Today in 1942, senior Nazi government and military officials, lawyers, bureaucrats and army officers, met at a lakeside villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee for a top-secret lunchtime conference. This meeting would serve as a blueprint for one of the worst atrocities in modern history, the Holocaust.
A surviving copy of the minutes from the meeting was discovered in 1947 by the staff of an American prosecutor, who was preparing for the famous Nuremburg war crimes trials. Dubbed the “Wannsee Protocol”, they reveal that the gathering was casual but calculating in the most perverse sense.
The architect of the Wannsee meeting was Reinhard Heydrich a charismatic yet ruthless man known as “The Blond Beast”, who at the time was chief of the Reich Security Main Office and deputy chief of the Nazi Schutzstaffel or “S.S.” military forces. Heydrich’s objective, and that of the other attendees, was simple in theory: to efficiently map out the systematic slaughter of Europe’s entire Jewish population. The Nazis knew that such a large-scale event had to be legal and needed to be enacted throughout all of the appropriate civil ministries.
In July 1941, Heydrich had been ordered by Reich Marshall Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command, to organize and develop a “final solution” to the “Jewish question”. Göring’s directive to the S.S. came at a time when the Third Reich was facing a surge of Jewish refugees following the invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union. The vicious hatred the Nazis had for all Jews was changing from a political ideal in Germany to a point of national policy.
Heydrich’s capable assistant was Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann chief of the Gestapo’s Office of Jewish Affairs, a born researcher who’s depth of knowledge about the Jewish people had impressed Heydrich. Starting out as a S.S. corporal, working at the newly built concentration camp at Dachau “dah-cow”, Eichmann had immersed himself in studies of Judaism, the Zionist movement, and had even learned to converse in Hebrew. The son of a mining company owner, Eichmann also had an interest in transportation logistics and immigration affairs.
After his Gestapo appointment, Eichmann traveled to Palestine in 1937 with a proposal of forced deportation, hoping this would relieve Nazi Germany of its Jewish population. This plan, and a similar one to send Jews to the island of Madagascar failed. Thereafter, the Nazis believe that more radical measures were necessary.
Mass killings began on the Russian front under Reinhard Heydrich’s direct orders. Special mobile firing squads secretly rounded up and executed thousands of Jewish civilians caught behind the German battle lines, as many as 34 thousand Jews were shot at one time outside the city of Kiev in the Ukraine. Amazingly enough, the Nazis believed that the firing squads ,and special gas-chamber trucks used in some cases, were not killing Jews quickly enough. The Holocaust was about to take a giant leap forward.
Adolf Eichmann personally welcomed all of the guests to Wannsee and told his staff that no telephone calls would be made or taken and that no guest directory would be kept; strict security was the order of the day. The fifteen Nazis gathered in the house’s main dining room. Reinhard Heydrich arrived by plane at 11 AM. The heavy oak doors were then closed and the meeting began. Heydrich read Reich Minister Göring’s directive, adding that the S.S. would delegate all of the ordered arrangements. “Europe will be combed of Jews from east to west,” he told the men, “This discussion has been called for the purpose of clarifying fundamental questions.”The S.S. leader reemphasized the great need for secrecy throughout the proceedings. No personal copies of any directives were to be made and all future communication about the matter was to be directed to Colonel Eichmann.
Heydrich introduced two key goals for the Final Solution: namely the expulsion of the Jews from every sphere of German life and the expulsion of the Jews from the living space of the German people. There were three ways to accomplish this, Heydrich revealed: to prepare for the increased emigration of the Jews, to direct the flow of emigration and to dramatically speed up that process. “The aim of all this is to cleanse the German living space of Jews in a legal manner,” Heydrich said.
The outlines that were prepared for the Wannsee conspirators were laden with the Nazi’s euphemistic language, a cryptic process that insured the whole operation was a heavily guarded state secret.
“Emigration”, spelled with an “e”, meant the forced rounding up and transport of all Jews from Nazi Europe to concentration camps in the East. The heavy financial burden of emigration was to be shouldered by the Jews themselves, Heydrich said, with synagogues and political and civic organizations forced to finance the transport of their own people. Jews over the age of 65 would be exempt from the emigration and would be forcibly admitted to special “old age” ghettos, even wounded and decorated World War I veterans.
The term “evacuation” meant the actual execution of any Jews deported by rail to the East. Effective mass execution techniques were already being tested at camps throughout the Third Reich. Colonel Eichmann reported that special carbon monoxide gas chambers were being constructed that could kill thousands in one day. Large crematoriums and mass graves would conceal any evidence of the evacuations.
Heydrich then directed the meeting’s attention to a list of Jewish population figures from Germany and the rest of occupied Europe, a sphere the Nazis referred to as “Greater Germany”.
The total number of Jewish people in Nazi-controlled areas was 11 million: Nine percent worked in agriculture, 20% in trade, and 32% in private occupations like medicine, the press and the theater. These figures would help the appropriate Nazi agencies determine the labor force they could pull from within the camps.
Heydrich remarked that those who were not strong enough to work would die of “natural causes” (like disease or starvation) and that defiant survivors would be quote “treated accordingly” (gassed or shot) upon completion of their projects.
The infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935 had helped institutionalize many of the racial practices of the Nazi government so the Wannsee conspirators decided to further twist the system to further deal with Jews of mixed blood and mixed marriage.
One heavily debated issue was the actual legal definition of a Jew. Jews who descended from only three Jewish grandparents were considered to be fully Jewish while those that descended from only two Jewish grandparents were considered mixed.
Heydrich ordered that mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews be immediately dissolved and that any mixed children be evacuated at the camps along with their Jewish parent.
Heydrich finally ordered that the grim Nazi practice of sterilization be used in many of these special cases, the immediate goal being that it was legally preferred to evacuation and would ultimately prevent any further Jewish progeny.
The S.S. commander closed the Wannsee meeting after further discussion with the attending ministers. All personal notes were memorized then burned along with the stenographer rolls. Colonel Eichmann personally edited and prepared an official transcript of the proceedings.
The infamous group disbanded with unanimous assurances of their support of the entire project. The planning and approval of the Holocaust had taken just over an hour.
By the end of World War II, an estimated six million European Jews had died in Hitler’s Final Solution, two of every three alive. Many survivors successfully immigrated to Palestine and, in 1948 the state of Israel declared independence from the British Empire. Today Jews living there often remember the Holocaust as the Shoah “show-uh” a Hebrew word that means “the great catastrophe.”
Justice would come for all of the Wannsee conspirators, striking at some quicker than others. Reinhard Heydrich was the first to die. Appointed Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, he was assassinated while driving through the streets of Prague, on the morning of March 27, 1942 by two British-trained Czech commandos. The eager assassins failed to shoot Heydrich with their machine guns but tossed a grenade into the front seat of his Mercedes. It exploded, seriously wounding him. Heydrich was taken to a hospital where he died of an infection a week later, just three short months after the Wannsee meeting.
Of the fourteen surviving conspirators, five died during or immediately after World War II. The remaining nine were either sentenced to death or prison by the international court or temporarily jailed as P.O.W.’s. Gerhard Klopfer “gare-hard” “clop-fair”, the last of the Wannsee conspirators, died a free man in 1987.
Adolf Eichmann, who took control of Hitler’s Holocaust after Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination, had the most interesting fate of all; for years it appeared as if he had slipped through the cracks of history. Initial reports claimed that Eichmann was arrested by the Americans but that he managed to escape since they were unaware they were questioning the most wanted man in the Third Reich.
Nazi hunters, led by Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Simon Wiesenthal “wise-en-thawl”, picked up the trail, tracing Eichmann to Austria and later Czechoslovakia where he was rumored to have died.
By the 1950’s new rumors circulated that Eichmann had moved to Argentina with his family and was living there under an assumed name. Spies from the Israeli Mossad “moe-sod” agency finally found and kidnapped him in 1960.
Adolf Eichmann was convicted of crimes against the state of Israel. While he told the courtroom and television cameras that he regretted and condemned the actions of the former Nazi government, witnesses said that privately, Eichmann admitted he was very proud to be the chief exterminator for Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death under the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law of 1950. On May 31, 1962, the former S.S. administrator was hanged and his body cremated. His ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean; no country dared to claim itself his final resting place.