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"The Wannsee Conference": The "final solution" had long been in full swing

In 1942, 15 National Socialists met to organize the mass murder of European Jews. The production of the ZDF film was brought up to date by the historian Peter Klein. By Christina Bylow

No roars of laughter, no stale jokes, no signs of scruples where there were no scruples. It is a film of extreme sobriety and reduction. Director Matti Geschonneck staged it according to the principle of the unity of place and time, without music, without dramatic escalation. The meeting, which went down in history as the Wannsee Conference, is said to have lasted about ninety minutes.

On January 20, 1942, it took place in a villa on the Großer Wannsee that was used as a guest house by the SS. The 15-page record of this “meeting followed by breakfast”, as it was called in the invitation, found in 1947 is considered one of the most important documents of the Holocaust. Peter Klein knows it almost by heart. The historian has been studying this meeting for thirty years. As a consultant, he accompanied the production of the film “The Wannsee Conference”.

We meet at Touro College Berlin, where Peter Klein has been a professor of Holocaust Studies since 2013. The campus in Berlin’s Westend, on the high bank above the Stoessensee, is an exemplary location. Today’s seminar building with a flat roof and brick façade was designed by Bruno Paul in the New Objectivity style. The owners Paul and Minnie Lindemann lived in this house with their two children for barely three years. In 1934, the Jewish family was forced to sell the property for far below its value, and the father, a merchant and board member of Karstadt AG, was dismissed. The family emigrated to the USA via Italy. Instead of her, the Reich Minister for Church Affairs, Hanns Kerrl, now lives in the property at Am Rupenhorn 5. Around 200 young people are currently studying business management, psychology or Holocaust Communication and Tolerance at the private, state-recognized university. A mezuzah is attached to the right door frame of each room, Touro College is a Jewish institution.

Peter Klein will give another lecture in the afternoon. According to Klein, it is about the German Reich’s attack on the Soviet Union as a racist ideological war of annihilation. Why has Klein been dealing with the perpetrators for three decades? He says it has something to do with his academic training. During his history studies at the TU Berlin, at the Center for Research on Antisemitism, he attended a seminar given by the historian and political scientist Wolfgang Scheffler, who was consulted as an expert in almost all major trials of Nazi criminals before German courts. Scheffler enabled the young student from Nuremberg to look into sources that are otherwise difficult to access.

“I was able to read the case files, and by reading this you get very close to the behavioral structures of the accused,” says Klein: “You come across a wide variety of behaviors. For alleged memory gaps, for the so-called error of the law, for example when someone says: ‘What, you weren’t allowed to shoot Jews? I did not know that. It was National Socialism after all.’ I could draw from the raw material, always trying to understand more.”

After the fall of the wall, the Eastern European archives open up. In 1994, Heinrich Himmler’s service calendar from 1941/42 turned up in the special archive in Moscow. A group of scholars, including Peter Klein, is developing and commenting on the document. “I have a certain tendency to look for things in archives and want to find them,” says Klein. Between 2001 and 2004 he worked at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, where he helped curate the revised version of the exhibition on the crimes of the Wehrmacht. He publishes about the Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet Union, about the “Final Solution” in Riga, about Theresienstadt. In 2013, together with Norbert Kampe, who was then head of the Wannsee Conference House Memorial, he published an extensive volume on the meeting in January 1942.

The film

“The Wannsee Conference” is a feature film by Matti Geschonneck – Magnus Vattrodt and Paul Mommertzer wrote the screenplay, which follows the minutes of the meeting written by Adolf Eichmann and describes the course of the Nazi meeting in a villa on Berlin’s Wannsee on January 20, 80 years ago. In addition to Philipp Hochmair and Johannes Allmayer, Maximilian Brückner, Matthias Bundschuh, Fabian Busch, Godehard Giese and Sascha Nathan are among the players.

The film can already be seen in the ZDF media library. The broadcast date on television is next Monday, January 24, at 8:15 p.m.

When Klein was asked by the producers of the film in 2019 whether the current state of knowledge about the Wannsee Conference legitimized a new film, “the answer could only be yes,” says Klein. Several filmmakers had already tried the material. In Germany 1984 the director Heinz Schirk, the screenplay was written by Paul Mommertz. The screenwriter Magnus Vattrodt was able to draw on it for the current film – and yet rewrote it.

No sentence falls here without a background. For example, when one of the conference participants says: “What was still forbidden in November is obviously allowed in December”, this refers to a crime, the details of which only came to light in the 1990s through the research work of Peter Klein. On November 27, 1941, 1,053 Jews from Berlin were deported to Riga. Immediately after their arrival on November 30, they were murdered along with about 15,000 Latvian Jews by German police battalions, Latvian auxiliary police officers and the SS in the nearby Rumbula forest. Himmler reprimanded the arbitrariness of those responsible on site, nothing else. The German Jews should have been taken to the Riga ghetto, for the time being.

But then the signs change. On December 12, 1941, a meeting between Hitler and the Reich and Gau leaders took place in the Reich Chancellery. Himmler had noted the meeting in his service calendar. A Goebbels diary entry shortly afterwards refers to this: Hitler was determined to make a clean sweep of the Jews. Which means: This crime against Berlin Jews is allowed in December.

Klein uses this example to illustrate how historical facts found their way into the script. The question of plausibility was always at the center of the considerations and the constant exchange between him and the author Vattrodt. “The words that fall, the dialogues are all circumscribed and checked. You can’t tell an easily falsifiable story in a criminal film like this. That would be irresponsible.”

On January 20, 1942, at that conference, it was clear to everyone what the word “Final Solution” meant. The construct from the bureaucratic vocabulary of the perpetrators is on the first page of the minutes of the meeting. Contrary to a still widespread misconception, however, the “final solution” was not decided at this conference. It had been in full swing since 1941. On that day in January 1942, the focus was on logistics and organization, the marking of responsibilities, claims for dominance and the cooperation of all authorities involved. People are never mentioned. One speaks of “units”, of “actions”, one “treats” and “special treatment”.

Reinhard Heydrich (Philipp Hochmair), Heinrich Müller (Jakob Diehl), Adolf Eichmann (Johannes Allmayer, v. l.).


Reinhard Heydrich (Philipp Hochmair), Heinrich Müller (Jakob Diehl), Adolf Eichmann (Johannes Allmayer, from left).

Reinhard Heydrich, head of the main security office, the security police and the SD, chairs the conference and thereby establishes his position of power. Played by actor Philipp Hochmair, he does this in a particularly perfidious way in Geschonneck’s film. “His malice, his ruthless ambition lie dormant behind his commitment,” says Peter Klein. He thinks the film was successful. “It is good that over-education is completely absent. The historical facts are subcutaneously built into the dialogue.” Magnus Vattrodt speaks of a “collage”. He used many types of texts, letters, announcements, speeches. “None of these characters are impersonated in an artificial way. We didn’t want to erect a monument to them and we didn’t want to crawl into their souls.”

After the war ended, what happened to the 15 men who attended the Wannsee Conference? Some evaded justice by suicide, three were sentenced to death and executed. Gerhard Klopfer, then deputy head of the NSDAP party headquarters, settled in Ulm in 1956 as a lawyer.

They were all educated above average, eight had a doctorate, many of them were lawyers. In addition to SS leaders and party officials of the NSDAP, state secretaries from the Reich ministries sat at the conference table, including the ministries of the interior, justice, occupied eastern territories and the foreign office. Adolf Eichmann was sitting at a table next to him, together with a secretary who was taking shorthand. Almost 20 years after the Wannsee Conference, during his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann heavily incriminated the “gentlemen”. In “blunt words” they would have “named the matter – without clothing the matter”. They agreed.

How is it that these men did what they did? “We cannot simply read the answer to the philosophical question of why,” says Klein, “from the sources. But we recognize mechanisms, motivations, radicalization, obstacles – all those things that ensure that projects such as war and mass murder can be put into action.”

The anti-Semitism of these men in their early thirties and early fifties has long been ingrained, which is by no means an explanation. “Student associations play a major role in almost all biographies, especially those of lawyers. Assigning war guilt to the Jews had been part of the standard repertoire there since 1919,” says Klein. And yet: “It’s not that they didn’t know they were committing crimes. You still knew the basic rights from the constitution of the Weimar Republic.”

The film “The Wannsee Conference” conveys no message. What he makes oppressively noticeable is something timeless. Peter Klein says: “We see how easy it is to lose principles once learned and to identify with other goals. This is a question that also worries the students in my seminars: where does this identification begin, which can overarch any doubts that someone has?”

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