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18 june 2022

"Wannsee" is one of those appalling words that dot the map of Germany to this day. The birthplace of the Holocaust sounds like it should be an antechamber to Hell, but the Wannsee itself is simply a lake on the western side of Berlin, full of coves and marinas, tucked into forested parkland. I have taken several walks around the Wannsee, and a boat onto its fabulous Pfaueninsel, the Isle of the Peacocks. And on one of the walks, I peered through a gate at a mansion that features some modest signage but doesn't call much attention to itself. It once served as a sort of bed-and-breakfast for guests of the SS: the villa where the Final Solution was first coordinated.

Peter Longerich's recently-translated account of the Wannsee Conference offers little more than 100 pages of body text. The meeting itself lasted only an hour and a half (59). It involved officials from the tier below the highest levels of German government and Nazi Party leadership. No decision was really adopted there, let alone debated or developed. Many projects of mass murder of Jews, using different methods, were already underway. Yet the Wannsee Conference remains iconic, not least for its use of the word Endlösung, "final solution": a term scarcely publicized during the second world war, but soon afterwards and ever since a sinister euphemism for genocide.

Longerich is a painstaking student of Nazi decision-making and the Holocaust. Popular debate can tend either to downplay Adolf Hitler's role, or to make Hitler solely responsible. Both tendencies are defensive, aiming to preserve either something positive about Hitler (because some people still admire him and want to attribute his crimes to others), or alternatively something positive about everybody else in Germany (who are seen as being inveigled, their confidence abused by one supremely evil Leader). Neither tendency is warranted by the evidence, as Longerich has spent his career showing. Hitler was absolutely the driving force in the extermination of the Jews. And Hitler was eagerly assisted by thousands of functionaries who supported him in the first place because he had promised the extermination of the Jews.

Chief among these functionaries was Reinhard Heydrich, who summoned the others to the Wannsee Conference in the winter of 1941-42, after the United States entered the war. On the authority of Hermann Göring, and thus of Hitler, Heydrich explained, he was in charge of coordinating a "final solution," so that the Reich government, the civil occupation authorities in the East, and the SS would all be on the same page. Literally so, since Adolf Eichmann took minutes of the conference; the sole surviving copy remains one of the most informative big-picture accounts of Holocaust planning. And as with so much of this planning, the lengths that the Nazis went to to blur the record show their unwillingness to reveal what they were doing.

Minute parsing of responsibility for various stages and concepts of Holocaust planning can become rather an academic exercise. But knowledge about discussions like those at the Wannsee helps flesh out the picture of what a gigantic, enthusiastic, and spontaneous effort the mass murder of European Jewry really was. Heydrich's coordination became necessary because so many commanders on and behind the eastern front, in 1941, had innovated so many independent murderous schemes. Some went into villages and shot all the Jews who were less able to work. Some went into the villages and shot all the Jews. Some experimented with killing Jews using the exhaust gas from vans. Some started to pump that exhaust into enclosed rooms.

Others, more "pragmatic," envisioned simply working Jews to death – using their slave labor to support the war against Stalin, but not feeding them or giving them enough rest to keep them alive long. A fault line thus developed between Nazis who wanted to get what benefit to the war effort they could out of captive Jews, and those who just wanted to murder them. Heinrich Himmler, represented at Wannsee by a deputy, was in the latter faction and eventually his views won out.

Heydrich himself, initially, seems to have thought of the gradual stepwise deportation of Jews eastward, working some to death along the way, and then a final clearing of German-controlled territory of all Jews after the war was won, implicitly to some place where they could not survive. But Himmler, whose SS men had taken the lead in killing any Jews they could find as German armies moved eastward, was determined to kill all the Jews he could, as soon as he could.

Hitler apparently agreed with Himmler. Longerich documents a series of meetings between Himmler and Heydrich in the spring of 1942, "book-ended by two lengthy meetings Himmler had with Hitler" (95), in which the two main architects of the Holocaust reached agreement on following the more immediately murderous policies initiated by Himmler.

"War was no longer being waged in order to create the conditions for the 'final solution,' but rather the 'final solution' was being placed in the service of the war," argues Longerich (106). In other words, the program had shifted; no longer was the aim to defeat the Soviets so that Nazis could remove Jews, but to kill Jews because Jews were perceived as the ultimate enemy who were egging on and bolstering the Soviet, and now the American, war efforts.

At that point, Heydrich had just weeks to live, before he was himself killed by Czech commandos. But he had made his distinctively bureaucratic mark on the "final solution" by holding yet another meeting near the pleasant lakeside that will always now bear its sinister assocations.

Longerich, Peter. Wannsee: The road to the final solution. [Wannseekonferenz: Der Weg zur 'Endlösung', 2016.] Translated by Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.