On 20 January 1942, senior Nazi officials arrived at a lakeside villa at Am Großen Wannsee 56-58 to decide the fate of millions. The posh surroundings are in stark contrast to the horrors of the Holocaust.
On 11 January 2019, I made my way to the same house – a 44€ Uber ride from Spandau, where I had been with the group of University of Virginia students at a historical museum that preserves historical monuments that are no longer in their original locations, such as the head of a Lenin statue. One of the students on the program with me joined in the visit. As the black Mercedes Benz weaved through Berlin traffic, we were conscious of the historical juxtaposition a visit to Wannsee would have after having visited Buchenwald concentration camp. What kind of environment could have surrounded officials planning a genocide? It was a chilling question.
Minutes before our arrival, we turned onto a street with elegant, nautical-themed homes. Model ships were on display in private homes surrounded by tall hedges. Coming from Michigan, it was weirdly reminiscent of the homes one would see around St. Clair Shores or Grosse Pointe, if the reader is familiar. If not, think high-end yacht club homes.
“I always thought a decision like this would have been made somewhere more discreet, like in the middle of the forest,” commented Robert, the UVA student with me. “These look like UVA frat houses, a bit,” I commented.
Surrounded by cherubs, statues of lions, and manicured gardens stands the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, built prior to the Nazi period. The Schutzstaffel (SS) purchased the home for their own use in 1940. After the end of the Second World War, the villa was converted into a school. Historian Joseph Wulf was glad that the space was repurposed as a space of education, however felt that there needed to be more done to educate the general public. In 1965, he suggested that the house be turned into a Holocaust memorial and documentation centre, a request that the West German government denied him during his lifetime. Infuriated with West Germany’s light-handed treatment of postwar investigations into Nazi war crimes and reliving the horrors of the Holocaust through his own experience as a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Wulf took his own life in 1974. The library inside the now-museum – opened in 1992 – bears his name.
The exhibition inside could easily comprise four dissertations. Primary sources are displayed, showing who took part in the conference, how mass persecution and genocide was perpetrated against ‘enemies of the Reich,’ such as homosexuals, the Roma and Sinti peoples, and the Jewish population of Europe.
The Wannsee documents were side-by-side in German and English, but were also available in Hebrew, which felt like a triumph against the anti-Semitic documents.
The museum showed methods of ideological manipulation to provide support for the Nazi regime’s war crimes, particularly by way of stylistic propaganda posters. I found the following image the most interesting – a book advertisement for Hitler’s Mein Kampf. As an avid reader, it was strange to see it marketed in such a banal yet propagandistic way – intentionally so.
After reviewing documents and viewing racist cartoons displayed on the wall, the exhibit led the visitor through a different exhibition – testimony given by both descendants of the Holocaust and by those who are related to Nazi officials. It was striking, particularly since it shows that both those whose families were persecuted as well as those who are descendants of the persecutors agree that this period weighs heavily on the conscience of all. These testimonies included Dr. Joseph Wulf, Primo Levi, and Katrin Himmler, among others. These are the most memorable quotes seen in that exhibit (for me at least):
These quotes led into an exhibit about daily life in each country occupied by the Nazis. A poster was displayed in Hebrew or Yiddish, inviting members of the ghetto to a symphonic concert. Even in the worst of times, the arts act as a point of resistance and community.
At the conclusion of the museum, I made my way to the library and archive, which led outside to a balcony. The visual juxtaposition of where I was once again was striking. For such a catastrophic event, the milieu was unsettlingly serene. One could sense that the Nazi officials felt particularly disassociated with their decision to commit genocide, as if it were something that would reinforce this privilege.
To conclude this journal entry, I leave you with three images juxtaposed. The first is the view from the balcony; the second, images drawn by artists imprisoned in a concentration camp; the final one, a view of the villa at night. I hope you get a sense of the paradoxical, sinister nature of this place.
Special thanks to Robert Bork III for having accompanied me on this tour.