This blog not normally a platform for non-local historical or political musings. So feel free to look away if you’re not in the mood for this – or if it becomes too painful to read. But I’m giving myself permission to make an exception, provoked by an important and partly-personal coincidence of dates.
Also, it’s in two parts, because of the length.
An infamous date – 20 January 1942
Yes, before most readers of this blog were born.
20 January 1942, 80 years ago this week, saw the holding of the infamous Wannsee Conference in the gracious western suburbs of Berlin. The house was a luxurious villa acquired by the Reich Security Main Office, mainly the SS, for use as a guest house and conference centre. The meeting was summoned and chaired by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich.
Aimed specifically at dealing expeditiously with the ‘problem’ of Europe’s Jewish communities, this highly secret meeting of senior bureaucrats was called to agree and accelerate the logistics and timing of the Holocaust – the Final Solution – in a manner sadly typical of the highly bureaucratic and efficient Nazi state. Thereafter the senior officials and state authorities attending the meeting were implicated in its decisions and consequences: there could be no turning back.
And the personal coincidence? 1942 was also the year in which I was born in wartime England (though not in that January; not in fact until October). Perhaps because I was born then, around the midpoint of World War II, but also because I lived for a short time in Berlin in the 1960s, I’ve perhaps been more preoccupied than many of my generation with the tumultuous events of that era, which of course for many people alive today is of mainly historical interest, if that.
I guess some outlines of the Holocaust are taught in UK schools, but the details are probably left to professional historians and, of course, Jewish and other groups representing and remembering those who were massacred so brutally. It would not be surprising if many people today struggled to get their heads round the scale of what happened. (Though there have of course been subsequent holocausts on a much smaller scale (Bosnia, Cambodia and some of the less blessed parts of Africa) – smaller but no less terrible.) A quick survey tells me that many people alive now, including the highly educated, haven’t heard of Wannsee at all, or only vaguely.
The point of Wannsee?
It was sometimes thought that the conference, convened on the orders of Himmler and with the approval of Hitler, instigated Nazi government plans for the Holocaust. (The term “Holocaust” is normally applied just to the killing of Europe’s 6 million Jews; but is often stretched to include other deliberate victims like gypsies. It is not normally used to encompass the millions of others, such as Russian and Polish civilians and prisoners of war who were caught up into the same process.)
But … Wannsee did not launch the systematic murder of the Jews – that policy had already been decided and the early steps had been taken.
By the end of 1941, it was already being implemented in a deliberate but only partly coordinated fashion, along with the imprisonment and ultimately killing of other unfavoured people – Poles, Gypsies, Russian military and civilians, disabled people, political opponents from within Germany, resistance workers from the occupied territories, and of course thousands of others. The Jewish community inside the Reich was already enduring savage persecution.
But the capture of Poland in late 1939, and later (in summer 1941) the invasion of Western parts of the Soviet Union, immediately placed millions more people – combatants and civilians, and particularly Jews, as well as other nationalities – under the brutal regime of the German forces, notably the SS and its murder squads. In the end, some 3 million Polish Jews – approximately 90% of Poland’s pre-war Jewry – and between 1.8 and 2.8 million ethnic Poles were killed during the German occupation of Poland.
Mass shootings in Poland, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltic states were initially the method used to eliminate Jewish and other victims, to be followed by mass displacement where the Jews transported from the West joined those in Poland, Russia and the Baltic regions. Here, “special treatment” methods could be devised and tested. The scale of the ‘problem’ now required better methods.
By late 1941, before Wannsee, some more “efficient” killing centres and methods had already been set up in occupied Poland, the Baltic states and elsewhere. The first small-scale gassings at Auschwitz took place in early September 1941, when around 850 inmates—Soviet prisoners of war and sick Polish inmates – were murdered.
Another infamous example was in the Western part of Poland which had been formally incorporated into the Reich. Chełmno, 30 miles northwest of Łódź, was the first of the pure extermination centres and had been set up in December 1941 in order to annihilate the inhabitants of the ghetto in that town. It was the first stationary facility where poison gas – in that case, carbon monoxide in enclosed trucks – was used for the mass murder of Jews. Other similar extermination camps that quickly followed in 1942 (Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka) used fixed gas chambers fed by large carbon monoxide engines. All four existed purely for the purpose of murder, chiefly of Polish Jews. They paved the way for the much bigger extermination facilities that were quickly established in mixed labour/extermination camps and their numerous satellite sites across Poland and other territories, fed by an elaborate rail transport system from all over Europe. Notably, of course, Auschwitz-Birkenau and its vast complex of industrial workshops and extermination facilities: over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives here. But there were many other sites.
What Wannsee did achieve for the Nazi regime, on that day 80 years ago, was that it brought together a representative group of very senior officials and military/SS officers (including one, SS-Standartenführer Dr Rudolf Lange [see below], who had personally developed the killing methods at Chełmno just a week or two earlier) to decide and impose an enhanced, ambitious and accelerated method of moving Jews out of the Reich and the occupied territories, assembling them in ghettos where necessary, and then exterminating them in large numbers in dedicated sites. The meeting also discussed different treatments for different levels of ‘Jewishness’; but any categories that were thereby spared were later included anyway, on Heydrich’s orders.
Continued in Part 2