Seventy-five years ago this Friday, German government officials met at a lakeside villa in Berlin’s Wannsee district to talk about implementing the “final solution,” Nazi Germany’s plan to kill the 11 million Jews in Europe.
Mark Roseman, director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program at IU Bloomington and Pat M. Glazer Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of history, wrote the definitive book on this event, “The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution: A Reconsideration,” published in 2003. This week, he is traveling to Germany for meetings marking the anniversary.
Roseman also authored a chapter in a new book, the German version of which will launch Sunday. The book, “The Participants: The Men of the Wannsee Conference,” looks at the 16 men who took part and the roles they played. An English version will come out this summer.
Historians didn’t learn about the conference until 1947, when a surviving copy of its minutes was discovered by a Nuremberg prosecutor in files seized from German government offices. The conference attained an almost mythic status as the point at which Germany embarked on genocide.
Roseman said the truth is more complicated, but the record of the conference provides important insight into the implementation of German policies.
“Whatever else it is,” he said, “it’s a very striking record of an important moment in the evolution of Nazism and the Holocaust.”
The meeting was organized and chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, a top German security official, and included officials from government ministries responsible for the treatment of Jews inside and outside of Germany. Adolf Eichmann, whose trial in 1961 and execution in 1962 increased attention to the Holocaust in the post-war generation, made arrangements and prepared the minutes.
Using euphemisms, the conference record nevertheless made clear that top German leaders intended to eliminate European Jews, both in lands that Germany controlled and in those that it planned to conquer. The proceedings included discussions of the evolution of that effort and the fate of Jews of mixed ancestry or in mixed marriages.
Some of the resonance of the meeting, Roseman said, results from the “juxtaposition of elegance and barbarity,” the way in which German officials gathered in an opulent setting for a calm discussion of mass murder. Afterward, cognac was served.
War crimes prosecutors saw the conference minutes as a smoking gun: evidence of German officials planning the systematic execution of Jews. But Roseman pointed out that top government officials were not present to make or approve decisions. And the mass murder of Jews was already underway: the Chelmno extermination camp had opened and the Belzec death camp was being built.
A possible rationale for the conference, Roseman said, is that Heydrich — told by Hitler’s right-hand man Hermann Göring to develop a grand plan for addressing the Jewish question — orchestrated the conference explicitly to establish and show off his authority.
Today the conference site is a museum, called the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Education Site. It is hosting a full week of activities for the anniversary, including lectures, musical and theatrical performances, and panel discussions. Roseman will discuss his research Sunday in connection with the launch of “The Participants: The Men of the Wannsee Conference.”
His chapter in the new book examines how historians and others have assessed the role of individual German leaders in designing and carrying out the Holocaust. Historians, he said, have downplayed the agency of individuals and focused on Hitler and the “machinery” of the Nazi regime. But journalists and the public have taken a different angle.
“There’s this fascination with the Nazi elites,” he said. “It’s unrivaled, I would say, by any other dictatorship. We know the names: Goebbels, Göring, Himmler. Who knows the names of those who worked for Stalin?”