80 years later, the world remembers to forget Holocaust origins

Several years ago, the Simon Wiesenthal Center acquired the most significant document in our history. The four-page letter was written and signed by a virtually unknown German soldier, Adolf Hitler, at the behest of the intelligence unit to which he was connected shortly before he was demobilized after Germany’s defeat in World War I. Dated Sept. 16, 1919, six years before the publication of “Mein Kampf,” Hitler described his hatred of Jews, emphasizing that “emotional anti-Semitism, which will always find its expression in the form of pogroms” wouldn’t solve the problem — only “a legal … removal of the rights of the Jew” would.

Hitler wrote: “The uncompromising removal of the Jews altogether” could be accomplished only “under a government of National strength and never under a government of National impotence.”  

In the chaotic aftermath of Germany’s defeat, no one could predict that Hitler would amass the power to see his hatred become a formal government policy two decades later. 

Throughout the 1930s, Hitler mesmerized millions of Germans with the fervor of his promise to make Germany an unmatched power. The power of his hate, bolstered by new propaganda techniques and backed by murder and mayhem unleashed against anyone who opposed him, meant the masses of the world’s most civilized society were prepared to march their nation straight into World War II in 1939. 

The Fuehrer, however powerful, could not fulfill his prophecy from hell against the Jews alone.

As Hitler had written two decades earlier, his vision of a Jew-free world could not be achieved by “emotional pogroms” or even the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of Jews by special killing squads in newly captured Soviet territories. Too messy, too traumatic, to keep shooting women and children at such close range.

All that would change at a secret meeting on the shores of beautiful Lake Wannsee, just outside of Berlin. Originally slated for Dec. 9, because of Pearl Harbor (Hitler declared war on the United States right after), the Wannsee Conference was rescheduled for Jan. 20, 1942.

Reinhard Heydrich, deputy SS chief and head of the Reich Security Main Office, summoned the state secretaries of Germany’s most important ministries to coordinate their participation in achieving the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish problem.” Better methods had to be implemented.

The participants around the table were no ordinary thugs. Most had attended Germany’s most respected schools and universities. Eight of the 15 invitees held doctorates. And while they knew that Jews were being murdered en masse in occupied USSR, Heydrich left little doubt that Hitler had ordered a Final Solution to the Jewish problem — meaning all of Europe’s Jews were to be annihilated. Heydrich sought to involve Germany’s government ministries to help achieve that goal. 

He had expected opposition from some attendees. But according to Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, who was present, Heydrich found an “unexpected air of agreement.” Rather than expressing concerns or outright opposition, the eight PhDs in attendance expressed enthusiasm about being included in the plan. At his trial in Jerusalem many years later, Eichmann testified, “These gentlemen were sitting together and minced no words about it. … They spoke about methods of killing the Jews, about murder, liquidation … about extermination.” Gassing Jews drew particular interest. 

The importance of the Wannsee Conference cannot be overstated. It marked the point at which Hitler’s plans for genocide were shared with Germany’s major ministries. It also demonstrated the need for the participation of those bureaucracies to accomplish genocide. Just as important, the summary typed at the end of the conference — the Wannsee Protocol — is the only document in history codifying genocide as official state policy. The Wannsee Conference took fewer than 90 minutes to devise a plan to wipe out an entire population in Europe. It took place not in some backward country, but in one of the world’s most technologically and scientifically advanced societies.

Eighty years later, the world must not ignore the Wannsee legacy. Everyone should read and ponder the Wannsee Protocol.

Never again should anyone confuse being educated with having morals. Some of Germany’s most educated enthusiastically followed Hitler, and educated people today still forge strategies to legitimize crimes in the name of a greater good. 

Never again should leaders of democracies turn a blind eye to evils unleashed against innocents by governments such as Communist China or Iran’s mullahcracy, with the hope that somehow playing pussyfoot with tyrants will change the course of history. That didn’t work for Neville Chamberlain and it won’t work now.

Finally, in the Middle East we cannot expect Israel, the Gulf States and Egypt to accept a new Iran nuclear deal. A nuclearized ayatollah would mean a possible nuclear holocaust, with Jews again the principal target. We have learned the hard way that words have consequences, and we must take tyrants at their word. If leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and other democracies would pause to study the Wannsee Protocol, it just might save the world from another holocaust.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Center’s associate dean and global social action director.

Tags Adolf Eichmann Adolf Hitler Antisemitism in Germany Final Solution Reinhard Heydrich Simon Wiesenthal The Holocaust

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