They met on January 20, 1942, at a luxury villa on park-like grounds overlooking Lake Wannsee, a recreation site a half-hour’s drive from Berlin.
Built by a wealthy industrialist, the villa was now held by an SS (Schutzstaffel) foundation. They were 15 top officials of the Nazi state – among them were nine lawyers and eight with doctorates. In that idyllic setting, in a meeting that lasted 90 minutes, they decided the “Jewish question”—how to deport 11 million people to labor camps and kill any who survived. If they differed, it was on the details. Never on the intent—mass murder.
Holocaust expert Peter Longerich’s illuminating book Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution begins by describing the meeting on that wintry day. The description brings out Nazi cynicism and cold-bloodedness as they convened at a pleasure spot to plan genocide. Longerich draws on the only remaining record of the meeting: the “minutes” prepared and distributed by Adolph Eichmann with instructions for destruction after review. One minister disobeyed, and the U.S. Army discovered his copy in 1945. The document summarizes the main lines of discussion and the decisions reached; it estimates Jewish populations in 30 countries, sets out specific territories where fit Jews should be made to work in labor gangs subjected to “natural wastage”; and says survivors would be disposed of in an unspecified manner.
The participants at the Wannsee Conference, called by Gen. Reinhard Heydrich, broadly represented all facets of the Reich. They did not actually initiate the Holocaust; it had already been haphazardly set in motion by disparate factions of the Nazi machinery. What they achieved was consensus. Those horrified by plans for exterminating Jews were pressured into compliance as evidence of their commitment to the Nazi goal of purifying the German volk....