Wannsee Conference - Interpretation


The Wannsee Conference lasted only about ninety minutes, and for most of its participants it was one meeting among many in a busy week. The enormous importance which has been attached to the conference by postwar writers was not evident to most of its participants at the time. Heydrich did not call the meeting to make fundamental new decisions on the Jewish question. Massive killings of Jews in the conquered territories in the Soviet Union and Poland (e.g., at Chelmno) were ongoing and new extermination camps were in preparation at the time of the conference. Fundamental decisions about the extermination of the Jews, as everybody at the meeting understood, were made by Hitler, in consultation, if he chose, with senior colleagues such as Himmler and Göring, and not by officials. They knew that in this case the decision had already been made, and that Heydrich was there as Himmler's emissary to tell them about it. Nor did the conference engage in detailed logistical planning. It could hardly do so in the absence of a representative of the Transport Ministry or the German Railways.

German historian Peter Longerich has written that one motive for Heydrich's calling the conference was to ensure that all the leading ministries were accomplices in his plan.

"From Heydrich’s point of view", he writes, "the main purposes of the conference were, firstly, to establish the overall control of the deportation programme by the RSHA over a number of important Reich authorities and thereby, secondly, to make the top representatives of the ministerial bureaucracy into accomplices and accessories to, and co-responsible for, the plan he was pursuing. To reiterate: the plan was to exile all Jews in the present and future areas under German rule to Eastern Europe, where they were to be exposed to extraordinarily harsh living conditions and fatally exhausted or murdered. Heydrich had pursued this deportation plan since the beginning of 1941; in July 1941, Göring had given him the authority to execute it; and with the first deportation of Jews from central Europe in October, the first stage in that pan-European design had been realized. With his first invitation to the conference, Heydrich had waited until the second wave of deportations to Riga, Minsk and Kovno had already begun. He clearly wanted to present the representatives of the supreme Reich authorities with a fait accompli".

Longerich further argued,

"As we do not know the exact words used in the conference, and since Eichmann's statements incriminating third parties can only be trusted with certain reservations, the minutes should not be used as a basis for speculations about what was 'actually' said... Instead it should be read as a guideline authorized by Heydrich and revealed to representatives of a number of authorities by the RSHA, which had been commissioned to deal with the final solution of the Jewish question... On 20 January 1942, Heydrich had two chief concerns: the deportations had to be accepted (everything that happened after the deportations was an internal SS matter, and no longer had to be agreed with other institutions). Secondly, the category of those to be deported had to be established: the status of Mischlinge and those married to non-Jews had to be clarified... However, by being included in the detailed discussion of the problems surrounding Mischlinge and 'mixed marriages', the representatives of the ministerial bureaucracy came to share knowledge of and responsibility for the 'Final Solution'. For, with the concerns they raised against the inclusion of the marginal groups in the deportations, the representatives of the ministerial bureaucracy had made it plain that they had no concerns about the principle of deportation per se. This was indeed the crucial result of the meeting and the main reason why Heydrich had detailed minutes prepared and widely circulated."

Eichmann's biographer David Cesarani agrees with Longerich's interpretation, that Heydrich's main purpose was to impose his own authority on the various ministries and agencies involved in Jewish policy matters, to avoid any repetition of the disputes that had arisen over the killing of the German Jews at Riga in late November. "The simplest, most decisive way that Heydrich could ensure the smooth flow of deportations", he writes, "was by asserting his total control over the fate of the Jews in the Reich and the east, and cow other interested parties into toeing the line of the RSHA". This would explain why most of the meeting was taken up with a long speech by Heydrich, the contents of which would not have been news to most of those present, and why so little time was spent discussing practical questions. It was also important to obtain the consent of the Foreign Ministry and the Four Year Plan, the ministries most likely to object (on diplomatic and economic grounds) to the mass killing of the Jews.

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