The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution

Meeting of Nazi Officials in Early 1942 Set Plans for Mass Murder

Villa at Wansee where Nazi officials met
The villa at Wansee where Nazis plotted the Final Solution.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The Wannsee Conference of January 1942 was a meeting of Nazi officials which formalized the agenda for the mass murder of millions of European Jews. The conference assured the cooperation of various branches of the German government in the Nazi goal of the "Final Solution," the elimination of all Jews in territories occupied by German forces.

The conference had been convened by Reinhard Heydrich, a fanatical Nazi official who served as the top deputy to SS head Heinrich Himmler. Heydrich had already directed the killings of Jews in territory seized by Nazi troops in 1941. His intent on calling together officials from various departments of the German military and civil service was not really to announce a new policy of killing Jews, but to ensure that all facets of the government would be working together to eliminate Jews.

Key Takeaways: The Wannsee Conference

  • Meeting of 15 Nazi officials in early 1942 formalized plans for the Final Solution.
  • Gathering at luxurious villa in Berlin suburb was called by Reinhard Heydrich, known as "Hitler's Hangman."
  • Minutes of the meeting were kept by Adolf Eichmann, who would later preside over mass murder and be hanged as a war criminal.
  • The minutes of the Wannsee Conference are considered one of the most damning Nazi documents.

The conference, which was held at an elegant villa on the shore of Lake Wannsee in a Berlin suburb, remained unknown outside the Nazi top command until two years after the end of World War II. American war crimes investigators searching through captured archives discovered copies of the minutes of the meeting in the spring of 1947. The document had been kept by Adolf Eichmann, whom Heydrich considered his expert on European Jewry.

The meeting minutes, which have become known as the Wannsee Protocols, describe in a businesslike manner how 11,000,000 Jews across Europe (including 330,000 in Britain and 4,000 in Ireland) would be transported eastward. Their fate in the death camps was not explicitly stated, and would have no doubt been assumed by the 15 men attending the meeting.

Calling the Meeting

Reinhard Heydrich originally intended to hold the meeting at Wannsee in early December 1941. Events, including the U.S. entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor and German setbacks on the Eastern Front, caused a delay. The meeting was eventually scheduled for January 20, 1942.

The timing of the meeting was significant. The Nazi war machine, as it moved into Eastern Europe in the summer of 1941, had been followed by Einsatzgruppen, specialized SS units tasked with killing Jews. So the mass murder of Jews had already begun. But in late 1941 the Nazi leadership came to believe dealing with what they termed the "Jewish question" would require a coordinated national effort far beyond the scope of the mobile extermination units already operating in the East. The scale of the killing would be accelerated to an industrial scale.

photograph of Nazi Reinhard Heydrich
Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi architect of The Holocaust. Corbis / Getty Images 

Attendees and Agenda

The meeting was attended by 15 men, with participants from the SS and the Gestapo as well as officials from the Reich Ministry of Justice, the Reich Ministry of the Interior, and the Foreign Office. According to the minutes kept by Eichmann, the meeting began with Heydrich reporting that the Reich Minister (Hermann Goering) had instructed him to "make preparations for the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe."

The chief of the security police then gave a brief report on actions already taken in the effort to enact the forced emigration of Jews out of Germany and into territories in the East. The minutes noted that the emigration program was already difficult to manage, and was therefore not sustainable.

The numbers of Jews in various European countries were then listed in a table which tallied up a total of 11,000,000 Jews across Europe. As the table includes the Jews of England, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, it indicates the confidence of the Nazi leadership that all of Europe would eventually be conquered. No Jews in Europe would be safe from persecution and eventual murder.

The meeting minutes reflect that a comprehensive discussion ensued about how to identify Jews (especially in nations that did not have racial laws).

The document at times refers to the "final solution," but never explicitly mentions that the Jews being discussed would be killed. It's probable that was simply assumed, as the mass killing of Jews had already been occurring along the Eastern Front. Or perhaps Eichmann purposely kept any explicit mention of mass murder out of the document.

Significance of the Meeting

The minutes of the meeting give no indication that any of the attendees voiced any objection to what was being discussed and proposed, even during discussions of topics such as forced sterilizations and the administrative problems involved with such programs.

The minutes indicate that the meeting concluded with Heydrich requesting that all participants "afford him appropriate support during the carrying out of the tasks involved in the solution."

The lack of any objections, and Heydrich's request at the end, seem to indicate that the SS had succeeded in getting vital departments of the government, including those rooted in the pre-Nazi civil service, to become full participants in the Final Solution.

Skeptics have noted that the meeting was unknown for years, and thus could not have been very important. But mainstream Holocaust scholars contend the meeting was very significant, and the minutes kept by Eichmann are one of the most damning of all Nazi documents.

What Heydrich, representing the SS, was able to achieve at the meeting in the plush villa at Wannsee was the agreement across the government to accelerate the killing of Jews. And following the Wannsee Conference, the construction of death camps accelerated, as well as the coordinated efforts to identify, apprehend, and transport Jews to their deaths.

photograph of Hiter at funeral of Reinhard Heydrich
Hitler saluting coffin of Reinhard Heydrich. Hulton Archive / Getty Images 

Heydrich, incidentally, was killed months later by partisans. His funeral was a major event in Germany, attended by Adolf Hitler, and news stories about his death in the West described him as "Hitler's hangman." Thanks in part to the Wannsee Conference, Heydrich's plans outlived him, and led to the full implementation of The Holocaust.

The man who kept the minutes at Wannsee, Adolf Eichmann, presided over the killings of millions of Jews. He survived the war and escaped to South America. In 1960 he was apprehended by Israeli intelligence agents. He was put on trial for war crimes in Israel and executed by hanging on June 1, 1962.

On the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, the villa where it was held was dedicated as Germany's first permanent memorial to the Jews killed by the Nazis. The villa is open today as a museum, with exhibits that include the original copy of the minutes kept by Eichmann.

Sources:

  • Roseman, Mark. "Wannsee Conference." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 20, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 617-619. Gale Ebooks.
  • "Wannsee Conference." Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, vol. 5, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 2670-2671. Gale Ebooks.
    "Wannsee Conference." Learning About the Holocaust: A Student's Guide, edited by Ronald M. Smelser, vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2001, pp. 111-113. Gale Ebooks.