Anniversaries & holidays

The Wannsee Conference – a Convention on Genocide

Willa w Wannsee
Willa w Wannsee, fot. Dom Konferencji w Wannsee, Miejsce Pamięci i Edukacji Historycznej

On 20 January 1942, at noon, a meeting of fifteen high ranking representatives of the German Nazi party (NSDAP), the Security Police and the Third Reich administration was held at the villa Minoux on the Greater Wannsee, a lake in south-western Berlin. Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), was the meeting’s organizer. On the invitation note, he informed the participants that the goal of the meeting, which was to "include breakfast," would be discussing "the Final Solution to the Jewish question" in Europe.

It did not all start at Wannsee

It is often claimed that the decision to murder all European Jews was made at the villa on the Wannsee lake. The matter, however, is far more complicated. The Germans began to mass murder Jews earlier – immediately after their invasion on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. By the end of the year, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children perished in mass executions carried out by the Einsatzgruppen coordinated by Himmler and Heydrich as well as by the Police battalions sent to the East.

In the autumn of 1941, the Germans conducted experiments with lorries turned into gas chambers fuelled by exhaust pipes. They began to use them regularly on 8 December 1941 at a newly created extermination centre in Chełmno on the Ner. According to the most recent research, the “Final Solution” idea of Hitler and Himmler was drawn already in the late autumn of 1941. The idea was to exterminate all Jews before the end of the war.

Genocide all cross Europe

Realisation of the murderous plan required engagement of the entire administration of the Third Reich. That is why all key people turned up at Wannsee: Secretaries of State at the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, Ministry for the Four-Year Plan and the Main Office for Racial Affairs, Race and Settlement (RuSHA). The main actors were Reinhard Heydrich, appointed as the action’s chief coordinator, and Adolf Eichmann, Head of the Department for Jewish Affairs (Judenreferat), as Heydrich’s chief assistant.

Even though euphemisms such as "evacuation to the East" or "special treatment" were used in the conference protocol, the participants were fully aware of the fact that they were planning genocide. During his famed court trial of 1961, Eichmann confirmed that back at Wannsee, while puffing on cigars and sipping cognac, they had been talking openly about killing Jews.

What is striking, the "Final Solution" plans encompassed eleven million European Jews, not only from Germany and the occupied territories, but also those residing in the satellite countries (Slovakia, Hungary), neutral countries (Spain, Switzerland) and even the countries which had fended off German attack (Great Britain).

Heydrich was content with the outcome of the meeting. He had been apprehensive about disputes over division of competence; meanwhile, the meeting participants had no problem acknowledging the managing role of the RSHA and declared their full cooperation. The only controversy, which apparently dominated the discussion, pertained to the approach towards the Germans in mixed marriages. It had nothing to do with humanitarianism – the Nazis were mostly concerned with the fact the Mischlinge had in them some of the precious German blood. Murdering all the remaining Jews did not stir the slightest of controversies.

Poland on top of the list

From the Polish perspective, the presence of Josef Bühler (Deputy of Hans Frank, the Governor-General) and  Eberhard Schöngarth (Chief of Security Police and Security Service in the General Government) at the Wannsee Conference was of utmost importance. Bühler persistently persuaded Heydrich to commence the "Final Solution" in the territories of occupied Poland, so that "Jews would be promptly removed from the General Government." He declared all possible assistance of the GG administration to the Security Police and stressed the fact that "some preparation" had already been in place in the area which he administered. Indeed, the extermination camp in Bełżec was in the process of construction at the time of the conference.

Mere two months after the Wannsee Conference, on 17 March 1942, Germans deported the Jews from the Lublin ghetto to their deaths in Bełżec. The action of exterminating Jews in the General Government commenced; in honour of Heydrich, it had been given the cryptonym Aktion Reinhard.

Additional reading:

  • Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
  • Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler. Reprinted Edition, Oxford University Press, 2013.