinks and lunch” [25] 

Following the conference, Heydrich was pleased. His ultimate authority had been upheld by the participants, and he wasn’t challenged for leadership over the implementation of the Final Solution. As well as this, no one at the conference had expressed reservations over the fate of the European Jewry. It had been accepted by all present, indeed, Heydrich even wrote that Wannsee “happily, has settled the basic outlines for the practical implementation of the final solution of the Jewish people.” [26] Heydrich’s aim of establishing shared knowledge of murder explains one of the most significant points of the Wannsee Conference. On the one hand, the minutes show a coy discussion about killing and “evacuation to the East”. On the other hand, the language about eliminating Jewish workers is so open, its implications for the rest so clear, as to render euphemisms useless as a disguise. Whilst Heydrich was not orchestrating an existing and finalised programme of mass extermination in death-camps, the Wannsee Conference was a “key stepping-stone on the path to that terrible genocidal finality.” [27] 

The Wannsee Conference is significant for another very important reason, at no point in the lead up to the conference, or on any official documentation relating to the conference, can Hitler himself be seen to support or have ordered it. Most historians simply assume that, in such a Hitler-orientated state, that at some point he must have made the decision to invoke the Final Solution. There is also no evidence to prove that Hitler had approved the deportation of the Jews in Autumn 1941 to the East, at the Wannsee Conference Heydrich himself remarked that the deportation of the Jews had begun “‘after prior approval of the Führer’. He surely would not have dared, nor would he have wanted, to use the term ‘approval’ if in fact it had been at Hitler’s order.” [28] The strongest evidence to show that Hitler had approved the plans for the Final Solution was received by Heydrich in a letter from Reichsmarschall Göring in July 1941 which stated: “The Führer has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews.” [29] Even following the Conference, during the early stages of the exterminations, such as the experiments with gassing Belzec, and the extermination efforts in the General Government, no official documentation has been found that can be linked to Hitler himself. The statements that the historian can access today on record from Hitler are forthright enough, as well as being extremely inflammatory, the historian can see that there is a relationship between his brutal words and the enactment of brutal policies, but this only provides the historian with assumptions, not hard evidence of Hitler’s culpability. For example, Hitler’s prophecy on the 30th January 1939 represents, to some historians, a clear threat of genocide, yet in his words there is no evidence that would suggest that the coming mass executions were being planned in 1939. Hitler himself barely refers to it throughout 1940, and the first evidence of mass exterminations that the historian can see begins in mid-1941. It is also uncertain whether the ‘annihilation’ of the European Jewry implied “a clearly formulated desire for their physical deaths rather than a complete removal of their presence and culture from within its borders.” [30] Hitler’s rambling, inflammatory speeches were designed to raise nationalist fervour in the listener, to give a scapegoat for them to bring their anger to bear on, but his pronouncements seldom crossed the line from physical removal to physical extermination. Were the issue not genocide of course, the historian would not be analysing the language so relentlessly, Hitler’s responsibility would be without question. The historian could point to any number of Hitler’s speeches and accept any number of statements as proof to his intentions. However, we are unable to do this, as the Holocaust “is so murderously innovative that we want to understand precisely how the taboos could be broken.” [31] 

Thus, the historian can see the significance of the Wannsee Conference, not as the point at which the final solution was ultimately sanctioned by the highest authority, but the point that “ushered in the final stage of the extermination policy – the incorporation of the whole of German-occupied Europe in a comprehensive programme of systematic annihilation of the Jews” [32] 


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