Yesterday wasn’t just Martin Luther King Day. It was also 51st anniversary of the Wannsee Conference. A lot of people lazily describe this event as the meeting at which the Nazis decided the fate of European Jews. But the fate of the Jews had already been decided, in meetings between Hitler and Himmler where no minutes were taken. The only indication we have of the meeting is an entry in Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler’s diary for December 18th, 1941 recording that Hitler wanted the Jews “exterminated as partisans”.
It should be mentioned that the SS Einsatzgruppen units had been killing Jews themselves, or encouraging local anti-Semites to do their job for them, since the invasion of the Soviet Union began in the summer of 1941, and Goering had already ordered Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, to prepare the “total solution to the Jewish question” in August, 1941, so the top leadership had surely met at some point during the planning of Operation Barbarossa to reach the decision to commit the Holocaust.
We wouldn’t have records of the Wannsee Conference either if the bureaucrat from the Foreign Ministry, Martin Luther, hadn’t screwed up and kept his copy of the meeting summary. Everyone else did as instructed and burned theirs. The meeting, which was held on January 20th, 1942 at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, involved 15 upper middle managers representing the various ministries, the Nazi Party, and the Generalgovernment (The Nazi name for Poland). Reinhard Heydrich chaired the meeting. His “Jewish expert” Adolf Eichmann kept the minutes (which he later edited). The SS sent four others, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Mueller, Otto Hofmann representing the RSHA’s Race and Settlement Office, Eberhard Schoengarth representing the SS in Poland, and Rudolf Lange representing the Einsatzgruppen in Latvia. The top figure at the meeting, other than Heydrich, was Minsterialdirektor Kritzinger, representing the office of Adolf Hitler.
Exactly what was said at the meeting is hard to know. The minutes, like many official minutes, are a highly sanitized version of the conversation. According to Eichmann and Kritzinger’s later testimony, the language used was much cruder. Though the purpose of the meeting was ostensibly to discuss options for handling the Jewish question, the reality was that Heydrich already knew what Hitler and Himmler had in mind, had already set about its implementation, and now wanted to secure the agreement of these high level bureaucrats to policies that had already been decided.
That was the purpose of Wannsee: agreement, both to the Holocaust and to the SS’s leadership role. Though there’s speculation that two or three of the officials present–Kritzinger, Stuckart (Ministry of the Interior), and Erich Neumann (Office of the Four Year Plan–made arguments against the genocide, by the end of the 90 minute meeting, all had registered their agreement for the record.
Afterwards, the participants left for other meetings. The Wannsee conference was one of several appointments most of the members had had to keep that day. In a few months, Reinhard Heydrich would be assassinated during his morning commute to his office in Prague. Aktion Reinhard, the industrial scale killing of Jews, Roma, Russian prisoners of war, and others, was named after him.
Here is a recent film based on the text of the conference minutes, starring Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich, Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann, and Colin Firth as Wilhelm Stuckart. If and when it’s taken down from Youtube, by all means seek it out. It’s called Conspiracy.