This review is based on: The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution: A Reconsideration (Hardcover)
Ever since its discovery in 1947 by Robert Kempner, the American prosecutor at Nuremberg, this record of a meeting held in Berlin on 20 January 1942 has been considered to be virtual proof of the determination of the Nazis to murder each and every Jew that came within their reach. Roseman presents a much more critical view of the matter.
His book is full of remarks which modify, question, or refute past interpretations. He quotes the German historian Eberhard Jäckel who wonders why this meeting was ever convened, he notes that the documentation concerning this event is far from comprehensive and that we can only speculate on many aspects, he states that there is no single unambiguous document ordering the annihilation of all Jews (David Irving will have noted this with some satisfaction), he deplores the general lack of official documents, and he stresses the absence of important agencies or institutions which should have been present at any sort of decisive meeting of this kind: the German Railways, the Wehrmacht, or the Führer Chancellery. Somehow, though, he manages to overlook the curious fact that Heydrich's name is not on the list of the persons attending.
In spite of the general vagueness surrounding the gathering, Roseman concludes that from the time of the meeting onward, the word "Endlösung" came to signify the death of all European Jews, because the "Protokoll" expresses this, albeit in a round-about, bureaucratic fashion. It is important to stress, though, that "death", here, is not necessarily identical to "killing". The considerations regarding the fate of various groups of Jews bear this out, one half of the 15 pages are devoted, after all, to the fairly difficult question of deciding how Jews and their descendants were to be classified. When all is said and done, Roseman comes to the conclusion that the conference cannot be regarded as a moment of decision; for him, it is merely an indication that something had changed in the political landscape.
The "Protokoll" itself has, for decades now, occupied centre stage, obscuring other important aspects of the matter. We must remember that the meeting was convened by Heydrich on the grounds that Göring had asked him, half a year earlier, in July of 1941, to draw up "a comprehensive plan for the final solution of the Jewish question, in the near future". The January meeting was to lay the groundwork for the plan, others were to follow; Roseman mentions two more such dates, March and October 1942 but does not discuss them in detail. In view of the six months which Heydrich let go by before calling a first meeting, one cannot but admire Göring's patience in the matter, or Himmler's lack of concern when the Reichsmarschall intervened without respecting the line of command. In the end, after Heydrich's assassination in May of 1942, no comprehensive plan was ever presented to Göring - nor to anyone else, for that matter.
In this context, Roseman mentions, in a footnote, the so-called "Schlegelberger Document" which states that Hitler had rejected the "Final Solution" as we perceive it today. He refers the reader to David Irving's homepage for more information while remaining himself quite sceptical in this regard.
The German edition of Roseman's book contains an additional chapter in which Norbert Kampe, the director of the Wannsee Memorial Institute in Berlin, discusses the differences among the reproductions of the various documents that form the basis of our assessment of this event. Kampe strongly crticizes mistakes and unwarranted alterations that appear in every single one of the documents presented by Kempner, but states that the text of these reproductions is always in accordance with the originals. This is not, strictly speaking, a material analysis of the documents themselves. In view, however, of a number of questions concerning the authenticity of some of these papers, that have never been scientifically investigated, a thorough review of these points is still highly desirable.
The necessity for a scientific evaluation of the documents involved is made even more convincing if we look at these documents as they are shown in a book written by Kempner himself, "Eichmann und Komplizen", Europa-Verlag, 1962. The documents presented there come in a variety of ways, some simply retyped, others as part of the text, still others as "reproduced in line with the original (nach dem Original wiedergegeben)".
These reproductions, for the most part, do not contain the "unwarranted alterations" but diverge from the Wannsee documents in other strange ways, as is most clearly shown by the letter of transmittal of the minutes to the participants. Kempner's version of this letter, claimed to have been found in the files of the German Foreign Office, is verbatim identical to the Wannsee document, including underlined words. It is, however, obviously a retyped version using a typewriter that did not have a special key for a runic SS as it does appear on all the official Wannsee documents. On the other hand, a handwritten note added at the German Foreign Office, as well as a number of stamps (`secret', FO registration stamp) and Heydrich's signature, are in themselves and in their geometrical relations with respect to each other, absolutely identical to the way they appear in the Wannsee document, except that they are superimposed on the retyped text in a skewed manner.
This could mean that at some point, a transparent layover with the handwritten entry, the stamps, and Heydrich's signature but without the body of the text, was copied from the document now shown at the Wannsee Institute and then superimposed on the retyped document shown in Kempner's book to yield a single new image. The question which automatically arises is, of course, why this cumbersome procedure was necessary, who carried it out and at what point in time.
Aside from this aspect, one should mention a further difficulty which makes an appreciation of the conference cumbersome for the average layman - the problem of the language. The "Urtext" is in German, obviously, and in a particularly obscure and bureaucratic lingo at that. Normally, this ought not to make a translation impossible to accomplish, but here we have to fend with the risk that the choice of words, and hence the reader's mind, is influenced by a - possibly unconscious - partiality of the translator. A case in point is the rendering of the German word "erfassen" on p. 9 of the original (regarding the Jews in France). The official English version on the Wannsee website [...] has "rounding-up", but this shows that the translator has jumped to a conclusion which, although attractive, is unjustified because in German bureaucratic language "erfassen" quite simply - and innocently - signifies something like identifying and seizing in a list. In connexion with a document which is couched in a very much veiled language, such liberties should not be tolerated.
The "Protokoll" has, by now, become public property, as it were, and has served as a basis for two films. A German one, produced in 1984, is a well-made feature, responding nearly 100 % to the traditional requirements of unity in time, place, and action. It is being shown quite regularly both in Germany and abroad. Unfortunately, in the US and possibly elsewhere, it has been made an instrument of what Norman Finkelstein has called the marketing of the Holocaust: even though no verbatim transcript of the conference has ever been found, the film is distributed in those countries with the firm assertion that it is indeed the word-for-word rendering of the meeting. The historian, it would seem, counts for nothing in the global market economy.