Mar 2002 Journal

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The ultimate conspiracy

The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution
by Mark Roseman
Penguin, £9.99

This short volume tries to explain why the infamous Wannsee conference, on 20 January 1942, happened at all when hundreds of thousands of Jews were already being gassed at Chelmno or shot by death squads in Russia. Wannsee has always been seen as the meeting which put the seal on the 'Final Solution', the murder of all Europe's Jews. Yet, given that the slaughter was already happening, why on earth did this meeting, short and to the point as it was, need to take place?

Mark Roseman tells the story of the meeting in quiet, sober language, with the emotional horror kept well below the surface. The staff of the American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials find the only surviving copy of the minutes of the Wannsee meeting and are filled with horror. It details a presentation by the notorious Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Nazi security service and chief of the German security police, surveying measures taken against the Jews up to the end of 1941, lists the numbers of Jews remaining in Axis, occupied, neutral and enemy Europe, and outlines a plan to 'evacuate' them to the east.

There is no doubt that this evacuation was a euphemism for genocide, but it is formulated, as Roseman describes it, "in sober, bureaucratic language, deliberated on in civilised surroundings in a once cosmopolitan suburb of Berlin." The minutes also show that there was a lengthy discussion about what to do with the half- and quarter-Jews, the war-decorated Jews, the Jews married to non-Jews.

It is impossible that the Wannsee conference decided upon the Nazi murder of the Jews. Hitler was not there and the men present were too junior. Roseman suggests that, in the haphazard and chaotic chain of command, the act of murder of the Jews begat the idea of genocide, rather than the other way around. Jews were being murdered. It could happen, therefore it should happen. Thus far those murders happened without an overall plan. Was Wannsee to fix the overall plan, to turn murder of hundreds of thousands into millions?

Recent research suggests that various lower ranking officers had slipped mindlessly from brutality into killings, with murders well under way by the time of the Wannsee conference. Certainly too, the declaration by Hitler to evacuate German Jews to the east led to intolerable strains on the receiving territories. But there was no clear instruction of genocide, no overall plan. Hitler had created the climate of vicious antisemitism and he overruled the army's humanitarian concerns in the Polish campaign, suggesting that he was ready for the horrors.

Perhaps Wannsee was not about a plan for genocide, suggests Roseman. De facto, that already existed. It was to stamp Heydrich's own department's authority and responsibility over everything and to assert Heydrich's pre-eminence. It "cleared the way for genocide", but did not formally decide upon it. It did signal that genocide had become official policy.

Roseman's scholarly account leaves the reader understanding what Wannsee was really about. The policy was genocide, no longer news for the meeting's participants. All they had to stomach was Heydrich's assertion of control.
Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Chief Executive, King's Fund

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