The Syrian refugee family sang “When The Saints Go Marching In” after scrambling onto our S-Bahn carriage on a very cold and snowy morning as I rode from central Berlin to Wannsee station. My destination was the House of the Wannsee Conference in a large 1915 villa built by a German Industrialist on the shores of a lake on the outskirts of Berlin.
Taken over by the Nazi SS during the World War II, this was the site of the infamous Wannsee Conference of Nazi ministerial chiefs that resulted in the decision to implement the Final Solution: in plain words, the plan to kill all Jews in Europe. The Conference took place on January 20, 1942 – just over 75 years ago.
The Nazi extermination program can hold one’s attention for many reasons: its horrifying scale, its industrialization of mass murder, its “success” in destroying Jewish communities across most of Europe, and the dread engendered when one realizes that it was authored by one of the most civilized countries after having fallen to barbaric depths.
The exhibition in the House sets out to explain step by step how the Nazi leadership came to formulate the Final Solution plan. From the beginning of the War in September 1939, Nazi occupiers had targeted Jewish communities in the East for mass murder through crude means (shootings or burning). But there was no government-wide organized effort. The determination to coordinate between all government departments and to carry out the plan across Nazi-Occupied Europe led to the January 20th conference.
The exhibition uses key internal ministerial memos from the late 1930s and early 1940s to show how the path toward the Conference was reached. It was a pure bureaucratic exercise once the top bosses gave the order to make the plan. Ministries spared over which got the lead on certain issues and how to resolve any remaining ambiguities. The ministerial memos illustrate how different approaches were discussed and when efforts started to point to the most radical of “solutions”. One reads about debates of means but never a question of the odious objective. The language was abstract in the extreme, obviously to hide its true meaning and aims. The authorizations from the top Nazi leadership were circulated on a very restricted basis.
I stood in the large room where the conference was held with French windows looking out over the lake. The conference minutes as drafted by Adolf Eichman were spread out on a table. I read each and every page of the 15 page document. I was overwhelmed by the degree of government effort and resources poured into this extermination plan. And it was followed even as Nazi Germany approached oblivion. Exterminating Jews became the highest Nazi objective toward the end of the War, diverting resources from fighting the Allied advances.
The Wannsee Conference shows in detail how disparate threads of anti-Semitic thought fused over time to create the administrative framework for the Final Solution. One can compare it to a snowball rolling down a mountain. The exhibition demonstrates how a snowball from Hell turned into an apocalyptic avalanche.
January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is normally commemorated by looking at the consequences of the Final Solution. But the causes, as laid out at the Wannsee Conference House exhibition, deserve attention - perhaps now more than ever.
President of the IJC