The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting
Wannsee and the Final Solution
Paperback : 09 Jan 2003
On 20 January 1942, the most murderous meeting in history took place.
Chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most feared men in Germany, it summoned top Nazi officials to a grand villa on the shore of Berlin’s Lake Wannsee in order to clarify ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish question’. They ate good food, drank cognac and smoked cigars – and in less than two hours had effectively sentenced six million people to death.
Only one set of minutes from this secret meeting survived, and argument has raged over its contents. Now Mark Roseman brilliantly unravels the macabre mystery of what has been called ‘the most shameful document of modern history’.
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‘The best analysis in existence of the fateful Wannsee Conference and its place in the Final Solution’
Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler
‘Superb, persuasive and terrible’
‘Engrossing and chilling, it helps our understanding of Wannsee’s place on the twisted path to genocide’
Theo Richmond, Sunday Times
‘Excellent … highly readable … shows compellingly that Wannsee was just one of many stepping stones in the middle of a long messy process of turning vicious anti-Semitic discrimination into stark mass murder’
Richard Overy, Sunday Telegraph
‘Fascinating … Roseman argues convincingly that Wannsee was a crucial turning-point’
Orlando Figes, Express
Mark Roseman’s The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution, unravels the macabre mystery of the Wannsee conference in 1942. We spoke to Mark about the significance of the conference, and more …
This was a conference, under the stewardship of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the German Security Police and Himmler’s deputy. At the meeting the elimination of over 11 million European Jews was calmly discussed in elegant surroundings by highly educated bureaucrats. After it was over the participants enjoyed a buffet, brandy and cigars. At the very least, the meeting thus epitomizes the Holocaust’s macabre combination of rational planning by cultivated men, and a ghastly program of murder. What is harder to evaluate – and one of the questions pursued in this book – is whether we can believe the conference’s claim that it was the crucial preparatory meeting prior to formulating the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’. After all, Nazi killings of Jews had started well before this meeting, a meeting that neither Hitler nor Himmler attended.
Weren’t the Nazis very careful about not putting anything in writing on their policy towards the Jews? How do we know that such a meeting took place?
In March 1947, US investigators stumbled across a copy of the minutes or Protocol of this meeting, and thus unearthed what has been dubbed the most shameful document in human history. Though various Holocaust deniers have tried to cast doubt on the Protocol, it is undeniably authentic, as were the other incriminating materials found at the same time in the files of the Foreign Office. Other Nazis too made references to the meeting, and both in interviews given in freedom and again at his trial Adolf Eichmann spoke a lot about the conference. It is one of the best-documented moments in the history of the Holocaust.
Yet Hitler wasn’t even there? Isn’t that a bit surprising given the grave nature of the meeting?
As extreme as his public rhetoric was, Hitler was extremely cautious about actual decision-making on Jewish matters and did not tie himself to policy pronouncements in front of large gatherings. Whatever decisions he made about genocide will have been made in much smaller meetings, probably in brief exchanges with Himmler.
The Wannsee conference was thus not the point at which Hitler and Himmler reached the conclusion that European Jews should be murdered. Many historians believe that that conclusion was reached in summer 1941 and thus cannot understand why at Wannsee, Heydrich should claim that decisions still needed to be made before the Final Solution could be put into place. But on the basis of recent work on developments in Eastern European, it now seems that the first killings there in the autumn of 1941 were carried out before a final decision that murder was the only outcome for Europe’s Jews.
My book argues that for a while in the autumn of 1941, the Nazis had not yet completely given up on the idea of (admittedly murderous) deportations, rather than outright killing all Jews. But by the end of November various indications suggest that ‘territorial’ solutions of the Jewish question had been abandoned. At precisely this moment, Heydrich called the Wannsee conference. Against this new timetable, Wannsee makes a kind of ‘sense’ – it was called by Heydrich once it had become clear that murder was now the policy and as part of a concerted action by Himmler and Heydrich to ensure the supremacy of the SS and security police over the civilian ministries in this area. True, the Wannsee Protocol itself uses the language of ‘evacuations’, but it is clear from other comments in the Protocol that it is murder, not evacuation, that is meant. And at one point Heydrich makes absolutely clear that all, even the most efficient workers, must be eliminated. This was clearly enunciated in the Protocol in part, I believe, to remind the other participants of the project they had implicated themselves in.
How far reaching were the consequences of the meeting?
The meeting was important in giving Heydrich and his henchman Eichmann confidence that they could begin ratcheting up the pace of German-Jewish and western European deportations without fear of serious obstruction from other agencies. Both men referred to the meeting in their subsequent communications to other officials to demonstrate the authority they enjoyed. Above all, Wannsee offers us a window onto the moment in Nazi thinking when the idea of deportations definitively gave way to murder. It did not end the need to take decisions about Jewish matters, however, above all where to draw the balance between keeping some Jews alive for a while for labour and whom to kill straight away. Himmler, in particular, was continually involved in such decisions – after Heydrich’s assassination in May 1942, he took an even more direct role than before.
Your last book, The Past in Hiding follows the extraordinary experience of a young Jewish woman, Marianne Strauss, in Nazi Germany during the war. How would the Wannsee Conference have affected Marianne, her friends and family?
They had almost been caught up in the first wave of deportations that took place before the Conference. But then they came under the protection of the Abwehr, the German Army’s intelligence service, and thus were protected from the new wave of deportations that followed the meeting. Ultimately, however, the decision that all German Jews were to be killed eventually led to the gassing of Marianne’s immediate family in Auschwitz.
The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting was published in the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain simultaneously to mark the 60th anniversary of the Wannsee conference. Did you think the book was received differently on the continent to in the UK?
There has long been an extremely open and well-informed debate about the Nazi past in Germany, so I did not think there was any great reluctance to confront the contents of this book there than anywhere else. I think there remains everywhere in western Europe a horrible fascination in trying to understand how educated young men, from cultured backgrounds, could so calmly have sat round a table to talk genocide.
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 160
Published : 09 Jan 2003
Publisher : Penguin
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The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting
Wannsee and the Final Solution
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