* war and social upheaval: World War II -- the Holocaust Wannsee Conference

The Holocaust: The Wannsee Conference (January 20, 1942)

Wannsse Conference
Figure 1.--The Wannsse Conference was the primary effort by Reinhard Heydrich to work out the details of the SS plans to kill 11 million European Jews. At the Conference he made sure that needed agencies such as the German Railways understood what their role would be and would ask no awkward questions. The result was the Holocaust. Here Hungarian Jews after arriving at Aaschwitz are being directed pass gas chamber/crematorium III complex to complex II where they were murdered shortly after this photograph was taken (1944). The elderly and women with children were always selected for immediate gassing.

NAZI officials saw the mass killing of Jews in the Soviet Union in the summer and fall of 1941 as being conducted in a disjointed and uncoordinate fashion. Himmler became concerned about the psychological impact on SS members of personally killing Jews, especially women and children. Also it was not tghe best way to obtain their valuables before killing them. Now that the NAZIs contolled virtually all of western and central Europe and millions of Jews, it was felt that a coordinated plan was needed to efficently execute the "Final Sollution". The SS was the principal tool, but the killing of millions necesitated the cooperation of many different Government agencies. The was originally scheduled for December 9, 1941, but had to be postponed because of the stuningly successful Russian offensive in front of Moscow and after Pearl Harbor, Hitler's declaration of war on America. The meeting was finally held on in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee (January 20, 1942). The meeting was a secret sesion attended by 15 senior NAZI officials. The purpose was to coordinate the "Final Sollution"-the murder of 11 million Europen Jews. that had already began in Poland and the Soviet Europe. The decission to murder the Jew had already been taken. The Conference was to coordinate and immplement that decission.


The secret Wannsee Conference got its name from the fact that it was held in the Berlin section of Wannsee, near Potsdam. Wannsee is a large lake in the southwestern quadrant of Berlin. Geologically, it is a massive gourge scraped out by glaciers furing the Ice Age. This created aarge lake area associated with the River Havel. This became very popular as a recreational area for Berliners. At the southern end is the Glienicke Bridge (also called the Wannsee Bridge), which is part of Königstrassee between Berlin and Postdam. It would after the War become known as the Cold War Bridge of Spies. They invitees met in a Villa at Wannsee. Wannsee was convenint as it was a Berlin suburb and the meeting attracted less notice than if it had been held in a central Berlin goverment building. And as the SD owned the Villa, security could be controlled. In addition the SS had acquired a substantial presence in Wannsee. The choice of Wannsee is ironic, in that it was a beautiful recreation area where countless Berliners enjoyed pleasant xummer outings.

Wannsee Villa Marlier (1921-40)

The Villa and attractive surrounding gardens were constructed for the businessman Ernst Marlier (1914-15). Marlier after World War I sold his villa to Friedrich Minoux (1921). He had made large sums as director-general of the Hugo Stinnes trust. Minoux during the crisis year when inflation destroyed the lives of counless Germans (1923), Minoux began conspiring with Army commandrs considering a possible seizure of power. This was also the year Hitler staged the Beer Hall Putsch. A series of conspiratorial meetings were held at the villa. The Reichwehr high command. howevder, ultimately decided against their plans to seize power (November 1923). Minoux countinued meetings with Free corps, NAZI, and other ultra-nationalist leaders, but they came to nothing. Minoux ended his association with the Stinnes trust and with the money he obtained, fopunded a wholesale coal business in Berlin (1924). For more than a decade he operated this business and as a board member of the Berlin gasworks, he and two accomplices embezzeled more than 12 million Reich marks, perhaps much more. He was was finally charges and arrested (May 1940). While in police custody, he sold the Villa for 1.95 million Reich marks to the SS Nordhav Foundation. This appears to have been a market price rather than a forced sale for a nominal sum. Here he was probably aided by all his pre-War NAZI contacts. The Nordhav Foundation handled the real estate business for the SS Security Service (SD).

The Sicherheitsdienst (SD)

Sicherheitsdienst (SD) was the intelligence arm of the SS and NAZI Party. It was headed by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Himmler put Heydrich in charge of the SS security sevice--the SD. His assignment was to prevent spying from the opposition and collect useful information on the NAZI's political foes. He was also assigned to find disent within the Part. He soon was also collecting useful information on party members and allies as well. He began compiling this information by hand on index cards. At first he did this work himself. The NAZIs were not yet in power and resources were limited. He had no staff and even had to borrow a typewritter for his own use. White Hitler worked to seize power, Heydrich labored builduing the SD. After the onset of the War, the SD merged with the Security Police (Criminal Police and Secret State Police, called 'Gestapo') to form the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). As the War developed, the SD would become both the coordinating office for the Holocaust as well as a spy agency competing the Abwehr, There were a variety of non-military functions. It was the SD. for example, that would complile lists of anti-NAZIs to be arrested after the Wehrmacht occupied a country. This was done before the actual invasion. Individuals could be identified both through newspapers and NAZI sympthizers in the various countries. The SD began recruiting and placing agents abroad. The initial goal was political intelligence, but as the War continued and the SS grew in importance, the SD began to acquire economic and military intelligence. The SD by the end of the War had espionage networks in several countries. Two of the largest were Argentina and Spain.

SD Opperations at Wannsee (1937-45)

The SD as a key unit of the SS, had access gto enormous resources. It set up a secret institute, the Wannsee Institute, to research a range of topics associated with Eastern Europe. By this time it was clear that war was coming and the conquest of the East was a major NAZI goal. The Wannsee Institute was located at Lake Grosser, one of the smaller lakes in the Wannsee complex. Here the Wannsee Institute produced a range of intelligence and study group reports on the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. The asquisition of the Villa Marlier gave the SD luxurious facility for its activities in Wannsee (May 1940). With Poland and Czechoslovakia already occupied and the defeat of France (June 1940), plans soon underway for the invasion of the Soviet Union, resulting in a flury of activitty. The Villa Marlier was thus available for the Wannsee Conference (January 1942). The Villa Minoux was converted into a pleasant SS guesthouse and casino (October 1941). It was also used by the SD/RSHA for secret conferences. The Wannsee Conference is only the most sinister of the various conferences. Another Wannsee facility was also added. The International Criminal Police Commission also headed by Heydrich moved into a villa at Lake Kleiner, another small Wannsee Lake (1941). The SD set up the Havel Institute (1942). Thisas aadio communications facility which directed spy and sabotage actions aimed at the Soviet Union--Operation Zeppelin. As the Allies expanded the strategic bombing campaign, the RSHA moved its Berlin staff and offices to safter locatiions in Wannsee away from the city center. Walter Schellenberg, head of the SD branch for non-German countries, set up a office (1944). Schellenberg after the July Bomb Plot on Hitler would subsequently take over the Abwehr intelligence function. Individual SD/RHSA officers purchased private residences in the Wannsee areas as did many other NAZI fuctionaries.

Jewish Children: Forced Labor Unit/Wannsee Horticultural School (1940-43)

The Villa Marlier and other SD facilities in Wannsee had extensive gardens which the staff anf guests enjoyed. Gardens expensive to maintain. And with the onset of the War, labor became increasingly scarce as more and more nen were conscripted for active duty service. At the same time, there were unemployed Jews in Germany that NAZI policies had been forced out of their jobs as well as businesses and shops. The NAZIs began using these Jews for various purposes. This was only German Jews. Jews were not briought inhto the Reich. In fact the SS/SD/RSHA launched a major effort to deport Jews from the areas of Poland annexed to thc Reich. A variety of forced labor schemes were established. The Jews were given iorders to participate and many werec desperate fior even bare essehtials like food. The SD set up a 'closed Jewish labor unit' (1940). We think this meant, Jewish workers who were housed in a controled facility andc did not live at home. The unit was called the Wannsee Horticultural School because young people, mostly teenagers were used and using children for slave labor was seen as unseemingly. The unit was administered by Georg Alexander and a teacher, Jizchak Schwersenz, aew. Schwersenz along wuith friends and somec of the students went into hiding (1942). He and some of the children survived. The renmaining children were arrestedcwhile at wirk uin the gardens (February 27, 1943). The Germans called this Fabrikaktion. This was part of an overall operation to deport Jewish forced laborers in Berlin to Auschwitz where most of them were murdered. The SS replaced the Jewish children at Wannsee with non-Jewish forced laborers.

The Decision

No one knows precisely when Hitle made the decision to kill 11 million European Jews. Nor do we know precisely when those orders were given to Himmler, Göring, and Heydrich. It is likely that the decesion emrtged as part of private conversations with those four and perhaps Goebbels. The idea may not have been generted by Hitler himself. More likely it came from Heydrich who ironically was not fundamentally an anti-Semite. He did understand Hitler's chsracter and knew that the best way to advance his career was to present the most radical proposals cioncerning the Jews to Hitler. As late as 1940, NAZI officials were toying with various schemes. One scheme was deporting all European Jews to Madagascar. It was, however, discarded as being completely impractical. That does not mean, however, thst the decesion had not already been taken by Hitler, only tht it was not yet desinated down the chsin of command. The decesion to kill European Jews was not a decission that was the product of a commission or study group. It was a decesion that could have been made by one and only one man in the NAZI Führer state--Adolf Hitler. The Wannsee Conference was not to decide on the fate of Jews, it was to iron out the mechanics as to how the killing was to be accomplished and to ensure that the various agencies of the German Government fully cooperated with the SS. It was to make sure the killing process was efficent and orderly and done for the maximum profit to the Reich.

Reinhard Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich saw himself as a military man. He was, however, cashiered by the Navy. He was disdainful pf politics. H looked on the NAZIs which by 1930 had become the largest party in Germany, with particular disdain. The NAZI Broown shirts (SA) had given the party a reputation of bar-room brawlers, looked down on my many educated Germans. Under his wife influence, however, his attitude began to change. Then a friend who was also a NAZI suggested that he apply for an impotant position that had become available, the director of security. Heydrich joined the NAZI Party (June 1931). Heydrich's friend told him told him that the opening was in the SS--a very different group than the SA. Himmler put Heydrich in charge of the SS security sevice--the SD. Only one man in NAZI Germany could issue such a monentous order as the muder of millions of European Jews. While the process by which that ordered wound up in Reinhard Heydrich's hands is unclear, it is clear that Heydrich, Head of the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt--RHSA), was the architect and coordinator of the Holocaust. Heydrich succintly stated what the Führer had ordered. "Europe would be combed of Jews from east to west."


German Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD (Einsatzgruppen) were paramilitary formations, essentially death squads, following behind front-line combat units. Their assignment was to deal primarily with Jews, but also were used against other population ngtoups the Germans identified as unreliable or undesirable. SS Einsatzgruppen had killed substantial numbers of Jews and non-Jews in Poland (1939-40), but the numbers were still in the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands. Most Polish Jews had been confined in Ghettos. When Britain refused to surrender after the fall of France, Einsatzgruppen were organized to deal with the British as part of Operation Sea Lion (fall 1940). The Einsatzgruppen were significantly expanded and ready for lsrhe-scale operations at the onset of Barbarossa (June 1941). They were used barbarically in the Soviet Union in the (summer and fall 1941). They reported killed about 0.7 million Jews in the territories seized by the Wehrmacht. Their methods were effective, but both public and messy. And often they failed to recover valuable possessions. NAZI officials concluded that a different more coordinated plan was needed in the more developed occupied countries in Poland Western Europe.

The Final Sollution

Hitler used the term 'Final Sollution' ( Die Endlösung/ endgültige Lösung) when he inroduced the Nuremberg Laws to the Reichstag (1935). We are not sure this was the first use of the term, but it certainly was the most important early use. We do not know just what Hitler meant by the term at this time. SS staff formulated a draft plan to deport Jews from all over Europe to concentration camps in Poland which were being prepared as Death Camps. The killing as part of what woukld beconme called Operation Reinhard had already begun there at the time of the Conference. Jews strong enough would be put to hard labor. Children, the elderly, and those not it for labor were to be immediatly killed in industrial scale gas chambers being built in the Polish camps. The SS estimated that the Polish camps would be fully opperational by July 1, 1942. The Jews in Poland had already been gathered into ghettos. The job of isolating, robbing, arresting, and transporting millions of Jews to the Polish Death Camps was a logigistical problem of enormous dimensions. To efficently implement th plan the close cooperation of several often competing Government agencies would be needed.


The Wannsee Conference was chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD and the deputy for SS Reich Führer-SS. Himmler had put Heydrich in charge of coordinating SS operations against the Jews. Two other SS officils attended: Heinrich Müller (Gestapo Chief) and Adolf Eichmann (SS). [After Heydrich's assasination, Eichmann coordinated the Final Sollution for the SS.] The other paticipants show the range of involvement througout the German Government necessary to organize and administer the "Final Sollution: Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Reich Interior Ministry), Erich Neuman (Four-Year Plan), Dr. Roland Freisler (Reich Justice Ministry) [Freisler was the NAZI judge who brated the defendents in the trials following the attempted assasination of Hitler in 1944, he was later killed in an Allied bombing raid on Berlin], Dr. Josef Bühler (Office Government General) [the Government General was occupied Poland], Dr. Martin Luther (Foreign Office) [what a name for a man involved in mass murder although notably Lutger was a strident anti-semite.], Friedrich Kritzinger (Reich Chancellery) Meyer, Liebbrandt (the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and officials from the Race and Settlement Main Office, the Reich Security Main Office, and the Security Police and SD. Notably very few of these men were ever bought to justice. Quite a few of these men were killed in the War. Several were SS men involved in security operations. Freisler was killed in a Allied bombing raid. Several were arrested after the war, but most were released for lack of evidence.


The Conference was uthorized by Hermann Göring's letter to Heydrich, dated July 31, 1941. "I hereby commission you to carry out all necessary preparations . . . for a total solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe." Heydrich assignmnt was to submit to Göring an "Overall Plan" for "the intended final solution of the Jewish question." There are many curious aspects to this memo. It suggests that Hitler verbally gave the order to Goering. This seems strange because Himmler as commander of the SS was more in a position to implement such an order. Many historians believe that it was Heydrich that wrote the memo and convinced Goering to sign the memo. The memo itself is currious. Heydrich was not in Goering's chain of command. Why did the order not come from Himmler to Heydrich? And why did Goering transfer the assignment to Heydrich. What appears clear is hat Heydrich wanted the assignment. No one knows for sure why this was, but it was presumably because it would increase his esteem in Hitler's eyes.


The plan prepared by the SS was discussed in detail. Heydrich explained that there were 11 million Jews in Europe. The plan was to collect and hold these Jews in transit ghettos. [HBC note: By this time this had already been accomplished in Poland and was well underway in other occupied countries, except the Soviet Union where the killing began frim the day of the invasion.] The Jews were to be sent east to create work gangs to build roads. Heydrich anticipated that the Jews will 'doubtless fall away through natural reduction' and those who survived would 'be dealt with appropriately.' [Gilbert, p. 282.] Unmentioned was the fact that many of those 11 million Jews were children and elderly individuls who were mot suited for hard labor. Adolf Eichmann later explained to his Isreali interogators that those present clealy understood that those not suitable for work would be killed immediately. There were some differences as to strategy, but not on the overall objective. And it soon became clear to the participants that they were not assembed to decided on the killing, but to make it clear that their job was to follow SS orders and support the killing process.

Conference Transcript and Summaries

The official (meaning edited) summary of the Wannsee Convention is perhaps the most chilling document in all of modern history--even after being sanitized by Eichmann. Heydrich had his assistant Eichmann carefully edit it to insure that innocuous terms were used to describe what it was effect the program to murder millions of people. Terms such as evacuations to the East' were used to describe transports to death camps which at the time were nearing completion. A full transcript of the meeting discussion was made. It was given to Eichmann who after preparing his 'official' summary destroyed it. There were 30 summaries made. Each of the participants got a copy. Only one of the copies were found. All but Foreign Ministy official Dr. Martin Luther judiciously destroyed their copies. Luther would have let Foreign Minister Ribbentrop see it. After that it was filed away in the Foreign Ministry's files where American war crimes investigators found it tucked away in the ministry files after the War (1947). Thus we have a good idea of the the topics discussed and even wgat was said. It should be rembered, however, that this is not transcript. An verbatim transcript ws made, but turned over to Eichmann after the meeting. He used it to write the summary which was was carefully sanutized to eliminate any reference to killing. Rather 'resettlment' and 'evacuation' was substituted. Some of these words may have actually been used by Heydrich. Amd a few of the participnts may have actually been believed by some of the participants. But as a result of the meeting note if the participnts were left with any doubt that they were discussing murder and that their role was not to discuss the issue but follow SS orders, meaning Heydrich's orders. Holocausr denyers will say how can you prove te this? The anser is simple. If Jews were relly evacuated or resettled then there would be settlements with millions of missing Jews. And ask the denyers to point out even one single such settlment. Eichmann's sanitized oficial summaries were then distributed to each participant. Luther's copy was numbr 16.


The result was the approval of the SS plan. Killings had already begun in Poland and the Soviet Union. Large-scale transport of Jews to be murdered were to be begun as oon as the Polish Death Camps were operational, estimated for July 1, 1942. The participants decided to begin with Jews in Western and Northern Europe. In practice the Jews in the Soviet Union and Poland were killed first. Operations against Jews in the Soviet Union began almost immediately with Operation Barbarrosa, the invason of the Soviet Union. The Eisatzgruppen followed the combat groups and immediately began killing Jews, although at the beginning some of the commanders were unsure bout theur orders. This indecesio wasimmedistely corrected by Heydrich. And much of the killing in the Soviet Union accomplished by the time of the Conference. The actual schedule after the Confernce was followed was: first Poland: Lublin (March 1942); ghettos of Eastern and Western Poland (Spring 1942); and the Warsaw Ghetto (July-September 1942). The schedule was the Slovakian Jews (March-September 1942). The killing of Dutch, Belgian and French Jews began in July 1942. The Hungarian Jews were the last to be killed at Auschwitz. Eichmann personally supervised the transport, rushing to accomplish his mission before the Germans were expelled by the Red Army.


The Conference shos how the entire German Government ws complicit in the mass murder. It also shows how the SS which had begun the killings with the Einsatzgruppen in Poland and the Soviet Union was now fully in charge of coordinated the entire process. The discussions at the Confrence were not about whether or not to kill the Jews, but the most efficient process of murder. The Conference shifted the killing process from mass hootings in open pits by the Einsatzgruppen to the more efficient gassing opeations at the Polish Death Camps.

Movie: Conspiracy (2001)

I recently watched the Kenneth Branagh film 'Conspiracy' about the Wansee Conference (2001). It was a well done film, but I am left wondering about the histriodicity of the dialog. I have no problem about the overall tennor of the dilm and nature of the dialog. It seems consistent to what is know aboutthe NAZIs. But I am left wondering about the histriodicity of the dialog. As far as I know, none of the participants ever wrote about the Convention and what was said there. The Israelis of course seized Eichmann in Argentina. Eichmann was Heydrich's assistant who set up the meeting and helped Heydrich direct the proceedings. When they got him back to Israel they interogated him in detail. We do not know what was said about the Wansee Conference. It must have been discussed. The only actual documentation surviving the War was one of Eichmann's edited summaries of the meeting which were distributed to each participant. A transcript was made and given to Eichmann after the conclusion of the of the meeting. It was the summary given to Luther and found after the war. Any reader knowledge about the histriodicty of the film, especially the dialog would be interesting. Apparently Luther voiced concerns about 'resettlement' (meaning killing) already underway throughout NAZI occupied Europe, which would suggest that he did not fully understand what was not only planned, but already underway. Of course the memo was Eichmann's edited version of the Conference. The film depicts Heydrich making clear to those who did not yet understand that 'ressetlement' meant murder. This almost certainly would have been desguised in Eichmann's edited version. The script was written by Loring Mandel, a highly respected screenwriter, but as far as we know no historical background or special knowledge of the Holocaust. Another movie was made in Germany, 'Die WannseeKomferenz' (1985).


Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know (Ed. Arnold Kramer. Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1993).

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985).

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf.

Lehrer, Stephen. Wannsee House and the Holocaust.

Padfield, Peter. Himmler: Reichsführer-SS (Henry Holt: New York, 1991), 656p.

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Created: October 12, 2002
Last updated: 3:17 PM 11/13/2020