Thursday, August 28, 2014
Visiting the Wannsee House
On the way to Berlin we stopped by the house at Wannsee, where a meeting was held on 20 January 1942 chaired by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Nazi security services. This meeting has become known as the ‘Wannsee Conference’, but really, it was not a conference at all, if the term implies some process of decision making or a sharing of ideas. The meeting was simply Heydrich’s assertion of control over various German state organisations to facilitate the mass transportation of Jews to specialised killing centres that would become known as the Holocaust. Mass murder had already begun. Wannsee was simply aimed at making the process run more smoothly.
It was one of those almost painfully incongruous days as we pulled up in our bus. The sun shone brightly, reflecting brilliant blue from the lake. The house itself is a tasteful neo-classical villa, bought by the SS after its previous owner was imprisoned for defrauding the Berlin Gasworks. Feet scrunching on the gravel, I heard birds singing and noted the beautifully kept garden bursting into bloom.
The room where the conference was held in 1942 is quite small. I wandered about, reflecting on what one of the delegates in 1942 may have experienced. The Conference was held in January, so they would have arrived in coats, the SS men preening in their immaculate uniforms. Let’s imagine ourselves in the shoes of Georg Leibbrandt, something of a Nazi non-entity from the Ministry for the Eastern Occupied Territories with a PhD in theology and an academic interest in Russia. I like to imagine that he felt a little intimidated at Wannsee, especially since he wasn’t a member of the SS, so didn’t get to wear a uniform. Leibbrandt, if his attention had wandered, might have gazed out the window across the lovely garden towards the lake. His eyes might have noticed the delicate stucco mouldings of birds eating berries on the ceiling. Did his mind rebel at some level against discussing such horror amidst such beauty? Or do I only think this because I am here on a summer day with the sun almost painfully bright and colour all around? In 1942 perhaps everything was drab and grey, the winter garden dead, and a freezing wind beating against the closed windows.
Most likely Leibbrandt was looking forward to the breakfast promised in the invitation to the meeting. For that is one of the things we have to take into account when trying to understand these bureaucratic murderers, that the invitation they received promised breakfast after the discussion of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’. The German word used was ‘Frühstück’, which means breakfast, although it can mean something more like a light morning snack. In any case, it does appear a little cheap that Heydrich did not offer anything more substantial to follow a meeting that began at midday.
If Leibbrandt’s stomach was rumbling on 20 January 1942, at least he didn’t have long to wait. The meeting itself only took about 90 minutes. Adolf Eichmann, who took the minutes of the meeting, testified in his trial in Jerusalem in 1961 that Heydrich was very pleased with the outcome and sat during the Frühstück enjoying a cognac by the fireplace. Despite Eichmann’s bland and euphemistic official minutes, he also told the court in 1961 that the actual conversation on the day was often direct, with mass shootings and gassing experiments being discussed quite openly.
I gazed at the fireplace, imagining Heydrich sitting there. It must have been a great moment for him, sipping cognac with his legs crossed, one well-polished boot swinging slightly in mid air.
My reflection is interrupted by Gormless Boy, who requires directions.
GB: Sir, can we go outside?
GB: How do we get outside?
Me: Well, you could try the door.
GB: Can we use that? That’s the door we came in, so I didn’t know whether it was allowed.
Me: How many doors are there?
Me: Yes. So your choices really are either to walk back through it or find a way to teleport, so I reckon use the door.
GB: Oh. OK.
And with that, I add another tiny layer of mean spiritedness to the patina of this elegant, cursed room and head out to the garden myself.