Sometimes words can kill: the 15 high ranking members of the Nazi Party certainly knew this when they met at a villa in Berlin’s up market suburb of Wannsee. The villa would have had an interesting history irrespective of this meeting: built by Ernst Marlier, a corrupt and violent German industrialist; sold to Friedrich Minoux (another German industrialist and swindler); and finally sold to the Nazi Party’s Stiftung Nordhav (run by the notorious Reinhard Heydrich – one of Adolf Hitler’s henchmen and potential successor).
As Professor Mark Rosen stated, the objective of this ultra secret meeting, which took place on 20 January 1942, was nothing less than a ‘signpost’ on the road to the ‘Final Solution’ regarding the Jewish People (or question as the Nazis would have posited things – language, after all, is important here).
A sobering thought, on this Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, is that many of the participants were lawyers or had some form of legal education. They certainly knew the meaning of words and that words have meaning.
Lawyers are used to jokes about their lack of integrity, but many members of the profession regard law as a noble profession, a civilising force or a discipline firmly rooted in the humanities. Precious little humanity would be shown to millions of Jewish People following the discussions at Wannsee.
During the summit, there was an almost comical incident: the participants got bogged down in what seems to be an arcane discussion about levels of Jewishness that a person might have. The discussion was deadly serious – quite literally. The outcome would decide who would live and who would die.
This was, of course, to be entirely expected: the Nazi regime (1933-1945) had already started the process of dehumisation of the Jewish People when the Nuremberg Decrees were passed in 1935. This led to the wholesale removal of Jews from the public square in Germany (and later throughout the expanded Reich and Occupied Territories). Jewish businesses and property were confiscated; Jews were forced out of the professions; they were stigmatised and ghettoised. To be Jewish in Hitler’s Germany would simply become unbearable.
The Nuremberg Decrees and the Wannsee Protocol demonstrate that there is a darker side to the law: in the wrong hands, it can be used to stigmatise and oppress certain groups of people.
At the end of the meeting (which had lasted for about 90 minutes), the participants were served Cognac, fine wines, food and cigars. Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi who chaired the proceedings, ordered that all copies of the minutes be destroyed. Some copies survived as damning evidence of the criminal conspiracy to murder an entire race.
You can find out more about the Nuremberg Decrees at and the Wannsee Conference at the links below:
Wannsee reminds us of the importance of the meaning of words and that words have meaning:
“Poets, priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for your submission
And no one’s jamming their transmission
‘Cos when their eloquence escapes you
Their logic ties you up and rapes you”
(Lyrics by Gordon Thomas Matthew Sumner (or ‘Sting’); 1980 taken from the track “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”)
The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution by Mark Roseman (Allen Lane/Penguin Press: 2002)
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Copyright Seán J Crossan, 27 January 2020