Home / Articles / Wannsee Villa and the Bystander in the Holocaust
On January 20, 1942, a meeting was held at the Wannsee Villa, outside Berlin. Over the course of a mere 80 minutes, fifteen high officials in the German government dined, drank, smoked, and ratified the plan for the Final Solution, the resolution of the “Jewish Problem,” including how to extend it to the entire European continent and how to coordinate for maximum efficiency.
The fate of my paternal grandparents was decided that day. And two years, four months and six days later, on May 26, 1944, they were deported to Auschwitz from their hometown in eastern Hungary. They were murdered the same day.
On April 26, 2018, I spoke at the Wannsee Villa (today called the Wannsee Conference Center) at the invitation of Dr. Chris Jasch, director of the Center, to discuss my book, The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust. Over the course of 90 minutes—ten minutes longer than Heydrich’s meeting—Dr. Jasch and I discussed my book and answered questions from the audience.
As the only son of two Holocaust survivors, and as the grandson of two Holocaust victims, it was an extraordinary moment. The Villa—and its grounds—are beautiful, the landscape stunning, Lake Wannsee pristine and clear. The dissonance between the physical beauty of the meeting’s location and the unspeakable evil of the meeting’s purpose is overwhelming, indeed shocking. In a backdrop of elegance, beauty, and serenity, fifteen German leaders planned the murder of millions of innocent, powerless people.
Of the many talks I have given since the book’s release, this forum was the most powerful and challenging. When I told a Dutch friend—a former senior Dutch minister—of my forthcoming talk at the Villa, his only comment was that Wannsee represented the “horror of darkness;” another friend—a Dutch journalist—literally froze when I shared with him where I would be speaking.
During the course of my research for the book, I visited the Villa on two separate occasions. The first visit was literally staggering—I felt physically ill and struggled to make my way through the Villa. For the second visit, over the course of a few days, I dedicated most of the time to reviewing the extensive materials on the Holocaust at Wannsee and focused on seemingly endless pictures of bystanders in the Holocaust. We naturally think of Wannsee as the center of evil decision-making and of perpetrators, but like all materials on the Holocaust, the Center’s materials include footage of the many thousands of bystanders who, quite literally, watched the Holocaust happen. At the end of my visit, I found the picture I felt most appropriate for the book’s front cover, which Dr. Jasch graciously made available to my publisher.
Although not the theme I originally intended to address, the theme of the “bystander” became my focus while writing the book. More than that, I had never considered, not even for a fleeting moment, that I would ever write about the Holocaust. My previous writings have focused on a wide range of national security topics, broadly defined, relevant to the U.S., Israel, Europe, South America, India, and China.
Nonetheless, the theme of bystander complicity and its legal consequences have become a central focus of my professional life in the past five years. In Utah, I have worked closely with Utah State Representative Brian King on the drafting of Bystander/Duty to Act legislation, a bill that makes the failure to call law enforcement if another individual is in serious peril a Class C Misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or 6 months in jail. At present, ten U.S. states have such legislation as do a number of countries including Holland, Germany, Italy, and Israel.
Recent events, such as the revelations of the abuses of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby, and others have highlighted dramatically the key role bystanders play in many criminal situations. Simply put, a bystander who remains passive facilitates the actions of the perpetrator; a bystander who intervenes potentially mitigates or even halts the crime.
The bystander, who willingly chooses not to act on behalf of the victim in spite of knowledge and capability, significantly exacerbates the peril of another individual. The causes of the peril—an unfortunate accident, an illness, an altercation, or unclear circumstances—are irrelevant. What matters is that an individual, the victim, is in distress.
Seventy-five years ago, Holocaust victims were in the gravest peril imaginable, including my father, who survived two death marches, and my mother, twice “outed” from her hiding places and taken to be shot. In both cases, bystanders, whether Yugoslavian villagers or Budapest Gentiles, chose not to act on their behalf. Their indifference facilitated the crimes perpetrated upon my parents.
That fact is the basis for the book. It is also what brought me to Wannsee.
And it is how I look at the world today, including how I see Germany.
Like innumerable Jews, I vowed never to visit Germany. That “vow” was put to a test when invited by the German military to train commanders on issues relevant to “morality in armed conflict,” based on a project for which I had had command responsibility while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. The irony was rich: the son of Holocaust survivors training German commanders on questions of morality. My father defined the invitation as “victory.” Since that visit, I have been to Germany six times.
However, visiting Germany is not akin to spending time in Paris, Athens, London, Amsterdam, or Barcelona. Those are fun places to visit; spending time in Berlin is to be caught in a time warp. When in Berlin, I always find myself drawn back to the years 1933-1945 and view everything through that prism.
Whether fair or not is irrelevant, it is the only lens available to me, despite the fact that Germany has made a conscious effort to confront its past.
The same cannot be said for other countries: the French believe their self-serving myth that all Frenchmen were members of the Resistance; the Hungarians and Poles see themselves as victims of the Holocaust; the Austrians have unashamedly turned victimology into an art form; the Poles, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians are legislatively changing history; and the Dutch enjoy pretending that all Dutch Gentiles were “good Dutchmen” who sought to save Anne Frank and the rest of Dutch Jewry.
Germany is a model for how countries can confront a past of hatred and atrocities. It is undeniable that Germany was responsible for murdering 6,000,0000 Jews and to the Germans’ credit, they do not deny this. However, it is not enough to know and to acknowledge that you bear responsibility for the murder of 6,000,000 Jews; it is not enough to study how such atrocities could possibly have happened; it is not enough to teach the Holocaust in your schools; and it is not enough to sprinkle historical markers throughout Berlin. Those are critically important steps, and far more than other countries have done in the face of past atrocities.
But they are far from enough.
Because once again today, Jews in Germany increasingly find themselves the target of physical and verbal anti-Semitic attacks. There is, of course, an enormous and critical difference between today and the 1930s: the government and the state is not the perpetrator, the instigator, the engine of hatred. As a number of conversations in Berlin made clear, the distressing spike is partly the result of immigration to Germany in the last few years from the Middle East. In a meeting with a leading Germany security official, I posed the following question: “What causes you to lose the most sleep at night: neo-Nazis or Jihadists”? His answer was clear: Jihadists. I confessed my surprise, given the historical violence, anti-Semitism, racism, and rhetoric of the German far-right.
He did not dispute my analysis, but suggested I needed to examine the issue from a different perspective: the unwillingness of German leadership to confront directly Jihadists, unlike its willingness to address and confront the German far-right. Essentially, he argued that political considerations prevented Merkel and others from speaking the truth about Islamists and the danger they pose to German society.
Chancellor Merkel has condemned the attacks.
But, knowing why the attacks are happening and condemning them is also not enough. Knowing is just part of the problem. Stopping the attacks, the hatred, and the danger demands that more people step up. And so, these scenes raise once again the question of whether Germans will be passive bystanders as Jews find themselves targeted on German streets.
Chancellor Merkel’s decision to welcome immigrants seeking to escape from Syria, Afghanistan, and other brutal conflicts and regimes was clearly motivated by the lessons of the Holocaust. Germany opened her doors to people seeking safety. That is laudable.
However, the decision to do so failed in two critical components: the insufficient preparation of the German population of the need to uphold society’s fundamental values and the failure to explain assertively those Western, liberal values to those coming to Germany.
If there is one thing I have taken away from researching and writing my book, it is that passivity and silence kills. That theme was front and center when I spoke at Wannsee. If there is one place that theme must be articulated clearly, it is there. Fifteen men planned the murder of millions. But thousands allowed that plan to be implemented with horrific success. Hitler’s maniacal desire to rid the world of Jews demanded the passivity, indifference, callousness, and inaction of the bystander. Their decision to turn their heads, ignore the pleas, and not hear the distress of another is of great interest to me. We are unlikely to ever completely eliminate evil. But can we prevent evil from thriving by altering how people decide whether to remain passive?
At Wannsee, I was asked what I propose “in addition to legislation.” The correct answer is education. Educating the public about the responsibility to act. The response of the general German public shows the value of such education. When Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called for Jews to not wear kippahs (skullcaps) in the face of physical attacks, Germans of all faiths wore kippahs at large rallies in solidarity with Jews. This, of course, is one enormous difference between today and the Germany of the 1930s—stepping up today is nearly risk free, unlike the immeasurable and untenable risks of intervening during the Third Reich.
However, while “kippa wearing” rallies are heart-warming and undeniably important, they are transient and mere drops in the bucket. When considering the current rise in anti-Semitism in Germany, and in particular its source, it is not sufficient. Rather, government leaders must be propelled into speaking the truth and confronting unpleasant realities directly, unblinkingly, and without gloss or spin. In essence, the government itself must not be a bystander.
If there is one country that should know this lesson, it is Germany. To ignore uncomfortable realities is, frankly, to be a bystander. It perpetuates, however unwillingly, the evil of the perpetrator, whether the perpetrator is the state or private actors. History teaches us this theme time, after time, and after time.
What is needed is a loud, clearly articulated plan of action by the government to address, yet again, the anti-Semitism that is plaguing Germany. The fact it is in a different form than of decades and centuries past does not change the awful reality: Jews can no longer safely walk German streets, if outwardly identifiable as Jewish.
That is intolerable.
Not to address that with every tool at its disposal is to be a bystander, enabling and facilitating perpetrator evil. Good intentions—enabling people to escape their hell and come to a place that means good—does not excuse tolerating hatred, racism, and violence.
If anyone should know this, it is the German government and its leaders.
A 90-minute lecture in a place where it took 80 minutes to decide to kill millions makes that clear.