“As regards to the Jews, I’ll tell you quite openly — an end has to be made one way or the other.” – Hans Frank, Governor-General, Nazi-occupied Poland, December 16, 1941
Arguably the most grotesque business conference ever held took place this week (Jan. 20) in 1942 at a magnificent villa on Lake Wannsee, just outside of Berlin, Germany. The purpose of the Wannsee Conference, which had been called by Reinhard Heydrich, the man Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS) Heinrich Himmler had put in charge of ridding Nazi Germany of its Jewish population, was to discuss the “Endlosung”—the “Final Solution” to the fate of European Jewry. Besides Heydrich, conference attendees included ministers from the Department of the Interior, Justice, and the Eastern Territories (Poland), plus VIPs from the Gestapo, the SS and the security police. Also present was the infamous Adolf Eichmann, who kept the minutes of the meeting.
And what a meeting it was. Prior to the conference there had been an intense debate among the Nazi Party leadership about how to rid Germany of its Jews. Should they be allowed to emigrate, should they be forcefully deported, or — the preference of many, including Adolf Hitler himself — was genocide the only logical “Final Solution” to the problem of the Jews?
But genocide of which Jews? Should those Jews who were fit to work be killed outright, or simply worked to death, thereby contributing to the economic output of the Reich? Should Jews who had won medals fighting for Germany in World War I be killed, or did their heroism in defense of the Fatherland merit consideration?
Were German Jews to get preferential treatment over the “bodenstandigen vertierten Horden,” the “brutish hordes” of Jews who had come to Germany from other lands? How about the Mischlinge, those who were only part Jewish? And how do we handle the Mischehen, those Jews married to Aryans?
Those were some of the agenda items as the Wannsee conferees sat down for roundtable discussions. As with most business conferences, statistics and bureaucratic jargon dominated the discussions, except that these statistics were about human deaths, and the bureaucratic jargon masked a clear understanding that mass murder was being discussed. And although, contrary to popular belief, the Wannsee Conference did not officially finalize the program of genocide against the Jews, it gave that decision a new clarity and impetus. All who left the Wannsee Conference now knew that eventually both Germany’s and Europe’s Jews were to be systematically destroyed.
After Wannsee the mass murder of Europe’s Jews certainly accelerated. By the end of the year that had begun with the Lake Wannsee Conference, some 4 million Jews had been killed. That was two-thirds of the Holocaust’s final total.