Monday, April 21, 2008
The plague that did not pass over.
On the 20th of January, 1942, fifteen members of the German hierarchy, some in the military, along with some bureaucrats and a Nazi party official, met in a lovely villa near the Wannsee, a lake in the suburbs of Berlin. The meeting had been postponed because of more pressing matters. Most importantly for the Germans, the Soviets began a major counter-attack in early December 1941 and the German general in charge of the Eastern campaign had died of a heart attack, to be replaced by a commander with next to no experience in the field. There was also the matter of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and Germany declaring war against the United States.
At that time, the territory controlled by the Germans neared its high water mark. Much of Northern Africa was theirs, as well as most of continental Europe, with the exception of truly neutral Switzerland and nominally neutral but fascist oriented Spain and Portugal. When the Nazis came to power, there were slightly more than a half million Jews in Germany, about 1% of the population. Now in control of most of Europe, there were roughly eleven million people who qualified under the Nazi definition of Jew under their jurisdiction. The Wannsee conference, as it is now known, was brought to order to decided the final solution to the Jewish problem in Europe.
No one in the room reported directly to Hitler. Some of the army officers, almost all traveling to Berlin from the East, had rank as low as major, and many of the people from the bureaucracy were undersecretaries instead of the leaders of their organizations. While many of the people there could be classified as middle management, the chairman of the meeting, Reinhold Heydrich, certainly was not. He held the second highest rank in the German Army at the time, only outranked by Himmler and was military governor of Czechoslovakia.
The meeting lasted about ninety minutes. The surviving notes we have are the official and sanitized notes kept by Heyrdich’s second in command, Adolf Eichmann, and a set of notes from a participant who disobeyed the order to destroy his personal notes, a Nazi official with the unfortunate namesake of Martin Luther. There were few disagreements at the meeting. Eichmann's version states there were three options discussed, emigration, sterilization and “evacuation”. The word shows up in the official transcript, but at his trial in Israel in the early 1960’s, Eichmann makes it clear that no one was confused as to the actual meaning, execution.
There was some discussion of the fate of the German Jews, of how much good German blood would be spilled to rid Europe of all Jewish blood. Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, co-author of the original Nuremberg Laws taking the rights of citizenship from the Jews before the war began, including ownership of property, the right to inter-marry and to hold important positions, was distressed to see his work ignored and new rules enacted killing people he had thought should be spared. The topic of sterilization was discussed but considered impractical. Bureaucrats who needed slave labor were told in effect that large numbers would have to come from somewhere else. Sending the Jews en masse to other countries outside Nazi influence was out of the question, because even resettling thousands had been a bureaucratic nightmare, and with millions of lives now in the balance, the only practical solution was “evacuation”.
Many mass shootings of Jews had already taken place in Eastern Europe controlled by the Nazis, but this was an expensive way to deal with the problem and had a negative impact on the morale of men who had seen real battle, shooting at people who were shooting back. The Germans had been experimenting with mobile gas chambers, trucks whose rear compartments could be pumped full of the toxic exhaust. All of these were temporary measures, as construction had begun on mass death camps where rooms that looked like showers were to be the death chambers, and the bodies burned in huge furnaces after death. The most famous of these to us today is Auschwitz.
Heydrich was assassinated by Czech patriots in mid 1942, so it fell to his second in command Eichmann, the name best known to a modern audience, to carry out the orders, which he did as “a matter of honor” to the memory of his superior officer. He was captured in the 1960’s, taken to Israel, tried and executed for crimes against humanity.
The meeting went quickly and refreshments were available when it was done. Cognac was served and Eichmann, who usually did not drink, had a glass himself.
According to Eichmann, there was little conflict at the meeting and things went smoothly. The events have been dramatized twice, a German television movie called The Wannsee Conference made in 1984 and HBO’s movie Conspiracy in 2001. Both films run about 85 minutes, the length of the meeting. Dramas need conflict in the room to work, and much of that drama is about political infighting and not the magnitude of the crime being planned. In Conspiracy, Kenneth Brannagh plays Heydrich as a suave and efficient manager, with only the occasional use of his rank and position used to quell disagreements. It’s almost like George Saunders or David Niven playing a Nazi. Eichmann as played by Stanley Tucci, is shown as cruel to underlings but obsequious to those above him. Tucci is the only non-Brit in the cast, and the next best known actor in the cast is Colin Firth as Stuckart. Writer Loring Mandel does a very nice job of delineating the characters, though how much they resemble real life is up to interpretation. Stuckart, like many well-known learned people I have met, is played as modest when accepting praise, but exceedingly arrogant when questioned or attacked. As is often the case in films, the actors playing the characters are much prettier than their real life counterparts. Brannagh, even as he gets older, still looks like a matinee idol. In real life, Heydrich was beady eyed with a face like a hatchet.
I found the film very powerful, a horror film without a drop of blood anywhere. Like any movie “based on historical events”, it can’t be trusted as an accurate depiction of real events, but it’s worth seeing to appreciate this particular time and place when the metaphor of The Meeting From Hell became as literally true as it ever has been.