Next on the agenda: genocide. Then drinks

January 25, 2002

Almost exactly 60 years ago, in a grand villa in elegant and cosmopolitan Berlin-Wannsee, 15 senior officials met to chat about mass murder. The invitations had come from Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's right-hand man and head of the Nazi security police. Thanks to the survival of one copy of the minutes drawn up by Heydrich's henchman, Adolf Eichmann, this gathering of Staatssekretäre - permanent secretaries or equivalent rank - on a snowy January 20 1942 has become the most infamous meeting in history.

Despite the euphemisms deployed of "solutions" or of "evacuation" to the East, Heydrich unmistakably offered his listeners a plan for genocide. With breathtaking calmness, the 11 million Jews of occupied, neutral and enemy Europe were listed, counted and lined up for slaughter. As far as we can tell there was little disagreement. The meeting was probably over in 90 minutes.

Wannsee remains one of the most poignant evocations of bureaucratic participation in genocide. Here was the distinguished ambience of an elegant villa in one of Europe's most sophisticated capitals. Here were 15 educated, civilised bureaucrats, from an educated, civilised society, observing all due decorum. And here was genocide going through on the nod.

This was the first time in his life, Eichmann later recalled, when he had taken part in a conference "in which senior officials participated, such as secretaries of state. It was conducted very quietly and with much courtesy, with much friendlinessI There was not much speaking and it did not last a long time, the waiters served cognac, and in this way it ended."

How can we explain the willingness of high-level, educated functionaries to pursue or at least to go along with mass murder? Historians have long been divided over the role played by Hitler's "satraps" in unleashing the Holocaust. "Intentionalists" emphasise Hitler's driving role; "functionalists" argue that it was subordinates of Heydrich's stamp who transformed what was only vague rhetoric into a murderous plan. Curiously, although divided on the question of agency, both schools tend to agree that in so far as there was a genocidal "intention", it lay with Hitler and perhaps with a few of the older party ideologues.

The functionalists, though emphasising wider participation, attribute that participation to secondary non-ideological motives such as seeking power or following rules. Some stress the competition for power in a chaotic unregulated empire. Others have placed more emphasis on the blind perfectionism of a responsive bureaucracy. After hearing Eichmann's testimony when on trial in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt painted an unforgettable picture of a colourless technocrat and coined the phrase "the banality of evil".

Yet if we look properly at those assembled at Wannsee we get a rather different picture. Most of Heydrich's guests were indeed young, well educated, ambitious - the sort who might today be called "technocrats". Almost half were under 40 and more than half bore the title of doctor, mainly in law. What is less expected, however, is that the best educated were long-standing members of the Nazi Party, who had joined well before it had been opportune to do so.

Of the eight people with doctorates, six were either Nazi "old fighters" or had enjoyed close contact with the party well before 1933. The other two had long years of rightwing Völkisch -national politics behind them. Their presence reminds us of the sizeable minority among the educated members of the so-called war-youth generation (born from the turn of the century to 1910 or so) who had strongly bought into the ideas of the radical right.

Far more than society as a whole, the student body of the 1920s had reacted to war, defeat, Germany's humiliation and her massive economic difficulties by endorsing radical, anti-Semitic and ethnic-nationalist ideas. A substantial group within this cohort were persuaded of the values of völkisch nationalism and Hitler had answered their desire for a new ethnic politics and for a powerful state.

A striking example is someone who has often been seen as representing some vestige of opposition to Nazi ideas, the interior ministry's Wilhelm Stuckart. In the two recent films about Wannsee, for example (Heinz Schirk's powerful drama from 1984 and the new release, Conspiracy , directed by Frank Pierson), Stuckart is presented as being on the defensive against Heydrich - and indeed, so he was. Heydrich was seeking to remove the interior ministry's last vestiges of power. What Stuckart was not, however, was an embodiment of non-Nazi values, or even bureaucratic neutrality, trying to rescue what he could from the onslaught.

Having fought with the Freikorps in the civil war and been a member of a radical-rightwing student body, Stuckart became a legal adviser to the Nazi Party in the 1920s. In the 1930s he rose rapidly in the SS. He personified a new generation of Staatssekretär - talented and highly capable but nevertheless ideologically committed to Nazism.

In Schirk's version, Stuckart is presented as engaging in a bitter battle with the party chancellery's man, Gerhard Klopfer. In Conspiracy , the handsome Stuckart (Colin Firth) has to be warned by Kenneth Branagh's Heydrich about the dangers of ending up hanging from meat hooks, before he bows to the party line.

In reality, bonds of friendship and shared ideas bridged party, security police and the ministry. In autumn 1941, Heydrich's right-hand man in the SD, Werner Best (not present at Wannsee), Klopfer and Stuckart together founded a racial-legal journal, Reich , designed to pursue questions of "ethnically based ( völkisch ) constitution and administration". Men like Stuckart were as deeply persuaded by Nazi ethnic-racial power politics as the party officials or the security police.

To be sure, there were opportunists and time servers round the Wannsee table. The head of the secret police, "Gestapo" Muller, had been just as efficient working for the Weimar Republic as for the Third Reich. The foreign office's Martin Luther was "governed", as one SS observer scathingly put it, "solely by the calculation of the businessman". And there was at least one person present, the number two man in the Reich Chancellery, Friedrich-Wilhelm Kritzinger, who probably was appalled by what he heard, and who alone among the participants showed genuine remorse after the war.

Even those who bought into official ideology were not equally culpable. Heydrich was the pace-maker here, the ministerial representatives undoubtedly scrambled to keep up. Moreover, it is true to say that all of the participants were far from where they had been a few years earlier. That the Polish and then the Soviet campaigns had been accompanied by such a horrific radicalisation of racial policy had much to do with the signals Hitler had given to his underlings.

Even so, Wannsee forces us to rethink the nature of the genocidal "intention". The racial imperatives that led to the Holocaust were not the preserve of the mad leader or a few dreamy members of the old guard. Instead we have to deal with the fact that a cohort of highly educated and intelligent men shared a dream of a racially based revolution and a racially structured empire. Wannsee was as much about ideas, as about the "banality of evil".

Mark Roseman is professor of modern history at the University of Southampton. The Villa , The Lake , The Meeting : Wannsee and the Final Solution is published by Penguin this week, £9.99.

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