January 20, 2022
By Resident Historian, Konrad Kwiet
Walking through the Sydney Jewish Museum’s Holocaust exhibition, visitors find a display dedicated to the famous Wannsee Conference. The photo shows a grand villa hidden in nature, located at the shore of the Great Wannsee Lake of Berlin.
It was in this idyllic location on 20 January 1942, that fifteen high-ranking officials of the Nazi State, Nazi Party and SS assembled. There, the infamous Wannsee protocol was drafted and signed. This was a plan for what was to be known as the “Final Solution”: the German genocide unleashed against the Jewish people.
Three pages copied from this document are currently on display in our Museum. What the showcase does not reveal is the Australian connection to these pages, and how they reached the Sydney Jewish Museum. This blog sheds light on this, as well as the protocol’s broad historical significance.
The meeting at the lake was chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, and lasted less than two hours. Adolf Eichmann, the master of mass deportation, took the minutes. Thirty 15-page copies of the typed protocol were produced and classified as “Geheime Reichssache”, secret Reich matter. Yet, only one copy – number 16 – resurfaced after the war. It belonged to Martin Luther, Under State Secretary in the German Foreign Office.
Presented in the Nuremberg War crimes tribunal, this protocol quickly became one of the most important documents of the Holocaust. It was repeatedly quoted and edited, translated into many languages, and kept under strict lock and key at the Political Archives of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In the early 1990s, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to send the original copy to Australia for its War Crimes Commission. However, they submitted one certified copy of the Wannsee protocol.
This was one of many historical records used to prove that the murder of the Jews constituted a state-sponsored crime against humanity. The Wannsee protocol was presented as evidence in the Adelaide courtrooms. Once the criminal proceedings had come to an end, parts of the historical record collections were handed over to the Sydney Jewish Museum.
The three pages of the Wannsee protocol displayed in the showcase at the Museum are a replica of the copy presented in the War Crimes Commission.
Over the years, a legend emerged that the extermination of the Jews was decided at the Wannsee Conference. The fact is: in January 1942 the full-scale annihilation of the Jews was already well under-way.
“Operation Barbarossa”, the war of destruction launched against the Soviet Union in June 1941, signaled the beginning of the Nazis’ campaign of genocide. More than 700,000 Jewish men, women and children had already been murdered in broad daylight by mobile killing units. At the same time, plans had been made to design and implement more effective and less taxing killing techniques in the form of poison gas facilities. In October 1941, a ban was imposed on emigration. Mass deportation and ghettoisation accelerated the process of destruction.
On 29 November 1941, Heydrich sent the first letter of invitation to the participants of the conference. To emphasise his credentials, he attached Hermann Goering’s letter, dated 31 July 1941, authorising him to prepare a “plan for the total solution of the Jewish problem”. A few days later he was forced to postpone the meeting.
Crucial events occurred in early December 1941. On 5 December, “Operation Barbarossa” failed. The Soviet counter offensive after the lost battle of Moscow was the first defeat of the German army. On 7 December, Japan launched its surprise attack against Pearl Harbour and America entered the war.
The European war had become a world war, finally prompting Adolf Hitler to fulfil his old prophecy: to defeat and to annihilate the Jewish “world enemy”, preventing the Jews from “once again” stabbing the German people in the back and causing their demise. A rapid succession of meetings of the highest Nazi leaders followed.
Hitler said: “The war is here, the destruction of the Jews must be the inevitable consequence”. Hitler instructed Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, to draft and dispatch a top-secret killing order. On 12 December 1941, all SS and Police agencies, deployed in the occupied territories in the East were ordered: “to impose in the most drastic way the just death penalty upon all enemies of the German people”.
Hitler’s announcement to annihilate the Jews and Himmler’s killing order came well before the Wannsee Conference. Heydrich and the conference participants would have been fully aware of the basic decisions made at the highest level of leadership of the Nazi regime.
Opening the meeting on 20 January 1942, Heydrich was quick to present himself as chief executor of the “Final Solution”. He demanded the close collaboration of all relevant government ministries and Nazi agencies. The minutes do not mention the words “bullets” and “poison gas”. However, the deceptively euphemistic language could not hide the aim to destroy Jewish life in Europe, envisaging the murder of 11 million Jews.
The minutes read:
“…in the course of the final solution, the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East. Able-bodied Jews, separated by sexes, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes. The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resilient portions, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival”.
Another item on the agenda that is often overlooked by historians: Heydrich sought to revise a basic law of the Nazi regime – the Nuremberg race laws – by including “Mischehen” (mixed marriages) and “Mischlinge” (persons of mixed blood) in Germany and Western Europe as subjects of the “Final Solution”.
Concerned about possible unrest among the population and reluctant to change the sacrosanct marriage laws by introducing a forced divorce, the conservative representatives from the governmental ministries blocked Heydrich’s plan. A compromise was reached. The SS was given free hand in the occupied territories of the East to include “Mischehen” and “Mischlinge” into the program of the “Final Solution”. In Germany and Western Europe the solution was postponed, until the final victory of the war was achieved.
At the end of the meeting, wine, cognac and savouries were served. After leaving the villa, the high-ranking representatives of the Nazi machine continued to play out their plan of destruction, be it bureaucratically as more active participants in murderous campaigns.
Today, the grand Wannsee villa serves as one of Germany’s “authentic” memorial sites of the Holocaust. Guided tours are offered as well as programs supporting Holocaust remembrance, education and research. Thousands of visitors are welcomed there every year, both students and tourists alike.
Whenever the Sydney Jewish Museum organises a tour to the murder and memorial sites of the Holocaust, the visit to the villa at the lake is included in the program. In July 2019, a tour group I was leading witnessed an event that left an indelible mark on our memory. Busloads of Israeli soldiers and officers arrived, without arms, wearing the colourful uniforms of the Army, Navy and Airforce. They entered the house where the “Final Solution” was planned. We spoke with some of them. Like us, they later visited murder sites in Poland where the “Final Solution” was enacted.
It’s hard to imagine that the peaceful image on display at the Museum – a beautiful villa by a lake – bears such historical significance, as the site where the annihilation of the European Jews was sealed.
A recent picture of the Wannsee villa, where the Conference was held. Today it is a memorial and a museum.