Wannsee Conference 20 January 1942
After World War II ended on May 8, 1945, the Allied powers began a search for the Nazi documents that they would need as evidence at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal which was set to begin in November 1945. They found tons of paperwork including secret documents hidden in salt mines and behind walls in the Nazi administration buildings. But the one most important document, the order signed by Adolf Hitler which gave the authority for the genocide of the Jews, was never found.
Finally, in 1947, long after the first proceedings of the Nuremberg IMT had ended, the minutes of a conference held on January 20, 1942 at a villa in Wannsee, a district of Berlin, were found. At this conference, the plans for the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" had been discussed. Today, tourists can stand in the very room where the plans were made for the genocide of the Jews.
The photograph above shows the front of the Wannsee villa, as you approach from a short straight driveway off a street named Am Grossen Wannsee. (Wannsee is pronounced VON-say.) The property has now been converted into a Holocaust Museum, which opened in 1992 on the fiftieth anniversary of the conference.
The photograph below shows the circular driveway and the miniature roses in the front of the house.
Fifteen top officials of the Nazi bureaucracy and the SS attended the Wannsee conference, which was led by 38-year-old Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). On May 27, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich was wounded when a group of Czech resistance fighters, who had escaped to England, returned and made an attempt on his life in Prague. Heydrich died of his wounds on June 4, 1942.
The minutes or protocols of the Wannsee meeting, 15 pages in all, were written by 36-year-old Adolf Eichmann. The copy that was found in 1947 was undated and unsigned; it had no stamp of any Bureau. The copy appeared to be a draft report of the meeting that was held on January 20, 1942 at Wannsee.
The full title of the Conference was "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe." The original phrase was "a final territorial solution of the Jewish question." The term "Jewish Question" referred to a question that had been discussed for years: Should the Jews have their own state within the country where they lived, or should they assimilate?
On the witness stand at the Nuremberg IMT, Hermann Goering said that the conference was about "the total solution to the Jewish Question" and that it meant the evacuation of the Jews, not extermination.
The full text of the letter from Goering to Heydrich, ordering the Final Solution, (Nuremberg Document PS-710) is quoted below:
To the Chief of the Security Police and the SD, SS Gruppenfuehrer Heydrich
In completion of the task which was entrusted to you in the Edict dated January 24, 1939, of solving the Jewish question by means of emigration or evacuation in the most convenient way possible, given the present conditions, I herewith charge you with making all necessary preparations with regard to organizational, practical and financial aspects for a total solution [Gesamtloesung] of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.
Insofar as the competencies of other central organizations are affected, these are to be involved.
I further charge you with submitting to me promptly an overall plan of the preliminary organizational, practical and financial measures for the execution of the intended final solution (Endloesung) of the Jewish question.
In 1992, Yehuda Bauer, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, referred to "the silly story of Wannsee," as he said: "The public still repeats, time after time, the silly story that at Wannsee the extermination of the Jews was arrived at."
The fifteen men who met at Wannsee for this historic occasion were not elder statesmen, but men in their prime, who were, for the most part, long standing members of the Nazi party. Heydrich's involvement with the Nazis dated back to the dawn of the Fascist movement in Germany when he was a teen-aged member of the Freikorp, a volunteer militia group which engaged in bloody street battles with the Communists, who were led in Berlin by the Jewish militants, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, and in Munich by the Jewish leader, Kurt Eisner.
The minutes of the meeting began with an explanation of what had been accomplished so far by the emigration of the Jews in Germany, including the German protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which is now the Czech Republic.
The following quote is from the minutes of the Wannsee conference:
The Chief of the Security Police and the SD then gave a short report of the struggle which has been carried on thus far against this enemy, the essential points being the following:
a) the expulsion of the Jews from every sphere of life of the German people,
b) the expulsion of the Jews from the living space of the German people.
In carrying out these efforts, an increased and planned acceleration of the emigration of the Jews from Reich territory was started, as the only possible present solution.
By order of the Reich Marshal, a Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration was set up in January 1939 and the Chief of the Security Police and SD was entrusted with the management. Its most important tasks were
a) to make all necessary arrangements for the preparation for an increased emigration of the Jews,
b) to direct the flow of emigration,
c) to speed the procedure of emigration in each individual case.
The aim of all this was to cleanse German living space of Jews in a legal manner.
All the offices realized the drawbacks of such enforced accelerated emigration. For the time being they had, however, tolerated it on account of the lack of other possible solutions of the problem.
The Jews had been forced to pay for their emigration themselves. Foreign Jews had donated approximately 9.5 million dollars to finance the emigration of German Jews between the time of the Nazi takeover of power and 31 October 1941, according to the minutes of the conference.
On June 22, 1941, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union and the emigration of the Jews from Europe was no longer feasible, according to the minutes of the meeting, which stated: "In the meantime the Reichsführer-SS and Chief of the German Police had prohibited emigration of Jews due to the dangers of an emigration in wartime and due to the possibilities of the East."
The following quote is from Article III of the minutes of the Wannsee conference:
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 Führer 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.
Approximately 11 million Jews will be involved in the final solution of the European Jewish question, distributed as follows among the individual countries:
Country - Number
A. Germany proper 131,800
B. Bulgaria 48,000
Total over 11,000,000
The "Eastern Territories," which had a total of 420,000 Jews, were in the part of Poland that had been taken over by the Soviet Union in 1939, but were now in the control of the Nazis, following the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The Ukraine and White Russia (Belorussia) were formerly a part of the USSR (Soviet Union) so the 2,994,684 Jews in the Ukraine and the 446,000 in White Russia were included in the 5 million Jews in the USSR. Many of these Jews had been moved into the interior of Russia, when the Soviet Union was invaded.
It was Hitler's custom to have his personal secretary take down his words verbatim when he gave his long-winded monologues to his inner circle at the dinner table, or in the drawing room, in the evening. According to historian John Toland , Hitler made the following comment, which was written down by his secretary, during his "table conversations" in the fall of 1941:
From the rostrum of the Reichstag, I prophesied to Jewry that, in the event of war's proving inevitable, the Jew would disappear from Europe. That race of criminals has on its conscience the two million dead of the First World War, and now already hundreds and thousands more. Let nobody tell me that all the same we can't park them in the marshy parts of Russia! Who's worrying about our troops? It's not a bad idea, by the way, that public rumor attributes to us a plan to exterminate the Jews. Terror is a salutary thing.
The map below shows the Greater German Reich in orange and the area of Poland that was annexed into the Greater German Reich in a darker orange color. The yellow line shows the boundary of Poland between 1919 and 1939; during this period of time, Germany was divided into two sections by the Polish Corridor. The tan colored area within the yellow boundary line designates the part of Poland that was occupied by the Soviet Union after the defeat of Poland by the Germans and the Soviets in 1939; this is what was referred to as "the Eastern territories" in the minutes of the Wannsee conference. Shown in dark brown on the map is the General Government, where 2,284,000 Jews lived; this area was German-occupied Poland. In the tan colored area is the "Reichskommissariat Ukraine" where 2,994,684 Jews lived. The area called "German Military Administration" on the map is the part of Russia that was within the control of Germany by January 1942.
The evacuation of the Jews in the Warsaw and Lublin ghettos to the death camps at Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, began in February 1942, soon after the Wannsee conference. This first "evacuation to the East" was named Aktion Reinhard in honor of Reinhard Heydrich, although some sources say that the operation was named Aktion Reinhardt in honor of Staatssekretär Fritz Reinhardt, the civil servant in the Reich Finance Ministry, who was in charge of exploiting the assets of the Jews who were murdered in these camps. Note that Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec are all located close to the Bug river, which formed the border between German-occupied Poland and the area of Poland that was formerly occupied by the Soviet Union.
Some visitors to the Wannsee house might be upset to see that the Nazis chose such a lovely, serene setting for a conference devoted to planning the world's greatest crime, but it was typical for the Nazis to surround themselves with beautiful scenery, classic buildings, music and books. Some of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps were built in beautiful locations and had such incongruous features as flower gardens, bird houses, orchestras, a library, a zoo, and a swimming pool. Reinhard Heydrich, who chose this spot for the conference, was an aristocratic and cultured man, an athlete and a talented musician. Most of the participants were educated men and several had law degrees.
The photograph below shows the back of the Wannsee house, which overlooks a large lake named Grossen Wannsee. To the left in the picture is a covered terrace with French doors leading to the Wintergarten, a sun room which looks out on a small formal rose garden on the south side of the house. The two ground floor windows to the left of the flower-filled urn are the windows of the former dining room where the infamous conference was held.
According to the museum at Wannsee, Reinhard Heydrich requested the job of coordinating the "General Solution of the Jewish Question." The Jewish Question had been discussed in Europe for at least a hundred years. Karl Marx, the originator of Communism and a non-practicing Jew himself, had even written a paper on the subject. The question was whether the Jews should give up their separate identity and become assimilated into the country in which they lived, or whether they should have their own separate nation within a nation.
The Final Solution to the Jewish Question, which was the subject of this Conference, was to be the "transportation to the east" or "evacuation to the east" (nach dem Osten abgeshoben) of the Jews in Europe. In the minutes of the meeting, nothing is written about killing the Jews, but the innocuous words used in this document are now regarded by Holocaust historians as euphemisms for the extermination, or genocide, of the European Jews.
By late 1941, the Nazi empire extended from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert and from the Pyrenees mountain range to the Ural mountain range. The Germans controlled most of Western Europe and in Eastern Europe, they had conquered all of Poland, the Ukraine, White Russia, and the three Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Most importantly, they were in control of territory a thousand kilometers into Russia and they were on the verge of defeating the Soviet Union.
Hitler had formed the Greater German Reich, starting with the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic in 1938, Silesia in Poland in 1939, and Luxembourg, along with the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in France, in 1940. Ethnic Germans from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been relocated to the area in western Poland which had been annexed into the Greater German Reich.
Hitler's ultimate goal was to unite all the ethnic Germans into one country, and to unite Europe against the threat of Communism. Considering that the Nazis had many allies, including Italy, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, his plan was entirely feasible at this point. By January 20, 1942, when the Wannsee conference was held, Hitler was in a position to implement his second major goal which was the extermination (Ausrottung) of all the Jews in Europe, the plan that was code named The Final Solution to the Jewish Question.
Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann had been concerned with the Jewish Question ever since his youth; he had spent time living in Palestine in order to learn more about Zionism and the developing Jewish State. He had studied the traditions and customs of the Orthodox Jews and had even learned to speak and write in the Hebrew language. At the time of the conference, he was Director of the Jewish Department of the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin (RSHA), the second man to hold this office.
Most of the Jews in Germany were assimilated and did not want to leave their country, but Eichmann worked with the Zionists to help as many Jews as possible to emigrate to Palestine before 1938. Palestine was a protectorate of the British, and immigration was restricted, but the Nazis aided the Zionists in illegal immigration. Hitler established farms and workshops where young German Jews could be trained in agriculture and blue-collar jobs, which would qualify them for legal immigration to Palestine.
After the war, Eichmann escaped arrest by posing as a Luftwaffe private; he was captured, but escaped. For awhile, he worked in Germany under a false name, then fled in 1950 to Italy and from there to Argentina. He lived there with his family until he was kidnapped by the Israeli Intelligence Service in May 1960 and taken to Israel for trial as a war criminal.
During his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann testified as follows during session 107 on July 24, 1961:
What I know is that the gentlemen convened their session, and then in very plain terms - not in the language that I had to use in the minutes, but in absolutely blunt terms - they addressed the issue, with no mincing of words. And my memory of all this would be doubtful, were it not for the fact that I distinctly recall saying to myself at the time, Look, just look at Stuckart, the perpetual law-abiding bureaucrat, always punctilious and fussy, and now what a different tone! The language was anything but in conformity with the legal protocol of clause and paragraph. I should add that this is the only thing from the conference that still has stayed clearly in my mind.
When the Presiding Judge asked Eichmann what Stuckart had said "in general" "on this topic," Eichmann answered, "The discussion covered killing, elimination, and annihilation."
On the basis of Eichmann's testimony, it is now accepted that the minutes of the Wannsee conference were written with euphemisms, instead of the actual words used at the conference.
Gerald Fleming wrote the following in his book "Hitler and the Final Solution":
Heydrich, who presided over this fateful conference and ultimately "gave the finishing touches" to the minutes of the proceedings, which had been prepared by Eichmann, prudently refrained from documenting any mention regarding the "special treatment" of the Jews not fit for labor.
The Nazi term "special treatment" (Sonderbehandlung) is believed be a euphemism which meant death in the gas chamber.
Eichmann was convicted of Crimes against Humanity by the Israeli court and was executed on May 31, 1962. He was the first and only person in the history of the world to ever be convicted of a crime that was not a crime when the act was committed and by a country that did not exist when the act was committed.
This page was last updated on September 27, 2009