Highlights of the Wannsee Museum
The museum in the Wannsee villa contains a permanent exhibit of documents and photographs, many of which you will not see in other Holocaust Museums.
The 14 sections of the Museum at Wannsee are arranged along a path through the hallways on either side of the foyer and the 12 rooms on the ground floor. As you enter the display area from the entrance foyer, you are inside room number 8, which was formerly the main reception hall in the house.
This is rather confusing because room #8 is devoted to the "Hall of Countries" and it is not the start of the museum tour. The tour starts to your immediate right, just as you enter the reception hall, and goes through the hallway and several rooms on the right side in the front of the house, then continues through the rooms in the rear of the house, and around to the rooms on the left in the front of the house, ending in the hallway to the left of the main reception hall.
Most of the photographs on display show the deportation of the Jews beginning in February 1942, shortly after the Wannsee Conference, but there are other photos showing German Jewish activities after 1933 and Allied photos of the liberation of the concentration camps. The exhibit includes large panels of text, which is all in German. For non-German readers, there are guidebooks available which you can borrow or purchase from the front desk in the foyer.
Seminars are available for one day or longer. There is a document collection on microfilm and microfiche, a picture and sound archive, and films and videos which are available for seminar participants and individual visitors.
On the day that I visited the Wannsee Museum in 1999, I had just visited the Memorial Site at the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp located in Oranienburg, a few miles away. The museum and displays at Sachsenhausen show the biased viewpoint of the Communist resistance fighters against the Nazis, while the Wannsee Museum reflects the viewpoint of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Both of these museums are careful to leave out all information that might be favorable to the Nazis.
The entire display in the Wannsee villa is relatively small and does not cover the Holocaust, or the 12 years of the Nazi regime, in any great depth.
The display begins with a section called "The National Socialist Dictatorship in Germany." The opening words on the display panel are as follows:
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler and his adherents took over the government with the aid of the conservative Right. They were determined to abuse the power given to them, and never to relinquish it. This surrender of the Republic to those bent on destroying it was only the final step in a process that had begun long before.
This section has information about the origins of anti-Semitism in Germany and old posters with anti-Semitic slogans. According to the museum, the popular slogan "The Jews are our misfortune." was coined by Heinrich von Treitschke who died in 1896.
The Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933 is mentioned, but no opinion is given about who started the fire. The Nazis claimed that the fire was started by the Communists, while the Jews today maintain that the Nazis started the fire themselves in order to have an excuse to suspend civil rights in Germany.
On the very night of the fire, Hitler and his Cabinet members went to the home of the German president and demanded that he use Article 48 of the Constitution to suspend civil rights so that 2000 Communist leaders could be arrested without charges and imprisoned without a trial. A few days later, a new Congressional election was held to confirm Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany. With all the Communist candidates now lockup up, the Nazis won enough seats to put together a coalition government and gain a majority in the Reichstag. The new Congress quickly passed the Enabling Act which the museum says was "a law that served as the basis of Hitler's rule for 12 years. Henceforth, the constitution was simply ignored; democracy had abrogated itself."
Not mentioned is the fact that, at this point, Hitler was not yet a dictator since he was still reporting to Paul von Hindenburg, who was elected President of Germany in 1932 in a democratic election. Hitler came in second as a presidential candidate on the Nazi ticket in the election of 1932. It was traditional for the chairman of the political party in power to be appointed the Chancellor.
The museum does not mention that the Jews in America instigated an international boycott of Germany in March 1933 just after the Enabling Act was passed, but it does mention "The April Boycott" when the Germans boycotted Jewish stores.
Here is a quote from the museum regarding the April Boycott:
When the foreign press reported on terror in Germany, the government responded with renewed terror. On April 1, 1933, storm troopers mounted guard in front of all Jewish-owned stores and the offices of Jewish physicians and lawyers. The government justified the boycott as a response to the 'Jewish atrocity campaign.' In fact, it proved to be the first step in ousting Jews from all spheres of business and professional life.
Also not mentioned at the museum is that the Jewish boycott of German goods continued until the end of World War II, while the German boycott was called off on April 4, 1933. Even today, there are Jews who won't buy a German car.
This section of the museum tells about the persecution of the Jews in Germany and the efforts of the Jews to cope with the situation. The display shows photographs of young Jews in vocational retraining classes, but does not explain who initiated the retraining or why. The visitor is left to assume that the persecuted Jews started this program on their own.
Here is a quote from the Museum on the two exhibits on Vocational Retraining and Emigration:
Jews were ousted from their chosen occupations in increasing numbers. Thus, in a massive vocational retraining program, unemployed academicians and business employees were taught new skills in handicrafts and agriculture. Those willing to emigrate thereby improved their chances of obtaining an immigration permit and rebuilding a new life abroad. Another program was particularly geared toward youth. In 1936, 80 training centers existed in Germany and elsewhere to prepare young people for life in Palestine. Hebrew language courses constituted an important part of the training. In 1938, one third of the training centers in Germany were destroyed. In 1941, vocational training was banned entirely.
The Nazi regime did all it could to increase pressure on the Jews to emigrate. But the impoverishment of the German Jews, caused by government policies, and the tax imposed on emigrants proved to be obstacles. Many people were unable to raise the necessary funds. Furthermore, most foreign countries had restricted immigration quotas and refused to admit destitute refugees. Half a million Jews lived in Germany in 1933. Of these, more than 360,000 succeeded in emigrating. Parents frequently sent their children abroad; there were children's transports to England and organized emigration of young people to Palestine. A special train left Berlin on September 2, 1936 carrying 650 youngsters from around Germany to a boat in Marseille.
Not mentioned in this section of the museum is the fact that the Nazis had set up an office in 1933, which was later headed by Adolf Eichmann, for the purpose of helping the Jews emigrate to Palestine. Vocational retraining programs were sponsored by the Nazis to prepare the emigrants for Palestine. There is no mention of the fact that the chief obstacle to emigration to Palestine was the policy of the British who restricted immigration permits both before the war and afterwards.
Section number 2 of the Wannsee Museum is on "The Prewar Period."
Here is a quote from this Section, regarding the followers of Hitler:
Dazzled and misinformed by centrally-controlled propaganda, many people believed Nazi promises and adopted their slogans, but even those who were not enthusiastic about the new authorities obeyed their orders almost without exception, even where there was no coercion. In this way they helped shore up the dictatorship. This subservient mentality proved stronger than the spirit of democracy, which never managed to take root in the defeated country after 1918.
Section 2 of the Museum mentions "the so-called 'Reich Kristallnacht' in November 1938, a pogrom organized by the state." According to the museum, 267 synagogues and roughly a thousand prayer halls were destroyed in the Kristallnacht pogrom; 7,500 stores and offices were "devastated" and "91 human beings slain." 26,000 Jews were arrested and taken to the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, and "held until they could either buy their freedom or emigrate."
Here is a quote from this section:
On January 30, 1939, Hitler threatened in the Reichstag that the outbreak of a war, which he was already planning at the time, would mean the "destruction of the Jewish race in Europe."
The Museum does not quote this speech, but according to John Toland in his book entitled "Adolf Hitler," on the 6th anniversary of the day when he was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, Hitler made a speech to the Reichstag in which he said the following:
In the course of my life I have often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it...I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!
This was a reference to the Jewish bankers who financed World War I, during which the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czar in Russia and the Social Democrats overthrew the Kaiser in Germany.
Section 2 tells about the Anschluss with Austria on March 12, 1938 and displays photographs taken of Jewish citizens of Vienna who "were forced to wash Schuschnigg's election slogans off the pavements and walls." Kurt von Schuschnigg was the Austrian Chancellor at the time of the Anschluss. He was later sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp as a political prisoner, then transferred to Dachau, although the museum doesn't mention this.
The next display in this section tells about the "Expulsion to Poland." Here is a quote from the museum:
During the night of October 28, 1938, 17,000 Jews of Polish extraction from Germany, Austria and the 'Sudetenland' were arrested before being expelled. Guarded by police and SS, they were then taken in trains to the Polish border. Many of them had become German citizens after 1918. Polish authorities allowed approximately 10,000 into their country. The rest remained in a no-man's land near the border town of Zbaszyn, which at the time had only 4,000 inhabitants. There, the majority of the expellees lived in unheated stables and barracks until August 1939. Altogether, 32,0000 Polish Jews were expelled from the German Reich prior to the outbreak of war. It was a dress rehearsal for subsequent deportations.
Not mentioned in the museum is that these Polish Jews were in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland because they had been expelled from Poland after the Poles regained their independence as a result of the Versailles Treaty in 1919. Most of them had not become German citizens, but were stateless persons with no citizenship in any country because their passports had been torn up before they were expelled from Poland. The Poles also discriminated against, and expelled, the ethnic Germans who lived in the part of the new country of Poland that had been German territory for over a thousand years. Allegedly, 58,000 ethnic Germans in Poland were killed by the Poles between April 1939 when Hitler first started trying to negotiate with Poland and September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.
The museum display says that many of the Jews who fled from Germany after Kristallnacht found a "safe haven" in England, but it also says the following:
Once war broke out, nearly all the men were interned as "enemy aliens" and many were deported to Canada. Nearly 10,000 children reached England in group transports. From then on they grew up in strange families. Most never again saw their parents, who had remained behind in Germany. Altogether, 55,000 refugees found asylum in England.
Here is another quote from the museum:
The only place of refuge which did not restrict emigration before October 1939 was Shanghai. 14,000 refugees, most from Germany, arrived there prior to the outbreak of war. Their number increased to 17,000 by 1941. 90 percent were Jews. Only a few found work. From 1943 to 1945, the Japanese occupation forces interned them all.
Section 3 of the museum display is about the "War Against Poland," while Section 4 tells about "The Ghettos." According to the museum, the two largest ghettos were in Lodz and Warsaw. Even before the deportations began in 1942, 96,000 out of the 450,000 Jews confined to the Warsaw ghetto had died. The museum says that one of the reasons for such a high death toll was "the appearance of epidemic typhus," but I did not see any mention of the typhus epidemics in the concentration camps.
Section 5 is about the "Mass Executions" by the Nazis. Details are given about the shooting of the Jews by the Einsatzgruppen. There is a telex message on display, dated June 29, 1941 from Reinhard Heydrich to the commanders of the four Einsatzgruppen, which reads as follows:
Efforts to carry out purges on the part of anti-Communist or anti-Jewish groups in the territories to be newly occupied must not be hampered. On the contrary, they are to be provoked although without leaving traces - if necessary intensified and carefully guided in the right direction. This must be done in such a way that these local 'self defense groups' will not be able to claim later on that they were given instructions or political assurances.
This was in reference to countries like Lithuania and Latvia, which the German troops passed through on their way to the Russian front after the war against the Soviet Union started on June 22, 1941.
With regard to the killing of the Jews, the museum display also says "From November 1941 on, gassing trucks were also utilized." Other sources claim that the first gassing of the Jews was done in trucks at Chelmno on December 6, 1941.
An excerpt from Heinrich Himmler's famous speech at Posen on October 4, 1943 is quoted in the museum display:
..."The Jewish people are being exterminated." every party member says. "Of course, it's in our program, elimination of the Jews, extermination, we'll do it all right." Among all those who talk like this, no one has witnessed it, no one has seen it through. Most of you will know, however, what it means to see 100 corpses lying together, or 500, or 1,000. To have stuck it out and at the same time to have remained decent - aside from a few exceptions succumbing to human weakness - that has made us tough. This is a page of glory in our history, unwritten and never to be written...
As quoted by the museum, Himmler's speech is cut off in mid sentence. According to Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert, the full sentence from Himmler's speech is as follows:
This is an unwritten and never-to-be-written page of glory in our history, for we know how difficult it would be for us if today under bombing raids and the hardships and deprivations of war - if we were still to have the Jews in every city as secret saboteurs, agitators, and inciters. If the Jews were still lodged in the body of the German nation, we would probably by now have reached the stage of 1917-18."
The last part of the sentence is a reference to 1917-18 during World War I when the Jewish labor leaders called a strike of ammunition workers in 1917 and the Jewish Social Democrats overthrew the established government and declared a Republic in Germany in 1918. The Nazis believed that the Jews were responsible for their defeat in World War I because Jewish Social Democrats had signed the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles. The part of the sentence, that the museum display cut out, explains why the Nazis made the decision to "transport the Jews to the east" six months after they attacked the Soviet Union.
Section 6 in the museum display is about the Wannsee Conference. Here is a quote from this section:
When the Wannsee Conference was held on January 20, 1942 mass executions had been going on in the Soviet Union for half a year, deportations from Germany had begun, and Chelmno, the first extermination camp, had already been operative for six weeks.
In the previous section, the display mentions that gassing trucks had been in use since November, but did not mention where this gassing was done.
Regarding the Conference, the museum display says the following:
The participants at the conference were not to offer any resolutions of their own, but merely to confer about the implementation of a decision that originated with Hitler. [...] As Eichmann was subsequently to affirm in his Jerusalem trial of 1961, the various technical aspects of mass murder were quite openly discussed. But even the consciously veiled wording of the protocol, which was, in fact, rewritten several times, betrays the horrible truth to the careful reader.
The plan to send the Jews to Madagascar was also mentioned:
From the summer of 1940, Hitler dominated western Europe. His troops paraded down the Champs Elysees. Millions of Jews were at the mercy of the Germans. For a brief period of time, the Reich Security Main Office and the Foreign Office discussed this old project of establishing a "Jewish reservation" on Madagascar, with France handing over the island to Germany as part of a peace treaty. As soon as England had been vanquished and the sea lanes opened, Madagascar was to be transformed into a mammoth ghetto, guarded by the SS, for the Jews of Europe. However, in summer 1941 the decision was made to invade the Soviet Union and carry out the "Final Solution" in Eastern Europe. The Madagascar Project was shelved.
Section 7 in the Museum is about the "Deportations" which was the sending of the Jews to concentration camps in the East, beginning in February 1942.
Section 8 is devoted to the "Countries of Deportation." Jews from the following countries were deported to the east: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, France, Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and last of all, Hungary.
A document, signed by Chief of General Police Kurt Kaluege on October 24, 1941 was on display. The text of the document is as follows:
During the period of November 1 to December 4, the Security Police will deport 55,000 Jews from the Altreich (Germany within its 1937 borders), the Ostmark (formerly Austria), and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to the east in the vicinity of Minsk. The evacuation will be carried out using the Reichsbahn, with transport trains carrying 1,000 persons each.
Minsk was the capital city of the country, formerly known as White Russia or Belorussia; there is no mention in the museum of a death camp "in the vicinity of Minsk."
The museum does not mention that the Jews had been expelled from Europe many times in the past. According to the International Jewish Encyclopedia, the Jews had been expelled 77 times before the Final Solution, beginning with their expulsion from Carthage in the year 250 AD and continuing up to 1919 when foreign Jews were expelled from Bavaria before the Nazi party was established.
Major expulsions of the Jews in Europe occurred in England in 1290, France in 1306 and again in 1394, Switzerland in 1348, Hungary in 1349, Austria in 1422, Spain in 1492, Lithuania in 1495 and again in 1656, and Portugal in 1497. The International Jewish Encyclopedia also says that the Russian Jews were confined to a reservation called the Pale of Settlement in 1772.
After many of these expulsions, the Jews fled to Poland which welcomed them in the 14th century. After the Nazis invaded and conquered Poland in 1939, they gained control of millions of Jews who were the enemies of Fascism. What was unique about the Final Solution was that it was the first time that the Jews were being expelled from all of Western Europe at the same time.
There were 4,950 cities and towns in Europe in which the Jewish communities were destroyed by the Nazis, according to the Wannsee Museum. This was nothing new; the Germans had been murdering the Jews and driving them out of their cities for centuries, as for example in the Medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Section 9 is about "The Transit Camps and the Death Camps." The museum declares that "The death camps were built on Polish territory." On the same day, I visited the Memorial Site at Sachsenhausen, where a display at the ruins of the crematorium claimed that there was a gas chamber at Sachsenhausen, which was built in 1943.
Here is a quote from the museum about Theresienstadt:
Theresienstadt, near Prague, served as a ghetto for elderly German Jews, who were sent to the 'Reich Nursing Home' under 'home purchase agreements,' and as a transit camp for Jews from the 'Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.' In September 1942, well over 58,000 were herded together in an area where formerly 7,000 had lived; this included 30,000 elderly and sick people, nearly 4,000 invalids and over 1,000 blind people. Only 60 percent of the inmates had a place to sleep; 5,500 camped in lofts. There was one doctor for 1,500 patients. A total of 141,000 people were transported to Theresienstadt, including 70,000 elderly and 15,000 children. 33,550 died there. Between January 1942 and October 1944, 88,200 were deported to extermination camps, where all but 3,500 were murdered. 23,000 survived until liberation.
The museum lists the death camps as follows:
Chelmno, where 152,000 Jews and 5,000 Gypsies were gassed in "special closed trucks into which motor exhaust fumes were directed;" Belzec, where 600,000 people were "suffocated with exhaust fumes;" Sobibor, where an estimated 250,000 "victims were suffocated with carbon monoxide;" Treblinka where 900,000 victims died in a facility which "resembled Sobibor in every detail;" and Auschwitz where an estimated 1.5 million were killed in gas chambers "using Cyclon B gas."
The display says that "Only two combined concentration-extermination camps existed: Maidanek near Lublin, and the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau." Maidanek is the German name for Majdanek, a camp that is now in the city of Lublin in eastern Poland.
Section 11 at the museum is about "Life in a Concentration Camp." Section 12 has pictures and information about "The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising."
Majdanek is featured in Section 13, "The End of the War."
When I visited the Wannsee Museum in 1999, the Majdanek display read as follows:
On July 24, 1944, four days after the final, vain attempt to eliminate Hitler and overthrow his regime, Soviet troops liberated Maidanek concentration and extermination camp, near Lublin. A half million people from throughout Europe had passed through the camp. Over 250,000 prisoners, mainly Poles, Jews and Russians, died here. They were gassed or shot, or died of exhaustion. The SS had no time to blow up the gas chambers and crematorium; thus the extermination camp was completely preserved.
In 2008, the Majdanek Museum said that a total of 150,000 prisoners had passed through the Majdanek camp and that there were 78,000 deaths, including 59,000 Jews.
Section 14 is the last display, which is about "Liberation of the Camps." Here is a quote from this section:
All historical investigations and calculations agree that between five and six million Jews were killed. More than a million met their deaths in ghettos and camps; at least as many died in mass executions, the remainder perished in the gas chambers.
The total number of Jews that were gassed, as mentioned in the Wannsee museum displays, was 3,652,000.
In 1999 when I visited the Wannsee Museum, the exhibit ended with a picture of a Jewish cemetery in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) where a gravestone had been defaced with the spray painting of the SS emblem which looks like two lighting bolts, and the Nazi swastika. There was also a photograph of a Jewish girl from Israel and a blond German girl standing together during a visit to the Memorial Site at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The entire exhibit is devoted exclusively to the deportation and murder of the Jews, with almost no mention of the other victims of the Nazis.
This page was last updated on March 17, 2009