The proceedings at Wannsee were deemed particularly secret. Only a limited number of copies of the highly-redacted and deliberately vague 15-page minutes (“Protocol” in German) were typed and circulated under the authority of the secretary of the conference, SS-Obersturmbannführer (= Lieutenant-Colonel) Adolf Eichmann. All but one set of minutes were deliberately destroyed, or lost in the chaos of 1945.
But one set survived in the archives of the German Foreign Ministry and was discovered by the US occupying forces after the war.
Only then did the existence and significance of this key historical event come to light.
In these minutes and on countless other occasions when the subject arose, orders to assemble and kill Jews were generally issued verbally, not written down. If on paper, the language was kept deliberately vague, but used well-understood phrases and hints that all would have understood.
For example, Wannsee minutes Chapter III (English translation):
“III. Another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration, i.e. the evacuation of the Jews to the East, provided that the Fuehrer gives the appropriate approval in advance.
These actions are, however, only to be considered provisional, but practical experience is already being collected which is of the greatest importance in relation to the future final solution of the Jewish question.”
Participants and later readers of the minutes will have understood “evacuation to the East” to mean deportation to labour camps and/or killing centres in occupied Poland, designated as the epicentre of the Holocaust. They will also have understood the ominous realities behind the innocuous term “practical experience”. Another circumlocution used in many documents and conversations about the same topic was “special treatment”: it simply meant systematic mass murder, usually by units of the SS.
After January 1942, as agreed at the conference, the extermination campaign gathered pace and became the “final solution”, pulling in Jews and other victims from all over the Reich and the conquered territories. It only faltered when the allies invaded Germany from both East and West and the programme collapsed in the final months of the war in 1945 as the concentration and labour camps in the East and in the Reich itself were progressively emptied – by hasty summary executions, by starvation and ill-treatment or by forced ‘death marches’ of prisoners (many directed towards Bergen-Belsen in Germany itself) which also resulted in thousands of deaths.
So there can be no doubt, once its existence had been revealed, that the Wannsee Conference opened a new and decisive chapter in the Holocaust. As one of the first great historians of this catastrophe, Professor Sir Martin Gilbert, wrote in his book “The Holocaust – the Jewish Tragedy” (1986): “What had hitherto been tentative, fragmentary and spasmodic was to become formal, comprehensive and efficient. The technical services such as the railways, the bureaucracy and the diplomats would work in harmony, towards a single goal.… By the end of January 1942, the Germans needed only to establish the apparatus of total destruction…”.
The total number of victims can never be determined precisely. 6 million is the generally accepted total of Jewish victims of the Holocaust; up to 5 million others is often suggested, probably without counting the millions of Russians and Poles – civilians and prisoners of war – who were brutally starved, deliberately worked to death, shot or gassed.
The aftermath: Heydrich &co
SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, who summoned and chaired the conference on the orders of Himmler, had been head of the RSHA (the Reich Security Main Office) since 1939. A leading architect of the Final Solution, he was directly answerable to Heinrich Himmler in Himmler’s dual capacity as Chef der Deutschen Polizei (Chief of German Police) and Reichsführer-SS, the head of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS). Earlier, in autumn 1941, Heydrich had been appointed acting ‘Protector’ (i.e. Governor) of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, a task which he executed with deliberate brutality. Five months after the Wannsee conference and back in Prague, he was mortally wounded in an assassination attempt by UK-trained Czechoslovak resistance operatives. The Nazi reprisals in Czechoslovakia were extraordinarily savage, while Heydrich was given a state funeral in Berlin. At the end of the war, Heinrich Himmler escaped from Berlin under assumed identity but was caught by the British forces in northern Germany and committed suicide.
And Rudolf Lange, the most junior official at the Wannsee gathering? From occupied Poland he went on to Riga to supervise mass killings in Latvia. By the end of the war he had been promoted to SS-Standartenführer (colonel) and, back in Poland, was head of the SD in Poznań, shortly to be captured by the oncoming Russian forces. His fate is unknown, but he probably died during the conflict or committed suicide. After the Conference, Adolf Eichmann and his staff became responsible for Jewish deportations to extermination camps, including the deportation of most of Hungary’s Jews. When the war ended he eluded capture and escaped to Argentina, whence he was abducted by the Israelis in 1960 and ultimately, after a long trial, hanged.
And today the villa in West Berlin, Am Großen Wannsee 56–58, after some prevarication by the German authorities, is a Holocaust commemoration centre.
There have been one or two films about the conference of which probably the best is “Conspiracy” (2001), written and directed by Frank Pierson and featuring Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich, Colin Firth as Dr Wilhelm Stuckart (Interior Ministry legal counsel) and Stanley Tucci as Eichmann. The dialogue in the film is of course invented, as the minutes of the meeting were deliberately not verbatim or, for the most part, attributed to particular speakers. But it sort of rings true.
This note is of course only a non-specialist’s attempt to pick out some key points and consequences of this extraordinary moment in European history. The Holocaust, and the significance of this Wannsee meeting within that narrative, have been researched, examined, debated and interpreted in recent decades by probably hundreds of professional and conscientious historians – British, American, French, German and Jewish and of course others.
The Final Solution, and the parallel killing of millions of non-Jewish people, was the greatest human catastrophe: to grasp the historical facts, let alone sum up in a few lines, is almost impossible. But this is hopefully a useful reminder of something that can never be forgotten or ignored.
Holocaust Memorial Day: 27 January
in accordance with a decision by the UN General Assembly, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is celebrated annually on 27 January.
This date was chosen because on 27 January 1945 Russian forces reached the extensive Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration, labour and extermination sites. They first entered Auschwitz III, the IG Farben camp at Monowitz: a soldier from the 100th Infantry Division of the Red Army entered the camp around 9 am on Saturday, 27 January 1945. The 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front (also part of the Red Army) arrived in Auschwitz I and II around 3 pm. They found 7,000 prisoners alive in the three main camps, 500 in the other subcamps, and over 600 corpses. The rest had been dragged onto the infamous death marches, from which some survived.
We are encouraged to put a lighted candle (if safe to do so) in in our windows on the night of 27 January.
The UK Commemorative Ceremony for HMD 2022 will be broadcast online on Thursday 27 January 2022 at 7pm. The narrator will be Sandi Toksvig OBE. We can watch the Ceremony by clicking here.