The Wannsee Conference – Why we must Remember

Villa used for the Wannsee Conference – GNU Free Documentation License

Late January is the time for Holocaust Memorial Day when we remember the attempted, and almost successful, genocide of the Jewish people. This is something that needs to be commemorated everywhere, but some European countries are better than others at doing so.

Because of their history the Germans have a particular interest in keeping memories of the Holocaust alive. In the past there have been speeches by ageing concentration camp survivors in the Bundestag, for example. But the German TV stations laid on an excellent educational programme in the last week of January.

First up was a ZDF drama (highly praised in a review in Die Zeit) re-enacting the Wannsee Conference, followed by a documentary on the same subject. The purpose of the conference was not to decide on the extermination of the Jews – that had already been decided by Hitler – but to work out the practical details of how to do it. There were fifteen bureaucrats and party hacks at the conference which was presided over by Reinhard Heydrich. The re-enactment script stuck very closely to the minutes of the meeting (taken by the only woman present).

It is almost beyond belief that a group of men could sit down and plot the destruction of an entire people as if they were solving a run-of-the-mill technical problem. Hannah Arendt’s comment about “the banality of evil” is absolutely spot on.

It is particularly chilling to visit the villa on Wannsee and see the permanent exhibition. There are biographical notes on all the participants: Heydrich was assassinated by the Czech resistance and Eichmann was captured by the Israelis, but some of the others did quite well for themselves in post-war Germany. There is a complete transcription of the proceedings of the Eichmann trial. His defence, which I’m sure he genuinely believed, was that “I was only doing my duty”.

Those with a strong stomach could then have turned from ZDF to ARD for a documentary about the early concertation camps where inmates – by no means all Jewish – were systematically tortured.

Arte, the Franco-German TV channel, showed a chilling documentary about the ‘Death Marches’. As the Russians advanced from the East, so the Nazis evacuated the concertation camps which were now in the front line and forced the inmates to make their way on foot – in some cases, according to survivors’ testimony, without any footwear – to camps in the west. The aim was twofold: remove any evidence of crimes and transfer slave workers to factories in Germany.

Then there was a rather bizarre documentary about Johanna Langefeld, a female warder at Ravensbrück, who was rescued from prison, while awaiting trial in Krakow in 1946, by former Jewish inmates because she had done her best – despite being anti-Semitic – to treat them humanely. There have been other programmes too, but to be frank there is a limit to what one can take. The week’s viewing ended with a docudrama about 300 Jewish children who, after the liberation of the concentration camps, were taken to Windermere in the Lake District. As one of them said: ‘We went from hell to heaven’.

While the number of survivors of Nazi concentration camps is dwindling every year and we can rely less and less on eye-witness testimonials, it is nonetheless absolutely vital to preserve the memories and to educate people about what happens if extremists take control: morality is thrown out of the window and any real or suspected opponent is treated not as a human being but as a thing.

The Germans are acutely aware of this, of course, and their educational system stresses contemporary history. When I visited the Wannsee villa there was a group of secondary school pupils sitting by the exit, all in floods of tears and trying to comfort each other.

I experienced the same thing in the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Josefov district of Prague, which is witness to an earlier mistreatment of Jewish people. The Jews of Prague were restricted to this small plot for all their burials from the 15th to the 18th century.

Throughout Europe we can see a resurgence of the far right. In Germany the extremist AfD suffered a minor setback at the recent general election, but in Poland and Hungary the extremists are firmly in control. In Hungary there is an outside chance that Orban might lose the forthcoming election, but – because half the seats in the Hungarian parliament are elected by ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP) – that depends on the opposition parties doing the adult thing and forming a progressive alliance.

Does that ring any bells here? There is a lesson to learn for the UK.

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