The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of high-ranking Nazi leaders and officials in January 1942. It was at this conference that the first definitive plans were formed to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe.
While the decision to liquidate European Jews cannot be pinpointed to a particular location or time, it appears to have been in place by the middle of 1941.
This enormous and difficult task was handed to the Schutzstaffel (SS) and its deputy leader, Reinhard Heydrich. On July 31st, Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering wrote to Heydrich and ordered him to:
“…carry out all necessary preparations with regard to… a total solution of the Jewish question in Europe… I further commission you to submit to me promptly an overall plan… for the execution of the intended final solution”.
This document contains one of the earliest references to what became known as the Final Solution. It is also evidence that the order to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe came from the highest echelons of the Nazi government.
The mass killing of Jews was already well underway when Goering drafted this order. The SS einsatzgruppen had been raging through Soviet Russia and Ukraine for several weeks, raiding villages, rounding up and murdering Jews then burying their remains.
While some einsatzgruppen units were killing several thousand Jews a day, Nazi strategists considered this too slow and inadequate. There were nine million Jews in Europe. Liquidating them with einsatzgruppen would take more than a decade and divert men and ammunition from combat zones of great importance.
A more efficient system had to be developed, a task that fell onto the shoulders of Heydrich. He spent the rest of 1941 drawing up a plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews. In the meantime, the einsatzgruppen continued their grisly work in eastern Europe.
On December 12th 1941, the day after the United States declared war on Germany, Hitler met with high-ranking Nazis in his private rooms at the Chancellery. Though no official record of this meeting exists, Joseph Goebbels later noted that Hitler spoke about the destruction of the Jews. “He warned the Jews [in January 1939] that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction,” Goebbels wrote. “Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence. This question is to be regarded without sentimentalism.”
Gathering at Wannsee
By early 1942, Heydrich was ready to unfurl his program. He summoned two dozen high ranking SS officers and civilian leaders to a meeting at Wannsee, an affluent suburb in south-western Berlin, on January 20th. Among those present were Gruppenfuhrer Heinrich Muller, head of the Gestapo; Oberfuhrer Karl Schoengarth, head of SS security forces in Poland; and Adolf Eichmann, an SS specialist in Jewish relocations who was acting as a recorder.
Heydrich chaired the meeting and laid out its agenda. He began by declaring that Hitler was no longer prepared to accept the expulsion or emigration of Jews from Europe. There were, Heydrich said, “possibilities in the east” for dealing with the ‘Jewish problem’ with greater finality.
He then tabled detailed statistics about Jewish populations in European nations, including those not under Nazi control, such as Britain and Switzerland, a number totalling 11 million. All would be subject to the Final Solution. The process would begin by “combing Europe through from west to east” to extract its Jews. They would then be gathered and transported to eastern Europe, initially for forced labour and then for extermination.
Heydrich’s system of death
This process, Heydrich explained, would begin in Germany, Austria and German-speaking Czech provinces. It must start there, he explained, to alleviate food and accommodation shortages affecting Aryan Germans.
Guidelines were laid down for deporting Jews from Germany itself, particularly those whose racial heritage was unclear. Germans with mixed Jewish-Aryan racial heritage (Mischlinge) would be treated according to their circumstances. First-degree Mischlinge (those with two Jewish grandparents) would be deported with full-blooded Jews, unless granted an exemption by the state. Second-degree Mischlinge (those with one Jewish grandparent) were to be given the option of deportation or voluntary sterilisation, provided they were not actively religious in the Jewish religion or “behaving like Jews”.
German Jews over the age of 65 and those who had served in World War I would not be shipped to Poland but would remain in a specialist concentration camp in Germany (Theresienstadt).
All other Jews, Heydrich explained, would be mustered and transported to selected locations in eastern Europe, the majority to southern and eastern Poland. Once there, they would be sorted into two groups: those fit enough to undertake forced labour and those who were not.
Heydrich did not elaborate on the fate of those unable to work: children, the elderly and the infirm; presumably they were to be exterminated immediately. Nor did he outline how this mass killing was to be carried out. As was often the case with Nazi policies, the uglier details either remained unspoken or were left to subordinates:
“In the course of the final solution, the Jews should be brought … to the east for labour utilisation. Separated by sex, the Jews capable of work will be led into these areas in large labour columns to build roads, whereby doubtless a large number will fall away through natural reduction. The residual final remainder, which doubtless will constitute the toughest element, will have to be dealt with appropriately, since it represents a natural selection… a germ cell of a new Jewish development.”
A sanitised record
In total, the Wannsee meeting went for around 90 minutes, of which two-thirds was Heydrich providing instructions about what was to occur. The last half-hour was taken up with questions, discussion and informal banter.
A quite comprehensive record of the meeting was compiled by Adolf Eichmann. These minutes, which have been studied extensively by historians, do not mention methods of exterminating Jews. According to Eichmann’s testimony, given in 1961, Heydrich instructed him to sanitise the minutes by removing all references to violence or killing.
Eichmann also testified that various methods of killing Jews were discussed openly and casually after the meeting, as the participants shared brandy.
To some, the Wannsee conference might seem of little significance. It was attended by bureaucrats and SS provincial leaders and, with the exception of Heydrich, not by members of Hitler’s inner circle. It did not initiate or authorise the mass killing of Jews; this had been underway for more than six months.
The Wannsee conference did not settle or formalise the Final Solution; this had been done earlier by Heydrich, probably in consultation with Hitler, Himmler and Goering. Nor did the delegates president engage in any intricate or complex planning.
What the Wannsee conference did do, however, was to clarify exactly how the Nazis intended to deal with the ‘Jewish question’. It also made relevant SS and civilian authorities fully aware of the government’s objectives. The Final Solution would proceed not as a hotchpotch of local actions or responses but a centrally organised and resourced policy, with Nazi agencies like the SS playing a central role.
“The Wannsee Conference is a brisk, deadpan bureaucratic event – a gathering of jovial, hardworking men who make coarse jokes, squabble pleasantly among themselves, and between glasses of cognac, debate the logistics of a plan to murder 11 million human beings… By January 1942 the extermination of the European Jews was already underway, but from the German point of view, the task was proceeding in a haphazard and sloppy manner. Only after the Wannsee Conference did the extermination work become orderly, efficient and comprehensive.”
New York Magazine
1. In mid-1941, Hermann Goering ordered deputy SS leader Reinhard Heydrich to organise a ‘total solution of the Jewish problem’.
2. Heydrich scheduled a meeting of SS officers, party Gauleiters and civilian officials in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee in January 1942.
3. At this meeting, Heydrich laid out his plan for locating, relocating, concentrating and eliminating Europe’s Jewish population of 11 million people.
4. The majority of Jews would be relocated to eastern Europe, Poland mainly, to be either used as forced labour or exterminated.
5. Though the minutes of the Wannsee conference recorded no discussion about extermination or its methods, this was informally discussed after the meeting.