Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
On January 20, 1942 fifteen high-ranking Nazi officials got together at the at the elegant villa located at 56-58 Am Grossen Wannsee near Berlin to plan the mass murder of European Jews, code-named “the Final Solution”. Arriving in style in a Mercedes, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RHSA), indicated to the panelists that Hitler had personally entrusted him with implementing the “Final Solution” to Europe’s “Jewish problem”. The genocide was supposed to include not only the Jews living under Axis control or occupation, but also those living in Allied and neutral states, including in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the following Nazi officials representing the SS were present at this conference: Reinhard Heydrich, SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, chief of the RSHA Department IV B4 (Jewish Affairs); SS Colonel Eberhard Schongarth, the commander of the RSHA field office in Krakow; SS Major Rudolf Lange, commander of Einsatzkommando 2 in Latvia; SS Major General Otto Hofmann, chief of SS Race and Settlement Office. (See http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005477).
These men were the leading architects of one of the world’s most horrific genocide. Yet they treated the conference, and their decision, as an ordinary, productive and rather pleasant get-together. Nobody voiced a single objection against killing millions of innocent men, women and children. In fact, by the time the Wannsee conference took place, tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union had already been rounded up and murdered, often with help from the local populations. Even though the mass murder of Jews was already under way in occupied Soviet territories and Poland, this conference focused on plans of how to generalize it to the rest of Europe in the most effective fashion. If there was any debate among these men, it was regarding the logistical methods of transporting so many people to their deaths as well what to do with Jews in mixed their plans for mass murder is these men’s sang-froid. If you’ve read descriptions of criminals committing horrific murders after which the perpetrators go out to dinner with their families or play with their children as if nothing out of the ordinary took place, then you’ll be able to imagine these Nazi officials’ mindset. Imagine, but not comprehend. Because such behavior is beyond the power of comprehension of anyone who is capable of empathy. Historian Alex Kershaw paints a vivid picture of the Wannsee meeting in The Envoy (New York, Da Capo Press, 2010), a book that offers a historical account of Raoul Wallenberg’s courageous actions to save the Jews of Budapest. After discussing the arrangements for mass murder, Kershaw narrates,
“Servants brought in refreshments. The attendees drank and ate and talked about finally ending the Jewish problem not just in Germany, but in all of Europe, including Britain and the Soviet Union… The meeting formally ended after ninety minutes, with Heydrich and the Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller being the last to leave the large dining room. They asked the thorough Eichmann to share a drink with them. Soon the three men were beside a fire, warming themselves. Eichmann would never forget how honored he felt to be asked to join these two giants of the Third Reich for a celebratory tipple… ‘After awhile,’ recorded Eichmann, ‘we got up on the chairs and drank a toast, then on the table and then round and round—on the chairs and on the table again. Heydrich taught it to us. It was an old north German custom… We sat around peacefully after the Wannsee Conference, not just talking shop but giving ourselves a rest after so many taxing hours.’” (5-6).
Eichmann’s casual account of the Wannsee conference and of the attitude of the men who participated in it speaks volumes about the Nazi regime and its power structure. The people who rose within its ranks were individuals without depth, without empathy and without conscience. Not only did they not give a thought to the millions who would die senselessly because of their decision, but also they took great pride in the outcome of their meeting, indulging in pleasurable pastimes like smoking and drinking, to celebrate a job well done.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon