Wannsee Conference (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi Security Police and the SS Security Service, and fourteen other senior SS officers, Nazi Party officials, and civil servants met in a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss preparations for the Final Solution. When American legal investigators uncovered minutes (the sixteenth copy out of an original thirty) for the meeting among German Foreign Office records in March 1947, the meeting rapidly attained postwar notoriety and became known as the Wannsee Conference.
The conference's impact lay partly in the clarity with which its minutes (or so-called Protocol) revealed Nazi thinking. Consisting largely of an extended presentation by Heydrich, the Protocol offered a sober account of the evolution of Nazi policy on the Jews, culminating in "new possibilities in the East." A table slated 11 million European Jews, divided up by country, for inclusion in the plan. Although murder was not explicitly proposed, one section of the Protocol was unequivocal:
In large, single-sex labour 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.
None of the participants at the meeting, many coming from long-established ministrieshe Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice, the Foreign Ministry, and the Reich Chancelleryrotested. To many postwar observers it seemed incredible that such educated men, eight of them holding doctorates, had gone along with such proposals. As a symbol of the orderly governance of genocide, the protocol remains without parallel.
A more contentious subject among scholars is the meeting's policy significance for the emergence of the Final Solution. Heydrich's invitation and opening remarks suggested that the meeting was of great importance and was needed to clarify fundamental issues. Postwar investigators were also aware that around December, when the meeting was originally scheduled to take place, Hans Frank had alluded in Poland to fundamental discussions taking place in Berlin. For these reasons and coupled with the Protocol's systematic listing of all European Jews, many postwar observers believed it was at the Wannsee Conference that genocide had been decided. What cast doubts on this assertion, however, are the facts that mass killings had begun in Russia six months earlier, preparations for the Belzec camp were well underway, and the Chelmno death camp had been in operation since early December 1941. Moreover, it is not clear that Heydrich or his guests were senior enough to make important decisions about the Final Solution.
Historians have therefore puzzled over a meeting that seemed to be asking questions well after the shooting had started. Their answers have varied according to their broader understanding of how genocidal policy emerged. For those who believe a fundamental command was uttered in July 1941 or indeed earlier, Wannsee's function seems, at best, secondary and may have been almost entirely symbolics the historian Eberhard Jäckel argued in a seminal article in 1992. For those historians, by contrast, who believe that a decision to murder all European Jewss opposed to the Soviet killingsrystallized 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. The timing may also have resulted from the negative reaction among some Berlin officials to the rapidly disseminated news that Berlin Jews had been shot on arrival in Riga on November 29 and 30, 1941. One of the first mass executions of German Jews, this had a different psychological significance than the already familiar content of the Einsatzgruppen reports from Russia. Wannsee was thus partly convened to ensure that the Reich's ministries were on board.
What is also clear is that Heydrich invited many of the agencies with whom his security police had regularly experienced disputes over lines of authority. Indeed, some agencies, notably representatives of the general government, were added only as an afterthought when new evidence of their resistance to his mandate came to light. Heydrich wanted to assert the SS's and specifically his leadership on the Jewish question. Moreover, to remove potential opposition to the deportation of more German Jews, he wanted to obtain agreement on any special categories to be exemptedighly decorated Jewish veterans from World War I, Jews in mixed marriages, and so forth. Much of the Protocol was taken up with these matters, and it is clear that Heydrich sought to undo most of the protection for half-Jews and also quarter-Jews that the Ministry of the Interior had thus far managed to maintain. This was the one significant area in which the Protocol registered any dissent from Heydrich's proposals, 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.
The Wannsee Conference's true impact is hard to gauge. It is known that Heydrich was pleased with the outcome, and he conveyed to his subordinates the notion that the Security Police's authority had been enhanced. The deportation of German Jews, and the killing rate, both accelerated in the spring. On the question of the Mischlinge (half-Jews), however, followup 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.
SEE ALSO Germany; Heydrich, Reinhard; Holocaust
Gerlach, Christian (2000). "The Wannsee Conference, the Fate of German Jews and Hitler's Decision in Principle to Exterminate All European Jews." In The Holocaust. Origins, Implementation, Aftermath, ed. Omer Bartov. New York: Routledge.
Huttenbach, Henry R. (1996). "The Wannsee Conference Reconsidered 50 Years After: SS Strategy and Racial Politics in the Third Reich." In Remembrance and Recollection. Essays on the Centennial Year of Martin Niemöller and Reinhold Niebühr and the 50th Year of the Wannsee Conference, ed. Hubert Locke and Marcia Littell. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.
Jäckel, Eberhard (1995). "On the Purpose of the Wannsee Conference." In Perspectives on the Holocaust. Essays in Honor of Raul Hilberg, ed. James S. Pacy and Alan P. Wertheimer. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Roseman, Mark (2002). The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting. Wannsee and the Final Solution. London: Penguin.