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Remember and explain

The House of the Wannsee Conference is now a memorial and educational site. Eighty years ago, the National Socialists planned the murder of European Jews here.

This is where the Nazis planned the extermination of European Jews.
This is where the Nazis planned the extermination of European Jews. © dpa

On 20 January 1942, a meeting of high-ranking representatives of the Nazi regime in Germany discussed the systematic murder of up to eleven million Jews in Europe. The site of this inconceivable horror is idyllically located on Berlin’s Wannsee Lake; in summer, Deborah Hartmann, Director of the House on Wannsee Memorial and Educational Centre, can hear at her desk the loudspeaker announcements from the Wannsee lido on the opposite shore. “It’s the ambivalence that defines this place, unbelievably beautiful and unbelievably tragic”, says Hartmann. Eighty years after the Wannsee Conference, an exhibition at the German Bundestag is commemorating that 20th of January 1942. Even today, said Bundestag President Bärbel Bas at its opening, “dealing with German history is an enduring obligation”, which every generation must face anew.

Deborah Hartmann, Director of the Wannsee Conference Memorial Site.
Deborah Hartmann, Director of the Wannsee Conference Memorial Site. © dpa

In 1942, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich convened a meeting of 15 SS officers and Nazi officials in the former villa of a factory owner on the Großer Wannsee to plan the systematic murder of eleven million European Jews. The decision had apparently been taken earlier by Adolf Hitler and his most trusted circle. It would be a misunderstanding to assume that the Shoah was decided at the Wannsee Conference, says Matthias Hass, deputy director of the educational site. The conference’s role was to transform indiscriminate killing into thoroughly planned, industrial-scale murder. “At the time of the conference, about 80 per cent of the victims were still alive. And a year and a half later, in autumn of 1943, 80 per cent were dead”, observes Haas. By the end of the war in 1945, a total of six million European Jews of Europe had been murdered.

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The House of the Wannsee Conference is many things: a place of memorial and commemoration, a place of research, and also a place of education. The offerings treat the conference itself, the Shoa, and the history of National Socialism. There are guided tours, seminars, and educational projects for schools and school children. Volunteers working for Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste from Israel or from Central-Eastern Europe, especially Poland, Belarus, Russia or Ukraine, provide constant assistance. Since September 2021, Alena Chuprikova has been working at the House of the Wannsee Conference. She comes from the Russian city of Perm and, as a native Russian speaker, furnishes important help in German-Russian encounter work. For example, she translates texts for the continually growing German-Russian online exhibition Remembering Injustice. Many people also help in the educational work as part of the Voluntary Cultural Year; Ida Berndt from Thuringia has been engaged here since September 2021.

Even the staff at the House of the Wannsee Conference, however, doesn’t have an answer to one central question: why people did this, how family fathers could become machinists of genocide. That may never be explained, says Director Hartmann: “I think we have to learn to live with the fact that some things just remain grey and can’t be answered unequivocally.” (With dpa)