Reviewing Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution—”A single meeting can distill the essence of evil”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Diane Cole of the book by Peter Longerich titled “Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution”:

A single meeting can distill the essence of evil. Eighty years ago, on Jan. 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the SS intelligence service and security police, presided over a high-level meeting with 14 Nazi colleagues at the elegant Wannsee villa near Berlin. The agenda: to discuss “the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe.” At the gathering’s conclusion, the event’s invitation noted, breakfast would be served.

This jarring disconnect between atrocity and humanity is reflected in the meeting’s minutes, which contain no hint of anyone even hiccupping at the specifics of genocide. On the contrary, an eager appetite for ethnic cleansing could not have been more apparent.

This is the chilling point at which Nazism’s increasingly savage anti-Jewish policy had arrived by 1942, writes the historian Peter Longerich in his scholarly account, “Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution.” The Reich’s ever-accelerating murder machine was already in motion, with massacres across occupied Europe responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews. But there was as yet no single command coordinating the escalating butchery. Heydrich’s goal was to present an orderly, consolidated plan for the horrific path forward.

Herein lies the significance of the Wannsee Conference. It is this plan, as reported in the conference minutes, that provides decisive evidence and allows no place for the perpetrators—at all levels and branches of the Nazi hierarchy—to deny their participation in or hide their responsibility for the Holocaust.

So intent were the Nazi leaders on leaving behind no evidence of their culpability, Mr. Longerich explains, that most of the arrangements for slaughter were agreed upon orally. As for the documents that were not destroyed, they seldom revealed the full scope of the annihilation, using indirect wording to mask their intent. That makes the single remaining copy of the minutes—Heydrich had distributed 30—as important as it is rare: It is the clearest, most comprehensive surviving blueprint for the Holocaust, drafted by the Nazi leadership. Moreover, Mr. Longerich points out, the inclusion at the conference of attendees from across the broadest swath of Nazi government—the Reich Chancellery, the Ministry of Justice, the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the armaments sector, the Nazi Party itself—attests to the active participation and joint complicity of one and all.

Well-known for authoritative biographies of Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, as well as his comprehensive history “Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews,” Mr. Longerich places the meeting’s minutes, 15 pages long, at the center of his analysis. (A reproduction, in full, of the German original, as well as a complete English translation, is included.) Although the book itself is relatively brief, the grisly subject and the density of its argument necessitate periodic breaks for air. Yet Mr. Longerich’s in-depth deconstruction yields unparalleled insight into the Nazi regime’s blood-soaked goals.

The minutes, which were kept by Adolf Eichmann—whom Heydrich had appointed as overseer of the death-bound deportations of Jews to occupied Poland—indicate that the final solution would increasingly feature the deployment to “the East” of ever-larger numbers of Jews condemned to slave labor. As a result, the minutes project, “the majority will doubtless succumb to natural wastage.” As for those who do not, or are deemed “unfit for work,” another method of liquidation was being readied, one for which “practical experience” was being gathered. The indirect wording, Mr. Longerich explains, is nothing less than code for death by gassing, which the Nazis had introduced to kill the mentally ill as early as 1939 and had expanded since to murder Jews. Even prior to the Wannsee Conference, gas chambers were being built at the planned extermination camp in Bełżec, Poland.

Given that the Holocaust was already under way, Mr. Longerich posits that Heydrich’s real purpose in convening the conference was to establish his authority for all future operations. And what carnage he envisioned: “Europe will be combed from West to East,” the minutes promise, and “around 11 million Jews will be involved.” His calculation went beyond Germany and German-occupied territory to include countries not yet conquered but that Nazi leaders presumed soon would be: the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Turkey and the Soviet Union.

All this speaks to Heydrich’s—and the Nazis’—desire “to cleanse German living space of Jews,” as the minutes put it, and ensure that no Jews would remain alive lest they release “the germ cell for a new Jewish regeneration.” Only this obsession can explain the lengthy discussion at Wannsee devoted to the status of mixed-marriage offspring. The Nuremberg racial laws of 1935 defined as a Jew anyone with three Jewish grandparents, while those with only one or two Jewish grandparents were classed as Mischling, or “mongrel” (first or second degree), to be partially protected from discrimination. Heydrich wanted to “ride roughshod” over the laws, according to Mr. Longerich, to bypass delays that might be caused by time-consuming judgments about who is Jewish.

Soon enough, the war ran roughshod over Heydrich himself. Resistance fighters attacked him in Prague on May 27, 1942; he died of his wounds a week later. “The fact that in Heydrich a key figure in the plan to exterminate the Jews had been killed gave the SS a welcome excuse to exact ‘revenge,’ ” Mr. Longerich writes. Led by Himmler, the extermination of the Jews proceeded with ferocious speed. From then until war’s end, “the murder of the Jews,” Mr. Longerich writes, “became the linchpin of German war, occupation and alliance policy.”

Mr. Longerich traces with clarity and precision Nazism’s monstrous progression from anti-Jewish ideology to the policy of mass murder that resulted in the annihilation of six million Jews. Only Lucy Dawidowicz, in “The War Against the Jews 1933-1945” (1975), has documented that grotesque trajectory so thoroughly. Both books are indispensable.

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”

Also see the New York Times review by Katrin Bennhold headlined “80 Years Ago the Nazis Planned the ‘Final Solution.’ It Took 90 Minutes.” The opening grafs:

BERLIN — On Jan. 20, 1942, 15 high-ranking officials of the Nazi bureaucracy met in a villa on Lake Wannsee on the western edge of Berlin. Nibbles were served and washed down with cognac. There was only one point on the agenda: “The organizational, logistical and material steps for a final solution of the Jewish question in Europe.”

Planning the Holocaust took all of 90 minutes.

Eighty years after the infamous Wannsee Conference that meticulously mapped it out, the bureaucratic efficiency of it remains as unnerving as ever.

The minutes taken that day and typed up on 15 pages do not explicitly refer to murder. They use phrases like “evacuation” and “reduction” and “treatment” — and divide up the task among different government departments and their “pertinent specialists.”

“You read that protocol, and it’s chilling,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a renowned Holocaust scholar. “It’s all very camouflaged language. But then you look at the list of countries and the number of Jews they planned to kill. Eleven million people they were going to go after. They had very big plans.”

The anniversary of that fateful meeting has a special resonance at a time when survivors of the Holocaust are dwindling and antisemitism and the ideology of white supremacy are resurgent in Europe and the United States, along with attacks targeting Jewish people and ethnic minorities….

Today the three-story villa on the lakeshore that once served as an SS guesthouse and hosted the Wannsee Conference looks largely unchanged on the outside. Set back from the road in the middle of sprawling gardens, it greets visitors with a majestic front portico and four statues of cherubs dancing along the roof.

For decades, the West German authorities struggled with what to do with the building. As survivors pressed the government to turn it into a place to learn about the Holocaust and document the crimes of the perpetrators, officials stalled. Some said they worried that it would become a place of pilgrimage for old Nazis, others pondered razing it altogether “so that nothing of this house of horror remains.”…

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