In 1941, the year Goering issued his directive to Heydrich, in Warsaw alone more than 90,000 Jews died of starvation. That same year, thousands – including a large number of children – were executed for smuggling food. Also in Warsaw in 1941, 15,000 people died of typhus. On January 31, 1942, Einsatzgruppe “A” reported 229,052 Jews killed since the beginning of the Eastern campaign (June 22, 1941) in seven months of operations.
So the process of killing Jews was well under way, with the number of murdered mounting by the hour: in Vilna-Ponar, 30,000; in Riga, 27,000; in Kovno-Fort Nine, 70,000; in Kiev-Babi Yar, 36,000 in two days; and more.
According to conservative estimates, in the two years prior to the Wannsee Conference well over one million Jews had been dispatched by varied means under Nazi rule.
What, then, makes the Wannsee Conference a significant turning point in the history of the Shoah?
The difference consisted in the development, introduction and official approval of highly sophisticated methods of extermination, some of which were at that point still in a testing phase. Overseers at Maidanek, near Lublin, were experimenting with airtight chambers into which exhaust gas from a U-boat motor was introduced. Similar chambers were on the drawing board or in experimental use at other camps. Airtight vehicles leaving the ghetto of Lodz or Chelmno had their carbon monoxide channeled into the transports in order to complete the ghastly task by the time they reached the pre-designed pits.
These and similar methods applied prior to Wannsee were crude, unsuitable for use outside the war zone, produced disapproval from the more refined Nazi supporters, invited international condemnation and reportedly even brought some of the hardened murderers to the verge of nervous breakdowns. This applied in particular to the murder of infants, children, pregnant women and the old while their executioners stood face to face with them.
Heinrich Himmler, in addressing S.S. generals in October 1943, referred to this burdensome problem: “Among ourselves it should be mentioned quite frankly, and yet we will never speak of it publicly…. I mean…the extermination of the Jewish race…. Most of you must know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side, or 500, or 1,000. To have stuck it out and at the same time…to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.”
By the time Goering issued his order, it became clear that the process of eliminating the Jews had to be refined and properly sanitized and, if the task was to be successfully completed, made substantially more efficient.
Heydrich opened the Wannsee Conference with a review of steps taken in the past to find a proper solution for the Jewish question. The chief of the Security Police elaborated on that issue: In January 1939 a Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration was set up with the aim of cleansing German living space of Jews. But the office encountered difficulties, such as demands by foreign governments for exaggerated sums of money to be presented at the time of the Jewish refugees’ landing, or increased restrictions of entry permits by countries supposedly ready to offer refuge.
As a result of the reluctance of most nations to accept Jews, the Office for Jewish Emigration was terminated on October 31, 1941. By then, however, a means of solving the Jewish question opened up in the East where the corpses of millions of Jews could be deposited. Heydrich presented a country-by-country count of Jews who would be involved in the final solution by means of evacuation to the East. The total number amounted to 11 million, which included 330,000 Jews from England and 4,000 from Ireland. Obviously, the Germans were still confident at that point that eventually they would conquer Great Britain.
The practical execution of the final solution would require the transfer of the Jews from the West to the East. Until that point the murderers had to seek out the victims. After Wannsee the victims would be delivered to the murderers. A methodical sweep was planned, combing Europe from West to East. The ghettos in Poland would be eliminated at the earliest opportunity, making places temporarily available for transports from the West.
And while the Nazi Reich needed to use all the means at its disposal to deliver the necessary manpower, instruments of war, crucial supplies, food, medicine, and ammunition to the fighting men on the front, it was implicit in the decisions of the Wannsee Conference that the delivery of Jews to designated points of destruction would take precedence over the war effort.
In other words, the war against the Jews had priority to the war against any other enemy, be it on the Western or Eastern front. And until the crucial turnaround on the two fronts – on the East with the Battle of Stalingrad, on the West with the Normandy landing – the Wannsee decree giving priority to the elimination of Jews made a certain perverse sense to the Nazi mindset. But as the war progressed and the German military found itself under increasing strain, the war effort against the Allies demanded substantial modification.
About the Author: Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University, and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.
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