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Ramya Murali

The Wannsee Conference

On the banks of the lake known as Grosser Wannsee, Reinhard Heydrich used a villa purchased by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, also known as the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), to organize a conference on German government business. The RSHA, an SS organization which incorporated security, intelligence and criminal police work, was run by Heydrich. The conference to be held at Wannsee was initially scheduled for December 9th, however, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German reactionary declaration of war provoked a delay. Early in January of 1942, the Wannsee Conference convened to formally discuss the treatment of Jews during the war and to debate the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question".

"Heydrich reviews the history of the battle against the Jews, which he divided into stages. First they had forced the Jews out of the various sectors of German life; then they had physically removed Jews from German territory" (Breitman 230). To complete these tasks, the Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration was established in 1939. Their primary responsibilities were to make the appropriate arrangements for a heightened emigration of Jews, to point the flow of travel for emigrants, and to make the process of emigration a more expedient one. Theoretically, it was merely a legal way of eliminating Jews from German territory. Prior to the conference, more than 500,000 Jews emigrated from Germany. They overcame difficulties like financial constraints, insufficient space, and problems in emigration to send more than half a million Jews out of Germany. Many Jews financed their own emigration, as well as that of impoverished Jews. Jewish political organizations established an emigration tax on wealthy Jews to cover the cost of poor Jews finances. This made emigration a financial reality for all Jews.

However, the onset of war led Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of RSHA, to end the Jewish emigration. This provoked Adolf Hitler to commission the evacuation of Jews, which could include deportations, ghettoizations and mass killing actions that brought about the formation of extermination camps. Heydrich believed that the evacuation was the first step of the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question". After comprising a list of the breakdown of Jews in each European country (Appendix 1), over 11 million Jews in total, it became apparent to all that Himmler and Heydrich intended on obtaining control of the Jews who were within the grasp of German power. Unlike Heindrich's initial plan, his final version of the Final Solution encompassed all Jews in Europe. All captured Jews were shipped to the East to labor camps. Europe would be checked for Jews from the west to the east, with Germany proper and Bohemia-Moravia being evacuated first, due to housing problems and for general social-political dillemmas, and being sent to transit ghettos.

There were many Jews who were not included in the Final Solution, and thus, not sent to labor camps. Theresienstadt was set up as a special camp for the elderly and disabled. Jews who were working in industries which were fundamental to the war effort, thus more advantageous for the Germans, were not evacuated unless a replacement could be found. Finally, a good portion of time at the conference was devoted to the treatment of Half-Jews, the Mischlinge. No resolution was reached during the course of the conference, especially in relation to what to do with Half-Jews or Jews married to Germans. Many suggested sterilization, others felt that deportation was too severe, while others felt that inactivity posed the greatest threat from the Mischlings to the Germans. However, nothing in regards to the Mischlings were resolved at the meeting due to its short nature. Heydrich deferred all Mischling related questions to a future meeting. Following the separation of the large group into numerous smaller groups, Heydrich, Himmler, and Eichmann had established finalized plans of action in addition to their prepared document. The only notable absence in the document was that they did not specifically address their methods of killing Jews. That proved to be an irrelevant factor in the end, though.

Wannsee was efficient because it allowed the SS officials to finalize more of their plans emigration of Jews. Adequate transportation came in the form of rail lines and railcars. Concentration camps required more employers. The actual murder process needed greater precision and more resources. Thus, Himmler and Heydrich found that it would have been impossible to run a program dedicated to the genocide of a mass of people without the cooperation of their government officials.

There was also much debate between Himmler and Heydrich over the use of deported Jews. Himmler initially supported the immediate killing of all Jews, which Heydrich came to support as a theory. Furthermore, due to the huge losses on the Russian border, many Jews were forced to work in war-related production. However, Hitler did not support this use of Jews as slave laborers in German industries.

The Jewish population in the Reich and the Government General reduced by 3.1 million from the beginning of the emigration in 1933 to its conclusion in 1942. Whether they were 'transported from the Eastern provinces to the Russian East' or 'sifted through the camps', the gruesome realities of the time period were masked under the title of The Final Solution. Alarming the population was something that they hoped to avoid at all costs. As Himmler commented, "We had the moral right, we had the duty with regard to our people, to kill this race that wanted to kill us" (Breitman 243). In the minds of the Germans, this belief justified all their actions and provided them with the validation they needed to continue doing it until they were victorious.

Works Cited/Consulted

Breitman, Richard. The Architect of Genocide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991.