The Holocaust: a somber anniversary

It is a somber anniversary, one that is being remembered in Germany but not too many other places in Europe.  German newspaper Die Welt's article on the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee conference begins:

"A terrible word."

The word is "Endloesung."  Even if you don't know German you can guess part of its meaning from the first syllable: end-loesung. End = final. Loesung is answer or solution. The birth of a phrase, written in the minutes of the Wannsee conference:

"The Final Solution to the Jewish problem."

The fate of European Jewry was decided at the Wannsee Conference in 1942. It was a convening of bureaucrats forced to deal with a military necessity.

The previous June, the Wehrmacht had roared eastward in Operation Barbarossa. German armies had moved deep into Russia. Re-organizing the administration of so much newly conquered territory was a bureaucratic nightmare. One of the problems created by the eastward blitzkrieg was the acquisition of territory on which the majority of world Jewry lived, millions of people.

By this point in the Nazi regime, German Jews had been re-segregated 130 years after they had been emancipated from their ghettos, and stripped of their rights. Systematic murder was only a recent, and inefficient, part of the Nazi's plan for ridding Germany and the territories it had conquered of Jews.

In these newly conquered eastern countries, Jew hatred was a strand of local culture – but only one strand. However, it was deep enough to provide the Nazis with local helpers willing to aid and abet their murderous work.

German Jews were deported to the Baltic states to be killed.  In the autumn of 1941, at Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kiev in the Ukraine, more than than 33,000 Jews were machine-gunned into a ravine.

Mass-murder had become part of the equation – more than a million had already been killed – but it was ad hoc, time consuming and a diversion of manpower needed at the front as the armies of the Reich besieged Leningrad and Moscow.

So chief administrators of newly conquered areas, secretaries of relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Justice and Foreign Ministry, and SS leaders were summoned to the Villa Marlier at 56-58 am Grossen Wannsee in the suburbs of Berlin by SS Lt. General and head of the Gestapo, Reinhard Heydrich on January 20, 1942.

The 15 men met at mid-day and working from a discussion paper prepared by Adolf Eichmann reached their conclusions. According to the minutes of the meeting (English translation here), Heydrich explained in words that are masterpieces of elliptical bureaucrat-speak, what the new policy about the Jews would be:

"Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution, the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East. Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes. The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival".

In fact, the minutes were written up by Eichmann. Following his capture in Argentina in 1960 by the Mossad, Eichmann confessed to his interrogators in Israel that he had written up the notes in this bureaucratic style so that some of the more blunt terms used to discuss the liquidation of millions of men, women and children were removed from the record.

This shows that even at the high water mark of the Nazi regime the organizers of what was not yet known as the Holocaust had some idea that history might judge their actions harshly.

The meeting was chaired with efficiency by Heydrich. It was over in 90 minutes. The Final Solution to the Jewish Question was equally efficient. Almost three years later to the day, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz.  By then around 4.8 million Jews had been offered up as the definitive answer to the Jewish Question

Outside of Germany, you will not find much about today's anniversary in the European press. Nor will you find much in the American press other than an op-ed published in the New York Times three weeks ago.

In Europe, views of the Final Solution, Holocaust, Shoah or whatever you want to call the outcome of the Wannsee Conference are shifting. In many countries of eastern Europe, which went from Nazi occupation straight to Soviet occupation, there is a trend towards equating the Jewish genocide perpetrated by the Nazis with the violence against local populations under Stalinism.

It is a false and inaccurate comparison and can lead to shocking re-readings of history. The Genocide Museum in Lithuania's capital Vilnius, one of the intellectual capitals of European Jewry, was established in 1992. The Museum did not have its first exhibition on the Holocaust until 2010.

In the growing culture of equivalence neo-Nazi movements, recast as nationalist movements, continue to survive.

There are other reasons. 70 years is a long time. The Holocaust gets crowded out by more recent historical events. Today there is a competition about who has suffered most. Europe's new minorities bring their own grievances. Many are immigrants from Muslim nations. Recent wounds cause louder cries. 

There is a tendency in some parts of European society, to weigh the actions of the Israeli government in its continued occupation of Palestine against the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews. It is a false comparison but it exists and it has obscured the facts of the Holocaust and fractured what was, thirty years ago, a common view of the Final Solution.

That view included an acceptance that the killing of six million people because they were considered to be another ethnicity was uniquely horrible and must never happen again.  There was also a realization that modern governments could be so corrupted as to bureaucratically organize such killing on an impersonal, industrial scale.

That's why the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee conference is important to mark.  The grotesque violence of the Holocaust has come to dominate memory, the cool, precise rational discussion that put it in motion is harder to remember – or even accept.

That is something German President Christian Wulff noted in a statement made today. Wulff said so much time has passed since the Jan. 20 meeting in 1942 that the "state-organized extermination" and "cold cruelty" becomes increasingly hard to believe. Wulff added, "Therefore it is important and a national task to keep the memory alive. We cannot be allowed to forget that this — the unbelievable and unimaginable — actually happened."

It is not just a task for Germans to remember.

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