by: Kenneth Jacobson | January 20, 2022
It was 80 years ago to this day that the infamous Wannsee conference was held in Germany to lay out plans for implementation of the Final Solution for the Jews of Europe. As historians have pointed out, this was not a conference deciding on this plan. That had been decided upon months earlier by Adolf Hitler. Wannsee was the moment, however, where it became official policy of the Nazi regime and was operationalized in a machine like manner.
This is all-apparent in the deliberations at the conference where there was not one moment of discussion about whether or not to proceed with such a monstrous plan, but rather to inform the attendees, who represented different elements of the Nazi apparatus, that it was now German policy and decide how to go about it.
What is particularly striking about the deliberations, in addition to its fundamental evil, is that in the midst of a world war, where Germany was now in its most difficult challenge --the war with the Soviet Union, there was no discussion whatsoever about whether the monumental organized program proposed at Wannsee would distract from the war effort.
This astounding fact is only explainable by the conclusion that the war against the Jews WAS the war effort, that eliminating the Jewish people was really what the Nazi regime was about in justifying its goal of taking over all of Europe. So instead of the military conflict in any way diminishing or inhibiting the Holocaust, it went hand in glove with it.
The level of extremist ideology that appeared at Wannsee raises questions about what we can learn from Wannsee as antisemitism surges in our world today. On the one hand, comparing any of the evils of today to the kinds of things that were proposed and implemented at Wannsee risks the trivialization of the Holocaust. Whatever is happening in today’s world is not on that level -- even though state-sponsored antisemitism, such as in the case of Iran, is a very real danger.
On the other hand, the cold bloodedness of the discussion about the Final Solution reminds us of the dangers of trends that are alive and well: the proliferation of conspiracy theories about groups which allows for their dehumanization and opening the path to genocide; the persistence of antisemitism and its unique quality among forms of hatred; the belief in the evil power of the Jewish people, which opened the way for the Nazi justification of their extermination; and the willingness of respectable people to go along with extreme hate, as we see with the inhumanity against the Uyghurs in China and the failure of so many to stand up.
At Wannsee, because the Nazi officials present were so deeply imbued with antisemitism, a product both of centuries of European bias against the Jewish people and because of the inculcation of theories about Jews in Germany, such as the “ stab in the back” one about blaming the Jews for the German defeat in World War I, that they could cooly discuss ways to eliminate 11 million Jews from Europe without a dissenting or questioning voice.
In today’s world, there are present some of these manifestations. Conspiracy theories about Jews and the Covid pandemic are abounding. The terrorist who took Jews hostage in the Texas synagogue saw Jews as uniquely powerful and therefore a vehicle for freeing his terrorist ally. Israel is uniquely vilified in such bodies as the Human Rights Council and it is clear that the Jewish state is being treated differently than any other nation in a world full of regimes that truly violate all human rights norms.
State inhumanity toward individuals, maybe not to the extent as proposed at Wannsee, but very real in diverse places such as China, Afghanistan and Iran reminds us that despite all the other real evils that abound in society, when authoritarian governments use the power of the state to implement hateful ideologies, as epitomized at Wannsee, the greatest of horrors result.
On this anniversary, therefore, let us at one and the same time recognize the special, evil moment that was the gathering at Wannsee and, at the same time, identify and stand up now against trends that are not Wannsee, but if left unattended to could end up resembling that tragic event.