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The Wannsee Conference Essay

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How valid is this assessment of the Holocaust?

The true origins of the Holocaust have been under academic debate and intense scrutiny among historians for a considerable amount of time. Dividing them into two major perspectives; Functionalists and Intentionalist.[1] The pair bring into view a key question and queries the shroud surrounding the Shoah. It questions what point in time the mass genocide of 6.6 million Jews was decided upon. Many would put forward the Holocaust was already assigned a position in the time-line using Hitler’s own “Mein Kampf” as justification.

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Others would suggest the Holocaust was result of numerous political economic and social factors, that brought about the rise of both The Nazi Party and Thrid Reich. There is substantial evidence to support both sides of the debate.

Functionalist historians such as Browning and Mommsen agree that the power struggle between Hitler’s subordinates and war played a much greater role in deciding the demise of the Jewish people compared with Hitler himself while Intentionalists like Fleming and Dawidowicz say Hitler was following a gradualist policy. Taking these perspectives into account while researching my own sources it seems implausible the Wannsee Conference headed by Reinhard Heydrich on 20th January 1942, conceived the Holocaust and it was most definitely not fully responsible for the Shoah, however it did play its part, comprised of fifteen highly educated leading Nazi officials, civil servants and SS members, brought together under a grand villa in Berlin on shores of Lake Wannsee to discuss a programme of mass murder.

Anti-Semitism was by no means birthed from Nazi imagination, although it was the Nazi party who took advantage of this hidden resentment and unleashed it with mass exaggeration. Undoubtedly without the Nazi party it would not have manifested itself in such the way it did.

Rhode’s perspective is from the very early stages of the Nazi party they had clear enemy. Hitler had convinced himself that Bolshevism was birthed from Jewish ideology and like a disease, would slowly infect it’s way around the globe until every country was a Bolshevic state and his National Socialist state was the last line of defence against Bolshevism. Having also convinced himself that the Jews who were a very easy target, were responsible for Germany’s humiliating defeat of the First World War and blamed them for accepting the crippling terms of the Treaty of Versailles.[2] Historian Yehuda Bauer adds “No genocide to date had been completely on myths, on hallucinations, on abstract, non-pragmatic ideology”[3] Once he had internalised these “myths” and “hallucinations” he then required the German people to join in his beliefs; which wouldn’t require much prompting.

[4] The phase “two opposing political systems” which Yehuda Bauer also refers to as “parallel quests” means that National Socialism and Bolshevism or the Nazi Party and the Jews were on a collision course which could only endure one outcome, essentially one destroying the other in terms of how the Nazi’s perceived it to be. Seeing as the Jews were seen as an inferior race to the Aryans (Nazis) through the ideologies of eugenics and Charles Darwin’s “Survival of the fittest” theory, the Nazi’s believed they had the right to destroy the Jews.

The term “quest” and “conspiracy” invokes the feelings that eventually they would reach the end and they would be willing to travel a great length to reach that end, and the Jews conspiracy would be the main obstacle upon the quest, therefore in the Nazi’s eyes eradication of that obstacle would bring glory upon the German Nation. It was this ideological racial war[5] so to speak between the two political systems that was the most powerful driving factor of the Holocaust and the Nazi war machine. Hitler then had to pass his ideological war onto the people, of course he knew the outcome, but would have to encourage step by step resentment and programme by rational means in order to reach this outcome.

By using the intentionalist theme, this allows us to see the invasion of the Soviet Union as a way of disguising the horrors of the Einsatzgruppen and justify the killings of Jews as acts of war. The invasion of the Soviet Union was the first step in Hitler’s racial war against non-Aryans and the first step towards the elimination of Bolshevism.

This source is neither for or against the functionalist or intentionalist approach, however if we continue with the idea that the Holocaust and mass genocide of all inferior races, Jews in particular had already been decided upon long before the meeting at the Wannsee conference, Wannsee being in January 1942 and this taking place in September 1941[6] shows that the method of killing compared to that of 1942/1943 was extremely different, what remains completely the same between the two dates is the logistical removal of unwanted races of people through murder proves that it was well entrenched in Operation Barbarossa’s blueprints. As Himmler ordered his men to act harshly against “a racially and humanly inferior population” To have such an unwavering tenacious view toward a race of people and view them as ideologically under them just highlights how much the Nazi ideology of race and purity was bombarded into the people of Germany, and also means that genocide had been amongst the Nazi Party’s designs for a long time.

With these answers comes another question, what was the purpose of the Wannsee Conference. To view the source from a functionalist’s perspective, one could argue that with the newly acquired territory of Soviet Union due to occupation, the Nazi Party now found themselves under the control of another 2.5 million Jews who all had to be accounted for, and that would mean the next problem the Nazi’s came under was what to do with such a high amount of people. The quickest and simplest answer was to liquidate them at the source, so while conquering the land; they disposed of its inhabitants in order to make way for the German population in later years.

Even with the intentionalist and functionalist view, the invasion of the USSR of one of the major key steps in Hitler’s racial war of extermination. Using this source we can see how far the Nazi party’s anti-Semitism had come since it began in the 1920’s. The ideology had come straight from the pages of Mein Kampf to being practised in the streets of Germany and in the theatres of war. It is approximated the Einsatzgruppen killed 1,500,000 people through Operation Barbarossa. It is this mass murder why many historians such as Richard Rhodes6 believe that the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 does not mark the starting point for the Holocaust, this evidence of the previous source linked with Richard Rhodes link of “Operation Barbarossa” with genocide directly opposes the statement that the Wannsee conference was entirely responsible for the Holocaust.

There is something else that throws mystery over the Holocaust in itself, in terms of Hitler’s leadership was that he hardly gave specific orders; to the contrary he would issue an overall outcome or goal to reach and then his subordinates concluded the best approach in order to reach this target. Sometimes appointing two or more people to complete the same or similar task in order to reach different methods of completing this chosen vision and normally picking the most radical of the two to go ahead with. This caused much confusion within the Nazi party and inner conflict between the main leadership of the Nazi party which often meant they were constantly in a power struggle with different departments, each despised the other, mostly competing for Hitler’s attention and acknowledgement, each time becoming more ruthless and radical with their approach to meeting his agenda in order to obtain respect and acknowledgement by their Furher.

Even though the killing of those known as undesirables had been well under way long before the Wannsee protocol. The conference could still arguably be noticed as the start of the Holocaust as it made the killing of innocents an official policy. Even though the Einsatzgruppen had taken a ruthless approach to the invasion of the Soviet Union it could still be added to brutalities of war, exempt from the Nazi party’s official policy. Perhaps Wannsee can be seen as responsible for the beginning of the Holocaust.

This source goes against the intentionalist ideology and suggests the Wannsee Conference was intended for a different purpose altogether, the Wannsee conference at the time was going through a rapid transition in terms of the Nazi Party’s ever changing ideas and beliefs toward the shifting perspectives of the final solution to the Jewish question, at a time when the intention of the party of was to take on an enormous deportation programme leading to total extermination in work camps in occupied Soviet territory after the end of the war. The source suggests that the “change in situation” was that the Nazi’s were coming to the shocking realisation throughout the time period the Wannsee conference was postponed to consider the harsh realities that the Jews would be disposed of during the war, and in the territory of the General government. The speech on the 12th of December to declare war against the Jews

This need for a “full-scale extermination programme” could be the need to adjust from the original design of having all non-Aryans annihilated through attrition and natural causes within the camps, to organising a complex or simplistic method of killing other than bullets[7] and to discuss how they were going to kill those within the general government without deportation to the occupied Soviet Union. I don’t think the decision to murder the Jews was made at the Wannsee Conference, however I do believe that the Wannsee Conference was used as a way of trying to make a decision as to what to with those deemed as Jews and Slavs within occupied territory, opposed to the original plan of working them to death through starvation and disease, it was a way of speeding up the already draw-up designs and agreeing about what was happening. Viewed in such a way, the Wannsee Conference possibly making the official start to the Holocaust that the Jews endured, many contemporary historians consider it to be not the exact point in time where the decision to murder the Jews was made, which would place it in agreement with my point made previously. However, regardless of this, the event is certainly of some overall significance.

This sources however brings fourth another important question about the extent to which the Nazi’s supported were supported in their murderous actions. Also at what point can we accurately say that a policy for mass-annihilation was drafted up and started – a valuable point to highlight is that the seeds for such an operation were possibly already were affirmed within the minds of the German people long before the Nazi party ever took power over Germany. The hatred was already there, the Nazi’s just acted upon this hatred in their rise to power and well after they had affirmed this power with the enabling act.[8] Tracing back to the original question at hand, perhaps you could place the argument that genocide can be traced back indefinitely with the savage rise of anti-Semitism throughout the 1930’s gripping Germany in a tightened vice and gradually got more radically over the years.

Anti-Semitism within Germany built up in stages; however it is doubtful that the stages were planned from the entrance of National Socialism. Although there is some sort of pragmatic footpath which leads up to the Holocaust. If we begin the starting point as anti-Semitic activities and attitudes then a number of clear events come into light, with each one more ruthless and radical than the first. It is as if the Nazi Party is testing the limits the German people are willing to go, each time making the next more adventurous than the first.

The first to start was the boycott of Jewish business’s which is than strongly followed by the Nuremburg Laws,[9] these laws deprived the Jewish people, many of which were born in Germany of their citizenship and forbid marriages between Jews and Germans in an attempt to purify than Aryan blood. The third step through this line of events can be viewed as Kristallnacht,[10] next to this is the invasion of the Soviet Union and the horrific work of the Einstazgruppen which led to the Wannsee Conference taking place, this then cemented the attitudes and actions that had arisen through the previous steps, finally all culminating in the arrival of the Holocaust.

Kristallnacht itself was the act of a coincidence, but it leads as an example as to how far Anti-Semitism within Germany and Austria had progressed in terms of hatred of a certain race and allows an insight into how the acts of one were accountable for all in terms of the Jews.

This source is particularly interesting as we get to see just how far the German people had been indoctrinated into the Nazi propaganda, although there were some who were against Kristallnacht, they were many who took it as an act of war, and saw it as their right to rid their country of the Jewish conspiracy.

What is most disturbing about this extract is that it shows the murderous attitudes of people of persuasion and how far the German people were willing to go after being under the Nazi propaganda machine of Dr. Joseph Goebells. Kristallnacht was the result of the German people holding all the Jews accountable for the acts of one and was a key stage in the 1938 pogroms which would then culminate in the Holocaust. It was the actions of well-educated people, mostly the middle class which truly enforced Kristallnacht, taking it to a whole new level, the Nazi party had the fire service on hand just in-case the synagogue fires spread to the neighbouring buildings.

Hitler was apart of Kristallnacht, it was mostly Joseph Goebbels who enraged the resentment towards to the Jews to produce this outcome, however the main ideology behind Kristallnacht was to remove Jews from their homes in order to re-home German citizens within the city. This source is definitely a structuralist as Kristallnacht was pure coincidence that Grynszpan saw the need to take revenge, however the intentionalist approach could argue that this event would have happened eventually regardless of his actions, as anything else could have been used to enrage the German people into action after the amount of Nazi propaganda they had been indoctrinated into over the years.

Although there were many other incidents of anti-Semitism, these events can be viewed as a straight line toward the Holocaust, even though it is easy to see them as progressive steps towards the Shoah it can be argued from a functionalist perspective. Arranging these particular events in order of least radical to the most suggests that there was a clear and defined plan from the very beginning, however many were just by chance they happened as they took advantage of the opportunity at hand, something which the Nazi party were extremely good at. Kristallnacht is a key example of this and shows how the extremist and chaotic nature of the Nazi party could lead to mass destruction.

Something which most definitely undermines the importance of the Wannsee Conference is that the extermination camps had been constructed long before the meeting ever took place. By the end of 1940 the Nazi war machine had 11 concentration camps[11], two years before the Wannsee Conference ever took place, one of those being the most significant of them all; Auschwitz in 1940. and Chelmo had already been using stationary gas vans since the December 1941. If the decision to build death camps had already been made and construction and indeed the process of murdering prisoners within those camps had actually begun, this significantly undermines the significance that the Wannsee Conference had on the Holocaust.

However, by the beginning of 1942 in different camps fixed gas chambers were built, or already existing buildings were restructured for this purpose,[12] in light of this it could be used as evidence that the Wannsee Conference had authorised this during it’s meeting. Although, Hitler’s undisputed absence from the meeting is also an important argument to add to it’s insignificance, but as we know Hitler allowed his subordinates to find the paths, so it would not seem to significant that he did not attend this meeting, however it is an argument that puts forth the idea that this meeting was just a platform for which Reinhard Heydrich to convey his many positions of power.[13] This theory can be supported by the minutes of the meeting to which Heydrich opens the proceedings by not only stating in detail but repeating how he has been granted the position of authority by Goering to oversee and co-ordinate the “Final Solution”.

There is no doubt that all who attended the meeting knew that the mass-destruction of the Jewish people in Europe had been common practise, the meeting was not to discuss whether to carry out murder, but rather how to carry out the murder. At the Eichmann[14] war crimes trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann testified that “during the conversation, the minced no words about it at all. They spoke about methods of killing, about liquidation, about extermination.” The meeting simply concreted ideas and bound those in authority together rather than formally deciding upon anything new, this does not however make it a widely significant event, but it does insure it’s important within the history of the National Socialist movement.

Another factor which also undermines the importance of the Wannsee Conference in terms of birthing the Holocaust is that the Shoah itself could have been brought forward in time due to an increasingly difficult problem which only increased with every new territory brought under occupation of the Third Reich. This problem was the question of what to do with every new Jew, Slav, Gypsy and all other inferior races of people that the Nazi party captured, the Ghettos and extermination camps already housed hundreds of thousands of “undesirables”, making the establishments extremely over-crowded, especially the Ghettos in particular. Huge numbers of people were being moved in order to suit the needs of the Nazi party. This again, is an important factor in the history of the Holocaust as it shows the Nazi party may have been forced to kill inferior races in order to make way for the new influx of victims to the Nazi war machine.

This source is interesting as it explores Hitler’s intentions before coming into the role of Furher, here Hitler describes the Jews building “a state within a state” suggesting that the Jews do not follow a religion but are an invasion, what is also interesting from this source is that Hitler accuses the Jews of taking advantage of Aryan generosity, which adds to the intentionalist perspective that Hitler had a plan from the very beginning. In this case, it would be removing the Jews from Aryan society and then taking it further with the Holocaust after proving to the German people that his believes are the truth, so to speak. Again, using the Jews as a scapegoat, stating they have “spread all over the world” adding more to his Jewish conspiracy theory, I believe at this point Hitler is trying to convince himself that these theories are correct by adding specific points that align with what he is saying, including how they are all made up of “one race exclusively”

It is very important to recognise the importance of the Wannsee Conference, by the fact fifteen high Nazi’s were in attendance that their discussions on that day were certainly of some significance to the Holocaust. However, past events and horrors that had previously taken place in the time-line of the Third Reich such as, over-crowding of the Ghettos and camps, and the mass-murders of the Einstazgruppen, were far more important in shaping the Holocaust than any formal meetings discussing it. It was acts of murder like these that allowed the Nazi’s to push their “genocidal” boundaries even further, among other goals, it was the overall goal of the Nazi’s to systematically be responsible for the demise of the Jewish race, alongside European domination.

As the time went by, years of radicalisation went with it. Wannsee was a sit down to review what had happened so far, and what direction to take next. Although my argument supports the intentionalist perspectives. It seems implausible that the Nazi’s anticipated all aspects of Jew killing. However there was a plan, the Nazi’s seized opportunity and manipulated their ideas. It was this ability of opportunism that allowed the Nazi’s to create the single most aggressive act of mass genocide in the history of man.

The two opposing political systems were Bolshevism, which Hitler and his Nazi leadership believed to be a Jewish conspiracy, and National Socialism.

Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death – The SS enisatzgruppen and the invention of the Holocaust. Pg14

Another example of “Abnormal” warfare in the east is General Max von Schenckendorff’s “cause for combating the partisans”, held on Mogilov between 24 and 26 September 1941. It also shows the close operation between the army and the SS. Schenckendorff has charged the SS – Cavalry Brigade under Strandartenduhrer (colonel) Hermann Fegelein with mopping up the Pripyat marshes. This operation had begun on 29 July 1941, after Himmler had instructed his men to act harshly against “ a racially and humanly inferior” population. All male Jews were to be shot, women to be driven into the marshes. Suffering 17 dead, 3 missing-in-action, and 36 wounded, Fegelein could proudly report to his leader that the brigade had shot 660 Soviet soldiers, 1,001 partisans and 14,178 Jews”

Jurgen Foster, The Final Solution, Origins and Implementation, edited by David Cesarani

Gerlach suggests that the purposes of the Wannsee Conference had changed sharply during the period of it’s lengthy postponement – or at any rate its inordinate length – was caused by the changed situation following Hitler’s speech on 12 December, and the need to now prepare for a full-scale extermination programme which had not been the case when the initial invitations had gone out at the end of November 1941.

Ian Kershaw, Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Pg.267

In an act of anguished revenge, he shot the Third Secretary at the German Embassy in Paris, Ernst vom Rath. The German diplomat died of his wounds on 9th November 1938. Grynszpan’s action was immediately denounced by the Nazi propaganda machine as a “declaration of war” and part of the world-wide Judaeo-Masonic conspiracy. It would unleash an unprecedented orgy of ferocious anti-Jewish violence and terror across Germany.

Robert S. Withrich, Hitler and the Holocaust, How and why the Holocaust happened. Pg.68

The Jewish state has never been delimited by space. It has spread all over the world, without any frontiers whatsoever, and has always been constituted from the membership of one race exclusively. That is why the Jews have always formed a State within the State. One of the most ingenious tricks ever devised has been that of sailing the Jewish ship-of-state under the flag of religion and thus securing that tolerance which Aryans are always ready to grant to different religious faiths.


[1] Intenionalists and Functionalists can be divided into sub-categories of moderate and extreme and historians within the same block can have differing perspectives.

[2] The terms of Versailles stated, the Germans had to accept the blame for starting the war (The war guilt clause), they had to pay reparations of £6.6 billion and the army was reduced to 100,000 men, the Rhineland was demilitarized, submarines, air force were forbidden and they were only allowed six battleships. Lost territory included Alsace-Lorraine to France and numerous colonies to Britain.

[3] Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2002, Pg.48.

[4] The hatred of the Jews birthed from using them as a scapegoat for the Treaty of Versailles and defeat of the world was greatly advanced by the propaganda of Dr. Joseph Goebells.

[5] Nazi Ideology viewed all those of non-Ayran decent, especially Jews as inferior races, these being, Nigeros, Slavs, Gypsy’s and many others. The only race of people they seen pure were the British and believed they shared the same blood as the Germany people.

[6] Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death – The SS einsatzgruppen and the invention of the Holocaust. Pg.98

“The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, codenamed “Operation Barbarossa” was indeed to be inextricably linked with the decision to implement a genocidal war against all the Jews of Europe.”

[7] 15 August 1941 two months into “Operation Barbarossa” Himmler went to the Minsk Ghetto to observe the shootings of “undesirables” for the first time. During the shooting Himmler who had never seen dead people before stood right at the edge of the open grave to look in, and because of this he had brain matter splashed onto his coat and head and began to feel sick, heaving and wobbling. Himmler then took into account the effect shooting people would have on their soldiers and began to look for alternative methods.

[8] The Enabling Act was a decree put forth by Hitler in his rise to power that allowed him to maintain his reign over the German people, the decree abolished the need for a democratic vote every four years and therefore allowed Hitler to maintain his political position until his demise in 1945.

[9] The Nuremburg Laws of September 15th 1935: the laws outlawed relationships betweens Jews and Aryans in order to make the Aryan blood pure again.

[10] On the 9th November 1938: Kristallnacht (Night of broken glass) was responsible for approximately 100 dead Jews, 20,000 German and Austrian Jews arrested; many of those were sent to concentration camps. 1,350 Jewish synagogues were burnt to the ground and Jewish shops throughout Germany and Austria had their windows smashed and their homes looted.

[11] By January 1942, the Nazi party had 11 concentration camps throughout their occupation of Europe. These were Dachau(1933), Sachsenhausen(1936), Buchenwald(1937), Flossenburg(1937), Mauthausen(1938), Ravensbruck(1939), Gusen(1939), Neuengamme(1940), Gross-Rosen(1940), Natzweiler(1940) and finally Auschwitz(1940)

[12] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/gascamp.html

[13] Heydrich was Heinrich Himmler’s deputy and head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt. (Reich Security Main Office, or RSHA)

[14] Eichman was in charge of organising and maintaining the logistics of the Holocaust.

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