Reflection: A Meeting, A Museum

By Sonner Kehrt

Letter from Reinhard Heydrich to Martin Luther, Under-Secretary of the Reich Foreign Ministry, inviting him to the Wannsee Conference. Luther’s notes on the meeting are the only physical record of what took place. (Wikimedia Commons)

In southwestern Berlin, in an area called Wannsee, there’s a beautiful old mansion. In 1942, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich held a meeting there for senior SS officers and other Nazi leaders. The meeting had one purpose: to discuss the methodical extermination of Europe’s Jews.

Part of the power of FASPE is that it incorporates a sense of place into the study of history. We don’t merely discuss things that happened; we visit the sites where they happened, and try to understand, sometimes in vain, why they did. I expected to feel an overwhelming panic of emotion — or maybe a numb emptiness — when we visited Auschwitz and ultimately I experienced both. What I didn’t expect was the way I felt standing in the Wannsee mansion, thinking about something as ordinary as a meeting.

The house is a museum now, and inside it bears little resemblance to the way it looked in 1942. There are powerful exhibits in each room that trace the Nazis’ rise to power, and only the final exhibit is dedicated to what actually happened at Wannsee. It’s in the room where the meeting took place, the room where Heydrich and others committed to carrying out mass murder. The long table around which the men sat is gone, but in its place is a long display case, holding a sheet of paper for each man who attended the meeting, explaining who he was and the role he played in the Holocaust. The room is set up in a way that makes it easy to imagine what took place there. But I don’t need to imagine. I know what a meeting looks like.

At Auschwitz, the machinery of death was foreign and incomprehensible. We saw the ruins of gas chambers and crematoria; we walked through the Death Block, where women deemed too sick to work were kept without food until they could be killed. The horror of the place was so extreme that it was difficult to grasp. But at Wannsee, the horror of the place was the opposite. There was no barbed wire, no stones marking mass graves. The neighborhood surrounding the mansion was pleasant, the mansion itself distinguished, the grounds of the mansion peaceful and verdant. It was a place that felt common and familiar, and what took place there was intimately understandable. People sat around a table and discussed what they saw as a logistical problem. They introduced themselves, they argued, they bantered, they took breaks for coffee. And ultimately, they came up with a solution to their problem and left the room satisfied. It’s a routine scenario.

Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evilargues that Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of logistics for the deportation and murder of Jews, was not particularly evil or disturbed, but rather was an ordinary person who found meaning in following orders and failed to think for himself. Much of Arendt’s argument as it applies to Eichmann has been challenged, particularly her notion that he wasn’t necessarily motivated by anti-Semitism. But the idea of the banality of evil, or that evil acts aren’t necessarily committed by evil people, but by ordinary individuals participating in society, remains. In Nazi Germany, political leaders held meetings. Bureaucrats filled out paperwork, train conductors drove trains, and doctors made determinations about people’s health. Devoid of context, these are all mundane actions. They are actions that make societies function, and ultimately, if they are carried out without moral reflection, they are the same actions that can make a genocide function.

Today, Wannsee is a memorial and a museum; it exists for us to remember, to come and stand in the place where something happened, to try to understand an event that was monumental, and at the same time, entirely ordinary. At Auschwitz, the question that kept coming to my mind was, “How did human beings do this?” At Wannsee, the statement I found my mind repeating was, “Human beings did this.”

Leave a Reply