January 20: The Wannsee Conference
By Robin Lane
The “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” – the total annihilation of European Jewry – was decided upon and put into motion on this day in 1942, at the Wannsee Conference in a suburb of Berlin, Germany. Fifteen officials from the Nazi Party and German government were in attendance, including the infamous Adolf Eichmann. The narrative told by the minutes of this conference appears rather uninteresting and bland at first glance. A civilized meeting between high-ranking Nazi officers, discussing their strategies – how much worse could it be than the recounts of gas chambers, ghettos, concentration camps, how much more shocking?
In fact, the Wannsee Conference can be considered an extremely shocking moment even against the horrifying backdrop of the Holocaust. You would assume, in a society where we watch people blow each other up for entertainment, that a simple meeting, even one about the instrumentation of genocide, would be the opposite of shocking. In the case of the Wannsee Conference, the shock isn’t from actual violence, but in the dull and casual way that violence is planned and discussed.
The minutes of the meeting show a conversation in clinical, scientific and pseudo-scientific terms – natural selection is mentioned – and a majority is dedicated to how to determine if someone is potentially Jewish. Each official in attendance reports back on his particular task or assignment, such as organizing all material interests in relation to the “final Solution,” and reporting on the main goals of the current “struggle” (“the expulsion of the Jews from every sphere of life of the German people…and from the living space of the German people”). The number of Jews “emigrated” from countries under Nazi control is also reported: 537,000. Most of their murderous plans are described using euphemisms: “eliminated by natural causes,” “treated accordingly,” “special treatment,” and “special actions” all ultimately meant death for the Jewish men, women, and children targeted by the Nazis.
Using the text of the Wannsee Conference minutes in classrooms provides a unique opportunity for students to use their evaluative and critical thinking skills, address the validity and bias of a source, and to compare and contrast the content of the minutes with other historical documents. More deeply, teachers can also use the minutes to address some of the core questions that have arisen in Holocaust studies. What does evil look like? Is it always barbaric, violent, bloody – or can it be subdued, orderly, and bureaucratic? Who is to blame? Those who orchestrated and ordered the murders, or those who carried them out? Such historiographical questions would be excellent prompts for student writing and discussion.
Take a look at the links below for further reading and other resources about the Wannsee Conference, and, as usual, feel free to reach out to us at the THGC with any questions about teaching this material in your classrooms.
Lesson Plansfinal solution 1942 holocaust wannsee third reich eichmann