On the 20th January 1942 a group of leading Nazis met at an elegant villa in the prosperous Berlin suburb of Wannsee and finalised the plans for the mass murder of all the Jews in Europe.
The organised murder of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen shooting squads had been under way since the invasion of Russia. Estonia – ‘Estland’ was already listed as being ‘judenfrei’ or free of Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews were dying every week from starvation in the ghettos of Poland and the East.
All the infrastructure needed to proceed even more quickly were in place, or could be rapidly expanded from existing systems. Experiments had already taken place with Zyklon B at Auschwitz, and the gas vans at Chelmno had begun operation in late 1941. The deportation of Jews from Germany and from other European countries to the ‘transit ghettoes’ had been under way for some time. The mechanisms for mass murder were ready.
The short meeting of almost two hours was therefore less about actual planning than to consolidate matters and to secure the personal commitment of all the attendees. The minutes of the meeting were very matter of fact:
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.
SS-Obergruppenführer Heydrich went on to say that an important prerequisite for the evacuation as such is the exact definition of the persons involved.
It is not intended to evacuate Jews over 65 years old, but to send them to an old-age ghetto – Theresienstadt is being considered for this purpose.
In addition to these age groups – of the approximately 280,000 Jews in Germany proper and Austria on 31 October 1941, approximately 30% are over 65 years old – severely wounded veterans and Jews with war decorations (Iron Cross I) will be accepted in the old-age ghettos. With this expedient solution, in one fell swoop many interventions will be prevented.
The beginning of the individual larger evacuation actions will largely depend on military developments. Regarding the handling of the final solution in those European countries occupied and influenced by us, it was proposed that the appropriate expert of the Foreign Office discuss the matter with the responsible official of the Security Police and SD.
For the full text and much more see the Wannsee Memorial.
After the war Adolf Eichmann, who played a lead role in the practical organisation of the deportations, told his trial about Heydrich’s satisfaction at overcoming all the bureaucratic obstacles to the ‘Final Solution':
I remember that at the end of this Wannsee Conference Heydrich, Muller and my humble self settled down comfortably by the fireplace and that then for the first time I saw Heydrich smoke a cigar or a cigarette, and I was thinking: today Heydrich is smoking, somethingl have not seen before. And he drinks cognac – since I had not seen Heydrich take any alcoholic drink in years _ _ . And after this Wannsee Conference we were sitting together peacefully, and not in order to talk shop, but in order to relax after the long hours of strain.