January 20, 1942. The Wannsee Conference seals the fate of European Jews

Written by: Przemysław Batorski
80 years ago, on January 20, 1942 in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, government officials of Nazi Germany planned the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. Although Hitler had made the very decision to start mass extermination earlier, the Wannsee conference helps to understand the mechanics of the Holocaust.

Ernst Marlier Villa in Wannsee


We don’t know exactly when Hitler issued orders initiating the direct extermination of Jews – a stage of the industrial genocide involving the killing of the Jewish population in extermination camps.

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See the interactive map of the Wannsee conference prepared by the European Remembrance and Solidarity Network (ENRS) together with the Wannsee Conference House (GHWK)

On July 31, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Main Security Office – headquarters of the Nazi repression apparatus within the SS – received an order from Hermann Göring (at that time the Marshal of the Reich and head of the German war economy) to prepare the "Final Folution to the Jewish Question". However, the decision had already been made to exterminate the Jews who were living in Soviet territory, and from June 22, Einsatzgruppen, mobile special forces, implemented the plan by shooting hundreds of thousands of Jews and people deemed “communists” in places like Babi Yar. Undoubtedly, in 1941, there was a change in the German policy towards Jews, and impromptu executions, starvation, and forced labour – indirect extermination – began to be replaced by systematic mass murders.

Hitler's key order was most likely given orally. This was the practice of decision making by the “leader” who, moreover, “in many cases did not invent and did not suggest anti-Jewish steps and more important elements of the extermination program, but only accepted the plans of others”[1]. Among the documents related to mass crimes, Hitler's signature appears only on the autumn 1939 order on the commencement of Operation T4 – the extermination of the disabled and mentally ill. Later, the dictator was careful not to leave any traces of his acceptance of the plans of the crime. After the war, it made the prosecution of the Nazis more difficult and enabled the so-called Holocaust deniers question the scale of the crimes and the role of Hitler.

In 1997, the German historian Christian Gerlach announced that, according to his research, Hitler made a decision to start murdering Jews in extermination camps on December 12, 1941 [2]. This is evidenced by the coincidence of the dates of the meetings of the Nazi leaders in December 1941 and the postponement of the Wannsee conference itself from December 9, 1941 to January 1942. On December 12, in a speech in front of 50 of the most important members of the NSDAP, Hitler said:

Regarding the Jewish Question, the Führer is determined to be clear about the matter. He forebode the Jews that if they sparked a world war again, they would experience their own destruction. It wasn't phraseology. The world war is here and the extermination of Jewry must become its indispensable consequence. [3]

This speech, Gerlach points out, set the “fundamental direction” in the Reich's policy towards Jews [4]. On December 16, Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland, announced to the members of his cabinet that in January there would be a “great conference” in Berlin regarding “deportation to the east”:

We cannot shoot those 3.5 million Jews, we cannot poison them, but we will be able to undertake measures that will somehow bring some results in the process of extermination, and this is within the framework of activities that will be discussed by the Reich authorities.[5] 

Frank used euphemisms, Hitler, in many cases, spoke ambiguously. In addition, the hierarchy of offices in the Reich was complicated, and the institutions often had similar competences. Therefore, after the war, historians who tried to deal with this chaos created two schools of interpretation of the Holocaust. Intentionalists believed that the Germans had prepared and carried out a meticulous plan to exterminate the Jews. Functionalists were of the opinion that the genocide of the Jews was to a greater extent the result of the improvisation of lower and middle-ranking officers – their ideas were only picked up by their superiors. The assessment of both positions is made difficult by the aforementioned lack of key orders in writing. For these reasons, historians for a long time had trouble establishing the real importance of the January 1942 conference.

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Jewish population in Europe – note prepared for the Wannsee conference.

Mass murder using gas started before the meeting at Wannsee. In the summer of 1941 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Germans started experiments with the deadly gas Zyklon-B – initially mainly on Soviet prisoners of war. At the beginning of December 1941, the first extermination camp was set up in Kulmhof (Chełmno nad Nerem), where Jews were killed with engine exhaust in trucks converted into mobile gas chambers – the governor of the Warta Region, Arthur Greiser, received a permit to execute about 100,000 people [6]. In total, by the beginning of 1942, hundreds of thousands of Jews had already died. When Adolf Eichmann, head of the Gestapo office for Jewish affairs, organised a meeting in a villa in the Wannsee district of Berlin on January 20, 1942, at the behest of Reinhard Heydrich, the main point was that the plan of extermination would cover the entirety of occupied Europe.

The residence at Am Großen Wannsee 56/58 Street, next to the Wannsee lake, a known relaxation spot, was built in 1915 by Ernst Marlier, a pharmaceutical manufacturer. The building then belonged to Friedrich Minoux, a trader associated with the far right, who was arrested in 1940 for embezzlement. The villa was bought by the SS and converted into a guest house for high-ranking officers of the Nazi services, including commanders of the Einsatzgruppen.

The meeting was attended by 15 German government officers as well as members of the SS and the police:

  • SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich – Head of the Security Police and SS Security Service (SD), head of the Reich Main Security Office, Protector of Bohemia and Moravia
  • SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller – Head of the Gestapo (Division IV of the Reich Main Security Office, i.e. the secret police)
  • SS-Gruppenführer Otto Hofmann – Head of the SS Race and Settlement Main Office
  • SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Stuckart – Secretary of State in the Reich Ministry of Internal Affairs
  • SS-Oberführer Eberhard Schöngarth – Commander of the Security Police and SD in the General Government
  • SS-Oberführer Gerhard Klopfer – Secretary of State in the Party Chancellery of the NSDAP
  • SS-Oberführer Erich Neumann – Under Secretary of State in the Office of the Plenipotentiary for the Four-Year Plan, representative of the Ministries of Economy, Finance, Agriculture and Food Policy, Labour and Social Affairs, Armaments and Ammunition
  • SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann – Head of Department IV B 4 RSHA (for Jewish matters)
  • SS-Sturmbannführer Rudolf Lange – Commander of the Security Police and SD in Latvia
  • Wilhelm Kritzinger – Secretary of State in the Reich Chancellery
  • Josef Bühler – Secretary of State in the General Government and Hans Frank's deputy
  • Roland Freisler – Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice
  • Alfred Meyer – Secretary of State at the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories
  • Georg Leibbrandt – Under Secretary of State in the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories
  • Martin Luther – Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The conference was held to define the principles of cooperation between all ministries and state services in achieving the goal which was called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” [7]. The meeting was not attended by representatives of the Wehrmacht and German railways, as they had already come to detailed agreements with the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.

The meeting was commenced by Heydrich. In his speech he gave the number of 11 million Jews living in Europe who were to be liquidated. The participants discussed the treatment of the so-called Mischlinge, i.e. people with half or a quarter of Jewish heritage, and the transport of Jews from Western Europe to Poland and the entire organisation of the killing. Among others, the ideas of forced sterilisation and forced divorce of German Jews were discussed. Heydrich was surprised at how quickly and eagerly ministry officials expressed their support for the Endlösung project – he expected “great difficulties” [8] from them, when in fact nothing of the sort happened. Representatives of the Reich ministries welcomed the announcement of the next phase of genocide “with extraordinary enthusiasm” [9].

The main decisions of the conference included the extermination of German Jews. It was a big problem for the Nazis, because they also considered the German Jewish soldiers of the First World War, “half-breeds” and people with “Aryan” spouses who were completely assimilated in German society [10]. (An example of the fact that they did not fully “solve” this problem is the story of Victor Klemperer, a German philologist of Jewish origin, author of books describing life in the Reich, who lived in Dresden until 1945 because he had an “Aryan” wife and was a veteran of World War I. He managed to survive the war). According to some sources, by autumn 1941, the Germans planned the extermination mainly of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe [11], while they only intended to relocate German Jews (which in this case, exceptionally, would not mean killing). From the autumn of 1941, German Jews were sent to ghettos in the occupied territories of Poland, the Baltic states and the USSR, but the policy towards them was heterogeneous – in Łódź and Minsk they were left alive for the time being, in Kaunas all were killed, and in Riga only some [12]. This fact is in favour of the functionalist theory. However, in February 1942, after the Wannsee conference, the Germans began the extermination of Jews transported from the Reich to the ghettos of Central and Eastern Europe – this is an argument confirming the intentionalists' theses.

It was agreed at Wannsee that the Holocaust would begin in the General Government – in the area of ​​occupied central Poland. This stage of genocide was later given the code name “Operation Reinhardt”, probably after Heydrich, who died in June 1942. Jews from areas conquered or dependent on Germany were to be placed in ghettos, captured and transported by rail to concentration and extermination camps, where they were killed through excessive forced labor or directly in the gas chambers. It was planned to create two more, after Kulmhof and the already built Bełżec, secret death camps in Sobibór and Treblinka [13]. The conference was a withdrawal point from the pre-war, unrealistic proposals for the resettlement of Jews to Madagascar. “Resettlement” – allegedly to the east, to the occupied territories of the USSR – became a euphemism for deportation to extermination camps. The official part of the conference lasted only 90 minutes, after which alcohol was served and the participants had dinner together [14].

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Heinrich Himmler’s meeting with subordinates: from the left Franz Josef Huber, Arthur Nebe,
Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Müller. November 1939, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R98680 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

As Gerlach writes, “the conference in Wannsee was called primarily so that state and party organs could gain clarity about the future way of ‘treating’ German Jews, and at the same time create a legal basis for the treatment of West European Jews, including establishing a definition of a Jew and deciding who it includes”[15]. The discussion led to the implementation of the program of extermination of Jews not only in the eastern territories occupied by the Reich, but throughout occupied Europe, with the involvement of previously unknown measures. Soon, transports mainly from Poland, but also from Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Belarus came to Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. By the end of 1942, about 1.2 million Jews were murdered in these three camps as well as at Majdanek in Lublin. Auschwitz also became the extermination center for Jews from all over Europe.

As a result of the “technical” meeting in Wannsee, in which only Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Müller participated from among the highest-ranking Nazis, “the implementation of the European genocide plan could therefore begin" [16]. “The protocol of the conference proves that the idea of the Holocaust was supported not only by representatives of the NSDAP and the SS, but also by the elite of state employees, who were often not even party members” [17].

Only the secretary of the conference, the later coordinator of the "Final Solution", Adolf Eichmann, was tried and executed for participating in the planning of genocide on a European scale. The trial was made possible by the capture of Eichmann by Israeli agents in Argentina and his transfer to Israel. The fate of the other participants was as follows:

  • Reinhard Heydrich – died of injuries after a Czech commando attack in Prague in June 1942.
  • Heinrich Müller – disappeared in May 1945, likely committed suicide in besieged Berlin.
  • Otto Hofmann – spent 6 years in prison after the war, died in 1982.
  • Wilhelm Stuckart – spent 4 years in custody after the war, died in 1953.
  • Eberhard Schöngarth – tried for killing an Allied pilot and executed in 1946.
  • Gerhard Klopfer – arrested, did not go to prison, died in 1987.
  • Erich Neumann – arrested, released due to poor health, died in 1951.
  • Rudolf Lange – died in Poznań in February 1945.
  • Wilhelm Kritzinger – witness at the Nuremberg trials, died in 1947.
  • Josef Bühler – tried and executed in Kraków in 1948 for crimes against the Polish nation.
  • Roland Freisler – died in Berlin bombing in February 1945.
  • Alfred Meyer – committed suicide in April 1945.
  • Georg Leibbrandt – the post-war investigation against him was discontinued, he died in 1982.
  • Martin Luther – imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen camp for conspiracy against Joachim von Ribbentrop, died in May 1945.

Currently, the villa houses a museum with a permanent exhibition called “The Wannsee Meeting and the Murder of the European Jews”.


[1] Christian Gerlach, Konferencja w Wannsee. Los Żydów niemieckich a polityczna decyzja Hitlera o wymordowaniu wszystkich Żydów Europy [Wannsee Conference. The fate of German Jews and Hitler's political decision to murder all the Jews of Europe], transl. by Cezary Jenne, „Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego” [Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute] no 185-186, January-June 1998, p. 69.

[2] Ibid., p. 35-73.

[3] Ibid., p. 53.

[4] See: Ibid., p. 56.

[5] See: Ibid., p. 56-57.

[6] Ibid., p. 71.

[7] Paweł Szapiro, Am Grossen Wannsee, konferencja [Wannsee Conference], Polski Słownik Judaistyczny [Polish Judaic Dictionary] https://delet.jhi.pl/pl/psj?articleId=14832, access 19.01.2021 r.

[8] See: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann w Jerozolimie [Eichmann in Jerusalem], transl. by Adam Szostkiewicz, Kraków 2010, p. 147.

[9] Ibid.

[10] C. Gerlach, op. cit., p. 42.

[11] Ibid., p. 39.

[12] Ibid., p. 42.

[13] Andrzej Żbikowski, Geneza i przebieg Akcji Reinhard [Genesis and course of Operation Reinhard], https://www.jhi.pl/artykuly/geneza-i-przebieg-akcji-reinhardt,301, access 19.01.2021.

[14] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 148.

[15] C. Gerlach, op. cit., p. 36.

[16] Ibid.

[17] P. Szapiro, op. cit.

Przemysław Batorski   JHI Web Editor