20 January 2020 was the 68th anniversary of the so-called Wannsee Conference. This meeting of senior Nazis, chaired by Reinhard Heydrich and his faithful assistant Adolf Eichmann, took place in a graceful villa on the shore of Lake Wannsee just outside Berlin. Thanks to one surviving copy of the minutes (which the participants were supposed to have destroyed), it has gone down in history as one of the most significant moments in the decision-making process for the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe’: the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews.
What does this have to do with the contemporary radical right? Apart from the ‘eliminationist’ drive which remains at the heart of radical right rhetoric, especially on its wilder fringes as exemplified by recent mass murderers in Norway and New Zealand, whose ‘manifestos’ are echoes of Nazi ideology, what was discussed at Wannsee reminds us of the fears, paranoia and fantasies of the radical right.
For some years after World War II, the meeting at Wannsee, which was postponed from its original date in December 1941 because of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the US into the war, was regarded as the moment when the decision was taken to kill all the Jews of Europe. Seeming to back up that interpretation was the existence, in the minutes of the meeting, of a table listing all the countries of Europe and the estimated number of Jews in each.
Drawn up by Eichmann, the Reich Security Main Office’s expert in Jewish affairs, the numbers are quite accurate. What is so striking about the table is that it includes not only countries occupied by or allied to Nazi Germany but neutral countries and the as-yet unoccupied. And they range from the millions in the case of the Soviet Union to the hundreds in the case of Albania, indicating that the Nazis sought to capture and kill all Jews, wherever they were and however long it might take to get their hands on them.
Today historians know better. By the start of 1942, already over one million Jews had been shot in face-to-face killings on the eastern front, killed in cold blood by the SS’s Einsatzgruppen, specially constructed murder squads, battalions of the Order Police and with the considerable assistance of local auxiliaries and other collaborators in the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine.
At the same time, the Romanians, Nazi Germany’s major ally in the east, had begun deporting and killing large numbers of Jews from their territories to Transnistria, the area of Ukraine, including Odessa, occupied by Romania.
By the time of the Wannsee Conference, Latvia was already ‘judenrein’ (free of Jews), as Rudolf Lange, who headed the task force there tasked with eliminating the Jews, proudly noted at Wannsee. Bełżec, the first of the death camps of what came to be called, following Heydrich’s murder, Operation Reinhard, was under construction, and the gas vans of Chełmno (Kulmhof) were already operating. This was not yet the ‘final solution’, in that a programme to murder the Jews of Europe as a whole was not yet fully in place, but the Nazis were proceeding rapidly to that end point.Print