20 January 2020 was the 78th anniversary of the so-called Wannsee Conference. This meeting of senior Nazis, chaired by Reinhard Heydrich and his faithful assistant Adolf Eichmann, took place in a graceful villa on the shore of Lake Wannsee just outside Berlin. Thanks to one surviving copy of the minutes (which the participants were supposed to have destroyed), it has gone down in history as one of the most significant moments in the decision-making process for the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe’: the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews.
What does this have to do with the contemporary radical right? Apart from the ‘eliminationist’ drive which remains at the heart of radical right rhetoric, especially on its wilder fringes as exemplified by recent mass murderers in Norway and New Zealand, whose ‘manifestos’ are echoes of Nazi ideology, what was discussed at Wannsee reminds us of the fears, paranoia and fantasies of the radical right.
For some years after World War II, the meeting at Wannsee, which was postponed from its original date in December 1941 because of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the US into the war, was regarded as the moment when the decision was taken to kill all the Jews of Europe. Seeming to back up that interpretation was the existence, in the minutes of the meeting, of a table listing all the countries of Europe and the estimated number of Jews in each.
Drawn up by Eichmann, the Reich Security Main Office’s expert in Jewish affairs, the numbers are quite accurate. What is so striking about the table is that it includes not only countries occupied by or allied to Nazi Germany but neutral countries and the as-yet unoccupied. And they range from the millions in the case of the Soviet Union to the hundreds in the case of Albania, indicating that the Nazis sought to capture and kill all Jews, wherever they were and however long it might take to get their hands on them.
Today historians know better. By the start of 1942, already over one million Jews had been shot in face-to-face killings on the eastern front, killed in cold blood by the SS’s Einsatzgruppen, specially constructed murder squads, battalions of the Order Police and with the considerable assistance of local auxiliaries and other collaborators in the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine.
At the same time, the Romanians, Nazi Germany’s major ally in the east, had begun deporting and killing large numbers of Jews from their territories to Transnistria, the area of Ukraine, including Odessa, occupied by Romania.
By the time of the Wannsee Conference, Latvia was already ‘judenrein’ (free of Jews), as Rudolf Lange, who headed the task force there tasked with eliminating the Jews, proudly noted at Wannsee. Bełżec, the first of the death camps of what came to be called, following Heydrich’s murder, Operation Reinhard, was under construction, and the gas vans of Chełmno (Kulmhof) were already operating. This was not yet the ‘final solution’, in that a programme to murder the Jews of Europe as a whole was not yet fully in place, but the Nazis were proceeding rapidly to that end point.
As the war progressed, so the more radical answers to the question began to prevail
In fact, as Mark Roseman and other historians have shown, the meeting at Wannsee was less about making decisions than confirming them. Those invited to attend came not only from the SS and other Nazi Party institutions but also from the civil service. Their presence was required so that Heydrich could assert his authority over Judenpolitik (Jewish policies), obtain the complicity of everyone else, and to ensure that everyone who needed to know in the so-called Third Reich was aware that Goering had transferred his authority over the ‘Jewish Question’ to him. The meeting was in fact just one moment in an ongoing process of decision-making, albeit an important one and one which has caught the attention of later generations because of the remarkable document left behind as a record of what transpired there.
In fact, despite the eye-catching table of Jewish population figures, most of the minutes are taken up by a discussion of the ‘problem’ of what the Nazis called ‘Mischlinge’, that is, ‘half-breeds’, the children of mixed marriages between ‘Aryans’ and ‘non-Aryans’. In a country where rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews was very high before 1933, this question caused the Nazis considerable difficulty, and throughout the twelve years of Nazi rule the debate about what to do with Mischlinge – of the ‘first’ or ‘second’ degree depending on how many Jewish ancestors they had; whether to sterilise them, or whether to kill them – the question was continually revisited.
Contemporary radical right discourse is based on notions of purity, whether national or racial
As the war progressed, so the more radical answers to the question began to prevail. In the last, frantic year or two of the Reich’s existence, when the leading Nazis who genuinely believed in the world conspiracy of the ‘international Jew’ began to fear the revenge that would be visited on a defeated Reich, so the circle of victims widened, even after 1943 when the vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust were already dead.
Contemporary radical right discourse is based on notions of purity, whether national or racial. Ideas of the ‘great replacement’ of the white population echo the fears of earlier generations of fascists who not only believed in the existence of separate human races but, as a corollary of that belief, assumed that the ‘Aryan’ race was the superior one (even in the face of the supposed power of ‘international Jewry’) and thought that the way to ‘save’ the Aryan race was to eliminate its greatest threat: the Jew.
Today the most successful of the ‘mainstream’ populist right parties such as the League in Italy or the Freedom Party in Austria do not speak like this. But they do talk of national preference, the need to prevent the swamping of the European (‘Christian’) population by migrants, especially Muslims, and they do often appeal to vestiges of Nazi thinking when they talk about the bias of the ‘liberal press’, of international finance, and of conspiracies to undermine European culture.
There is a continuum of ideas here which cannot be ignored. As the radical right appears in many parts of the world to be gaining in popularity, recalling the horror discussed so calmly at Wannsee by this group of ostentatious, arriviste mass-murderers might just give us pause for thought.