German ceremony marks 60 years since Final Solution planned

BERLIN — Germany has marked the 60th anniversary of the Nazi plan to exterminate Europe's Jews.

Calling the Holocaust "the darkest chapter of our history," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said the Wannsee Conference demonstrated the "perversion of the Nazi system."

Historians believe the "Final Solution" was formally organized and the Nazis officially planned the genocide of Jews at the Wannsee Conference, which took place on Jan. 20, 1942.

The building where the meeting took place was turned into a public memorial and education center 10 years ago. Some 60,000 people visit the center yearly, about one-third of them from outside Germany.

Much has been written about the brief meeting that took place among 13 senior Nazi officials in the Wannsee Villa in Potsdam, outside Berlin.

According to British historian Martin Gilbert, in "Never Again: A History of the Holocaust," SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich announced at the meeting that he had been charged with the task of preparing "the Final Solution of the European Jewish Question."

"Europe will be combed from east to west," he said, in order to accomplish this goal.

In his book, "The Holocaust: A Short History," German historian Wolfgang Benz writes that "the men at the discussion table were in high spirits."

During his trial in Israel in 1961, Adolf Eichmann, who headed the Gestapo's Department of Jewish Affairs, recalled that there was "not only a general atmosphere of enthusiastic agreement, but beyond that of something completely unexpected, of what I would call a willingness that surpassed all expectations in respect to the Final Solution of the Jewish question."

The meeting resulted in a 16-page protocol, including Eichmann's alphabetical list of 33 European lands from which the Jewish people were to be eliminated.

Germany has passed through many phases in its attempt to grapple with the enormity of the Holocaust. In the immediate postwar years, trials such as those at Nuremberg focused attention on the major players.

In recent decades, there has been a greater willingness — buoyed by a new generation of scholarship — to look at the complicity of average citizens who either participated or were passive bystanders.

Reflecting that raised consciousness, Schroeder said guilt could not be focused on only high-level Nazis.

"Thousands of Germans were prepared to take part in the murder of innocent people," Schroeder said, adding that Germans have a duty to remember this history, to pass it from generation to generation.

"Above all, today's European Germany has learned from this history that one must not tire of repeating the phrase, 'Never again,'" he said.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.