Although it is sometimes described as the meeting where the leaders of the Third Reich decided upon a “final solution to the Jewish question,” the conference that took place in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942 was in fact organizational in purpose. Hitler, who did not attend, had already made up his mind about the Jews, and the Shoah was by that time well underway. At Wannsee, Reinhard Heydrich, the number-two man at the SS, simply gathered the heads of various governmental departments and agencies to inform them of the Führer’s plans, and to work out the details. David Pryce-Jones reviews a recent book on the subject by the German historian Peter Longerich:
The fifteen men present were representatives of Nazi institutions such as the Reich Chancellery, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry for the Occupied Territories, the Propaganda Ministry, and the Office of the Four-Year Plan. All of them were already key figures implementing genocide and were at Wannsee to put the finishing touches to it.
Born around the turn of the century, these men had grown up with the strictly conservative moral values of the Kaiser’s Germany. About half of them had fought in the First World War and as many again were “March violets,” the phrase reserved for careerists who joined the Nazi Party in March 1933 once Hitler had come to power. Four were state secretaries, that is to say senior civil-service officials in one of the ministries of the various states. Ten were university graduates and nine were qualified lawyers of whom all but one had a doctorate.
After the war, the state secretaries and lawyers with their doctorates could hardly remember whether they had been at the conference or what part in it they had played. A single participant said that the regime’s Jewish policy was shameful but he had “simply carried on and waited for the end.” Educated and rational men in their position did not have to make it their life’s task to fulfill Hitler’s uneducated and irrational vision of the world. This scholarly account of a handful of Nazi murderers goes as far as it can in exposing the kind of thing that happens when the moral structure collapses, and in its fine and unstated way it is also a penance.