“These were not the barbarian hordes of some primitive people, pouring across the frontiers and slaughtering all who lay in their path,” I read. “Here was the distinguished ambience of an elegant villa, in a cultivated suburb. In one of Europe’s most sophisticated capitals, here were fifteen educated, civilized bureaucrats, from an educated, civilized society, observing all due decorum. And here was genocide, going through on the nod.
|The dining room of the Wannsee villa, where the Wannsee conference took place. The 15 men seated at the table on January 20, 1942 to discuss the "final solution of the Jewish question" , were considered the best and the brightest in the Reich. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
“How could they have gone along with this? Did they believe in what they were doing? Or were they driven by secondary motives --- competition for power, perhaps, or blind obedience to duty? Or were they merely weakly complying with a process over which they had no control?”
Furthermore, I thought, as I read on, it all happened within my lifetime. No wonder we continue to be fascinated by it, wondering how it could have happened where it happened, and when? I had picked up the book as I left our local cinema, Cinema du Parc, a slim volume of not much more than 100 pages, written in 2002 by a young British historian, Mark Roseman, on the subject of Wannsee and the Final Solution (published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, pps 152).
I had remembered seeing, maybe quarter of a century ago, a chilling German film on the subject of the Wannsee conference at which a group of 15 Nazi bureaucrats had gathered on Jan 20, 1942 to lay out the parameters for the final solution to what the Nazis thought of as their Jewish problem. I had been mightily impressed by that film, which was shot in the very same conference hall that the original conference had been held in, and which lasted exactly 85 minutes, the time that the conference itself actually occupied. Later, in 2002 I had seen an English language version covering the same subject-matter, in which Kenneth Branagh played a terrifyingly polite, sinister Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Nazi security services, an ambitious man spoken of as a possible successor to Hitler, who orchestrated the discussion, steered it through “problems” like the mischlinge (mixed-race Jews), deportations, a Jewish work force, towards “evacuation”, which seemed to be a euphemism for extermination and mass killing. He steered it past the objections of some of the assembled civil servants, men responsible for the Nuremberg laws already in force and governing the lives of Jews, who claimed that everything was working as it should, and the proposals for change were unnecessary. I remember in this second film, brief whiffs of normalcy were introduced as a couple of these civil servants expressed anxious disagreements, only to be silenced after a hurried, personal conference with Heydrich. I don’t remember any such disagreements being expressed in the more rigorous, less dramatic German film.
Perhaps when I picked up the little book I was hoping to read the script of the movie, or at least the transcript of the 85-minute discussion at Wannsee on that 1942 January day. But it did not contain that, because no such transcript ever existed. All that was recorded were notes taken by a stenographer, and written up into a protocol, as it was called, a report, of which 40 copies were made and distributed around the Nazi ministries, and of which only one copy was discovered in the files of the German Foreign Office in 1947.
Furthermore, according to Roseman, even the cold-blooded, pathological Heydrich had been careful in the conference not to mention openly that they were really talking about the extermination of millions of people. Although Roseman does say that such policies were implied by their euphemistic way of talking about what had already happened, and was planned to happen in future, to the Jewish people of Europe. Following discovery of the Wannsee Protocol, and its use in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, which threw some light on why the conference was held when it was, Wannsee became not so much the place where the Final Solution was decided upon (since the Protocol never specifically supports that conclusion), as the symbol for the full force of the Final Solution, which swung into action after Wannsee.
Indeed, the Protocol --- a mere 10 pages of rough notes ---- said that in spite of many difficulties the Jewish problem had been proceeding apace, with some 537,000 Jews already “sent out of the country” by October 31, 1941.
The report noted with satisfaction that the Jewish people or their organizations had themselves financed their emigration by way of an emigration tax used to finance the movement of poor Jews, at a cost of some $9,500,000.
Yet much remained to be done. Emigration had now been forbidden, so a new method had to be provided, as some 11 million Jews were left in 34 European countries or territories, and the report left little doubt as to the thinking that had emerged from the Conference.
“In the course of the Final Solution,” they wrote, “and under appropriate leadership, the Jews should be put to work in the east. In large, single-sex labour columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastwards constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes. Any remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival. (See the experience of history.)”
Obviously the film-makers must have combed every reference they could find in archives to enable them to create the conversations that went on during the conference. The German version appears to have been more faithful than the British to the reality of the conference, the only diversions from the grim central purposes of the meeting that they allowed being one of the participant’s reference to his dog outside, and various other topics of ordinary conversation, interspersed between the matters of grim reality by which they were confronted.
A review written by a man called Manavendra K. Thakur, apparently of Rutgers University, after seeing the German version of the film, gives a better account of the impact it made than anything I could write, after all these years.
“Ultimately….what is most striking about the film and the events it portrays is how casually it all happens. One man came to the conference from a shopping trip. Another man leaves the conference to see why his dog is barking outside, while the others inside continue to sip cognac and brandy. And when a railway official complains that seat repair costs have been rising, it all seems no different from any corporate board meeting -- until you realize that the official is annoyed because the frozen bodies of Jews stuck to their train seats in the cold cannot be removed without damaging the seats.
“It seems odd that a film as muted in style as this one could evoke strong reactions. As I left the theater, I wanted to scream in anger and disbelief. How could these men, these people, these ‘humans’ possibly talk about Jewish people as though they were tools to be used for maximizing efficiency ratings? How could they sit through such a morbid discussion? Didn't even one person have doubts or glimmer of conscience? I just couldn't believe that the most controversial issue they discussed was whether to kill half-Jews or merely to sterilize them.”
Roseman is obviously one of an active group of German, British, American and other historians who have tried to plumb the Nazi regime and its thinking, or, alternatively, who have set themselves to uncovering the detailed truth of the Holocaust. In that his book revealed the rather flimsy basis on which the two films were based, it was slightly disappointing. But as a reminder of one of the most horrendous events that have taken place in my lifetime, it has played a salutary role for me than I must not become too extravagant in my hopes for the human race.
We seem to be a species capable of the worst things that can be imagined.