In January 1942, the leaders of the Nazi Third Reich gathered in Wannsee, Germany, a suburb of Berlin to implement their plans and policies for what they termed the “Jewish Question.” The meeting was called and chaired by Reich Main Security Office SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich.
The Nazi’s plan, the “Final Solution” to the Jewish question was for the SS (Schutzstaffel) to oversee the obliteration of all of the Jews in Europe. Heydrich’s plan, where he laid out a proposal to force all of the Jews in Europe to Nazi-occupied Poland where they would be exterminated.
Discrimination Begins WIth Nazi Rise to Power:
As soon as Hitler and the Nazis came to power, the discrimination of the Jews began to take place. The Jews were gradually stripped of their rights as German citizens, their shops were vandalized and looted and they were encouraged to emigrate out of the country while leaving nearly all of their money and property of course.
Laws were passed to keep Jews from civil service careers. Then additional laws were enacted that would keep the Jews from practicing in any of the skilled professions such as doctors and lawyers, etc.
The in 1935, the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws which forbade Jews from marrying anyone of Germanic extraction. The Reich Citizenship Law stripped Jews of their German citizenship. Even those hardy souls who had lived through many of the pogroms that plagued Europe, this one is too much. As a result by 1939, more than half of Germany’s 500,000 Jews had emigrated to the United States, Britain, or Palestine.
With the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis were putting their plans into action. Einsatzgruppen (Special Task Forces) began the hunting and killing of Jewish civilians. SS and regular Wehrmacht troops murdered civilians as well.
One the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, they quickly began rounding up and exterminating Jews as the Final Solution had been in effect for some time.
The Meeting By the Lake in Wannsee:
The conference was attended by fifteen of the Nazi’s top leaders or the deputies of those leaders. The attendees besides Heydrich were:
Gauleiter Dr. Alfred Mayer (Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories)
Reichsamtleiter Dr. Georg Leibbrandt (ditto)
Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Reich Ministry for the Interior)
Dr. Erich Neumann (Head of the Four Years Plan Office)
Dr. Roland Freisler (Reich Ministry of Justice)
Dr. Josef Bühler (Director General of the Generalgouvernement)
Dr. Martin Luther (Foreign Office)
SS-Oberführer Gerhard Klopfer (NSDAP Chancellery)
Ministerialdirektor Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger (Reich Chancellery)
SS-Gruppenführer Otto Hofmann (Race and Settlement Main Office)
SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller (Reich Main Security Office/Gestapo)
SS-Obersturmbannf Adolf Eichmann (Reich Main Security Office)
SS-Oberführer Dr.Karl Eberhard Schöngarth (Commander SD / SIPO Krakow)
SS-Sturmbannführer Dr. Rudolf Lange (Commander SD Latvia)
The purpose of the meeting Heydrich said was to discuss the plan of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question and would entail rounding up all of the Jews of Europe. It was decided that the SS under Heinrich Himmler were to be in charge of the operation to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The Jews would be transported eastward to Poland and organized into large labor gangs. Work and living conditions would be extremely brutal, with little food, so that they could kill large numbers by natural reduction. Any survivors would be treated accordingly. Treated accordingly was the alternative term for extermination.
As would be later noted during the Nuremberg War Crime Trials, not one of the 15 men there would object to the planned extermination of an entire race of people. A bigger bone of contention among the Nazis attending the conference was, how to define what exactly makes one Jewish? Himmler, always a believer in quack-science, foolishly hoped that a simple blood test could be developed that could differentiate between Jews and non-Jews. When that proved useless, the Nazis decided to go back two generations. If there was a Jewish grandparent in the last two generations, then that person was a Jew. But in their ardor to destroy the race, it ended up simply being if a Nazi party member thought you were a Jew, you were.
The minutes of the meeting never mentioned extermination but just a few months later, gas chambers were being introduced into the six Nazi death camps in Poland, Belzec, Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. This did not bother the attendees at all, once again because in their minds, Jews were Untermensch or subhuman.
A copy of the minutes survived the War and was furnished at the Nuremberg trials. In one of the paragraphs it broke down how the approximate 5 million Jews of the USSR were employed:
The breakdown of Jews residing in the European part of the USSR according to trades was approximate as follows:
Agriculture 9.1 %
Urban workers 14.8 %
In trade 20.0 %
Employed by the state 23.4 %
In private occupations such as
medical profession, press, theater, etc. 32. 7%
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 a the seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history.)
In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east. Germany proper, including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, will have to be handled first due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities.
The evacuated Jews will first be sent, group by group, to so-called transit ghettos, from which they will be transported to the East.
The entire meeting lasted only 90 minutes. Heydrich instructed Eichmann to sanitize the minutes, (protocols in German) to sanitize them as nothing too explicit was to be put in there. All of the attendees were given a copy of the minutes after they were carefully scrutinized by Heydrich. At the end of the war, most of the copies were burned as the Nazis tried to cover their tracks in the last days of the Reich.
Heydrich was quite pleased with the meeting. No one opposed his absolute rule over the Jewish question and in fact, rather than oppose him, many at the conference pledged their support to him on the matter.
But for the Jews of Germany and the rest of Europe, the nightmare of the Holocaust was only going to get worse.