On a wintry day in January 1942 Reinhard Heydrich the chief of Himmler’s security police
notified the Nazi government bosses of the planned deportation and destruction of the Jews in
Europe. The conference which took place on that day was to finalize and effectively rubber stamp
the Final Solution. .
Wansee means two things to the people of Berlin. The first is a residential district and one of the
best addresses in the capital. The second is the lake of Wansee, making this a popular recreational
area. To historians of the Nazi era Wansee is a house, a grand villa that still stands. Fascinatingly
the foundations of both the building and the holocaust were laid in the same year, 1914. Although
just bricks and mortar the Wansee villa was to acquire a sinister history that was to culminate
that day in 1942.
The builder of the villa was a prosperous Berlin industrialist by the name of Ernst Marlier who
began work in 1914. His architect, a proponent of the neo classical and Greek revival styles, created
an elegant three storey building with a frontage containing 31 windows and fine columns supporting
an impressive semi circular porch. The property had been sited in a superb parkland setting. Both
inside and out it was meant to reflect the wealth of its owner, with a library and elegant salons
containing fine furniture and works of art.
Marlier wasn’t to enjoy his grand home for very long. Like so many others in the German business
class he fell on hard times during Germany’s postwar economic problems and in 1921 he was
forced to sell it to another industrialist Friedrich Minoux. It was at this point that the villa began its
association with the sort of politics that would eventually lead to Hitler and the Nazis coming to
power. Minoux was a man whose wealth enabled him to develop powerful contacts in a Germany
still smarting over its defeat in the war. There were many who saw a return to authoritarianism as
the way back to greatness for a defeated Fatherland. Minoux was one of these and took a lively
interest in politics, even going so far as to develop plans for a right wing dictatorship that could
stand up to the victorious allied powers. The villa became a meeting place for those holding similar
views to his own. In February 1923 Minoux hosted a discussion between various senior military
men, notable among which was Erich Ludendorf. He was the man who had been responsible for
much of Germany’s military strategy and policy in the latter years of the Great War and who was to
march alongside Hitler during the Munich Putsch, the failed attempt to unseat the Bavarian
government. This then was no mere gathering of men embittered by defeat. Others present included
Reichchancellor Wilhelm Cuno. Clearly Minoux was able to take his plotting right to the most
senior levels in the postwar German government. Other meetings followed and acted as precursors
to Nazi policies, involving the need for government to oversee vital industries and deal with
socialists and other political opponents.
Noting that his ideas were shared by the fledgling Nazis, Minoux went to Munich in October 1923.
Here he seems to have viewed the plotting between Ludendorf, Hitler and Hans Ritter von Sieffer,
chief of the Bavarian police as a dress rehearsal for something that might expand on to the national
stage. In Ludendorf’s view Minoux saw himself in the role of a minister in some future right wing
dictatorship. It is likely that in an attempt to expedite this Minoux gave financial support to the
Nazis. Despite his generosity these early links with the party failed to produce any lasting benefit
Although he had impeccable right wing credentials and was clearly a fascist sympathizer,
Minoux’s views on the future development of Germany were insipid when compared to Hitler’s.
Ultimately the Nazi programme was to leave him far behind and before long Minoux’s enthusiasm
for politics was to be overshadowed by more pressing concerns .
Among his many and complex business dealings Minoux enjoyed a seat on the board of the Berlin
Gas Company. He was supposed to supply the company with coke and by bribing officials Minoux
caused prices that the company paid to be rigged above the market rate. This was a successful scam
that ran for many years. Minoux and others swindled the company out of 7.5 million Reichmarks.
The scheme finally began to unravel but it took several more years for the state prosecutor to
complete his investigation and by the time the case came to trial Germany was once more at war. It
was 1940 before before the authorities finally secured his presence in court. Surprisingly he escaped
imprisonment and emerged with just five years probation. However the gas company launched a
civil suit to get their money back. For Minoux repaying the company was to lead to the loss of the
Wansee villa. To meet the costs of the damages Minoux sold the property to the Nordhav
foundation. Behind this name lay a Nazi organization controlled by Heydrich, its purpose to
organize the destruction of the Jews in Europe.
Reinhard Heydrich perhaps the most formidable of all the Nazi hierarchy was born in 1904 in Halle
and during the era of the Third Reich rose to become Himmler’s chief lieutenant in the SS. The
darkest personality in the Nazi firmament, during the early years of the war he organized mass
executions in the occupied territories. A former naval officer, Heydrich had been expelled from that
most conservative of organizations for a morals infraction involving a breach of promise to a
woman whom he had promised to marry. Looking for employment he went on to join the Nazis and
here found an outlet for his talents, being first appointed SS chief for Berlin and later deputy chief
of the organisation. Heydrich was blond, handsome and a gifted athlete. He became a champion
skier and a fearless pilot. For the Nazis his value was as an outstanding organizer. Something of a
friendless loner, he was pitiless in dealing with enemies of the state. So feared did he become
throughout occupied Europe that his nickname was The Hangman. Even within his own inner circle
he was dreaded. A former colleague noted his sinister appearance, describing a tall impressive
figure with an unusually high forehead and small restless eyes that he thought were as
crafty as an animal’s. His hands were slender and too long, calling to mind of the legs of a spider.
The same source noted that his splendid figure was marred by the width of his hips, a disturbingly
feminine effect, which made him appear more sinister. Heydrich’s voice was considered much too
high for so large a man and his speech nervous and staccato.
Heydrich envisaged the Wannsee villa as a venue for his official functions. He had access to the so
called ‘black cash box’, money plundered from deported German Jews. Using this source his
foundation purchased the villa thus disguising his own use of the stolen money, since the SS were
not supposed to control the disposition of these funds. Negotiations began in 1940. The final
purchase price was 1.95 million Reichmarks. In the summer of 1941 the villa was renovated with
the aim of turning the building into a guesthouse for SS officials . As Heydrich put it the villa
would be available to allow visiting SS officials to avoid enduring the tedious ordeal of finding a
hotel and to provide them with an affordable respectable place to stay and to furnish them with the
opportunity to enjoy the companionship of their fellow officers. Eight weeks after this was
announced in the SS newsletter, the ‘centre point for collegiate interaction of SS officials in Berlin’
became the site if the Wansee conference.
Thirteen participants were invited to the conference. The invitation referred to as a, ‘collective
solution of the Jewish question in Europe’. In fact the murder of Jews in Europe was already
underway. The conference appears to have been an attempt to establish a consensus or some kind of
overview and the notorious protocol that flowed from this was the result. The conference was not
some sort of sophisticated debate with mass murder as the sole item on the agenda. A careful
examination of the protocol suggests that Heydrich must have been the only speaker for much of the
conference. In contrast to the euphemistic phrases used in the actual document, the participants
spoke quite openly about mass murder. No one expressed any misgivings or raised any objections.
This was despite the fact that those attending the conference included civil servants and members of
the German foreign and justice ministries. Among their number was Roland Freisler, the Reich
Prosecutor in Chief who was later to send 8,000 people to their deaths after the failed 1944 attempt
to assassinate Hitler. These were highly educated men who accepted that their role was to consider
how, not if, the matter should be resolved. Heydrich was quick to assert that, ‘the control of the
final solution of the Jewish question resides with the Reichsfuhrer SS’. He proceeded to reveal the
scope of the forced deportations to the east. The language he used was that of the bureaucrat
assessing ways of tidying up the loose ends. Despite their best efforts he envisaged 11million
deportees with no country escaping the ‘combing out’. Others there added further complications,
such as questioning what would be done with those Jews who were vital for war work and who
could not be replaced. Then there were the German and Austrian Jews who had fought for the
Fatherland in the First World War.
Heydrich was not to live long after the conference. Eager to put some distance between himself and
his ambitious protégé, Himmler persuaded Hitler to appoint him protector of Bohemia- Moravia,
the modern Czech Republic. On May 27 1942 two young Czechs Jan Kubis and Josef Gabbcik, sent
from London to assassinate him, ambushed his open Mercedes as he drove from his residence to his
office in Prague. A grenade thrown by one of the assassins exploded driving fragments of horsehair
from the car’s upholstery into his spleen. Heydrich’s insistence on bringing in a top German
surgeon rather than trusting to local medical help probably cost him his life. As a result of the delay
he developed peritonitis and septicemia. He died on June 4 of that year.
Probably the second most famous attendee at Wansee was Adolf Eichman. After the war he laid
low in Germany before moving to South America, where he was kidnapped in May 1960 from his
home in Buenos Aires by agents of Mossad, the Israeli secret service. He was executed in 1962.
The Czech partisans who assassinated Heydrich derailed further expansion plans for the Wansee
villa. The Nordhav foundation no longer needed the building which was costly to maintain. In 1943
it was sold to the German government. The SS however continued to use it until the end of the war
and for a time it became the base of a special commission formed after the unsuccessful attempt to
assassinate Hitler. In December 1944 after the execution of most of the conspirators there was a
meeting of government officials at the Wansee villa to talk about the conspirators’ plans for state
and government reform. So from Minoux’s 1923 meetings to establish an authoritarian regime on to
Heydrich’s 1942 conference to organize the mass murder of the Jews and then the meeting to
analyse the plans of the anti Hitler conspirators in the final days of the Third Reich the Wansee villa
had witnessed the unfolding of the greatest disaster in German history.
In May 1945 the villa was occupied by Soviet soldiers, followed by American troops who used the
house as an officers club. Then in 1965 Joseph Wulf a historian and Holocaust survivor urged the
creation of an international Holocaust document centre in the villa. He envisaged the creation of a
library that would house references in all languages allowing the remainder of the building to be
open to scholars doing research. The idea was rejected by German politicians who were reluctant at
the time to establish a holocaust memorial. The idea was revived in 1986 when the mayor of Berlin
announced the intention to place a memorial at Wansee. Renovation began in 1989 and three years
later, fifty years to the day after the Wansee conference, the villa was inaugurated as a memorial to
the millions of Jews who had perished at the hands of the Nazis. On the walls of the former dining
room where the conference was held hang photographs and short biographies of the fifteen men
who attended the conference.