On January 20, 1942, SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, presided over a meeting at a villa on the shore of the Wannsee, a lake in an affluent Berlin suburb. Of the fifteen participants, eight held doctorates. They represented important ministries in Berlin, German occupation administrations on Polish and Soviet territory, and various SS agencies. The two sources for our knowledge of what transpired in this meeting are a surviving protocol (a summary of discussion points—some detailed and some very brief—but not a verbatim transcript) and the postwar testimonies of one participant, Heydrich’s adviser for Jewish policy, Adolf Eichmann.
The conference opened with a monologue by Heydrich, who announced his appointment “to take charge of preparations for the final solution” and asserted Himmler’s “overall control of the implementation.” He then noted that Jewish emigration, the previous policy for “the exclusion of the Jews” from Germany, was now banned. “With prior approval from the Führer” it had been replaced with the “evacuation of the Jews to the East,” which would eventually encompass 11 million Jews from every country in Europe. “As part [italics mine] of the final solution…Jews fit for work” would be separated by sex and forced to do road construction, “in the course of which the majority will doubtless succumb to natural wastage,” and “the remaining Jews…will have to be dealt with accordingly” to prevent “a new Jewish regeneration.” The protocol is silent on the other “part” of the Final Solution, namely what was to happen to Jews not fit for work. Eichmann subsequently emphasized that Heydrich had heavily edited the text of the protocol before thirty copies were circulated.
Following Heydrich’s monologue, several other participants made comments. The only issue over which actual discussion and disagreement occurred was the fate of German half Jews and German Jews in mixed marriages. Heydrich favored deporting half Jews; the secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, Wilhelm Stuckart, favored sterilization of half Jews and compulsory dissolution of mixed marriages. Ultimately none of these proposals was adopted; Hitler, who was more cautious than any of the conference participants about the complications that might arise from killing or sterilizing half Jews so connected to non-Jewish society or dissolving their parents’ marriages and killing the Jewish partner, left policies toward half Jews and mixed marriages (especially exemption from compulsory wearing of the Jewish star and deportation) unchanged.
Only at the end does the protocol ever so briefly touch upon important topics that I assume occasioned longer comment at the meeting. Joseph Bühler, the secretary of state for the General Government—the German colonial regime in occupied Poland headed by Hans Frank—“would welcome it if the final solution” were to begin there because this would involve “no significant transport problem.” Moreover, “the operation would not be impeded by labour issues” because “most [of the Polish Jews] were unfit for work.” In short, despite the silence of the protocol, it was obvious to all the participants that most Polish Jews were to be killed immediately, near the ghettos in which they were then confined.
The protocol concludes cryptically, “Finally, the various possible types of solution were discussed.” Eichmann admitted that this was a cursory and euphemistic formulation: “During the conversation they minced no words about it at all…. They spoke about methods of killing, about liquidation, about extermination.” It should also be noted that during the later parts of the meeting, which lasted somewhat over an hour, refreshments were served, and according to Eichmann, Heydrich was exceedingly pleased that all the participants had proved so supportive.
The Wannsee Protocol was among the most spectacular discoveries made by those searching through German documents for incriminating evidence to use in postwar trials. Found too late to be introduced in the trial of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945–1946, it was a crucial document in the “Ministries Trial” before the American military tribunal of 1947–1949, in which indicted top Nazi bureaucrats had previously denied any knowledge of, much less participation in, the Final Solution.
Two movies have been made about the meeting. Die Wannseekonferenz (1984) sought to recreate the grotesque ambience of elite Nazi functionaries sitting around a table, partaking of food and drink, while matter-of-factly—sometimes even boisterously—discussing mass murder. For dramatic tension the film overplayed Stuckart’s conflict with Heydrich.
In the late 1990s I was approached to be the historical adviser for an American movie about the Wannsee Conference that appeared in 2001 under the title Conspiracy. I said that I would gladly read the script and alert the filmmakers to possible historical howlers, but I would not serve as an adviser because my advice would be at cross purposes with the film’s dramatic needs. The significance of the Wannsee Conference is precisely that there was overwhelming consensus and no dissent about the projected murder of 11 million Jews, even if there was one minor squabble about the fate of German half Jews, but one could not make a commercial film about consensus. As in the earlier film, someone would have to be a foil to Heydrich to create some tension and conflict. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, who represented the Reich Chancellery and was the only participant to express postwar remorse, was depicted in Conspiracy as the discomforted outsider, but in the protocol there is no indication that he ever spoke.1
The Wannsee Conference has also attracted much scholarly attention. There is no shortage of books dedicated to the conference and its immediate historical setting.2 Peter Longerich’s Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution is the most recent addition. Longerich is an extraordinarily prolific historian who has written major biographies of Hitler, Himmler, and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, as well as the highly esteemed Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews,3 among other books. Historians of the Holocaust, including Longerich and myself, have reached general agreement on many aspects of the origins of the Final Solution, but Longerich’s latest book offers the opportunity to examine differences of interpretation of the Wannsee Conference and the wider background of Nazi Germany’s last steps to the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
Longerich and I agree that from 1939 to 1941 Nazi Jewish policy focused on a sequence of three schemes to rid Europe of Jews through expulsion and decimation (what the Nazis euphemistically called “evacuation” and “resettlement”): first to a reservation in the Lublin district of Poland and as much as possible over the demarcation line into Soviet-occupied eastern Poland (1939), second to Madagascar (1940), and finally to Siberia (early 1941). If any of these schemes had come to completion, Hitler would have fulfilled his prophecy, during a speech to the Reichstag in January 1939, that the next world war would lead to the “destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.” In January 1941 Heydrich claimed full authority for the planning of the third scheme for a “wholesale deportation of the Jews” that would take place “at the end of the war” to a territory “yet to be determined” (i.e., Siberia after the defeat of the Soviet Union).
Longerich and I also agree that there was no comprehensive decision, order, or plan for the immediate mass murder of all Soviet Jews before the invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, but that Himmler was deeply engaged in increasing the number of shooters, escalating the scale of executions of Jews, and above all shifting the targets in late July from male Jews in leadership positions or of military age to Jewish women, children, and the elderly. This marked the effective onset of the Final Solution for Soviet Jewry.
Longerich’s explanation is that Himmler, who had previously left Jewish matters primarily to Heydrich, was upset by the unexpected extent of the authority Hitler granted to Alfred Rosenberg’s civil administration in occupied Soviet territory. By using his police powers in this manner, Himmler sought to edge out Rosenberg, reassert his involvement in shaping Jewish policy vis-à-vis Heydrich, and prove his indispensability to Hitler. For months to come, according to Longerich, Nazi Jewish policy developed along two tracks: Heydrich continued planning for the total deportation of Jews to Siberia after victory and procured Hermann Göring’s renewed authorization for such planning, while Himmler seized every opportunity during the war for radicalizing Jewish policy but not within any overall plan and no matter how chaotic the results.
I find this scenario unconvincing. Immediately after the invasion of the USSR, Himmler and Heydrich traveled together behind the advancing German lines, inciting and sanctioning the execution of Jews and recruiting killing units beyond the Einsatzgruppen for this task. After midsummer both Heydrich and Himmler gave instructions to different units to now target Jewish women and children. Although the onset of the Final Solution in Soviet territory in midsummer 1941 sealed the fate of Soviet Jews, the fate of the rest of European Jewry remained undecided. Heydrich did not need a new authorization to continue his previous planning. He procured one from Göring on July 31 to submit a plan for a Final Solution for the Jews in the rest of the German sphere in Europe precisely because he faced a new task—determining if and how the Final Solution underway on Soviet territory could be extended to the rest of Europe. And it was Heydrich, not Himmler, who in August unsuccessfully urged Hitler to begin deportations of Jews from Germany during the war.
When Goebbels and Hitler met on August 19–20, the former added his pressure to begin deportations from Germany, but Hitler continued to insist that deportations “to the east” would not commence until “immediately after the end of the campaign.” As for the fate of the deportees, Hitler noted, “Then they will be worked over in the harsh climate there.” Thus it was Hitler, not Heydrich, who was still clinging to the January plan, but among Heydrich and his own men impatience was growing.
On September 2, one of Heydrich and Eichmann’s superiors in the SS, Rolf-Heinz Höppner, composed a memo complaining about a significant problem in planning for deportations into conquered Soviet territory. “To go into further details…would be fantasy, because first of all the basic decisions must be made. It is essential in this regard…that total clarity prevail about what finally shall happen” to the deportees. “Is it the goal to ensure them a certain level of life in the long run, or shall they be totally eradicated.” The crucial historical question to my mind is exactly that posed by Höppner: When did those in Hitler’s close circle obtain “total clarity” that they were planning for the total eradication of the Jews? Longerich’s answer is April–May 1942; mine is late October 1941.
The German advance ground to a halt in late July 1941 as the Wehrmacht reached the limits of its supply chain without achieving the collapse of Soviet resistance. In the ensuing pause, while Hitler resisted pressures to begin Jewish deportations from the Third Reich, he determined that when the offensive was resumed, it would be against Leningrad in the north and Kiev in the south, not Moscow on the central front. In the first week of September, Leningrad was cut off. In mid-September the Germans achieved another spectacular encirclement victory in the south, and Kiev was captured before the end of the month.
In this renewed atmosphere of military success and continued pressure from all sides to begin deportations, on September 18 Hitler approved the action he had previously postponed until the defeat of the USSR: the deportation of as many Jews as possible from Germany by the end of the year. Longerich is emphatic that this decision did not yet mean the death of the deportees. He argues that, for Hitler, holding the Jews as hostages to blackmail Roosevelt and prevent him from entering the war against Germany was paramount at this time, but blackmail would turn to revenge after Pearl Harbor and American entry into the war.
I find Longerich’s emphasis on an alleged hostage strategy unpersuasive, since Hitler was simultaneously urging the Japanese to attack the US with the promise that Germany would immediately join them by declaring war on the US—ironically, one of the few diplomatic promises he actually kept. Hitler was not blackmailing the US to keep it out of the war; he was bribing Japan to bring the US into the war, on the mistaken assumption that Japan would tie down US war efforts in the Pacific, at the expense of increased aid across the Atlantic, long enough to enable Germany to defeat the USSR in 1942.
In Longerich’s version, Himmler continued to push chaotic and unplanned escalation and radicalization of Nazi Jewish policy by dumping the deportees into overcrowded eastern ghettos, thus inducing local German occupation authorities to engage in “feverish preparations” to devise ways to kill their local nonworking Jews in order to make room for the new arrivals. This included both mass shootings and various local experiments with gassing. When Heydrich issued invitations to the Wannsee Conference in late November 1941, the conflict between the “two strands” of Jewish policy—Himmler’s chaotic escalation during the war and Heydrich’s planned deportation to Siberia after the war—remained unresolved.
I would offer a different scenario. Following Hitler’s September 18 decision to begin deportations, he met with top Nazi leaders on September 23–24. With decisive victories on the northern and southern fronts and a renewed offensive on the central front about to be launched, Hitler told Goebbels that he expected serious fighting in the East to be over by October 15. He reiterated that the Jews should be removed from Germany. The transports of Reich Jews that began on October 15 were sent to Lodz, Minsk, Kaunas, and Riga. The deportees in six transports—five to Kaunas and one to Riga—were murdered upon arrival, but most were taken into local ghettos, and occupation officials were assured that they would be sent further east “next spring” or “after the war.”
The testing of three different methods of gassing—carbon monoxide poisoning by diverting the exhaust from internal combustion engines into either sealed compartments mounted on trucks (the gas van) or into sealed rooms, or poisoning with the fumigant Zyklon B—occurred in August and September, and in October the sites of three prospective death camps—Chelmno, Belzec, and Mogilev—were approved. Construction at Belzec began on November 1, and at Chelmno soon thereafter, both following consultation in Berlin. A death camp at Mogilev was not constructed, but the crematoria ovens ordered for it were later redirected to Birkenau.
There was a third development in the fall of 1941. Nazi policy had aimed to achieve a Europe free of Jews through expulsion from the German sphere (with commensurate decimation). In mid-October the Spanish government approached Germany with a request: if the German military administration in France released Jews holding Spanish citizenship who had been caught up in the German army’s mass arrest of Jews in retaliation for French Resistance attacks on German soldiers, then the Spanish government would transfer all two thousand of them from France to Spanish Morocco. The Foreign Office was supportive of a proposal in accord with past German policy of removing Jews from Europe.
However, on October 17, Heydrich rejected the proposal. The Spanish Jews, if sent to Africa, would then be “too much out of the direct reach of the measures for a basic solution to the Jewish question to be enacted after the war.” The following day, after a long telephone conversation between Heydrich and Himmler, all further Jewish emigration from Europe was banned. The old policy of expelling Jews from the German sphere was replaced with one of locking them in.
But what was the “basic solution…to be enacted after the war” from which no Jews were to escape? Several other incidents are revealing. Back from a recent trip to Belgrade on October 25, a traveling emissary and “Jewish expert” of the Foreign Office, Franz Rademacher, reported about how the male Jews and “Gypsies” in Serbia were all being shot by the military in reprisal measures. As for the Serbian Jewish women and children, he noted, they would temporarily be interned in a local camp: “Then as soon as the technical possibility exists within the framework of a total solution to the Jewish question, the Jews will be deported…to the reception camps in the east.”
Two days earlier, on October 23, Eichmann held a meeting in Berlin with all of his men stationed in the east. No official record of what transpired at that meeting survives, but upon his return from Belgrade Rademacher opened a letter that a friend had sent him on October 23:
Dear Party Comrade Rademacher! On my return trip from Berlin I met an old party comrade, who works in the east on the settlement of the Jewish question. In the near future many of the Jewish vermin will be exterminated through special measures.
Also on October 23, Himmler was in Mogilev discussing the construction of a camp with gas chambers that would alleviate the psychological burden on the executioners tasked with shooting Jews. The busy Eichmann met that day with a representative of Rosenberg’s ministry who had just learned that while there was not a sufficient supply of “gassing apparatuses” (i.e., gas vans) for any to be sent to Riga, an expert could be sent there for on-the-spot construction. Eichmann assured him that Jews unfit for work could then be “removed” by this “helpful instrument” without waiting for the relocation of the recently deported Reich Jews further east next spring.
And after a month of escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric, Hitler met with Heydrich and Himmler (just returned from Mogilev) on October 25. Recalling his Reichstag prophecy, Hitler stated, “It is good when the terror precedes us that we are exterminating the Jews…. We are writing history anew…from the racial standpoint.”
The crux of my argument is that between September 18 and October 25 the Nazi regime crossed the line from expulsion and decimation to envisaging the total eradication of every last Jew in its grasp—that is, the question posed by Höppner was resolved. The conjuncture of three developments—the start of the deportation program, the conception of camps equipped with gassing facilities, and the ban on Jews leaving the German sphere—was crucial. The new vision now meant the deportation of every Jew—even Jewish women and children in Belgrade and Spanish Jews in France—to camps in the east equipped with gassing facilities that would become operational “next spring” or, alternatively, “after the war,” so that the Jews could be “exterminated through special measures.”
This vision posed many new questions for the planners. Would the death camps, of which two prototypes in Belzec and Chelmno were soon under construction, actually work? Would they be located primarily on Polish or Soviet territory? What exceptions would be made for Jewish workers? Would Reich Jews have to be handled more discreetly and cautiously than others? And after the Soviet counteroffensive on December 5 and America’s entry into the war after December 7, there was the issue of timing. “Next spring” and “after the war” were no longer two expressions for the same timetable. Which would it be?
Longerich’s view that Himmler was working at cross purposes with Heydrich that fall by pushing ad hoc radicalization is dubious. It was Heydrich who sent Eichmann in late September to the Lublin district, where he witnessed preparations to test carbon monoxide gassing in sealed peasant huts. The subsequent report to Himmler on the success of these tests led to the construction of Belzec. It was Heydrich who sent Eichmann first to Lodz and then to Minsk to ensure that reluctant local German occupation authorities would receive the transports that Heydrich and Eichmann were primarily responsible for organizing. And it was Heydrich who sent Eichmann to witness an early killing action at Chelmno after it began operations on December 8.
Over the next three months both Himmler and Heydrich disseminated information to reorient and recruit others to the new task. Beginning on October 30, Heydrich ordered monthly summaries of the Einsatzgruppen reports to be distributed throughout the German bureaucracy. The Foreign Office copy was often marked as just one out of one hundred in circulation. On November 15, Himmler met with Rosenberg for four hours. Afterward Rosenberg confidentially told others that the Jewish question “can only be solved in a biological eradication of the entire Jewry of Europe,” when “not a single Jew lives on the European continent.” On November 29 Heydrich sent out invitations for the Wannsee Conference, which was originally scheduled for December 9 but subsequently rescheduled for January 20. Hitler’s meeting with top party functionaries on December 12 was not postponed, and there he made clear that the realization of his prophecy was to proceed immediately, not after the war.
Hans Frank attended this meeting and repeated the gist of it to an assembly of high officials in the General Government on December 16. Concerning the Jews of Poland, the expectations in Berlin were for German occupation authorities there to “liquidate them yourselves.” How this was to be accomplished was still unclear to Frank, but a “successful destruction” would be pursued “in conjunction with the important measures to be discussed in the Reich.” Thus for Frank one major reason for Josef Bühler, the secretary of state of the General Government, attending the Wannsee Conference was to find out how killing on such an unprecedented scale was to be done.
Longerich is certainly correct that those invited by Heydrich to the Wannsee Conference were neither ignorant nor innocent of the regime’s crimes up to that point, and that at least two of Heydrich’s motivations were to assert his authority over the “impending final solution” and ensure the participation and complicity of the ministerial bureaucracy. But he adds that Heydrich deliberately did not invite anyone who was beholden to Himmler, such as the higher SS and police leaders in the east, and that he was dismissive toward Himmler’s fall initiatives, minimizing them as “stop-gap measures.” According to Longerich, Heydrich was still pursuing a “territorial solution,” in which “all European Jews were to be deported to ‘the east,’ where they would perish through a mixture of forced labour, unbearable living conditions, and mass murder.” This was an “unequivocally lethal” plan to be implemented after the war.
In contrast, after the collapse of the hostage strategy, Himmler “focused his efforts on speeding up the deportation project and expanding it into a programme to murder all European Jews while the war was still in progress.” Thus in Longerich’s view Bühler’s intervention “called into question Heydrich’s plan” rather than (as I have argued) revealing assumptions that were self-evident to the participants though not spelled out in the protocol.
Longerich claims that in the months following the Wannsee Conference
the two competing strands of the SS’s “Jewish policy,” as represented by Heydrich and Himmler, were now being merged and combined with Bühler’s proposals into a comprehensive programme to bring about a European “final solution.”
But what he then describes is the triumph of what he had previously considered to have been Himmler’s and Bühler’s positions in every regard: the Final Solution would take place during, not after, the war; the Jews would be killed immediately in gas chambers, not gradually through exhaustive labor and unbearable living conditions; and this would occur primarily on Polish, not Soviet territory.
The resolution of these issues “amounted to a decision to murder indiscriminately all European Jews within its reach as quickly as possible,” and according to Longerich this decision was reached in late April and early May 1942, when Heydrich and Himmler had seven meetings. Thereafter Reich Jews who had been deported to the Lodz ghetto the previous fall were for the first time included in transports to Chelmno, and Jewish transports departing the Reich no longer took all their victims to transit ghettos in Poland but many now went directly to death camps. The earlier transports of Slovak Jewish workers for labor in Poland were now followed by transports of entire families, with most deportees killed immediately after arrival and selection.
After May 1942 one crucial issue remained to establish the contours of the Final Solution, namely the treatment of Jewish labor. At Wannsee, Heydrich had envisaged sending Jews fit for work to road-construction camps in the east as “part” of the Final Solution. Within a week, Himmler had intervened and ordered that Jews deported from the west who were fit for work were to be sent to his concentration camps in Poland instead. Oswald Pohl, head of the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office in charge of concentration camp labor, issued the contradictory instructions that their labor was to be both “as productive as possible” but also truly “exhaustive.” In reality, Jews working in the armaments industry in Germany were not deported until February 1943.
Far greater numbers of Jews were interned in the ghettos in Poland. As late as June 1942 officials in the General Government anxiously pressed for the deportation of nonworking Jews, but faced with growing labor shortages they still thought that working Jews and their families would remain. But on July 28, 1942, Himmler ruled that only a small portion of Polish Jewish workers deemed truly essential for the war economy would be temporarily spared; otherwise the “resettlement of the entire Jewish population” was to be completed by the end of the year.4
These events in April–May and July 1942 indicate how decisions to implement various aspects and stages of the Final Solution had to be made continually. Indeed, one issue on which historians of the Holocaust now agree is that there was no one single decision on one single day that launched the Final Solution. The decision-making process was incremental and protracted, and historians weigh and interpret the importance of different stages of this process differently. For me, the watershed was September–October 1941, when the goal of total eradication of the Jews crystallized and new questions were posed; for Longerich it was April–May 1942, when many of the new questions posed were answered. For neither of us was it the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, though clearly that was an important step along the way.
There is also a new docudrama, Die Wannseekonferenz, that aired on German television in January 2022. ↩
Kurt Pätzold and Erika Schwarz, Tagesordnung: Judenmord: Die Wannsee-Konferenz am 20. Januar 1942; Eine Dokumentation zur Organisation der “Endlösuung” (Berlin: Metropol, 1992); Mark Roseman, The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution (London: Allen Lane, 2002); Die Wannsee-Konferenz am 20. Januar 1942: Dokumente, Forschungsstand, Kontroversen, edited by Norbert Kampe and Peter Klein (Cologne: Böhlau, 2013); and The Participants: The Men of the Wannsee Conference, edited by Hans-Christian Jasch and Christoph Kreutzmüller (Berghahn, 2017). ↩
Oxford University Press, 2010; translated from the original German Politik der Vernichtung: Eine Gesamtdarstellung der nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung (Munich: Piper, 1998). The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution (Stroud: Tempus, 2001) was a revised version of Longerich’s expert witness report for the libel case between the Holocaust denier David Irving and the historian Deborah Lipstadt. ↩
See my Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 75–76; and “A Final Hitler Decision for the ‘Final Solution’? The Riegner Telegram Reconsidered,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 1996). ↩