Wannsee Conference: Ninety minutes that changed the world

Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich lays a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on December 1, 2011. (Flash90)


Ninety minutes—a mere ninety minutes—was all it took for Adolf Hitler’s henchmen to determine the fate of six million Jews. During that period—roughly the time it would take to drive from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv during peak traffic—the Holocaust became a heinous reality.

The date: January 20, 1942.

The place: a beautiful villa in a serene lakeside suburb of Berlin. 

The objective: to find a “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”

Presiding over the conference was SS-Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Security Police and Security Service. In attendance were 14 high-ranking German military and government leaders, among them Adolf Eichmann. Imagine, over lunch 15 men in 90 minutes changed the world forever. January 20, 2012 marks the 70th anniversary of that fateful conference. We dare not let this dubious anniversary pass without marking how little time it takes to alter the course of history.

As events of the 1930s led ominously toward a Second World War, the Nazis under Hitler searched for a “final solution” for what they considered to be “the Jewish problem.” As the meeting began that day, Heydrich was determined that none should doubt his superiority or his authority, which was not limited by geographical borders. He briefed those in the room on the measures that had already been taken against the Jews in an attempt to eradicate them from both the German culture and the German homeland.

Initially, steps had been implemented to allow German Jews to immigrate to whatever countries would accept them, but the move proved to be too slow for the Fuhrer and the Reich. Now the men had gathered to implement Hitler’s new solution. Heydrich provided a list of Jews in each country, a total of 11 million Jews were to be involved. In his zeal, he determined, “In large, single-sex labor columns, Jews fit to work will work their way eastward constructing roads. Doubtless the large majority will be eliminated by natural causes. Any final remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise, by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.” Translation: All will die.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Jews were to be purged beginning in Germany, Bohemia, and Moravia. From there they were to be expunged in Europe from east to west. Many questions arose as to how to identify those who were to be considered Jews. The issue was not resolved during the Wannsee meeting.

Of course, this was not the beginning of the extermination of the Jewish people. Many of those in attendance had already participated in the murders since the summer of 1941. Even before the gathering at Wannsee, more than a half-million Jews had been murdered behind army lines. The question was how to attain the goal of mass extermination in areas outside the battle zone. A more efficient way needed to be found to eliminate larger numbers. No, the meeting was not called to determine how to begin the process, but rather to spell out how the “final solution” would be achieved. By the following January, death camps equipped with gas chambers were under construction.

The ordinary citizenry of Germany did not enter the war determined to annihilate six million of their neighbors. It began with a subversive program of anti-Semitism aimed at blaming the Jewish people for all the ills that had beset Germany following its losses in World War I. Even Hitler did not begin with total extermination in mind. That seed began to germinate only after Jews were denied entry into other countries.  It seemed to him that he had been given a green light to do whatever he wished with the Jewish population.

The accusations resonate yet again today as Israel is routinely accused of crimes worthy of its being wiped off the map. Given the state of the economy—an integral factor in Hitler’s rise to power—anti-Semitism is being reborn at a sickening rate, even as Holocaust denial has reached alarming proportions. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has jumped on the bandwagon with others in the Arab world, as well as the likes of British author and Holocaust denier David Irving, an active anti-Semite and racist whose books are widely read.

In an attempt to forestall this epidemic of Jew-hatred, Christian groups from Germany, Europe, and other nations of the world will gather in Berlin on January 20, 2012, in an attempt to determine how they, working together, can stem the tide of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in today’s world. Another group, headed by Danny Ben-Moshe and Professor Dovid Katz, has issued a declaration calling upon government leaders worldwide to reject the possibility of another genocidal assault against the Jewish people.

We must continue to stand arm-in-arm with the Jewish people to ensure its safety. As the Prophet Jeremiah wrote:  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) Let us not let this appalling anniversary pass unmarked. Let it be the beginning of renewed support for the Children of Israel worldwide—and especially in the Holy Land.