Robin Oomkes visits the House of the Wannsee Conference…
At the very edge of what used to be West Berlin, a narrow road winds its way along the shores of Lake Wannsee. Passing a seemingly interminable series of yacht clubs and retirement homes, the road arrives at the turn-of-the-century Villa Marlier. Half-hidden amongst towering pines and landscaped pathways, the sandy-coloured villa is marked at the entrance by a glass display featuring the first page of the minutes of one of the grisliest meetings ever held: the 1942 Wannsee Conference.
The SS purchased the peaceful-looking villa in 1940, initially to use as a conference centre and a guest house. At that time, the campaign to annihilate the country’s Jewish population had already intensified, shifting away from public demonstrations and exhortations to leave to the turning point of Kristallnacht on the 9th of November, 1938.
But although the Nazi leadership were agreed on eliminating Jews not just from Germany but also occupied Europe, they were not exactly clear on what should be done with them. Up until 1941, the idea of deporting all captured Jews to a remote place like Madagascar—but not necessarily kill them—was mooted, and there were also arguments about which agency should be in charge of what was euphemistically called “the Jewish problem”.
On the occasion of the infamous Wannsee Conference on the 20th January 1942, Reinhard Heydrich (Head of the Security Police and SD), booked the Wannsee house for a 90-minute meeting designed to confirm the primacy of the SS in orchestrating the mass-murder of European Jews. By getting representatives of all other involved government agencies to attend, Heydrich achieved the dual goal of asserting his leadership in this terrible project, as well as making the representatives of the other agencies complicit to the fact.
Entering the villa today through a modest anteroom, you reach a much grander central room that looks out onto the villa’s gardens and adjacent lake. A slightly old-fashioned series of wall panels featuring texts, period photographs and listening posts take visitors through a history of Jewish culture in Germany, leading up to the specific anti-semitism of the Nazis (it had existed before them) and the macabre events that took place within the villa’s walls.
A particular emphasis is on the mind-boggling bureaucracy that supported the process; copies of original Nazi correspondence (with English translations of the most important points) clearly illustrate how meticulous the Nazi ‘Schreibtischtäter’ (desk criminals) were. The exhibition ends in the villa’s former dining room, an elegant space with more lovely views of the grounds and glimpses of the lake, where the actual conference took place.
On the wall facing the windows are portraits and CVs of all fifteen participants at the conference, showing what happened to them afterwards. Some had committed suicide by the end of the war, some escaped without trace, and a few were brought to justice: sickeningly, the majority went on to lead relatively normal lives in post-war Germany.
The Story Of Joseph Wulf
Although most visitors end their tour here, the upper floor of the villa—accessed via the spiral staircase in the main hallway—hosts a research library and some interesting information on how the villa became a memorial. One of the first items on this floor is a set of bookcases containing the 18 books written by Joseph Wulf, a Jewish historian of German-Polish origin.
A survivor of Auschwitz, Wulf moved to Berlin in 1952 and was the first writer to publish on the Holocaust in German. His outspoken messages were not particularly welcome in post-war West Germany, where a considerable part of the population bore some kind of responsibility, if only passive, for the crimes committed during the Nazi period. Wulf did, however, obtain respect, if not applause, for the thoroughness of this work.
From 1965 onwards, Wulf worked on an initiative to turn the Villa Marlier—which had by that time become a holiday hostel for West Berlin children, into the documentation centre it is today. His initiative was well received in Jewish and international circles, and his committee soon included well-respected writers such as Ralph Giordano and Golo Mann, clerics Cardinal Döpfner and Heinz Galinski (leader of the Jewish community in Berlin), and even Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.
However, their cause initially fell on deaf ears, the Berlin Senate retorting with questions such as “why should Berlin children pay for the sins of a past generation?”. Even when the World Jewish Congress offered to pay for a new children’s home in the grounds of the villa, the plans were turned down.
In 1973, the committee gave up all hope of success of convincing the city council and disbanded. One year later and soon after his wife’s death, Joseph Wulf committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of his Charlottenburg apartment. Whether his act was a result of his disappointment with the House of the Wannsee Conference project, or a sign of his inability to accept his wife’s death, will likely never become clear, but shortly before his death, he wrote the following in a letter to his son David:
“I have published 18 books about the Third Reich and they have had no effect. You can document everything to death for the Germans. There is a democratic regime in Bonn. Yet the mass murderers walk around free, live in their little houses, and grow flowers.”
It wasn’t until 1992, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, that the children’s hostel finally moved out and the current memorial and educational site opened. Since then the nation has dealt with the horrors and wounds of its darker past in such a sensitive yet unflinching way that it has become a role model for other countries dealing with the aftermath of conflicts.
Within this more recent context, it is often forgotten that the country suffered a kind of collective amnesia for several decades following World War Two, just as East Germany also side-stepped any and all responsible for its Nazi inheritance; the GDR consistently labelled West Germany as the ‘fascist state’ and, in its monuments for the Nazi period, focused only on the persecution of communists and socialists, and certainly not on the suffering of Jews, homosexuals or Roma and Sinti.
In West Germany too—including West Berlin—there were examples of a “let bygones be bygones” attitude that today seems incomprehensible and the House of the Wannsee Conference represents one of them.
“The main reason for that was purely generational,” says Stefanie Fischer PhD, a postgrad researcher on antisemitism at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “As long as the generation that had been active during the Nazi period were still in positions of power, they were reluctant to create memorials to what were either their own crimes, or the crimes of their peers. But don’t forget either about the simple lack of space in West Berlin. It was important to give children the opportunity to experience the countryside, and there wasn’t much of that around within the confines of the Wall.”
Another reason why it took so long for the villa to become a memorial may be that the citizens’ initiatives (Bürgerinitiative) that finally led to the creation of memorials at concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen and Dachau from the 1960s onwards, originally focused on the sites where the actual horrors took place, not where they were planned. “In this sense there is a parallel with post-war prosecutions,” points out Dr. Fischer. “These originally also focused on the actual henchmen in the camps, not the Schreibtischtäter (“desk criminals”) that planned everything from Berlin.”
Dr. Fischer offers tours of the House, and explains how visitor reactions can vary widely, depending on the background of the group. The tour, she says, needs to be adapted to specific group dynamics such as age, where the group are from and how much they already know about the Holocaust. While there is often genuine anger at the callousness of the Nazi’s plans, other countries, such as groups from Norway or countries in the Middle East, can be totally unaware of what happened to Jews in the Nazi era.
In general, Dr. Fischer’s tours, like the exhibition, do not hold back from confronting gritty details. For example she discusses execution methods used during the Holocaust, pointing out how the clinical image of gas chambers is absolutely fatal to our proper understanding of how this happened. “The popular image may be that these killings were industrialised, clinical, even humane, through the use of poison gas. But there was nothing humane, clinical, or industrialised, about it. Of the 5.2 or 5.3 million Jewish Holocaust victims that modern research agrees to, around two million may have been killed by poison gas, but up to three million were shot dead. This means that the murderers were in direct contact with their victims. It is important to realise this.”
Needless to say, visiting the House of the Wannsee Conference can be a heavy experience. It’s usual for visitors to clear their heads by walking a few hundren metres along the road to the Max Liebermann Villa, the summer retreat of the famous painter. Here a beautifully landscaped garden stretches right down to the water, best viewed while enjoying Kaffee und Kuchen at the villa’s elegant patio. But even here it’s hard to escape the city’s tortorous past: for Liebermann himself, who died in 1935 in his house on Pariser Platz, had by then already fallen victim to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies.
Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58, 14109 Berlin
Colomierstrasse 3, 14109 Berlin