On 20 January 1942, 15 German officials met in a representative villa located in the Berlin quarter of Wannsee. Within less than two hours they determined legal and logistic aspects concerning the murder of 11 million people. The Germans did not fully achieve their goal. However, by the end of the war they managed to murder 6 million Jews.
Initially, the meeting was supposed to take place on 9 December 1941. In the same quarter of Berlin, but in another location, in the seat of the International Criminal Police Organization, i.e. Interpol. The invitations were sent in late November. Hans Frank, the then head of the General-Government, was amongst those who received the invitations. Eventually, he did not take part in the meeting, because the conference planned initially for December was cancelled at the last moment due to military reasons. The fact that the US joined WW2 over two years after its outbreak posed a threat to Hitler’s Germany. It happened on 7 December 1941 in the wake of the Japanese attack on the American military base in Pearl Harbor. Officially, Germany declared the war against the US on 11 December.
As a result, the discussion of formal plans concerning mass murders was “postponed” by 14 days.
Protocol on the “final solution to the Jewish question”
Over half of 30 copies of the document prepared based on the course of the Wannsee Conference has been found until today. The protocol consists of 15 pages and is a neatly elaborated typescript. It starts with a list of guests invited for 20 January 1942 to a villa in Wannsee. It included senior officials of Nazi Germany, four secretaries of state and one undersecretary, amongst others. Nine of them graduated from universities, eight had a PhD. Most of them were lawyers. Hence, precise, sometimes very official and rich in numbers protocol.
The language plays a crucial role in the analysis of the document. Mass killing is not mentioned directly. Other, one may say diplomatic, terms and phrases are used, such as: the need to “[maintain] parallel policy lines”, “forcing the Jews out of the living space of the German people” or “emigration has now been replaced by evacuation of the Jews to the East”. Concretes were described very roughly: “Europe is to be combed through from West to East in the course of the practical implementation of the final solution” or “in the implementation of the plan for the final solution, the Nuremberg Laws are to form the basis, as it were” and finally “Jews must be removed as fast as possible from the Government-General, because it was there in particular that the Jew as carrier of epidemics spelled a great danger, and, at the same time, he caused constant disorder in the economic structure of the country by his continuous black-market dealings”.
The protocol was prepared by Adolf Eichmann, main coordinator and enforcer of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Member of the NSDAP and the SS. It was edited to take the shape known today to the historians by the meeting’s organiser, Reinhard Heydrich, who back in January 1942 served as the head of the Reich Main Security Office.
Even today, the historians continue to argue whether the document, the aftermath of the Wannsee Conference, provided a formal confirmation of the Holocaust of the European Jews, or whether it was also a proof of intrigues and disputes at the top of the Nazi Germany authorities concerning the shape and course of the decision-making process regarding the “final solution to the Jewish question” (German Endlösung der Judenfrage).
Plans had already been there earlier
Talking about the extermination of the Jews was nothing new in fascist Germany. Practically from the moment he rose to power, i.e. 30 January 1933, the Chancellor of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, emphasised ever stronger the need to “solve the Jewish question”. Introduction of the Nuremberg Laws on 15 September 1935 marked the beginning of these plans, which were so far carried out only officially in Germany. They were enacted by Reichstag, i.e. the German Parliament. They gave rise to implementing regulations - the one concerning the Jews was published on 14 November 1935. On the one hand, it allowed to quickly deprive administratively any German Jew of their citizenship in the name of the law, and on the other hand it made it possible to take their property on a day to day basis. From now on, the German Jews were no longer allowed to work in state institutions and marry Aryan people. Infringement of these bans was severely and consequently punished. The German anti-Jewish law led to the tragic events during the night of 9 to 10 November 1938, called the “Night of Broken Glass” (German Kristallnacht). It was then, that synagogues as well as houses and shops owned by the Jews burst into flames throughout the Third Reich. Members of fascist fighting squads and civilians taking part in the mass pogrom defiled many Jewish cemeteries and murdered over 90 people.
Before the outbreak of WW2, nearly 250,000 Jews (according to different calculations) left Nazi Germany. Some of them left for Poland and other European states as well as the US. Yet, the administrative Holocaust machine of Nazi Germany was only gathering speed then, getting ready for the “final solution”.
Even before the outbreak of the war, on 30 January 1939, the Chancellor of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, spoke publically about the “Jewish question” in a much more determined and categorical manner than before in his annual speech delivered for the joint chambers of Reichstag in the Berlin’s Kroll Opera House.
“Europe cannot find peace before it has dealt properly with the Jewish question”, he said. “It is possible that the necessity of resolving this problem sooner or later should bring about agreement in Europe, even between nations which otherwise might not have reconciled themselves as readily with one another. There is more than enough room for settlement on this earth. All we need to do is put an end to the prevailing assumption that the Dear Lord chose the Jewish people to be the beneficiaries of a certain percentage of the productive capacities of other peoples’ bodies and their labors”.
He continued as follows:
“I have been a prophet very often in my lifetime, and this earned me mostly ridicule. In the time of my struggle for power, it was primarily the Jewish people who mocked my prophecy that, one day, I would assume leadership of this Germany, of this State, and of the entire Volk, and that I would press for a resolution of the Jewish question, among many other problems. The resounding laughter of the Jews in Germany then may well be stuck in their throats today, I suspect.
Later on, Hitler himself repeatedly called his own words a “prophecy”.
Already during the first stage of the Nazi Germany’s military actions, after 1 September 1939, the Jews were being murdered. They were being deprived of their properties, ghettos were being established, the Jews were forced to wear clothes with the Star of David and to perform exhausting works, while all their rights were limited. There were also plans between September 1939 and the first half of 1941 to establish, amongst others, “somewhere in the East” a big expatriation camp for Jews from entire Europe torn by the war.
However, only after 22 June 1941, i.e. after the German attack on the USSR, mass murders on non-Aryan people began. Then, members of six Einsatzgruppen, i.e. paramilitary death squads of the police participating in the war in the East, murdered nearly 500,000 Jewish civilians only before the end of 1941. They mainly shot the Jews, yet they also started using so-called mobile gas chambers to execute mass murders. This is what happened in the torn by the war USSR, but also in Reichsgau Wartheland (also: Warthegau), that is the occupied territories of the Republic of Poland, which had been annexed and incorporated by Nazi Germany in October 1939. On 8 December 1941, that is on the eve of the planned initial date of the Wannsee Conference, mass murders of Jews from Reichsgau Wartheland started in Chełmno extermination camp (in Chełmno on the Ner river). Later, also Jews from Western Europe, Gypsies and Polish priests, amongst others, were being killed in this first German extermination camp. Moreover, ca. 80 children from Czech village of Lidice were gassed there in revenge for the successful attack on Reinhard Heydrich, launched in Prague on 27 May 1942.
Soon, three other extermination camps for the Jews were established: Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. Mass gassing of the “subhumans” (German Untermenschen) was also introduced, amongst others, in the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where over 1 million people were killed. Most of the victims killed there were Jewish. According to various calculations of the historians, between 1 September 1939 and the end of WW2, nearly 6 million European Jews were killed in various ways. Children accounted for one third of this number.
Thus, the Germans managed to achieve half of the objectives set and written down in the protocol from the Wannsee Conference.
Sources of the fragments of translations and information: Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center website: https://www.yadvashem.org/docs/wannsee-conference-protocol.html and Wikisource.org website: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Adolf_Hitler's_Address_to_the_Reichstag_(30_January_1939), both visited on 16 January 2020.