From the cover:
On 20 January 1942 the most murderous meeting in history took place.
Chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most feared men in Germany, it summoned top Nazi officials to a grand villa on the shore of Berlin’s Lake Wannsee in order to clarify ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish question.’ They ate good food, drank cognac and smoked cigars – and in less than two hours had effectively sentenced six million people to death.
Only one set of minutes from this secret meeting have survived, and argument has raged over its contents. Now Mark Roseman brilliantly unravels the macabre mystery of what has been called ‘the most shameful document of modern history.’
It was in March 1947, collecting information for the Nuremberg trials, that the staff of the US Prosecutor mad the discovery. Stamped Geheim Reichssache – ‘secret Reich matter’ – and tucked away in a German Foreign Office folder, were the minutes of a meeting. The meeting had involved fifteen top Nazi Civil Servants, SS and Party officials and had taken place on 20 January, 1942, in a grand villa on the shores of Lake Wannsee. The US officials had stumbled across the only surviving copy of the minutes, no.16 out of an original thirty.
Mark Rosenman argues very convincingly against some of the more hyperbolic rhetoric there has arisen around the Wannsee meeting’s place in the whole black catalogue of Nazi social and war crimes. In that he places it not at the start, nor in the middle nor at the end of the path towards all-out execution of the Jewish peoples. He puts it in its proper place. It seems to me, what he is saying that it was almost a way of Heydrich making sure that all the various departments involved in past present anf future aspects of what we now call The Holocaust could be shown to be culpable. By holding the meeting, and outlining the plans that already were in motion, or would come to be, as a consequence of current circumstances and the already in-motion plans, he made sure that all the various departments could not then or after an unsuccessful war, ever claim to have had no knowledge of the matter. As Eichmann first began his defence with. The ‘just following orders’ lowly official excuse. Which, when confronted with details of his active participation before during and after the meeting, he then acknowledged. In part, the meeting was the “if I’m going down for this, you are too” meeting.
It is partly this aim of making a case for collective guilt, and why they felt it necessary, that I haven’t fully got hold of yet. The facts are it happened. That you can not argue against. Why they felt the need to have wiggle room, of they were assured, or assured themselves of, winning, I’m still looking for. I came away with thinking it might be that in 1942, there were signs of resignation to a defeat (it was mentioned, at least privately), but that if they could rid Europe of the Jews, that victory and the acceptance of Nazi right, would follow.
Obviously, the “drank cognac and smoked cigars” is used in a headline grabbing way. These were real bastards gathered here, as ordinary bastards, planning this sort of thing, would have dines on monkeys brains and cockroaches. But the mundane, nothing special, nothing to see here aspect of the smoking cigars, etc, brings to the fore the important angle idea of how the Nazis saw this – at the time. They had had the idea so ingrained in them, and had ingrained it both themselves and willingly, that Jews were the thing that was stopping them from assuming their destiny, that it was necessary to treat the murders as a problem, a logistical problem, to solve. How to transport the Jews to be killed, how to stop them, and public sympathy from finding out, or sympathising with their plight, once they were at their ‘final’ destination, how to dispose of the Jews.
The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting is a sombre and thorough investigation into the background to the Wannsee meeting, what can be surmised about what happened at the meeting, and its later and wider consequences. Thoroughly recommended for anyone interested in finding out about not quite, as the title suggests, the origins of the Final Solution, but its later stage of development. A book that will stay with me forever.
The site of the conference, the Villa of the title, is now restored and is a museum.
You can find them on Facebook (in German).