Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office, convened this meeting to outline the steps through which Europe’s Jews would be eliminated. Annihilation was, in Nazi parlance, the “final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe.” Conference attendees represented those agencies of the Nazi Party and the German government which would implement this process.

Summary of Event

On January 20, 1942, a group of sixteen high-level bureaucrats representing the Nazi Party and various German government ministries met to discuss what was euphemistically referred to as the “final solution.” The meeting had been called by Reinhard Heydrich, a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS, literally the “protection squadron”)—originally founded in the 1920’s as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguards but, under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler from 1929 to 1945, one of the most powerful Nazi organizations, considered the party’s “Praetorian Guard.” The SS had become the Nazi Party’s armed wing, controlling the party’s security and police functions. Only the most loyal and “racially pure” were allowed among its ranks. Heydrich was head of the Reichsicherheitshauptamt (RHSA, or Reich Security Main Office), which combined the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, or security police), the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo, the state criminal police), and the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo, the state secret police). Wannsee Conference (1942) Racial and ethnic discrimination;European Jews Holocaust;Wannsee Conference Jews;in Nazi Germany[Nazi Germany] Nazism;Holocaust [kw]Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution” (Jan. 20, 1942) [kw]Conference and the “Final Solution”, Wannsee (Jan. 20, 1942)[Conference and the “Final Solution”, Wannsee] [kw]"Final Solution", Wannsee Conference and the (Jan. 20, 1942)[Final Solution, Wannsee Conference and the] Wannsee Conference (1942) Racial and ethnic discrimination;European Jews Holocaust;Wannsee Conference Jews;in Nazi Germany[Nazi Germany] Nazism;Holocaust [g]Europe;Jan. 20, 1942: Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution”[00430] [g]Germany;Jan. 20, 1942: Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution”[00430] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Jan. 20, 1942: Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution”[00430] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 20, 1942: Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution”[00430] [c]Human rights;Jan. 20, 1942: Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution”[00430] [c]World War II;Jan. 20, 1942: Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution”[00430] Heydrich, Reinhard Eichmann, Adolf Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Holocaust

The conference consisted of a long presentation by Heydrich about how to make Europe “free of Jews” through resettlement, death through hard labor in harsh conditions, and a final extermination of the remaining survivors. Afterward, participants discussed various legal questions such as the status of “half” or “quarter” Jews (those with one Jewish parent or grandparent) or World War I Jewish veterans who had earned Iron Crosses. The meeting was short, about ninety minutes long, and remarkably congenial. It was a significant accomplishment for Heydrich, for in the process of finalizing the details of genocide, he had manipulated participants into a tacit recognition of his role as the coordinator and director of this “final solution.”

After the war, a copy of the conference “minutes”—sometimes referred to as the Wannsee Protocol Wannsee Protocol (1942) —were found and used in the Nuremberg Trials. The protocol was represented as a unique document that outlined the institutional adoption of a policy of statewide murder of the Jews. For more than forty years, the Wannsee Conference was identified as the moment in which the Third Reich abandoned its disjointed, harsh, and inconsistent anti-Jewish policies (which ranged from humiliation to expropriation and “emigration”) to adopt an organized institutional commitment to total annihilation—in short, the birth of an explicit policy of genocide. Later historical debates would describe Nazi anti-Jewish policies as evolutionary in nature; as a result, the Wannsee Conference is now seen as a clear statement about genocidal policies that were already being inconsistently applied in some areas of occupied Europe, as opposed to the instant in which genocide was adopted. The key to this assessment is the question of who created the genocidal policies.

Historians of the Reich’s Jewish policies fall into two general groups. To one group, the “intentionalists,” the final solution was the inevitable consequence of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Basing their conclusions on passages from Hitler’s book Mein Kampf (1932; English translation, 1933), Mein Kampf (Hitler) intentionalists claim that Hitler clearly outlined his intent to wipe out (“annihilate”) the Jews. Other historians, labeled “functionalists,” ascribe the final solution to the actions of subordinates seeking their patron’s favor. This argument is based on one essential reality of the Third Reich: Hitler’s deliberate policy of “divide and conquer” to weaken his lieutenants. Hitler set himself as the arbitrator between subordinates involved in turf battles for recognition, scarce resources, independent fiefdoms, and promotions. Immersed in these constant internal squabbles, no underling could find enough time or create sufficient prestige to challenge Hitler’s position of control. Because Hitler’s anti-Semitism was so well known, the argument goes, up-and-coming functionaries used harsh anti-Jewish measures to get his attention, curry his favor, and earn his patronage. Thus (the functionalists argue), the final solution developed not by a linear progression of policies to meet Hitler’s goals as set forth in Mein Kampf but rather by fits and starts, through local decisions driven by power-fixated underlings working for their own advancement.

Certainly, Heydrich’s continued rise reflects this functionalist argument. As head of the RHSA, he was subordinate to Himmler, who controlled state and party police and the armed SS, but Heydrich’s invitations stemmed from a request by Hermann Göring. Göring’s offices included supervision of the “Four Year Plan”; he was tasked with assuring the growth of Germany’s economy. Göring wanted a conference to streamline the efforts of agencies with conflicting intentions: Some wanted to eliminate the Jews, while others wanted to exploit the Jews as a labor force, rationalize the use of Germany’s transportation network, or resettle Germans in the newly conquered territories. Thus, Heydrich’s efforts would bridge multiple important activities in the Reich and make him a key player in the security sphere, the economic sphere, and, through Jewish labor, the prosecution of the war effort.

Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the so-called final solution.

(NARA)

There is much about the conference that supports the functionalist view. Most of the participants were Staatssekretare (state secretaries), a rank equivalent to that of undersecretary in the U.S. government. These were third-tier bureaucrats who converted the ideas of superiors like Göring or Himmler into realities. Between the Nazi Party and the German government ministries, there were about fifty Staatssekretare, so the fourteen at Wannsee represented about a quarter of the German government. They represented those parts of the party that dealt either with race issues (such as the SS Main Office for Race and Settlement or the Reich Commissar for Strengthening of Germandom) or with ministries that would be involved in the final solution (such as the Ministry of the Interior, the Foreign Office, the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Economics). These men were also well educated and young: Two-thirds had university degrees, eight had the title of doctor, and nearly half were under forty. All were committed to Hitler’s ideology and were rising functionaries. While they were willing to let Heydrich take responsibility for a dirty policy that would be complex and difficult—and, should Germany lose the war, could imperil their lives—participation at Wannsee made these men important players in day-to-day running of the Reich.

After Heydrich, perhaps the best-known attendee was Adolf Eichmann. Not a Staatssekretar, Eichmann was the head of the RSHA’s Referat IV B-4 (Department IV B-4). This RSHA office provided information on Europe’s Jews and oversaw the transportation of these Jews first as part of the policy of emigration and later, after Wannsee, as part of the process of extermination. Eichmann’s specialization in Jewish affairs began in 1938, when he oversaw the deportation of Jews from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and the appropriation of their assets. In this capacity he witnessed deportation methods and was responsible for scheduling the removal of Jewish communities. He was an essential technocrat who provided the data and the day-to-day organizational and administrative skills that turned slogans like “the final solution” into action.

Both groups of historians—the intentionalists and the functionalists—agree that a policy of annihilation would neither have escaped Hitler’s notice nor have gone forward without his tacit approval. Nevertheless, the timing and format of the Wannsee meeting suggest that many of the details set forth there were settled by ambitious underlings looking for ways to promote themselves. Debates like those over the utilization of slave labor versus Himmler’s desire to exterminate the Jews were largely settled at Wannsee, though killing and deportations had already begun in some Balkan areas and in Poland. Ultimately the Wannsee protocol streamlined interdepartmental struggles and sanctioned a deadly new phase of the Holocaust.

Wannsee also shows historians the face of bureaucratic murder—what Hannah Arendt would call “the banality of evil.” The comfortable accommodations contrasted with the protocol that demanded “annihilation through labor.” Ultimately those present at the conference went down with the Nazi state. Of the fifteen, five died during the war (one other’s body was never found, although he is generally thought to have died trying to escape from Berlin), three were executed for their crimes at Wannsee and elsewhere (although Eichmann escaped arrest and trial until 1961), two served prison sentences, and three were arrested for trial and released because of ill health; hence, only one participant avoided death or trial: Gerhard Klopfer.

Significance

While the Wannsee protocol has erroneously been described as the decisive trigger that began the Holocaust, it was nevertheless a pivotal moment. Through Wannsee, Heydrich established himself as the major player in the destruction of European Jews and finalized the process in which they would be eliminated through deportation and annihilation through labor. While “resettlement,” mass killing, and even the use of camps were not in themselves new policies, the organized system that smoothed interservice rivalries was. Finally, Wannsee exposes the reality of how policies were made and how the Reich operated. Wannsee Conference (1942) Racial and ethnic discrimination;European Jews Holocaust;Wannsee Conference Jews;in Nazi Germany[Nazi Germany] Nazism;Holocaust

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dederichs, Mario R. Heydrich: The Face of Evil. London: Greenhill Books, 1998. A thorough biography of Heydrich, this work also highlights the role that he expected the conference to play in his personal climb to power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerlach, Christian. “The Wannsee Conference, the Fate of the German Jews, and Hitler’s Decision in Principle to Exterminate All European Jews.” In The Holocaust: Origins, Implementation, Aftermath, edited by Omer Bartov. New York: Routledge, 2000. While this chapter concerns the impact of the conference and its place in the Holocaust, the book is a clear and concise analysis of many issues prominent in Holocaust studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lehrer, Steven. Wannsee House and the Holocaust. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. Both an insightful look at the conference and a history of the villa, this work also provides thorough biographies of all attendees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002. This excellent account of the conference includes the full text of the protocol and details of the evolution of the “final solution.”

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