Milton Shain writes on the 80th anniversary of the meeting that put in place the plans for the 'final solution'
PREPARING FOR THE ‘FINAL SOLUTION’: WANNSEE, 20 January 1942
Exactly eighty years ago, fifteen senior Nazi bureaucrats and functionaries met outside Berlin - at the sumptuous, serene and leafy lake-side villa Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58 - to prepare ‘the final solution of the European Jewish question’. Preparation in this instance meant bureaucratic refinement and not initiation of policy.
The mass killing of Europe’s Jews was already well underway, following the invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941. That invasion, known as Operation Barbarossa, had unleashed the passions of barbarism. The notorious Einsatzgruppen, Nazi Germany’s motorised killing squads slaughtered thousands of Jews in the towns and villages of the Baltic region, including Lithuania, the seedbed of South African Jewry.
“What the führer prophesied is now taking place”, wrote propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels on 11 August 1941. The “lice of civilized mankind”, he noted nearly three months later, “had to be somehow eradicated.”
Years of unrelenting Nazi racist propaganda, built upon centuries of Christian hatred, racism, and social Darwinism had dehumanised the Jew. Even the Wehrmacht (the German army) was involved in mass atrocities against hapless civilians whose only crime was to be born Jewish.
At Babi-Yar, outside Kiev, 33,771 Jews including women and children were executed on the last two days of September. They were among the 500,000 Jews killed by the end of 1941. Hitler’s ‘war against the Jews’ had begun in earnest.
“I feel like the Robert Koch of politics”, he remarked on 10 July 1941. “He founded the bacillus of tuberculosis… I discovered the Jews as the bacillus and ferment of all social decomposition…. And I have proved one thing: that a state can live without Jews; that the economy, culture, art, etc. etc. can exist without Jews and indeed better”.
Imbued with a genocidal mindset, Hitler moved rapidly toward a solution to the so-called Jewish question. His plans to deport Europe’s Jews to ‘the East’ after a victorious war against Russia were changed in the autumn of 1941: deportation could begin before victory. That decision, writes Hitler’s most definitive biographer, Ian Kershaw, “was a fateful one”, bringing “the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’ throughout the whole of Europe a massive step closer”.
For the immense number of Jews targeted, new and more efficient killing techniques were needed. The use of poison gas was now considered a viable option as local and regional initiatives were taken to solve the ‘Jewish problem’. In the first week of December 1941 the first extermination unit began operations in Chelmno through the use of exhaust fumes in mobile gas vans.
Only days before Chelmno became operative as a killing centre, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office, sent out invitations to several state secretaries and selected SS representatives to attend a conference at the Wannsee on 9 December.
The purpose, put simply, was to orchestrate coherent plans to deport to the East all Jews from occupied countries in Europe. Because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the United States declaration of war against Nazi Germany, the meeting was postponed to 20 January 1942.
Berlin was deep into winter when the invited delegates (including Heinrich Müller of the Gestapo and Adolf Eichmann, the Reich’s deportation expert), heard Heydrich explain that Hermann Göring, the titular head for the co-ordination of Jewish policy, had given him the responsibility of preparing ‘the final solution of the European Jewish question’. The process would be centralized with the help of the Reichsführer-SS, Heinrich Himmler.
Eleven million Jews were targeted across Europe, including Jews in Britain and Ireland and in France’s north African colonies. As Heydrich put it, Europe was “to be combed from west to east” while implementing the Final Solution.
Although ‘killing’, ‘elimination’ and ‘extermination’ were, according to Eichmann’s testimony at his subsequent trial, mentioned during the meeting, these terms were played down in Eichmann’s formal minutes, drawn from stenographic notes taken by a secretary.
The emphasis, instead, was on the evacuation of Jews to the East as forced labour - replacing an earlier policy of emigration. Evacuation, however, would only be of a temporary nature in preparation for what Heydrich referred to as the “imminent Final Solution of the Jewish question”.
“Separated by sex, the Jews capable of work will be led into these areas in large labour columns to build roads, whereby a large part will doubtless fall away through natural diminution. The remnant that finally survives all this, because here it is undoubtedly a question of the part with the greatest resistance, will have to be treated accordingly, because this remnant, representing a natural selection, can be regarded as the germ cell of a new Jewish reconstruction if released”.
In what Eichmann described as a rather informal discussion after Heydrich’s formal opening address, perverted social Darwinist fantasies were translated into bureaucratic plans, as butlers and adjutants moved among the participants serving liquor.
Only the plans for Mischlinge or ‘half’ and ‘quarter’ Jews generated animated debate. Would Mischlinge who were neither married to Jews, were not members of the Jewish community, or did not ‘behave’ like Jews be given the option of deportation to death camps or ‘voluntary’ sterilization? For the Nazis, writes the historian Robert Wistrich, “these were deadly serious issues”.
In less than one and a half hours, the participants had agreed on plans to expedite the annihilation of European Jewry. Remarkably, eight of the fifteen participants at Wannsee held PhD degrees!
According to eyewitness testimony, a satisfied Heydrich enjoyed a glass of celebratory cognac, looking relaxed at the absence of resistance and awkward questions. That afternoon he authorised the award of decorations to veterans of mass killings on the Eastern Front.
Hitler appeared to have been well informed about the results of the Wannsee meeting. On 25 January he declared over lunch in the “Wolf’s Lair” (in the presence of Himmler and Hans Lammers) that this “has to be done quickly …The Jews must leave Europe. Otherwise we will never reach a European understanding. They incite [discord] everywhere… I can only say they have to go. If they are destroyed in the process, I cannot help that. I see only one option: complete extermination, if they do not go voluntarily”. “No sentimental feelings” could be permitted, he told Goebbels three weeks later.
At the very time deliberations were taking place at Wannsee, another death camp at Belzec was under construction and the first gas chamber at Birkenau was being prepared for its odious use.
Over the next three and a half years a further five million Jews, including a million children, would be killed in an orgy of mass industrialized killing that continues to engage scholars.
Arguably unique among a range of genocides, the Holocaust correctly serves as a metaphor for radical evil, a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man. Wannsee, likewise, is a reminder, a physical symbol of an age of extremism, a monument to madness.
Milton Shain is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town.