World War II | January 20, 2021
The villa Am Großen Wannsee 56–58, where the Wannsee Conference was held, is now a memorial and museum. (A.Savin/Wikimedia Commons)
When the Nazis gathered to plan the extermination of the Jewish people, it wasn’t in hushed backrooms but the suburbs of Berlin. In 1942, 15 representatives of the S.S. traveled to a villa at Am Großen Wannsee 56–58, overlooking the Großer Wannsee, to make sure the Final Solution came together like a well-oiled machine. During the 85-minute meeting, Adolf Eichmann and his cohorts considered a series of plans, some ridiculous and some straightforward but all evil. It only took a few months for the plan hatched at the Wannsee Conference to come to fruition, but its reverberations were felt for years.
Planning The Wannsee Conference
The Wannsee Conference was planned during summer 1941, when Hermann Goering wrote to S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich, instructing Heinrich Himmler’s second in command to make himself available as soon as possible for “a general plan of the administrative, material, and financial measures necessary for carrying out the desired final solution of the Jewish question.”
The order came nearly two years after Germany invaded Poland and about a month after the war between the U.S.S.R. and Germany began in earnest, but discrimination against the Jewish people had been perfectly legal since 1933, when the Nazis took over Germany. Over the next near decade, the Nazis did everything they could to push the Jewish people out of the country. They prohibited marriage between Jews and Germans and revoked the citizenship of anyone with Jewish heritage dating back fewer than two generations, but apparently, it wasn’t enough.
Letter from Heydrich to Martin Luther, Undersecretary at the Foreign Office, notifying him that the conference would be delayed. (Adam Carr/Wikimedia Commons)
When Was The Wannsee Conference, And Who Was There?
On November 29, 1941, Heydrich sent invitations for a meeting on December 9, but it didn’t happen after Germany somehow failed to take over the Soviet Union in a matter of weeks. Then Pearl Harbor happened. Basically, the Nazis had their plates full, so the meeting was pushed to January 20, 1942. Once everything came together, Heydrich played host to 14 men, most of whom were state secretaries:
- Otto Hofmann, the head of the SS Race and Settlement Main Office
- Heinrich Müller
- Dr. Karl Eberhard Schöngarth
- Dr. Gerhard Klopfer
- Adolf Eichmann
- Dr. Rudolf Lange
- Dr. Georg Leibbrandt
- Dr. Alfred Meyer
- Dr. Josef Bühler
- Dr. Roland Freisler
- Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart
- Erich Neumann
- Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger
- Martin Luther
Facsimiles of the minutes of the Wannsee Conference and Eichmann’s list, presented under glass at the Wannsee Conference House Memorial. (Adam Carr/Wikimedia Commons)
The Wannsee Conference
All these important figures listened intently as Heydrich broke down the numbers of the Jewish population of Europe to underscore the “severity” of the “problem” and Adolf Eichmann took minutes, followed by an old-fashioned brainstorming sesh. The group tossed around ideas from mass sterilization to shipping everyone to Madagascar to taking everyone to concentration camps in Poland and making them work until they died. No one ever said the word “extermination,” but they eventually agreed on a version of the concentration camp plan, noting calmly that transporting everyone to one camp would be far too time consuming. They spent the rest of the time drinking.
After the Wannsee Conference, five extermination camps were established with the purpose of wiping out millions of Jewish people, bringing the total number of camps up to six. At the same time, gas vans traveled around the Chełmno extermination camp, killing people until the S.S. realized gas chambers would be more efficient.
The dining room of the Wannsee Villa, location of the Wannsee Conference in 1942, as seen in 2003. (Seth Schoen/Wikimedia Commons)
After The Wannsee Conference
Historians still aren’t sure how big of a part the Conference played in the Holocaust. It’s clear that the Nazi extermination of the European Jewish community evolved over the course of World War II, but while many of the plans were already in place, one thing that’s certain is that the Wannsee Conference allowed the ideas of disparate members of the party to coalesce.
There were other forces they’d failed to consider in their plan, however—literally. British, American, and Soviet forces closing in on the Nazis throughout Europe made it impossible for the fascist military to focus purely on their deadly goals. They may have committed one of the worst atrocities known to man, but at the end of the day, they were unprepared for the wrath of the Allies.
Tags: Holocaust | Nazis | world war II
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Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.