Germans unveil memorial to Nazis' victims Villa at Wannsee stands as 'warning'

January 20, 1992|By Tyler Marshall | Tyler Marshall,Los Angeles Times

BERLIN -- Amid growing concern about the treatment of racial minorities in modern, democratic Germany, about 200 prominent Germans and Jews yesterday inaugurated a Holocaust memorial at the villa where Nazi bureaucrats 50 years ago today gathered to work out the technicalities of how to exterminate Europe's Jews.

The infamous gathering occurred Jan. 20, 1942, in the tranquil Berlin suburb of Wannsee in the luxurious villa now known as the "House of the Wannsee Conference."

The memorial, in the shape of a permanent exhibition about the Holocaust, includes a collection of books, photographs, tape recordings and original documents relating to the fate of the estimated 6 million Jews slain during the Nazi era.

Financed jointly by the city of Berlin and the federal government, the memorial will also sponsor talks by concentration camp survivors and cultural exchanges with the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

"This house must and shall remain a warning," Heinz Galinski, a Jewish community leader here, told the assembled guests.

Noting a disturbing spate of anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred in Germany since unification, Mr. Galinski urged hefty government financing for the memorial in order to extend an awareness in Germany of what occurred under the Nazis.

Germany's parliamentary president, Rita Suessmuth, referred to the recent influx of foreigners and asylum-seekers into the country, the sporadic attacks against them, and the attempts to stop those attacks.

"This [issue] will show whether we've learned from history," she said.

Perhaps more than any other event related to the Holocaust, the Wannsee Conference carries the most chilling of messages, for those gathered at Wannsee that morning were ordinary bureaucrats.

Neither Adolf Hitler, nor his two senior-most accomplices -- Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite SS praetorian guard -- were present.

Hitler had long before decided that Europe's Jews should die. The Wannsee Conference was about how to do it.

Records show that the conference was chaired by Hitler's security chief, Reinhard Heydrich, with the help of an SS lieutenant colonel named Adolf Eichmann and attended by a group of government undersecretaries and department heads, who sat at the table and, apparently without resistance or questioning, worked out the logistics of transporting and murdering an entire people.

Minutes of the meeting show that Heydrich, apparently relieved at the lack of resistance, passed around cognac once business was completed.

Writing in the current issue of the news weekly Die Zeit, German historian Eberhard Jaeckel claims that Heydrich had other grounds for relief. Mr. Jaeckel argued that Heydrich called the conference for only one purpose -- to establish that he, and not Himmler, had the main responsibility for overseeing the Holocaust.

The cognac, Mr. Jaeckel maintained, was to celebrate the acceptance of this new authority.

"It is under these circumstances . . . that not Himmler, but Heydrich, was the true architect of the 'Final Solution,' " Mr. Jaeckel wrote.

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