Seventy years ago, in December 1941, Japan began a war with the attack on Pearl Harbor that was joined a few days later by the Nazi Reich with its declaration of war on the USA. Thereby the European and Pacific wars became a world war.
On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking bureaucrats of the Nazi regime came together for a conference, which later would become known as the "Wannsee Conference". It was no longer necessary at that time to come to a decision about the murder of the European Jews because it had already been underway for some time. The hitherto disenfranchisement, persecution and expulsion of the Jews had been replaced in the previous months by the extermination of the Jews.
In the following article, which appeared on December 11, 2011 in the Berlin daily "Tagesspiegel", the Berlin historian Ernst Piper describes the beginning of the Holocaust. Piper is known for his biography of Alfred Rosenberg, whom he characterized as "Hitler's principal ideologue". We thank Ernst Piper for his friendly permission to publish his article on our site, as well as the English translation that follows.
Before the Wannsee Conference
Expansion of the Combat Zone
by Ernst Piper
Translation by Gord McFee
At the end of 1941, Japan's bombers attack Pearl Harbor and Adolf Hitler declares war on the USA. At the same time the mass deportation and murder of German Jews begins - weeks before the infamous Wannsee Conference.
On November 18, 1941, Alfred Rosenberg hosted a reception for the press. His appointment as "Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories" had only been announced the day before, although he had already been in the position for four months. In the Ministry's conference room, then located in the premises of the former royal Yugoslav embassy at 17-18 Rauch Street in "Berlin-Tiergarten", Rosenberg wanted now to prepare for what was to come. Taking notes was strictly forbidden, and reporting explicitly not allowed. The reception had another goal: the "Hauptschriftleiter" in attendance, as chief editors were called in Nazi jargon, were to take a united stand and see things "in the same light."
Alfred Rosenberg explained that the East had been "called to solve a question that has been put to the peoples of Europe: that is, the Jewish Question. About six million Jews live In the East and this question can only be solved by a biological eradication of the whole of Jewry in Europe".
In an intimate circle a boundary was crossed for the first time. No longer was evacuation spoken of, nor the Madagascar Plan, nor the removal of the Jews from Europe, as it was habitually publicized. Rosenberg spoke of "biological eradication". That could only mean mass murder.
When one speaks today of the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, nine weeks after Rosenberg's press reception, it is sometimes claimed that a fundamental decision was taken to exterminate the Jews at this meeting of high-ranking representatives of Reich authorities and National Socialist Party departments. That is not true because the mass murders had at this time already been underway for some time. In fact, the last weeks of 1941 represent an important culmination on the road to the extermination of the Jews.
After hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been murdered in the conquered eastern regions, deportations began in the fall of 1941 of "Reich German" Jews to the East. On November 20, 1852 men, 2755 women and 327 children from Berlin, Frankfurt am Main and Munich were deported and five days later, immediately after their arrival in Fort IX, shot before the gates of the Lithuanian city Kaunas. On November 29 a second major shooting action took place there whose victims were Jews from Vienna and Breslau [Wroclaw].
On the same day in Berlin, the Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich sent out invitations to a meeting on December 8 with breakfast included at which would be considered "all necessary preparations ... for a complete solution to the Jewish Question in Europe". Heydrich was at that time also President of the International Criminal Police Commission. Its department at 16 Am Kleinen Wannsee was provided as the location of the meeting.
The meeting was not to take place. Shortly beforehand it was cancelled - due to an event that took place almost 12,000 kilometres away and was to have a decisive impact on further course of the war. In the morning of December 7, the Japanese air force launched its attack from six aircraft carriers on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. More than 2400 soldiers lost their lives, a dozen ships were sunk or wrecked, more than 300 aircraft were destroyed or damaged. A day later the United States declared war on Japan. In Berlin, Heydrich's colleagues informed the invitees to the conference at Wannsee that the meeting would be postponed.
On December 11, Adolf Hitler called the "men of the Reichstag" together in order to declare war on the United States in their presence. It was to take until December 1942 before American and German soldiers came into direct contact with one another in the African campaign. Nevertheless Germany now found itself suddenly in a world war, a term that previously had only been used for the 1914-1918 war. In his Reichstag speech of January 1939, Hitler had uttered the prophesy that the consequence of a new world war would be the extermination of the Jews. This event had now in his opinion occurred.
The next day, Hitler invited the Reich and Gau Leaders of the NSDAP, approximately 50 people, to the Reich Chancellery and said more openly than ever before what it was all about for him. Joseph Goebbels noted in his diary: "With respect to the Jewish Question, the Führer has decided to make a clean sweep. (...) The world war is here, and the annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence".
Alfred Rosenberg's Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories was involved at all levels in the implementation of the million-fold murder program - administrative as well as planning, political as well as ideological. On December 14 Rosenberg had a one-on-one meeting with Hitler; subsequently he noted about the meeting: "I maintained the point of view not to speak of the extermination of the Jews. The Führer agreed with this position and said they had imposed the war and brought destruction, thus it is no wonder that they suffer the consequences first of all." Rosenberg and Hitler agreed: The Jews were to be exterminated, but to make it public did not appear advisable at this point in time.
Alfred Rosenberg was a National Socialist ideologue and convinced antisemite. He came from Estonian Reval (today Talllinn). His opponents suspected that he spoke better Russian than German. During the years of the rise of the Nazi Party he had played an important role, was however after 1933 increasingly on the margins of the political power centre. When Hitler concluded a non-aggression pact with Stalin in 1939, Rosenberg was not involved in the preparations because such a power-political pragmatism was completely beyond the comprehension of a fanatical rabble-rouser against the "Jewish-Bolshevik Soviet Union".
Now that the battle was against the Soviet Union, Rosenberg was once again required. Already in April 1941, the preparations for the attack in full swing, Hitler summoned him. At the end of a multi-hour conversation, he said to him: "Rosenberg, your big moment is here!"
In the Eastern Ministry, there were at first reservations about the mass murder of Jews. In the last weeks of the year, no such signs were discernible any more. On December 18 the diplomat Otto Bräutigam, who headed the department "General Policy", wrote to Reich Commissar for the East Land Hinrich Lohse: "In respect of the Jewish Question, clarity has been achieved in the meantime through oral discussions. Economic considerations are in general to be ignored in settlement of the problem." This document showed it clearly: The Jews were to be killed without exception. Not even forced labourers were to be exempted from this.
On January 8 1942, a month after the originally established date for the Wannsee Conference, Reinhard Heydrich sent out new invitations to a meeting. It would now take place on January 20 in the Chief of the Security Police and Security Service's guest house at 56-58 Am Großen Wannsee. Heydrich brought several colleagues with him, including Adolf Eichmann, who wrote the Protocol. Among the 15 participants were to be found alongside representatives of the Race and Settlement Main Office, the Party Chancellery and the civil administration in the occupied territories in the East, two representatives of the Eastern Ministry: State Secretary Alfred Meyer and Georg Leibbrandt, head of the policy department.
The Wannsee Conference took place at a point in time when the German advance had come to a stop. It became evermore clear that the "labour deployment in the east", in unconquered Siberia, would remain a fiction and the "evacuation" of Jews meant for many immediate, and for the rest, only deferred death. Immediately after the conference nationwide deportations began in Germany; in addition, the incidence of murder dovetailed with a comprehensive program of forced labour.
The Conference concluded with several subsequent meetings on January 29 in the Eastern Ministry. Here the question of half-breeds, which had played an important role at Wannsee, was a major theme. The radicals among the destruction bureaucrats urged the murder of the so-called "half Jews" as well as "full Jews" in the occupied eastern territories - unlike in the German Reich.
In early 1942, the second and most dreadful wave of murder began, at the end of which stood the clearing of the ghettos. Within 12 months, more than 50 percent of all Holocaust victims died. This has contributed to the incorrect impression that the extermination of the Jews was decided at the Wannsee Conference. In fact, it was already underway while several implementation questions were still being discussed.
Rosenberg's territorial commissioners in the eastern territories under the control of the civil administration at times tried to outdo Himmler's commandos in their killing efficiency. It was the same people who months before had protested against the extermination of manpower. Wilhelm Kube, General Commissar for White Russia, who at first had scruples about executing German Jews, turned out to be an especially eager murderer. In the summer of 1942 he reported that in the previous ten weeks, 55,000 Jews had been liquidated. There were occasional rivalries with the military administration, about which Kluge lamented: "The rear military zone has, without contacting me, liquidated 10,000 Jews, whose systematic eradication had been intended by us in any event." However, mostly Kube himself was active: "In addition the Sluzk region has been unburdened of several thousand Jews". In 1943, the cynic Kube was killed with a bomb by a White Russian partisan who had disguised herself as a maid.
Alfred Rosenberg was executed at Nuremberg in 1946. His State Secretary Alfred Meyer committed suicide in April 1945 in the light of the inevitability of defeat. Quite different is the case of the bon vivant Georg Leibbrandt. At the Wilhelmstrasse trial, the last of the twelve Nuremberg follow-up trials, he was inexplicably not charged but rather invited as a witness. The Protocol of the Wannsee Conference, which at the time of the Major War Crimes Trials was still unknown, had in the meantime been discovered by the tireless prosecutor Robert Kempner. The participants had received the order to destroy the Protocol after reading. The Under State Secretary in the Foreign Office Martin Luther had not obeyed the order. His copy of the Protocol was now an important piece of evidence.
On May 21, 1947, Kempner cross-examined the witness Georg Leibbrandt. The result was a memorable dialogue in which Kempner succeeded within a few minutes in converting the witness.
Kempner: Were you in Wannsee? Did the Reich Main Security Office have a meeting there?
Leibbrandt: Yes, there was a conference, a lunch. Heydrich had invited people as far as I know.
Kempner: What was discussed there?
Leibbrandt: To my knowledge everything possible.
Kempner: For example?
Leibbrandt: The entire battle in the East was discussed (...).
Kempner: Who was there? Did it also have something to do with the Jews?
Leibbrandt: That probably also came up for discussion.
Kempner: Then Mr Leibbrandt took part in a decisive meeting about the Final Solution of the Jewish Question? I have the Protocol.
Leibbrandt: About the Final Solution of the Jewish Question?
Kempner: Yes. Read from the document (...) the second line. What is there?
Leibbrandt: My name ... It was a normal meeting without knowing exactly what was going on and then a Protocol was prepared.
Kempner: The plan was coordinated, what each Ministry had to do?
Kempner: Do you still get a cold shiver down your spine when you think about the session? Were you shocked or not?
Leibbrandt: You could say that.
After he first did not want to remember the meeting, Leibbrandt admitted a little later that he had been shocked. There were no consequences, court proceedings against Leibbrandt were never commenced. In the federal republic capital city of Bonn, he began a second career as an industry lobbyist and died in 1982 in his 83rd year, without having been further subjected to unpleasant questions.
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