Peter Longerich, Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution, first published as Wannseekonferenz: Der Weg zur Endlösung (2016), translated by Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2021, Notes, Bibliography, Appendix, Index, ISBN 978-0-19-883404-5, reviewed by Frank Ellis
The twentieth century may well come to be known as the age of genocide, not because what was formally defined as such in the mid 1940’s represented something new in man’s affairs – humans have always engaged and even revelled in mass slaughter and enslavement of the “other” – but because of the frequency and severity of the slaughter. What made the genocides of the twentieth century unique (so far) was the fateful combination of technology (rail, telephones and radio), powerful, centralised government bureaucracies with access to huge amounts of personal information, dedicated enforcement and extermination agencies, vastly improved methods of efficient mass killing and, above all, exceptionally aggressive ideological worldviews – Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, National Socialism and Maoism – that sought to justify mass extermination (genocide) as necessary and desirable, the mandate of History.
The Holocaust (the Jewish Catastrophe) was a process. Victims were demonised, defamed, dehumanised, dispossessed, deported and then destroyed. Their suffering and deaths were then denied, something that has continued in various forms since 1945. The Wannsee Conference, the subject of Peter Longerich’s book, was a critical event in the process of the genocide. Here, in this lakeside villa, a small group of NS-Germany’s top administrative functionaries, invited by Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), discussed how to resolve what was called the Jewish question.
Whether on 20th January 1942, the invitees were struck by their surroundings is not recorded, but Longerich is impressed enough to note that ‘The beautiful location contrasts starkly, however, with the purpose of that meeting in 1942’. This observation is an excellent example of the pathetic fallacy. Why should the beauty of the location contrast with what was discussed at this meeting? There is no inherent contrast between malevolence and beauty. Beauty, imposing accommodation, style, luxury, generous hospitality, comfort and peaceful surroundings lend themselves well to planning evil since the critical faculties are blunted, the readiness to ask hard-headed questions and demand answers is suppressed. Today, this is known as corporate hospitality. Moreover, as was demonstrated by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, a meeting is the ideal forum in which psychologically weak participants can be pressured to agree to policies, about which, absent such pressure, they might well have expressed doubts or dissented. After the war, Ministerialdirigent Friedrich Kritzinger (representing the Reich Chancellery), admitted he had had doubts, but went along with Heydrich’s proposals anyway. Kritzinger’s half-hearted acknowledgment came after a copy of the minutes of the Wannsee Conference – copy number 16 given to Martin Luther (representing the Foreign Ministry) – had been discovered by the Allies in March 1947. These minutes were the sole-surviving copy, and in view of the recipient’s name – also that of Germany’s most famous and anti-Semitic theologian – there is a grim irony in their discovery and a reminder that the Jewish question did not just appear from nowhere in 1933.
When one hears the word Wannsee, one does not just recall a magnificent building set in beautiful surroundings. One thinks of the German word Wahnsinn (madness, insanity), yet this, too, is misleading. Heydrich, SS-Obersturmbahnführer Adolf Eichmann (RHSA) and SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller (RHSA) and his other guests were not mad. They were exploiting the state bureaucratic machine for a specific purpose and the other invitees knew this full well and did what was expected of them, regardless of any private misgivings. Of the fifteen invitees – representatives of the Foreign Ministry, members of the civilian occupation administration in the East and SS functionaries – ten were university graduates, nine were lawyers and eight had doctorates. In other words, higher education and appreciation of beauty does not prevent people from conspiring to pursue evil purposes. Such behaviour was and is not a feature unique to NS-Germany. It is the curse that can afflict all bureaucracies, wherever they are, and in whatever political entity they exist to support. Today, for example, our universities are full of docile mediocrities, who, whatever misgivings they may harbour about the relentless ideological processes destroying higher education, if they have any at all, say nothing and do nothing: they merely submit in ovine and cowardly obedience.
Longerich maintains that when Heydrich issued his invitations (9th December 1941) for the Wannsee Conference that even though ‘several hundred thousand people’ had already been killed by the German occupation regime, Jewish policy had yet to be designated a ‘final solution’. That is not the case. In paragraph 1 of his memorandum to Heydrich, dated 31st July 1941, Göring refers to a ‘Gesamtlösung der Judenfrage im deutschen Einflußgebiet in Europa’. This had been envisaged in a decree issued on 24th January 1939. In his final paragraph (31st July 1941) Göring now instructs Heydrich as follows:
Ich beauftrage Sie weiter, mir in Bälde einen Gesamtentwurf über die organisatorischen, sachlichen und materiellen Vorausmaßnahmen zur Durchführung der angestrebten Endlösung der Judenfrage vorzulegen
(Further, I instruct you to submit to me in the near future a complete draft plan dealing with the preliminary organizational, practical and physical measures to be implemented in pursuit of the final solution of the Jewish question).
What had been envisaged as the ‘Gesamtlösung der Judenfrage’ in January 1939 has now at the end of July 1941 mutated into the ‘Endlösung der Judenfrage’. There is a difference between a ‘total solution’ and a ‘final solution’ and the change in language reflects a definite change in what is being planned for Jews: emigration, ghettoization, isolation and slave labour are not in themselves final or permanent solutions. In other circumstances one might be tempted to see ‘Gesamtlösung’ as synonymous with ‘Endlösung’ but the change in what is planned requires that ‘Endlösung’ be used not as a synonym but to indicate an escalation, and to be interpreted as such by all concerned. The ‘Endlösung der Judenfrage’ is to be understood as the complete extermination of all Jews; it is to be carried out within a specific time frame, with as much secrecy as possible and as quickly and efficiently as possible. In order to satisfy these demands, mass gassing, in contrast to extermination by deliberate and mass starvation used in the Holodomor, was considered the best option. This was understood by all involved in the planning and implementation. As Longerich notes: ‘the unmistakable warnings of annihilation coming from representatives of the regime such as Hitler, Goebbels, and Rosenberg indicate that they were not simply indulging in rhetoric’.
Longerich uses the word genocide to refer to mass shootings and gassings in the summer of 1941, without clarifying that the term genocide had yet to be formulated by Raphael Lemkin (an absentee in Longerich’s book). If the term genocide is to be retrospectively applied to the actions of NS-Germany then it must also be applied to Soviet genocide and deportation programmes. Longerich also seems unaware that the use of mobile gas-killing vans was pioneered by the NKVD in 1937. Is it possible that the Germans got the idea of mobile gas chambers from the NKVD during the period of Soviet-Nazi cooperation in Poland (August 1939-June 1941), or did they develop the technology independently of the NKVD?
One Soviet precedent that impressed the NS-regime, as it pondered solutions to the Jewish question, was the mass deportation of some 440,000 Volga Germans carried out by the NKVD in September 1941. The Germans soon became aware of what had happened, though it is highly unlikely, as Longerich claims, that they learned of what had happened from any public announcement made by Stalin since the Soviet regime, mindful of comparisons that might be made between it and NS-Germany, did everything possible to keep the deportation of the Volga Germans secret. Alfred Rosenberg, for his part, assumed that the deportation of the Volga Germans ‘was tantamount to an intention on the Soviet leadership’s part to murder them’.
The Soviet regime’s deportation of the Volga Germans in 1941 prepared the way for the resumption of deportations of other Soviet national minorities in 1943. But whereas deportations carried out by the Germans – Jews to ghettos and extermination camps, and Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians to forced labour in Germany – were deemed to be war crimes at Nürnberg, Soviet mass deportations of national minorities, with huge loss of life, though known about in the West, were ignored, and had to wait until the very end of the Cold War and after before any serious scrutiny was possible.
In a volume of declassified Soviet documents published in 2000, FSB archivists, commenting on the decree providing for the deportation of the Volga Germans (28th August 1941), claimed that the pretext ‘for a final solution concerning the expulsion of the Germans [Volga Germans]’ was the fact that retreating Red Army units had been fired on by Soviet ethnic Germans. What grabs the eye is not the cited pretext – in itself nonsense – but the readiness to refer to this mass deportation of Volga German as a ‘final solution’ (okonchatel’noe reshenie), so demonstrating a profound and inadvertent affinity between Soviet and Nazi regimes and their resort to genocide and supporting measures.
Other Soviet methods used to deal with enemies of the regime also impressed the Nazi planners. The emphasis on prophylactic killing is precisely what Beria had in mind when he recommended to Stalin that all Polish prisoners of war being held in NKVD camps be shot. Extermination by slave labour in remote areas was another Soviet method that inspired the Nazi planners. Heydrich and Himmler, for example, as Longerich notes, saw the Soviet slave-labour camps as the ideal place for a homeland for 11 million Jews, and in the last month’s of his life rumours abounded in Moscow that Stalin was planning to deport all Soviet Jews to Siberia.
Germany’s deteriorating relationship with the USA also accelerated decision-making about a Final Solution. Theodore Kaufmann’s book, Germany Must Perish (1941), published in the USA, in which Kaufmann called for the sterilisation of Germans – the book is ignored by Longerich – would have been a propaganda gift to Goebbels, since it was consistent with the claim that a merciless race war was being waged against Germany.
The minutes of the Wannsee Conference emphasize the importance of not allowing the more resourceful and able Jews to survive. The aim was to prevent any Jewish revival. The relevant paragraph concludes with a parenthetic warning: ‘Siehe die Erfahrung der Geschichte’/‘See the experience of history’. This wording suggests that Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich, in pursuing the extermination of all Jews, regarded the entire operation as the unfinished business of History: previous attempts to solve the ‘Jewish question’ have all failed, and the Nazis are now going to solve the problem once and for all by mass extermination. This is the real meaning of a ‘Final Solution’.
Since the Historikerstreit in 1986, German historians, especially those in universities, have been intimidated and deterred from making any comparisons between Soviet and National-Socialist genocides. This has resulted in a serious weakness – one apparent in Longerich’s otherwise excellent essay – since their studies promote the view that Nazi crimes, among them genocide, were somehow unique to Hitler’s Germany. This is not the case. All the genocides of the twentieth century have features which are unique to them – the victims being an obvious feature – but the processes which led to the Armenian Genocide, the Pontian Greek Genocide, the Holodomor, Katyn, Holocaust, the mass deportations of Soviet national minorities, the millions of ethnic Germans deported from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, Mao’s Terror Famine, the Year Zero, the Gukurahundi and the Rwandan Genocide all have features in common.
Nor was the Wannsee Conference the sole conference or meeting of its kind. It was one of a number in which a mixture of ideologically-inspired and fanatically-dedicated men, aided and abetted by larger numbers of weaklings, plotted in comfortable rooms, government offices, jungle clearings, radio stations or under the shade of baobabs to carry out mass murder and genocide. When Julius Malema, South Africa’s very own Julius Streicher, boasted on Turkish television in 2018 that he and his fellow black activists have ‘not called for the killing of white people, at least for now. I can’t guarantee the future’, and the Chinese government, meanwhile, pursues a policy of indirect elimination of Uighurs – forced abortions and birth control (extermination by stealth) – it is clear enough that the age of genocide is not over.
Editorial note; the Wannsee Conference lasted only ninety minutes
 Longerich, p.1
 Longerich, p.35
 IMT, Blue Series, 710-PS, Vol XXVI, pp.266-267
 Longerich, p.38
 Longerich, pp.19-20
 Organy gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR v Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voine: Sbornik dokumentov, Tom vtoroi, kniga 1, Nachalo 22 iiunia – 31 avgusta 1941 goda, izdatel’stvo “Rus’”, Moscow, 2000, p.541
 Longerich, p.87
Dr Frank Ellis is a military historian
© Frank Ellis 2022