Seventy-three years ago, on the bitterly cold afternoon of 20 January 1942, 15 men representing a patchwork of National Socialist (Nazi) military and civilian bureaucracies gathered in a villa outside Berlin. For 90 minutes they met in formal conference and informal discussion. They drank beer and scotch and enjoyed a buffet luncheon of the finest delicacies available in wartime Germany. By all surviving accounts, the conversation over food and drinks was convivial and relaxed.
The goal of the meeting – its “deliverable,” in modern business jargon – was approval of a document to be disseminated to the heads of the departments represented around the table. Before the meeting adjourned, each of the 15 men present had officially endorsed the document. Each departed the villa with instructions to communicate details to his superiors and to no one else.
An SS officer edited the meeting’s transcript and distributed numbered copies to the attendees with orders that the transcripts be destroyed after reading. Fortunately for posterity, one attendee disobeyed that order and kept a transcript in his files, where it was discovered by an American investigator in 1947.
That meeting – the Wannsee Conference – forged the Schutzstaffel (SS) plan for the assembly-line deportation and murder of all of Europe’s Jews.
In addition to a fundamental opposition to Communism, the precepts underlying Nazi ideology were based upon “racial hygiene,” i.e., a belief that Germans were superior to all other races and a belief that Germans were therefore not only entitled but required to conquer neighboring lands and eliminate or enslave “undesirable” races, thereby appropriating Lebensraum (room for living) for their master race. The Nazis especially hated Jews. When the Nazis rose to power in January of 1933, the persecution of Jews, which had been widespread and informal in Europe for many centuries, became codified official state policy.
The April 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service and other similar laws barred Jews from serving as lawyers, teachers, musicians, doctors, tax consultants, judges, and civil servants. The Nuremberg Laws, passed in September of 1935, defined racial Jewishness, outlawed the social mixing of Germans and Jews, and stripped Jews and other non-Germans of citizenship. Throughout the 1930s, systematic persecution destroyed many Jewish-owned businesses and forced Jews from their homes.
Some Jews chose to remain in Germany, believing that since they and their families had been German for centuries they would be spared. Others fled. By the beginning World War II in September of 1939, roughly 250,000 of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had emigrated.
Some Jews who wanted to leave Germany were unable to do so because of strict immigration quotas, exorbitant fees, and restrictive visa laws in receiving nations, including the United States. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Roosevelt’s advisors, and many members of Congress were unwilling to increase quotas on Jewish immigration in spite of horror stories reaching them from across the Atlantic. Although the U.S. did admit quite a few Jewish actors, film directors, musicians, writers, and scholars fleeing Nazi persecution, Jewish refugees with less impressive curriculum vitae were turned away. The shameful saga of the MS St. Louis, a ship full of European Jews turned away from the U.S. and sent back, is especially egregious.
During World War II, the Nazis committed against non-Germans atrocities too numerous to list here. Months before their invasion of Poland, for example, the German leadership ordered the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia and others in the Polish ruling class. By the end of 1939, approximately 65,000 civilians in Poland had been murdered by specialized Einsatzgruppen.
The Nazis officially planned and carried out mass starvation of Slavic peoples – considered by them to be inferior – in order to secure a steady supply food for themselves. By the end of the war, an estimated 4.2 million people in portions of the Soviet Union occupied by Germany had died as a result of such deliberate and strategic starvation.
For the Jews, the Nazis planned not population reduction (as for the Slavs) but total annihilation. Extermination of the Jews was a central goal of Nazi war plans. Near the end of the War, when the German military badly needed resources and personnel in order to conduct its operations in the field, it was on the evacuation and murder of Jews – and especially of Hungary’s Jews – that the German leadership focused its efforts.
Early in the War, the Nazi approach to eliminating Jews was ad hoc and varied, at times spearheaded by official military Einsatzgruppen and at other times carried out by enthusiastically anti-Semitic natives of conquered lands.
In July of 1941, Reichsminister Hermann Göring ordered Reich Security Chief Reinhard Heydrich to formulate a “total solution to the Jewish question,” an official protocol for the elimination of Jews from German-held territories, which they intended would ultimately encompass all of Europe and the British Isles.
Heydrich’s original plan involved deportation of all Jews to slave labor camps in Siberia, where they would be worked to death. When the tide of war turned against Germany in late 1941 (as a result of Germany’s declaration of war against the U.S. and a successful Soviet counterattack in Russia), Heydrich, whom even Hitler described as “the man with the iron heart,” and who was known as “The Butcher of Prague” for his barbaric suppression of Czech resistance movements, shifted his strategy from deportation of the Jews to wholesale slaughter.
Heydrich devised a detailed scheme whereby Jews from all regions under German control would be evacuated to camps in Poland, where they would be exterminated. The plan was to be overseen and carried out entirely by the SS, which would have jurisdiction for the purposes of Jewish affairs over every agency in Hitler’s complex web of sometimes redundant bureaucracies.
Wannsee Conference invitees were told in advance that at the meeting they would discuss the disposition of “the Jewish question.” As lawyers, accountants, military commanders, and stake-holding representatives of government departments, the invitees must surely have believed that they would be able to contribute useful ideas to the discussion.
In reality, plans for The Final Solution had already been drawn up in advance of the meeting. Heydrich’s true purpose was to present the plans to representatives of the most affected agencies, extract acquiescence from each attendee (via threats, if necessary), and assert the supremacy of the SS in all matters related to Jews.
Heydrich’s management of the meeting was menacing and brilliant. While feigning openness to discussion, he presented his fait accompli, demanding obedience and simultaneously rendering each attendee complicit in mass murder.
The Wannsee Conference has been dramatized twice for the screen. I have not seen the 1984 German production entitled Die Wannseekonferenz, which is reputed to be excellent.
The 2001 HBO film Conspiracy is outstanding. I highly recommend it for its historical content and for its top-flight acting, writing, cinematography, and art direction.
As is the case for the German film, the meeting scenes in Conspiracy hew faithfully to the surviving transcript. The characters’ informal conversations are cleverly written to introduce personalities and to plausibly set up some of the exchanges that take place at the conference table.
Conspiracy features Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich – a role that he described as one of the most difficult of his career. Branagh delivers a charming and coldly psychopathic Heydrich who anchors the story with soft-spoken menace.
Stanley Tucci portrays a hyper-controlled Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who at the Wannsee Conference was Heydrich’s subordinate but who was to assume control of The Final Solution following Heydrich’s assassination by Czech partisans in June of 1942.
Colin Firth delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Nuremberg Laws co-author Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, who, though a rabid anti-Semite himself, eloquently and vehemently opposes the SS extermination program on legal grounds.
The great Shakespearean actor David Threlfall portrays Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery, whose impassioned pleading offers the strongest opposition to the meeting’s deadly plans before he finally capitulates in the face of Gestapo threats.
The rest of the cast is a terrific ensemble of some of the decade’s best British actors. Many have since achieved fame through parts in popular TV series and films: Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey), Ben Daniels (House of Cards), Brian Pettifer (Hamish Macbeth), Nicholas Woodeson (Rome), Ian McNeice (Rome), Kevin McNally (the Pirates of the Caribbean films), Jonathan Coy (Downton Abbey), Owen Teale (Game of Thrones), and Peter Sullivan (The Borgias). A young Tom Hiddleston appears in a small role as a radio operator.
I have seen Conspiracy several times and derive new lessons from each viewing. One clear message is that a civilized nation must have founding principles and a written constitution to which all laws must be securely anchored. Without such principles, law becomes arbitrary, and the civilized and consistent Rule of Law can be replaced by the capricious Rule of Men (which inevitably becomes Rule of the Most Heavily Armed and Most Unscrupulous Men).
The individual characters’ dramas in Conspiracy serve as warnings about “The Banality of Evil” – a term coined by Hannah Arendt to characterize a particular form of human evil resulting from unquestioning conformity, poor quality of thought, formulaic reaction, and other sheep-like behavior. Like other horrors perpetrated by 20th-century totalitarian states, the Nazis’ Final Solution was carried out by individuals “following orders,” who did not want to “make waves,” and who were unwilling to take principled stands against the evil around them.
In the memorable words attributed to Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), “All that is required for evil to flourish in the world is for good men to do nothing.”
Quote for Today
“Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East. Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes. The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, 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.” – SS-Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant-General) Reinhard Heydrich