In early 1942, several high-ranking Nazi officials convened in a lavish villa outside Berlin for what would later be known as the Wannsee Conference. For years after the war, conventional wisdom was that in this infamous conference the Final Solution was decided upon. Today we know that mass murder of Jews began well before the conference. Given this, what makes the Wannsee conference such an important landmark in the history of the Holocaust? Today on "On the Holocaust" we'll talk about the decisions at the conference, about the “desk murderers” and about one crucial document that was uncovered by chance.
Featured guest: Christoph Kreutzmueller, curator at the Jewish Museum Berlin. Co-editor of The Participants: The Men of the Wannsee Conference.
"Inside The Wannsee Conference" - Transcription:
In a lavish villa on the coast of a beautiful lake in a well-off suburb of Berlin, a group of fifteen men gathers together. Their average age is 42. Eight of them studied for a PhD. Seven are veterans of the Great War. And on a chilly Tuesday morning in January 1942, they get together to orchestrate and coordinate a genocide.
As far as our knowledge of the Nazi decision-making process goes, not enough is known about the stages leading to the systematic murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
This is why the Wannsee Conference – named for the Wannsee suburb in which it took place – is so important. For many years there was a misconception that the “Final Solution” was decided upon in Wannsee. However we know today that this was not the case. Over a million Jews were murdered even before the conference had begun. There was even one extermination camp that was already in operation before this meeting took place.
Historical research lacks a lot of documents from the Nazi era, due to an elaborate effort by the Nazis to destroy evidence of the Holocaust in the latter stages of the Second World War. In this context, the Wannsee conference gives us a rare glimpse into the decision-making process of the Nazi apparatus.
Welcome to On the Holocaust, a podcast from Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I'm your host, Nate Nelson. Today we're going to talk about the Wannsee Conference. From the events leading up to this conference, to the attendees and their fates – and the story of how one copy of the hidden protocol had survived.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: “I'm Christoph Kreutzmueller. I've been working as a freelancer in the house of the Wannsee Conference since 1992. I started there guiding as a young student, and I kind of started working in Wannsee proper like six, seven years ago, and have been working mainly on photographs, but on what the Germans refer to as Täterforschung, as dealing with the perpetrators. And of course, then my focus is on the perpetrators of the Wannsee conference, the men and this one woman who took part in this meeting at the Lake in January 1942.”
Kreutzmueller is co-editor of a 2019 book called: “The Participants: The Men of the Wannsee Conference,” focusing on the Nazi officials present at the conference. His book is the latest entry in the research dealing with the conference – and the attendees of this infamous meeting.
From the moment the Nazi party took power in Germany in 1933, it started to revoke the rights of its Jewish citizens and subjects. In 1938 came Kristallnacht – or the 1938 November pogrom, where many Jews in Germany were humiliated, their property razed or stolen – and Nazi paramilitaries and angry mobs murdered at least 91 Jews. These policies and actions were aimed to force Jews to leave Germany– in order to achieve a Judenfrei, a "Jewish free" Reich.
Another escalation came in September 1939, when World War II began. Germany invaded Poland and quickly conquered most of the country. The invasion put Nazi Germany in control of a large Jewish population, over three million and highlighted the so-called "Jewish question": What to do with the Jews in the growing Nazi empire? The Nazi failure to push Jews out of the Reich conviced the Nazi regime to look for other solutions.
Right after the invasion of Poland, Reinhard Heydrich outlined several guiding principles for the persecution of Jews. Heydrich was a crucial figure in the Nazi regime. He was a high-ranking official in the SS, director of the Reich Security Main Office, head of the Gestapo – and later the acting Head of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Heydrich led an effort to concentrate the Jews in specific locations. At this point, the German plan was to deport the Jewish population from Third Reich territories.
The first ghettos – Piotrków Trybunalski and Radomsko – were established in late 1939 in occupied Poland. Polish Jews were deported into confined sections of towns or cities. Over time, the Nazis built more than 1,000 ghettos. Forced labor camps were also formed– where Jews slaved in dehumanizing conditions.
At this point in time, there was no planned killing of Jews. The Nazi regime displayed brutality and cruelty to its Jewish subjects – and significantly degraded their well-being. Even without a formal decision to systematically murder Jews, Nazi policies led to severe living conditions in both ghettos and camps. Many Jews died of starvation, diseases, hypothermia and random killings.
The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, brought in June 1941 a new phase of the German policy towards the Jews: mass killing. The SS operated the Einsatzgruppen (literally, deployment groups) – special death squads tasked with "cleaning” – as the Nazis saw it – the occupied parts of the Soviet Union from Jews, Communists and other "unwanted" persons.
The Einsatzgruppen followed the Wehrmacht and brutally executed people in the newly-conquered territories. Using rifles and handguns and aided by other police and military units, both German and non-German, they would execute Jews in newly-acquired territories. In Romania and Croatia, mass killing of Jews began during the summer of 1941 – without any decree from Berlin. In the autumn of the same year, several plans were formed to murder Jews in the Warthegau and the General Government areas.
These practices were already well in place by January 1942 – when the Wannsee Conference took place.
The main agenda of the conference was to organize the mass murder of the Jews, to create a unified policy on the issue of the extermination and to assert the leadership of Heydrich over the issue of the extermination:
Christoph Kreutzmueller: “The people who came wanted to come, and in coming, accepted Heydrich in his acclaimed position to be in charge of organizing the mass murder of the Jews and accepted to discuss the murder of the Jews under Heydrich’s leadership, which is actually the main point of the conference. It's this accepting Heydrich, accepting the topic and then meeting up to discuss, so to speak, the loose ends - how to organize it best.”
The Wannsee conference highlights a certain aspect of the Holocaust – one that is often overlooked; that of the role of the “desk murderers” - a term coined by Hannah Arendt that describes the Nazi bureaucrats that helped plan and organize the Holocaust from behind their desks.
Erich Neumann was one such bureaucrat. He was 49 years old when he was invited to Wannsee. Born in 1892 to a wealthy family – he fought in the First World War and was injured. After studying economics and law – Neumann found his true passion in bureaucracy.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "Erich Neumann who actually worked in the Prussian Ministry for Finance and later on economics. A hardworking man described as colorless by many. So it's one of those people who you don't see, but he always stays in the office very long and works very hard, had health issues".
Neumann's talents were soon discovered by one of the most powerful Nazi leaders: Herman Göring. Among his many other assignments, Göring was charged with streamlining Germany's economy. For this particular task – he needed Neumann.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "[He was]basically adopted by Herman Göring, the second man in the state who needed someone like him, who needed this man, not showing hardworking passion, who would translate those grandiose things Göring said and wanted into bureaucracy, into the system. And that's Neumann's job. And for that he was rewarded with the office of State Secretary. So ranking directly under Göring. Neumann would meet many of the participants on many occasions. Amongst others in this conference, after the Pogroms of November 1938, after those pogroms, Göring invited to a conference, which we think and I would think it's the pre-runner to the Wannsee conference, he invited 100 people to discuss what happened in the pogroms and how to get out of the economic devastation that the programs did. And it's this very brutal conference. And in this brutal conference, Neumann takes notes too, just like Freisler, Heydrich and Eichmann. They're all there. Stuckart too. They're meeting, discussing what to do with the Jewish question. It’s in this conference where Heydrich gets the office of organizing the forced immigration and he then transfers the organization of that to Eichmann. So that's where Neumann is."
Neumann was not directly involved with the planned killing of Jews – but had partial responsibility for forced labor camps.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "He would meet Heydrich later at quite a few occasions and would organize the slave labor, including of course, the slave labor of the Jews who weren't yet deported. And in the conference to which he is invited as a representative of Herman Göring. So he has got special status."
This brings us back to January 20th 1942 – and to that particular villa on the outskirts of Berlin. As we said the true aim of the Wannsee Conference was to organize the extermination, streamline the process, and deal with all the “small details” surrounding the genocide.
This cruel endeavor – and the entire Final Solution – would not have been possible without the consenting approval and support of the German bureaucracy. Neumann – in his capacity as a high-ranking bureaucrat in the Nazi regime – played a significant role in this streamlining effort.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "The conference is not on whether or not to do it, but on how to organize it best. And that's why in Wannsee, it's not the top echelons of the Nazi elite meeting. It's not Hitler and the cabinet say, but it's the state secretaries. It's the second in rank. They meet and quietly discuss and organize bureaucratically. The conference was actually invited to twice, because Heydrich asked for a conference to happen on 9th ofDecember 1941, and then had to postpone the meeting to the 20th of January. And the people were invited to discuss the final solution and being what they were, In the higher echelons of the Nazi state and participating in the bureaucratic or the physical side of mass murder already, they, of course, knew what to expect, and they knew that they would be discussing the mass murder of the Jews. And it might be worth noting that it's an open invitation. It's not an order Heydrich gave. He invited two people who did not come, like the Secretary of State of the Ministry for Propaganda did not come. The people who came wanted to come."
We should also note that this conference's perceived historical importance for decades does not necessarily mean it was considered important at the time.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "And that is the thing which makes the conference, so difficult to understand, in a way, because you call it conference, you think like something spectacular happens, something big happens, but then you find, if you’ll read the 15 pages protocol, it's bureaucratic smooth washing, in a way, that is happening. How can we organize it? How can we organize this? Oh, I got an idea. And the secretary participating Ingeburg Werlemann remembered in 1962 that she found it difficult to take the notes because the people would talk on top of each other. So you don't have to imagine this conference to be kind of state-ordered , like Heydrich and Eichmann ordering, but it's more an exchange of people, of these men, who had met before, who knew each other and who kind of sit down, and sort things out and of course, “things” is the murder they sorting and bureaucratically speaking, sorting murder out. It's what Christopher Browning would have referred to as “ordinary men” meeting. They enjoy the beauty of the lake in winter. They probably enjoyed the taste of a good Cognac robbed from France and shared our idea of beauty. So they're not those brutal Hollywood like beasts, but they are more mild-mannered bureaucrats, most of them, at least."
Following the conference, Adolf Eichmann, then head of the Office of Jewish Affairs at the Reich Main Security Office, was tasked with preparing its minutes. This protocol listed the Jewish population in every European country. This particular list also indicates the extermination process up to that point. For example, Estonia was labelled "free of Jews" in Eichmann's list – meaning the Nazis deported or killed every known Jew in Estonia.
While the Nazi officials debated the "small details" of the planned extermination of the Jews – Erich Neumann worked to protect the interests of his ministry. He was mainly pushing for delaying the deportation of the Jewish slaves working in the forced labor camps under his responsibility.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "He represents basically the Super Ministry for Economics, Economic Ministry. And he says, hey, there are so many Jews working as slave labors and we need them. And then he goes on to say, please deport them at the end. He could have said no, he could have said, hey, don't deport them, we need them because of the war. But no, he doesn't do that. He's kind of… He wants to offer something towards the process. And he says, look, please only deport them at the end. That is agreed upon".
Other issues that were dealt with in Wannsee were the diplomatic and legal difficulties of the Holocaust – or rather the lack of such diplomatic and legal difficulties. According to the protocol of the conference, the delegates of the Foreign Ministry did not foresee any real legal objections to their plans from the courts in Germany – or from the rest of the world. They also deal with the specifics of their theory of scientific racism:
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "And then there's a lengthy and long debate on the question whom to murder. And that is a bit strange, of course, because they are already murdering. And at the same time they're discussing, they're discussing the racist definition of murder. So how many grandparents need to be Jewish in order to regard someone as being Jewish in order to murder? So far they had murdered along the lines of the so-called Nuremberg laws, and the Nuremberg laws stated someone is Jewish, if he or she has got three or four Jewish grandparents and if he or she has got two Jewish grandparents, then there are certain subcategories. And in this conference, basically, Heydrich says, shall we not murder everyone with two and maybe even everyone with one Jewish grandparent? And that's debated. And they're using those terms I'm not going to repeat, those racist terms.”
And that was it. After dealing with other issues and tying up all the bureaucratic loose ends – the conference was over. The Nazi attendees left several small details and issues to be dealt with later on, after the war would be won by Nazi Germany, as they assumed would happen. Without pathos or a special sense of self-importance – their meeting was done.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "And that is the 90 minutes basically. In the end they quickly debate where and how to murder. And the second in charge of these German civil administration in occupied Poland, the so-called Generalgouvernament, says, hey, please start murdering in my territory. And Eichmann says, okay, we'll do that. And then probably the canapés came, the sandwiches, and the second breakfast promised in the invitation came, and they stood together for a bit longer discussing private or whatever matters, we don't quite know. And then they went home or actually went back to work in the ministries on this rather normal Tuesday."
One million Jews were murdered before the Wannsee conference – and many more were murdered after it. The extermination process moved gradually from field executions to mass murders in extermination camps – especially by gassing. Murder by gas vans actually began prior to the conference as well – in the Chelmno camp in Poland.
As for Reinhard Heydrich himself, he was killed mere months after the conference – in a daring operation organized by underground operatives of the Czechoslovak underground. Shortly before his death, Germany led a special operation – later named Operation Reinhard after Heydrich.
In Operation Reinhard, three extermination camps were established to murder Jews, mainly from the General Government: Treblinka, Belżec and Sobibór. Jews were deported to these camps – where they were killed in special gas chambers built with this horrible intention. Some 1,700,000 Jews were murdered in the camps of Operation Reinhard.
In Auschwitz-Birkenau, perhaps the best known concentration and extermination camp complex, about 1,100,000 Jews from all across Europe were murdered over the course of the war..
In the meanwhile, Erich Neumann's position in the Nazi apparatus deteriorated. The gray bureaucrat – and his mentor Göring – were out of favor with Adolf Hitler.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "Erich Neumann decides to quit his job in 1943. So he leaves his office and he can. And I think this is important because it does tell you, which is obvious, but it needs to be repeated, hey want to do what they are doing. They are not forced to come to Wannsee. They are not forced to help murdering Jews. They are there because they want to be there.”
The European Theatre of World War II ended in May 1945 – with the surrender of Nazi Germany. Over the next months and years, the exact nature of the Holocaust was revealed – to the horror of the world.
The fate of the high-ranking Nazi leadership was determined during the last months of the war – when several committed suicide or were killed – and in the subsequent Nuremberg trials. Herman Göring was the highest-ranking Nazi captured alive by the Allies – but he committed suicide in prison before his death sentence was executed.
For the great majority of the lower levels of the Nazi apparatus – including most of the participants at the Conference - full justice was never served.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "Quite a few of them actually died in the war. Heydrich was, and I'm using the word on purpose, liquidated by Czech resistance fighters. So he died in June 42. So did Müller. He died in the last days of the fighting of the Battle of Berlin. And so was Lange, who died in fighting. And actually Martin Luther from the Foreign Ministry, he actually died shortly after liberation of the concentration camp Saxonhousen, where he had been an inmate since 1943. So there's quite a few who died in the war. Two were sentenced to death, Bühler and Schöngarth shortly after the war. But it's noteworthy that neither Buhler, nor Schöngarth were actually sentenced because of their participation in Wannsee.
Two other participants - Wilhelm Stuckart and Otto Hofmann - were sentenced to under 4 years and 25 years respectively, though following a request for amnesty, Hoffman was released after serving just 6 years in prison.
The Wannsee conference was actually used by at least one of the participants in their legal defense after the war. One example was Eichmann – during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "Eichmann in Jerusalem was put to trial, but Eichmann introduced Wannsee in a way, in order to say, I was only a small cog in the works. Wannsee is his example. He doesn't get through because the court in Jerusalem knows better, so to speak. But that's why he introduces Wannsee in order to say, I was only the smallest ranking man in this conference and I couldn't do anything. And of course, after the war, a lot of them, like Wilhelm Stuckart, to give you one example, said, I actually only participated in this minor conference in order to prevent Heydrich and Eichmann from doing any worse. In the Federal Republic of West Germany, this was accepted because the perpetrators, as we all know, were especially the bureaucratic perpetrators, were integrated into society. So Stuckart was sentenced to three years, seven months and twelve days, I think. So a real minor sentence."
After the war, Erich Neumann was briefly arrested – but was never put to trial and was never imprisoned or punished.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "He is interviewed in preparation to the international military tribunal in Nuremberg, amongst others, by Holbert Kempner. And you can really see that he doesn't see what he did wrong. He really does not. He always says, look, I had to. I couldn't. And I can't remember. And Kempner at one point really explodes and tells him, like, can't you remember anything? And Neumann really answers, no. So that's him. And he never sees what he might have done wrong, and dies in 1951 without ever having been put to justice. Complaining that he had been imprisoned in Nuremberg, like with many others, and that his health is deteriorating, and complaining about the food. Never realizing, never publicly admitting what he actually did was wrong, was murder".
The protocol of the Wannsee conference was printed in 30 copies – and given to various Nazi figures. 29 of these copies were destroyed – in an attempt to hide the participants' involvement in the Holocaust. Only one copy survived – and helped historians study the importance of the conference.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: "Martin Luther was sent to a concentration camp because he tried to get rid of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ribbentrop, really did not like that. So it's an internal power struggle, so to speak. But because of Luther being where he was in Sachsenhausen, he couldn't burn his files. So one of the reasons why we know about this conference, why this conference has become so important in our knowledge, is the fact that the one person who received the copy of this protocol actually died in a concentration camp and couldn't burn his files. As I said, the other 29 copies are gone. And we have to presume that they were burned at the end of the war by the perpetrators, not wishing to leave any incriminating material behind. And, of course, a file called "Final a Solution of the Jewish Question" is one of the first files to be burned. And this one wasn't. That's why we know. And of course, this is why this conference, in a way, became so important. We all know it's not the point where it was decided to murder, that happened before, but we don't quite know when this decision happened. We don't have a protocol of this."
The protocol of the conference showed the support of the German bureaucracy for the extermination process. These bureaucrats, the desk murderers, played a significant role in enabling the mass murder of Jews. Some of them, like Eichmann, were responsible for orchestrating the Final Solution – where others, like Neumann, had other responsibilities – but had knowingly aided the extermination process.
Christoph Kreutzmueller: A lot of people have seen Kenneth Branagh in his film conspiracy. And then you think Heydrich is the Richard the Second character, is a Shakespearean evil character. And the others look at Eichmann. But I think we have to see a lot of the participants who all are there representing the German administration, representing so many people who made lists, who ticked off laws, who helped making this mass murder of the Jews so brutally, horribly fast and efficient. And that's what Wannsee stands for in my eyes."
With that, we come to a close. If you'd like to learn more about the Holocaust, visit yadvashem.org.
This has been On the Holocaust, from Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, hosted by me, Nate Nelson. Our program is produced by Jonathan Clapsaddle, Irit Dagan, Dafna Dolinko, Dani Timor and Ran Levi. This episode was written by Agam Kedem Levi and edited by Dor Shafir.