On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking Nazi officials met at a luxury villa overlooking the lake in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The elegance and beauty of this resort provided a striking contrast with the Nazi leaders’ ultimate policy for mass murder. For it was here, at this villa, that the path was cleared for the coordinated genocide of the Jewish people. It was during this conference that these men discussed the implementation of the “final solution” and the policy of mass deportations of Jewish men, women, and children to ghettos, and then the extermination camps. It was here that the phrase “Final Solution” would come to mean what we know today – the murder of six million Jews.

Examining the Wannsee Protocol

Fifteen high-ranking members of the Nazi Party attended the Wannsee Conference, convened by Reinhard Heydrich, the leader of the Nazi security service and chief of the Nazi security police. The attendees were top civil servants, SS officers, and Nazi Party officials, including Heydrich’s subordinate Adolf Eichmann. SS leader Eichmann would become a key planner of “Final Solution” logistics, particularly the deportation and transportation of Jews across Europe to extermination camps.

Knowledge about the existence of the Wannsee Conference came to light after the Second World War with the discovery of written minutes from the meeting. These records survived the war and are known as the “Wannsee Protocol.” The Protocol records the discussions and presentations which occurred during the meeting and provides us with great insight as to what was discussed by the conference participants. It was Eichmann who wrote the minutes comprising the Protocol. Most importantly, the Protocol reflects Heydrich’s main presentation to the group attending the meeting, which can be broken down into four main parts.

Part One

The first part was essentially a roll call. The Protocol begins with a recitation of the fifteen persons who took part in the discussion about the “final solution of the Jewish question” at Wannsee.[1] These participants included secretaries of state of the relevant government ministries, senior representatives of German governmental authorities in occupied territories, and senior department heads of the SS.

Part Two

The second part of the Protocol contained Heydrich’s declaration to the group that Reich Marshal Hermann Goering had delegated to him the supervisory responsibility over the preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish question in Europe. Prior to the Wannsee Conference, Heydrich had received written instructions from Goering dated July 31, 1941, to submit to Goering “an overall plan of the preliminary organizational, practical, and financial measures for the execution of the intended final solution of the Jewish question.”[2]

As the second part of the Protocol reflects, Heydrich announced that the purpose of the meeting was to clarify “fundamental questions” related to the Final Solution.[3] Heydrich then summarized the efforts carried out by the Nazi Party to date against the Jews.[4] These efforts, he recounted, had previously been government sanctioned discrimination against Jews (which effectively isolated Jews and removed them from daily life in Germany and its annexed territories), and expelling Jews from Germany and its annexed territories by way of accelerated emigration.[5]

Emigration, though, had become problematic and was ultimately abandoned as countries refused entry to German Jews and, as Heydrich noted, because Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer SS, subsequently prohibited the emigration of Jews.[6] The Protocol reflects that Heydrich explained Himmler also halted emigration in light of the “possibilities in the East” which have arisen due to Germany’s military successes in the Soviet Union territories.[7] Heydrich would discuss the “possibilities in the East” momentarily.

It is interesting to note that Heydrich did not summarize the murderous extermination efforts to date already being carried out by the Einsatzgruppen, the SS, other German military units, auxiliary units, and local collaborators native to the occupied territories. Since the summer and fall of 1941, Jewish men, women, and children in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union were already being rounded up, driven to sites near their towns or villages, and shot to death.[8]

Nor does he mention the other, more technical experiments being conducted, such as euthanasia of the mentally infirm and Soviet prisoners of war by gassing.[9] He omitted these clear preparatory means for implementing the “Final Solution.” Yet he hints at them in his statement (reflected in the third part of the Protocol) that such actions and plans were “already supplying practical experience of great significance in view of the coming final solution of the Jewish question.”[10]

Part Three

In the third part of the Protocol, Heydrich unveiled coordination of the new plan. Heydrich informed the group that “[e]migration has now been replaced by evacuation of the Jews to the East,”[11] which was the lynchpin policy statement condemning the Jews of Europe to death. “Evacuation” was simply a euphemism for “murder” or  “extermination.”[12] Heydrich then declared that “approximately 11 million Jews” will be taken into consideration during the course of the Final Solution and presented a tabulation (in the form of a ledger) of the total Jewish population in each European country and the Soviet Union. This ledger identified Jews residing in Germany’s European allied countries, countries whom Germany occupied, and even included the Jews living in England and Ireland – countries with whom Germany was at war.[13]

Heydrich was clear about the Nazi Party’s intentions when, in conjunction with the ledger, he stated that “Europe is to be combed through and from West to East in the course of the practical implementation of the final solution.”[14] Heydrich stated that the Jews who were rounded up and captured would be sent to transit ghettos that were to serve as temporary depots for these victims who would ultimately be sent “further to the East from there.”[15]

So, what was to happen in the East?

The Protocol reflects that there was a discussion about utilizing Jews for forced labor in the East.[16] In and around the time of the Wannsee Conference, the German war effort began to experience severe labor shortages and Jews who were fit to work were going to fill the gap.[17] Heydrich outlined a plan which balanced the need for Jewish labor with exterminating the Jews altogether. Heydrich remarked Jews deemed fit to work were to be forced into labor.[18]  He was clear, though, that large numbers of Jews would perish during this forced labor through a process of “natural reduction” or, in other words, harsh working conditions.[19]

Heydrich stated that those Jews who would survive labor would have to be dealt with by “suitable treatment,”[20] because to allow them to survive would result in “the germ cell of a new Jewish revival.”[21] There could be no doubt – Heydrich had now made an undeniable reference to killing those Jewish workers who survived horrible working conditions.[22] His prior reference to evacuating Jews to the East was simply code, as those that were unfit to work would be transported to their ultimate death.[23] Those who were deemed fit to work would either die from working conditions or, should they survive the labor, they would be murdered after.

Why was the East important? The locations of the death camps constructed in conjunction with the Final Solution were to be in the occupied territories to the east of Germany. With the East as the center of extermination actions, a cover could be established for the claim that Jews were being “evacuated” to the East. The disappearance of these Jewish victims “could be explained by saying that they had been sent further east, for forced labor in the expanses of Nazi-occupied areas…”[24]

Hence, the forced labor, the murder of those who were unfit for labor, and the murder of those who survived the labor – these were the “possibilities in the East” to which Heydrich referred earlier in the conference. Although the means of killing Jews (beyond death from labor) were not recorded in the Protocol, there can be no doubt that the pathway to genocide had been cleared at the Wannsee Conference.[25]

Part Four

The fourth part of Heydrich’s presentation addressed the boundaries of murder. At this point in the conference, Heydrich addressed the issue of who would be deemed a Jew in the cases of Mischlinge, the term for persons of mixed Aryan and Jewish descent, and Jews in mixed marriages.[26] Here Heydrich set guidelines for who was to be “evacuated” (murdered) and who was to be exempt from evacuation (murder).[27]

Wannsee and the Final Solution

It is important for us to remember the Wannsee Conference. The Final Solution did not begin at Wannsee, as the mass murder of Jews began in 1941 simultaneously with German military victories in the Soviet Union. It was during the Wannsee Conference, however, that the pathway was cleared for genocide. The plan for genocide, though masked by euphemism, was revealed to the high-level participants. It was clear from this point in time going forward that the phrase “Final Solution” meant the ultimate death of all European and Soviet Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.


[1] Documents on the Holocaust, Y. Arad, Y. Gutman, A. Margaliot, eds., University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1999, pp. 249-250.

[2] Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1946), Vol. III, Doc. No. 710-PS, pp. 525-526.

[3] Documents on the Holocaust, p. 250.

[4] Ibid., pp. 250-251.

[5] Ibid., p. 251.

[6] Ibid., pp. 251-252.

[7] Ibid., p. 252.

[8] Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 7-11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Documents on the Holocaust, p. 253.

[11] Ibid., p. 253.

[12] Mark Roseman, The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution (Penguin Group, 2003), p. 1. Heinrich Himmler’s speech to SS officers on October 4, 1943, is further evidence establishing this euphemism or code. It was there he said that “I refer to the evacuation of the Jews, the annihilation of the Jewish people…” Quoted in Arad, Operation Reinhard, p. 16.

[13] Documents on the Holocaust, pp. 253-255.

[14] Ibid., p. 256.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Roseman, The Villa, pp. 77-78.

[18] Documents on the Holocaust, p. 256.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Roseman, The Villa, pp. 76-78.

[23] Ibid., p. 76.

[24] Arad, Operation Reinhard, pp. 15-16.

[25] Roseman, The Villa, p77.

[26] Documents on the Holocaust, pp. 258-260.

[27] Ibid.