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Peter Longerich

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To purchase Wannsee

Title: Wannsee
Author: Peter Longerich
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 124 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Wannsee - US
Wannsee - UK
Wannsee - Canada
La conférence de Wannsee - France
Wannseekonferenz - Deutschland
Verso la soluzione finale - Italia
directly from: Oxford University Press
  • The Road to the Final Solution
  • German title: Wannseekonferenz
  • Translated by Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a thorough, well-presented study of this event

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 24/1/2017 Johannes Tuchel
National Review . 27/12/2021 David Pryce-Jones
NZZ am Sonntag . 29/1/2017 Urs Bitterli
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/3/2022 C.R.Browning
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 14/11/2016 Robert Probst
The Telegraph . 9/10/2021 Laurence Rees
Wall St. Journal . 19/1/2022 Diane Cole

  From the Reviews:
  • "What with a bibliography of approximately 400 titles, and the reproduction of the conference’s original minutes in German with an accompanying English translation, Longerich’s new book is more like an extended essay, short and to the point. (...) Longerich makes it unmistakably plain that the Party official who sits at his desk and works out how to rationalize brutality is more truly responsible for atrocities than the thoughtless rank and file who commit them. The language of the conference was jargon designed to obscure the bureaucratic inhumanity that preceded and promoted thuggish ignorance." - David Pryce-Jones, National Review

  • "Es ist das Verdienst von Longerichs Studie, die Wannseekonferenz in den historischen Kontext der Nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung zu stellen und eine Interpretation vorzulegen, die ein bisher kontrovers diskutiertes Thema überzeugend klärt." - Urs Bitterli, NZZ am Sonntag

  • "Longerich's view that Himmler was working at cross purposes with Heydrich that fall by pushing ad hoc radicalization is dubious. (...) (O)ne issue on which historians of the Holocaust now agree is that there was no one single decision on one single day that launched the Final Solution. The decision-making process was incremental and protracted, and historians weigh and interpret the importance of different stages of this process differently. For me, the watershed was September - October 1941, when the goal of total eradication of the Jews crystallized and new questions were posed; for Longerich it was April - May 1942, when many of the new questions posed were answered. For neither of us was it the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, though clearly that was an important step along the way." - Christopher R. Browning, The New York Review of Books

  • "Gekonnt und mit viel Detailwissen führt Longerich den Leser in die dunkle Welt monströser Mordabsichten mitten im Zweiten Weltkrieg. In aller Nüchternheit wird die Judenpolitik des NS-Staats seit 1933 aufgeblättert und noch mal klargestellt" - Robert Probst, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "Longerich forensically takes the reader through the origins of the meeting, the biographies of the participants, the minutes themselves, and ends with an explanation of why the killings developed in the months after Wannsee in ways Heydrich had not predicted. (...) As Longerich reveals, one of the most crucial decision-making moments, post-Wannsee, appears to have been the meetings that Himmler held with Hitler in the spring of 1942. It was only after these discussions that the Holocaust moved into its last murderous phase. Wannsee is thus best understood as an important milestone along the winding road that led to the murder of six million Jews, rather than the single moment of decision. Skilfully translated from the original German by Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes, Longerich’s Wannsee is a masterful crash-course on the decision-making process of the Holocaust." - Laurence Rees, The Telegraph

  • "Although the bookitself is relatively brief, the grisly subject and the density of its argument necessitate periodic breaks for air. Yet Mr. Longerich's in-depth deconstruction yields unparalleled insight into the Nazi regime's blood-soaked goals. (...) Mr. Longerich traces with clarity and precision Nazism's monstrous progression from anti-Jewish ideology to the policy of mass murder that resulted in the annihilation of six million Jews. Only Lucy Dawidowicz, in The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 (1975), has documented that grotesque trajectory so thoroughly. Both books are indispensable." - Diane Cole, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Longerich's Wannsee is a concise monograph about the notorious 20 January 1942 meeting at a Wannsee villa that, historically, has been seen as the point where the decision to institute a 'final solution' regarding Europe's Jewish population -- to do away with all of it -- was reached. As Longerich shows, while a pivotal moment, the conference was only one (big) step along a road that the German regime of the time was already well underway on.
       The study is divided into four sections (along with a Prologue and Conclusion), the first providing the background to the conference, the second focused on the conference itself, specifically in detailing who the participants were, and a final one looking at the consequences of the conference. In addition, Longerich provides a translation of the minutes of the meeting (with a photographic reproduction of the German original also provided in an Appendix), and a commentary on it.
       As Longerich notes, solutions to the so-called 'Jewish problem' -- basically, the presence of Jews in territory under German control -- were a preöccupation of the Nazi regime from early on. Emigration, forced or otherwise, was only a limited solution, and by the start of the Second World War other 'territorial solutions' were considered -- the mass deportation of Jews to the (eastern) periphery of German-controlled territory, or possibly beyond, into the Soviet Union, or the rather fantastical 'Madagascar Plan' (yes, relocating millions of people to the African island of Madagascar). With the expansion of German territory in the east and then especially the invasion of the Soviet Union (22 June 1941), deportations into those areas accelerated -- as did mass killings of civilians; Longerich notes that: "The number of Jewish civilians killed by the end of 1941 was most probably at least 500,000". And new: "technologies for killing people en masse by gassing were developed and/or procured in late summer and autumn 1941", including gas vans which killed those trapped inside with the carbon monoxide produced by the vehicles while driving. Nevertheless, efforts were not closely coördinated and there was no unified plan, with local leaders often taking matters in their own hands.
       Longerich notes an increase in Nazi communications referring to the "imminent 'extermination' of the Jews" in late-1941, especially as Germany's relations with the United States deteriorated. Hitler had long used the threat of reprisals against Jews as one more reason for the United States not to get involved in the war; as this then grew inevitable he no longer felt a need to hold off on these and the idea of a definitive 'final solution' came increasingly to the fore. Longerich identifies the two main strands of 'Jewish policy' the regime was following in the fall of 1941: efforts at a more immediate solution (as pushed by Heinrich Himmler) and a longer-term effort involving the deportation of the Jewish population to the occupied Soviet territories at the end of the war (with the "physical annihilation of the European Jews" a final step after that), a project led by Reinhard Heydrich. The one was more immediate, the other putting things off until the war had been won, with Longerich noting how the two proponents of these different paths, Himmler and Heydrich, engaged in a continuing contest about them. (So also, as Longerich notes: "Heydrich had evidently done all he could to prevent anyone close to Himmler from attending" the Wannsee conference.) While Heydrich managed, until his death, to remain in charge, as it were, it was Himmler's approach that was then taken up.
       It was Heydrich that convened the meeting then held in Wannsee, "to discuss in detail the plan for a 'total solution to the Jewish question in Europe'". Originally planned for 9 December, it was delayed until 20 January 1942. Fifteen high-ranking Nazis attended, including Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann.
       Only one copy of the original thirty of the minutes has been preserved (number 16). Longerich notes that they are not a transcript; indeed, Eichmann maintained that Heydrich generally heavily edited his minutes. Hence:

     We should base our reading of the 'minutes' on the assumption that they are not a direct reproduction of what was said but a document summarizing the main lines of discussion and decisions reached from the standpoint of the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA).
       The document is, unsurprisingly, a disturbing one -- not least in already tallying all the Jews in Europe that they apparently hoped to deal with, which inculded not only those in countries under German or allied control but also England and even neutral countries like Spain (arriving at a total of eleven million Jews who they saw as being: "involved in the final solution of the European Jewish question").
       Also addressed, at considerable length, is the question of how those with some (only) Jewish 'blood' were to be treated -- 'Mischlinge' (Longerich leaves the term in the original German here), of various degrees. Just how demented official thinking and policy was is made clear from, for example, how they decided to handle '2nd-degree Mischlinge', who: "will as a matter of principle be treated as persons of German blood" with a few exceptions -- including:
b) If a 2nd-degree Mischling's appearance is particularly unfavourable racially and already makes him/her look like a Jew.

c) If particularly negative police or political assessments indicate that a 2nd-degree Mischling feels and behaves like a Jew.
       The minutes already clearly state here that: "As part of the final solution the Jews are now to be deployed for labor in the East" -- those fit for work to be used as long as they were able, with the expectation that: "the majority will doubtless succumb to natural wastage". The plan was, from the beginning, comprehensive: "In the course of the implementation of the final solution Europe will be combed from West to East".
       Longerich sees the meeting as the point where the 'final solution' shifted from, as Heydrich had proposed, one to be dealt with in the main at the conclusion of the war and instead was to be completed during the war itself, as well as shifting the locale from the occupied Soviet territories to occupied Poland. And, in fact, as he notes:
     In May and June 1942 the SS dramatically changed its modus operandi. During this period the policy of extermination was intensified and amounted to a decision to murder indiscriminately all European Jews within its reach as quickly as possible and certainly before the end of the war.
       Himmler's approach was adopted, over Heydrich's -- Longerich concluding:
War was no longer being waged in order to create the conditions for the 'final solution', but rather the 'final solution' was being placed in the service of the war.
       The Wannsee conference was one point and part of this horrific German policy, and Longerich's monograph is very good in both detailing what happened there, and those involved, as well as placing it in the much larger context. The subject matter is, of course, deeply disturbing, but Longerich's presentation manages to be unemotional without being entirely detached. There are even bits of almost comic absurdity, from the discussion of how to treat 2nd-degree Mischlinge to the denials of those who had attended the conference about it after the war.
       Wannsee is a useful, thorough overview of small but significant slice of history, and should certainly be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about the obscenity that was the Nazi effort at a 'final solution'. An extensive bibliography also guides readers to any additional details they might want to follow up on. (Note also that extensive documentary material is also readily accessible at the excellent House of the Wannsee Conference site.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 January 2022

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Wannsee: The Wannsee conference: Reviews: Peter Longerich: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Historian Peter Longerich was born in 1955.

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© 2022 the complete review

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