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The Wannsee Conference 78 years ago: remembering the darkest chapters of our past

Minutes of the Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942

Minutes of the Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942, © Auswärtiges Amt/Politisches Archiv

20.01.2020 - Article

A central aspect of looking back on the 150‑year history of the Foreign Office is grappling with its members’ knowledge of and complicity in the Nazi crimes against humanity.

The Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942 shows especially clearly how members of the Foreign Office were complicit in these crimes.

This year, 150 years after it was founded as the Foreign Office of the North German Confederation, the Federal Foreign Office is looking back on its chequered history. Its knowledge of and complicity in the National Socialist crimes against humanity, and particularly the disenfranchisement and murder of European Jews, is undeniably one of its darkest chapters.

The involvement of the Foreign Office in these crimes took diverse forms, ranging from participation in the denaturalisation and thus expropriation of Jews or others persecuted by the regime, to the bureaucratic planning of the deportation and murder of millions of people. Many incidents of awareness of and complicity in these crimes are documented in the files of the Foreign Office.

Bureaucratic planning of mass murder

One of the most notorious testimonies to these crimes are the minutes of that conference, for which high-ranking representatives of various ministries and party officials gathered  by the Grosse Wannsee lake near Berlin on 20 January 1942. The aim of the meeting, as the minutes subsequently noted, was to “bring into line” the “general activities” in connection with “organisational, factual and material interests in relation to the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe” to be pursued by “all central offices directly concerned with these questions”.

In chillingly rational bureaucratic language, the writer of the minutes, Adolf Eichmann, who later became known as one of the most prominent organisers of the mass murder, then listed the measures on which the group of senior officials and party representatives had agreed and which Eichmann estimated would probably result in the deaths of eleven million people.

Diplomatic expertise for the “final solution”

Undersecretary Martin Luther participated in the conference in Wannsee as the representative of the Foreign Office. In preparation for the meeting, the competent division had drafted a document with “wishes and ideas of the Foreign Office for the envisaged overall solution for the Jewish question in Europe”. These included the introduction of Jewish laws throughout Europe and “the evacuation of all Jews living in the German Reich (...) to the East”.

The Wannsee minutes also record Luther’s proposal to defer the deportation of Jews from northern Europe due to likely difficulties. For south-eastern and western Europe, however, the Foreign Office envisaged “no great difficulties” in carrying out the deportations, thereby contributing its foreign-policy expertise directly to the implementation of the mass murder. Resistance to this complicity was only minimal.

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