Wannsee Conference in Berlin

In order to discuss and co-ordinate the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish question the head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office –RSHA) Reinhard Heydrich, invited the state secretaries of the most important German government ministeries, senior representatives of the German ruling authorities in the occupied territories and senior members of the SS to attend a conference in the villa at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, on 20 January 1942. Reinhard Heydrich and his infamous expert on Jewish matters, Adolf Eichmann chaired meetings on Jewish policy both before and after this conference: what made this particular gathering noteworthy on two reasons were; First, it was the only one to involve the broad participation of such prominent members of the ministerial bureaucracy. Second, it was the point at which Adolf Hitler’s decision to solve the so-called Jewish question in Europe, through systematic mass murder, was officially transmitted to these officials, whose participation was deemed necessary. It was not a meeting at which Hitler’s decision was open for debate, but rather a conference where the participants discussed the implementation of a decision already taken.

On 31 July 1941, Heydrich met with Hermann Goering, still the official responsible for the Nazi policy on Jewish matters, and Heydrich was instructed to undertake ‘the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe’. Heydrich was charged with co-ordinating the activities of all the agencies of the German government whose jurisdiction was involved, and subsequently to submit the ‘overall plan’ for the ‘final solution to the Jewish question.’

At this time, Heydrich’ s mobile killing squads the Einstazgruppen were already engaged in the mass murder of Soviet Jews by firing squads, but this method was clearly unsuitable for European Jewry outside of the Eastern Front. In the months following the authorisation from Goering, Heydrich’s experts considered other methods of mass murder. Jews living in Germany were deported ‘East’ from mid-October 1941 and in the following month, November 1941, the construction of death camps commenced in Chelmno in the Warthegau and Belzec, which was in the Lublin district, in south east Poland. In late November 1941 Heydrich issued invitations to the state secretaries for a meeting on 9 December 1941, but the meeting was subsequently postponed due to the entry of the United States of America into the war, and it was finally held on 20 January 1942. The invitations included a copy of Heydrich’s authorisation from Goering. Since the meeting was scheduled for noon, refreshments were promised. By the time of the meeting, most of the invited officials were clearly aware that the Nazi regime was engaged in the mass murder of Jews. State Secretary Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart in the Reich Ministry of the Interior had already discussed with his Jewish expert, Dr Bernard Losener, the massacre of German Jews deported to Riga and had assured him that all this took place ‘on the highest orders.’ Dr Josef Buhler, state secretary of the Generalgouvernement, had already travelled to Berlin for consultation in mid-December, after which his superior, Hans Frank, had announced quite openly to his leading officials in Poland that they ‘must destroy the Jews.’   

Under-Secretary Martin Luther of the German Foreign Office had already sent his expert on Jewish matters, Franz Rademacher to Serbia in October 1941 to facilitate a ‘local solution in the Jewish question ‘ there through mass murder. He had also circulated copies of Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen reports on the mass murder of Soviet Jews to numerous Foreign Office officials. Gauleiter Alfred Meyer and Reichsamtsleiter Dr. Georg Liebbrandt were state secretary and chief of the political division, respectively, of the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Territories (Ostministerium). Liebbrandt had already been involved in correspondence concerning whether all Jews in the eastern territories were to be killed, regardless of sex, age, and economic considerations. The upshot of the correspondence was quite simply that economic interests were to be disregarded on principle in the solution to the ‘Jewish question.’ Representing the Justice Ministry was State Secretary Dr Roland Freisler, who later became infamous as the ‘hanging judge’ of the notorious People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof) following the abortive assassination plot to kill Hitler in July 1944. Assistant Secretary Friedrich Wilhem Kritzinger, reputedly one of the best –informed people in Nazi Germany, represented the Reich Chancellery.  Dr Erich Neumann was present as state secretary of Goering’s Four –Year Plan office.  

Various SS leaders were also in attendance: Heinrich Müller the head of the Gestapo; Otto Hofmann of the SS- Race and Resettlement Main Office; Dr Karl Eberhard Schongarth who was Security and Police commander for Cracow in Poland and Dr. Rudolf Lange, SD commander in Latvia; SS-  Oberführer Gerhard Klopfer, state secretary of Martin Bormann’s Party Chancellery; and of course Heydrich and his Jewish expert, Adolf Eichmann. No fewer than eight of the fifteen participants at the Wannsee conference held Ph.D. degrees. Since most had been involved in or had direct knowledge of the extensive massacres of the Jewish race in Europe that had already taken place, Heydrich was not speaking to the uninitiated.

The 20 January 1942 meeting was held at the villa Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58, a former Interpol property that had been confiscated by the SS. Heydrich opened the conference with a long speech, based largely on materials that Adolf Eichmann had compiled for him. In the first part of the speech, Heydrich reiterated his authority from Goering to co-ordinate – without regard to geographic boundaries – a ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish question and reviewed the policy of emigration that had led to the exit of 537,000 Jews from the German sphere of influence until Reichsführer- SS Heinrich Himmler had forbidden further emigration in the autumn of 1941. Heydrich then went on to give the second part of his speech: ‘In place of emigration, the evacuation of the Jews to the east has now emerged, after the appropriate approval of the Führer, as a further possible solution.’ A total of eleven million European Jews, including even those from England and Ireland, would be involved, according to Heydrich. The evacuations, however, were to be regarded ‘solely as temporary measures,’ for practical experiences.’ Were already being gathered that would be of great significance for the ‘imminent Final Solution of the Jewish question.’ Heydrich then went on to explain just what he meant by this. The Jews would be utilized for labour  in the east. ‘Separated by sex, the Jews capable of work will be led into these areas in large labour columns to build roads, whereby a large part will doubtless fall away through natural diminution. The remnant that finally survives all this, because here it is undoubtedly a question of the part with the greatest resistance , will have to be treated accordingly, because this remnant, representing a natural selection, can be regarded as the germ cell of a new Jewish reconstruction if released.’

Despite the euphemisms – separation of sexes, labour utilization leading to large-scale natural diminution, and finally, appropriate treatment of the surviving remnant that could not be released to begin a renewal of the Jewish race – the genocidal implications were totally and unmistakably clear. If most of those attending the conference already knew that Jews were being killed in large numbers, they now had no further doubts about the intended scope of this murderous policy; it aimed at killing every last Jew in Europe, from Ireland to the Urals and from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Heydrich then moved on to the third section of his speech, discussing some of the specific problems that would have to be dealt with. He proposed an old people’s ghetto to ward off anticipated interventions over individual cases, and the sending of Jewish advisers to certain satellite countries to make preparations. But for Heydrich the most complex problem involved the fate of Jews in mixed marriages and their part-Jewish offspring. A major portion of the conference was spent exploring this problem, and it was only at this point that animated discussion began. Heydrich wanted to deport half-Jews – that is in reality to kill them – but to equate quarter-Jews with Germans, provided their appearance, nor their behavior was markedly Jewish. Jews in mixed marriages would either be deported to the east or sent to the old people’s ghetto on a case by case basis, depending on the anticipated effect on the German relatives. Dr Stuckart of the Reich Ministry of the Interior pressed for compulsory sterilization of the half-Jews, rather than deportation, while Otto Hofmann proposed giving the half-Jews a choice between deportation and sterilization. To avoid endless administrative problems over mixed marriages, Dr Stuckart also proposed compulsory divorce. These issues were not resolved, and were the subject of two further conferences in March and October 1942.

Thereafter, the discussion became quite freewheeling and unstructured. As Adolf Eichmann - who was sitting in the corner and supervising the steno-  typists – related at his trial in Jerusalem , the conference had two parts; the first part where everyone was quiet and listened to the various lectures, and then in the second part, everyone spoke out of turn and people would go around, butlers, adjutants, and would give out alcohol. Well I don’t want to say that there was an atmosphere of drunkenness there, it was an official atmosphere, but nevertheless it was not one of those stiff, formal official affairs where everyone spoke in turn. But people just talked at cross vertices.’ Dr Erich Neumann asked that Jews important to the war economy not be deported until they could be replaced, and Heydrich concurred. Dr Josef Buhler, on the other hand, urged that the ‘Final Solution’ begin in the Generalgouvernement, because there was no transportation problems there and most of the Jews there were already incapable of work. ‘He had only one request, that the Jewish question in this region be solved as quickly as possible.’

At this point the protocol notes cryptically stated: ‘Finally there was a discussion of the various types of possible solutions. ‘ On Heydrich’s instructions, Eichmann did not include the details of this portion of the meeting in the protocol, but at his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann testified: ‘These gentlemen were standing together, or sitting together, and were discussing the subject quite bluntly, quite different from the language that I had to use later in the record. During the conversation they minced no words about it at all…. They spoke about methods of killing, about liquidation, about extermination. Heydrich closed the conference with a plea for the co-operation of all the participants. Eichmann later estimated that the whole meeting had taken between an hour an hour and a half. Not everyone left immediately, however, some stood around in small groups ‘to discuss the ins and outs of the agenda and also of certain work to be undertaken afterward.’ In these more intimate gatherings Heydrich, ‘ gave expression to his great satisfaction’ and allowed himself a glass of cognac, though it was unusual for him to drink in front of others. As Eichmann recalled, Heydrich ‘more than anybody else had expected considerable stumbling blocks and difficulties.’ Instead he had found ‘an atmosphere not only of agreement on the part of the participants, but more than that, one could feel an agreement that had assumed a form which had not been expected.’ The state secretaries of the ministerial bureaucracy had not only not made difficulties, they were committed and enthusiastic about doing their part.

Following the conference, Eichmann prepared the protocol, which both Heinrich Müller and Reinhard Heydrich edited several times before approving it. Thirty copies were made, but only one, the sixteenth, was found after the war. It is presently kept in the archives of the German Foreign Office in Bonn.


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© Holocaust Historical Society 2014