“genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:Article II Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.
I started writing this article on 19 January 2024. I wrote it over a period of several days. It was a matter which required a degree of care. I had received a critical email from one reader condemning my reposting of an article by Melanie Phillips which was highly critical of the proceedings taken by South Africa against Israel in the International Court of Justice. I left publishing the article until the ICJ Interim Decision was released. That has now happened.
I publish the article as it was when I finished writing on 23 January 2024.
I am very aware that the subject of genocide and the Holocaust and Israel’s response to continuing and sustained violence against its people arouses deep-seated feelings. In writing this article I want to highlight aspects of the Holocaust that perhaps are little known or have been forgotten or overlooked in the present situation. Like it or not, the Holocaust provides a context both for Israel’s existence and its attitudes to those who would deny that existence.
On 20 January 1942 there was a meeting of senior Government officials of Nazi Germany and Schutzstaffel (SS) leaders. The meeting was held at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee.
The purpose of the conference, called by the director of the Reich Security Main Office SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, was to ensure the co-operation of administrative leaders of various government departments in the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, whereby most of the Jews of German-occupied Europe would be deported to occupied Poland and murdered.
The Conference lasted 90 minutes. In the course of the meeting, Heydrich outlined how European Jews would be rounded up and sent to extermination camps in the General Government (the occupied part of Poland), where they would be killed.
Heydrich had been authorized by Goering to prepare and submit a plan for a “total solution of the Jewish question” in territories under German control and to coordinate the participation of all involved government organisations. At the Wannsee Conference, Heydrich emphasised that once the deportation process was complete, the fate of the deportees would become an internal matter under the purview of the SS. A secondary goal was to arrive at a definition of who was Jewish.
Minutes were kept by a secretary from the office of Adolf Eichmann who played a significant part at the Conference. The minutes known as the Protocol were circulated following the meeting. The minutes were not verbatim and Eichmann ensured that nothing too explicit appeared in them.
Copies of the Protocol were sent by Eichmann to all the participants after the meeting. of these copies were destroyed at the end of the war as participants and other officials sought to cover their tracks. It was not until 1947 that a copy (number 16 out of 30 copies prepared which was that of Martin Luther, a Foreign Office Undersecretary) was found by Robert Kempner, a U.S. prosecutor in the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, in files that had been seized from the German Foreign Office.
The Protocol forms the basis for three dramatisations of the Wannsee Conference. The first is entitled “Conspiracy” and stars Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Eichmann. It was released in 2001 and has won a number of awards.
The second is a German production made in 2022 and entitled “Die Wannseekonferenz” starring Philipp Hochmair as Heydrich and Johannes Allmayer as Eichmann. It won a number of awards. The soundtrack is in German with English subtitles and is available on iTunes.
The third dramatization is “Die Wannsee Conference” which was made in 1984 and which is available on YouTube here.
There is also a documentary on the Wannsee Conference made in 1984 which is available here.
All dramatisations (although I have not yet see the 2001 version) focus on the Conference and only the Conference. There are a few external shots but they are of the Wannsee location. Some of the continuity differs between the 2022 production and the 1984 dramatisation. What is significant is that the language and the messages are the same – moved around a bit no doubt for dramatic effect.
What transpired at the Conference – the discussions and the decisions – is a chilling depiction of the nature of evil and of the way in which the planning for the Final Solution was seen as an exercise in logistics and the achievement of a horrifying outcome. What follows are comments and observations drawn from the 2022 production.
The attendees were all aware of the purpose of the meeting. Indeed, the murder of Jews in the Soviet Union had already commenced. During the Conference the massacre at Babi Yar was mentioned where Jews were herded into graves and shot. Shooting as a means of extermination was discussed but dismissed. Indeed, one of the attendees expressed concern that if all captive and transported Jews were to be short it would take over 400 days, working day and night. The psychological toll on the soldiers involved would be immense. No thought was given to the victims. In the end that plan was dismissed.
But it demonstrates the casual way in which the elimination of the Jews was considered. No thought was given nor expressed as to the effect that the programme might have upon the victims. Rather the issues to be dealt with were those of logistics. How was the programme to be carried out. And the total number who were to be exterminated was estimated at 11 million. The goal was the total elimination of European Jewry.
Heydrich opened the conference with an account of the anti-Jewish measures taken in Germany since the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. He said that between 1933 and October 1941, 537,000 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews had emigrated. The eleven million Jews in Europe included those in areas which were not under German control.
Euphemism dominated the language of the meeting. The wording of the Wannsee Protocol—the distributed minutes of the meeting—made it clear to participants that evacuation east was a euphemism for death. The vague orders were couched in language that had a specific meaning for the members of the regime, especially when people were being ordered to carry out criminal activity. Leaders were given briefings about the need to be “severe” and “firm”; all Jews were to be viewed as potential enemies that had to be dealt with ruthlessly.
Heydrich stated that in the course of the practical execution of the final solution Europe would be “combed through from west to east”, but that Germany, Austria, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia would have priority, “due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities”. The “evacuated” Jews, he said, would first be sent to “transit ghettos” in the General Government, from which they would be transported eastward.
To avoid legal and political difficulties, it was important to define who was a Jew for the purposes of “evacuation”. He outlined categories of people who would not be killed. Jews over 65 years old, and Jewish World War I veterans who had been severely wounded or who had won the Iron Cross, might be sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp instead of being killed. “With this expedient solution”, he said, “in one fell swoop, many interventions will be prevented.”
The situation of people who were half or quarter Jews, and of Jews who were married to non-Jews, was more complex. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, their status had been left deliberately ambiguous. Heydrich announced that Mischlinge (mixed-race persons) of the first degree (persons with two Jewish grandparents) would be treated as Jews. This would not apply if they were married to a non-Jew and had children by that marriage. It would also not apply if they had been granted written exemption by “the highest offices of the Party and State”. Such persons would be sterilised or deported if they refused sterilisation.
A “Mischling of the second degree” (a person with one Jewish grandparent) would be treated as German, unless he or she was married to a Jew or a Mischling of the first degree, had a “racially especially undesirable appearance that marks him outwardly as a Jew”,or had a “political record that shows that he feels and behaves like a Jew”.] Persons in these latter categories would be killed even if married to non-Jews.
In the case of mixed marriages, Heydrich recommended that each case should be evaluated individually, and the impact on any German relatives assessed. If such a marriage had produced children who were being raised as Germans, the Jewish partner would not be killed. If they were being raised as Jews, they might be killed or sent to an old-age ghetto.
This created some difficulty for the attendee Wilhelm Stuckart a lawyer who was the author of the Nuremburg Laws and who was the only defendant tried at Nuremburg for attending the Wannsee Conference. He preferred forced sterilization for people of mixed blood rather than extermination. Stuckart was also concerned about causing distress to German spouses and children of ‘interracial’ couples. Stukart’s main issue was the integrity of the Nuremburg Laws. The moral (or immoral) status of those laws did not enter into consideration. Erich Neumann from the Four Year Plan argued for the exemption of Jews who were working in industries vital to the war effort and for whom no replacements were available. Heydrich assured him that this was already the policy; such Jews would not be killed. Josef Bühler, State Secretary of the General Government, stated his support for the plan and his hope that the killings would commence as soon as possible.
Towards the end of the Conference, Heydrich called upon Eichmann to describe the methodology of transport and extermination. As a preliminary it had been noted that Himmler had been sickened by execution by shooting and demanded a more humane method of execution – not for the victims but for the executioners. Indeed throughout the Conference the total lack of humanity or indeed the lack of moral compunction is made clear. The 2022 dramatisation is subtitled “When Humanity Lost the War”.
Eichmann reaffirmed that execution by shooting was not going to take place. One reason was that it was inefficient and had a negative influence on the functional efficiency of those engaged in carrying it out. Other methods which were more efficient and less stressful for the mental health of the participants were based on findings of euthanasia operations. Those operations had been cancelled but clearly the data was available.
Eichmann moved on to the logistics of the operation and the transportation of the Jews and the use of gas as a means of execution. One participant, Friedrich Kritzinger, a veteran of the Great War, was concerned at the use of gas. He was silenced with advice that things had changed in 20 years. Eichmann went on to discuss the use of carbon monoxide at camps that he had visited. Coldly, methodically, he described the way that gas was introduced. He then referred to steps that were being undertaken at Auschwitz. Some “very promising results” had been obtained using a pest control agent with the trade name Zyklon B. From the brief comments from the participants it was clear that the intended victims were viewed not as human beings but as pests.
Eichmann went on to describe the way Zyklon B worked. The active ingredient used was hydrocyanic acid bound to granules. Upon contact with the air a fast-acting gas was produced and the effect of Zyklon B on humans was an accidental discovery. The incorrect use was to become a “proper use”.
The granules were to be received in canisters and could be provided by the manufacturer without any added warnings. Eichmann remarked that by the time the gas was noticed it was too late. Trial gassings of Russian prisoners of war were described as “highly satisfactory”. Eichmann described the use of Zyklon B as a “thought experiment” although he speculated it would be possible to convert the Auschwitz camp from Russians to Jews.
At this point Heydrich intervened to suggest that the Final Solution proceed on all fronts. There would be no single approach. As he put it “competition stimulates the business.”
Eichmann continued. The Jews would arrive at the facility by train. They would be selected according to working ability. They would hand over their possessions. Under the illusion of disinfection they would then be taken to airtight gassing rooms. The agent would be introduced from the outside and the process, if carried out correctly, would be completed after ten to fifteen minutes. The rooms would then be ventilated as well as the removal and disposal of the remains. Medium term incineration in high performance furnaces was contemplated.
It was noted that from the train to the gas no accommodation was required. This was considered to be very efficient. The process would be repeated several times a day.
The geographical remoteness of the extermination camps meant that there would be little involvement or awareness on the part of local populations. Wind direction would exclude any odour nuisance. Clearly there was an understanding of how the citizenry would respond to the horrors that were planned.
Kritzinger acknowledged that what was proposed would solve the problems of a mathematical nature but question how it would be better than shooting. Eichmann responded that shooting, which he had observed, made him sick. On the other hand the established facilities proposed allowed for a structured process based on division of labour. Efficiency, logistics and the speedy and effective achievement of the outcome dominated his thinking. The fact that the outcome was mass murder was ignored. The enquiry was how to get it done – not whether it should be done. What was being achieved was a “pleasantly efficient and completely anonymous process which could be performed by the German overseers in a very distanced manner.
Even Kritzinger conceded that if the process was less bloody and relieved the Germans participating then that was a relief to him. His preference was that the Jews merely vanish into thin air – perhaps the only expression of a smidgin of understanding of what was being proposed.
Heydrich justified the process as a task that had been imposed upon them – one which they could not refuse because it was repugnant. “We are physicians of the German national body,” he said “no doctor like to saw off his patient’s leg. But what if it is the only way to save the patient’s life?” And that was the final formal word on the Conference. The participants were thanked for their input into the approval of the Final Solution. But it was clear, with the circulation of the Protocol, that despite the dressed up language and the official words, those who read the protocol were aware of what they were involved in. No one could say that they didn’t know anything.
To characterize the attitude of the Conference participants and of the Final Solution in general as anti-semitic would be to understate that nature of what was proposed. The attitude towards eleven million human beings was more than that. It was a denial of humanity to members of the human race. But in many respects the history of anti-semitism, as it generated into the Final Solution over the centuries, is such a denial of humanity. History is tragically replete with examples of outrageous anti-semitism from before the Romans, through to expulsions of the Jews and their persecution in England, to the persecution and expulsion of the Jews from Spain following the Reconquista to the centuries of pogroms that took place in Europe – and especially in Russia.
A Continuing Business
In some respects the attitude of Israelis to those who would seek their destruction is not inexplicable. For over two thousand years Jews have been subject to persecution.
Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children reportedly chose to take their own lives rather than suffer enslavement or death at the hands of the Roman army. They were the last holdouts of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which had ended officially three years earlier, in 70 CE, with an unimaginable disaster: the destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple. During the revolt, these families found refuge atop Masada, a remote fortress on a mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. Now, however, they were besieged by an overwhelming Roman force, and it was clear that the fortress would fall. At this critical moment, the rebel leader, Eleazar Ben-Yair, gathered the men together and convinced them to commit mass suicide.
The account of Masada by Josephus (which has been questioned by some historians) was a compelling one – so much so that after Israel was established in 1948 the slogan “Masada shall not fall again” became symbolic of the modern state. The example of Jews putting up a heroic resistance to the death instead of going meekly to their slaughter had great appeal in the wake of the Holocaust and at a time when Israel’s population felt embattled. For many years, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) held induction ceremonies atop Masada.
The Holocaust itself provides a further context for Israeli attitudes. Faced with a threat of destruction, Israeli Jews will not go meekly to their deaths. They will not be herded into cattle trucks and deported to death chambers. Faced with annihilation they will resist. An entirely explicable attitude.
Thus those who chant the slogan “From the River to the Sea – Palestine Will be Free” are inheritors of the business of genocide that took place at Wannsee. Rather like the euphemisms employed at Wannsee and that appeared in the Protocol the real meaning lies much deeper than that.
It is no accident that the slogan is that of Hamas. Hamas, a terrorist organization, has as its objective the elimination of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants – a further incarnation of the Final Solution. A Palestinian State from the Jordan to the Mediterranean therefore has as its subtext the elimination of the present Jewish inhabitants.
Those who chant the slogan are either unaware of its meaning, or, if they are aware, are complicit with Hamas objectives and are as complicit as were the participants at Wannsee. They cannot say that they don’t know anything.
This is not to say that I favour the silencing of those who chant the slogan. Freedom of expression entitled them to do so. Absent any imminence of physical threat, they are entitled to express their point of view. Indeed it is valuable that they do so, because then it allows a listener to make an assessment not only of what is being said but who is saying it.
The 7th October and its Sequel
The current position in Israel and Gaza is a difficult one. Clearly the Hamas attack of 7 October was brutal, well planned and was in the nature of an execution of the victims. Given the number of Jewish deaths – the greatest since the end of the war – it can only be seen as a revival of the business of genocide.
The methodology of the attack is graphically described in an article in the New York Times for 28 December 2023 – How Hamas Weaponised Sexual Violence on Oct 7 by Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella
The article is a challenging one. If there is difficulty accessing it please let me know and I can provide a copy. But it provides a graphic and horrifying description of what actually happened on 7 October and why Israel was so outraged as to put into play the elimination of Hamas as a threat.
In this context the issue of a proportionate response must be considered. This is the subject of a speech by Lord Verdirame to the House of Lords on 24 October 2023 and which I made available on Substack on 26 October. It can be found here. Lord Verdirame has a speciality in public international law and he is a Professor of international law at the King’s College London department of war studies and is a non-affiliated member of the House of Lords. His speech explains the legal position.
Finally South Africa dropped a bombshell on the international community in December, claiming in the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ highest judicial body, that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. No doubt Pretoria, a longtime supporter of Palestine and in a deteriorating diplomatic relationship with Israel, had political reasons to bring what most Israelis view as an outrageous claim.
An article by Professor David Kaye outlines the case that South Africa brought before the International Court of Justice and why it is taken seriously by Israel. David Kaye is a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law and is currently the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Public International Law at Lund University, in Sweden. His discussion and analysis may be found here.
An interim ruling from the International Court is expected by 26 January 2027. I shall comment on that case and some of its implications in a subsequent post.
I write this on 27 January. The International Court interim decision became available yesterday. I considered incorporating a commentary into this article. I have decided not to. The decision deserves its own consideration. It will be the subject of another article – here.