While in Berlin last fall, I visited Wannsee, the town and lake on the western outskirts of the capital. The ditty, “Pack die Badehose ein, nimm dein kleines Schwesterlein, und dann nischt wie raus nach Wannsee” (“pack your bathing trunk, take your little sister, and let’s hurry to lake Wannsee”), a veritable earworm from 1951 was playing in my mind, and even though I had not heard it in decades, it might have had something to do with my decision. What was not at my mind’s forefront was the “Wannsee Conference”, the antithesis to this light, cheerful tune. The name jumped out at me when I studied the local town map upon my arrival at the S-Bahn (suburban train) station, and set the memory wheels in motion.
On an unseasonably mild early December day I made my way through the well-groomed streets of what has always been a wealthy resort town. When I reached the location of this infamous gathering I shivered, despite the warm sunshine. On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking officials of Hitler’s administration convened here to make the eradication of all European Jews official policy. In this beautiful villa, built in 1915 by industrialist Ernst Marlier, and repurposed by the SS into a conference center and guest house between 1941 and 1945, these men resolved to kill millions of innocent people because of their ethnicity and religion – while they wined and dined in an opulent dining room with a view of the idyllic garden and lake.
I toured the exhibit of what became the “House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site” in 1992. I strolled through the sun-drenched grounds resounding with lovely birdsong. Directly across the lake from the property stretched the sandy beach of “Strandbad Wannsee” (public bathing beach Wannsee), the destination of the above-mentioned melody which might have brought me here – and also one of the sites of segregation in the early years of Hitler’s regime, when Jews were “merely” banned from public places, when Germany’s “philosophers” might have still prevented the worsening madness that was to engulf Europe and the world.
I kept stumbling over the same question: How could something like this ever happen in Germany – “Land der Dichter und Denker” (“nation of poets and philosophers”)? Because it was also the “Land der Richter und Henker” (“nation of judges and henchmen”). A German rhyme. How poetic. How absurd.
While the past can’t be altered or whitewashed, try as we might, I wonder what it takes to prevent new demagogues anywhere from misleading people, from spreading new lies, from painting new enemy images. What does it take for us to focus on our common humanity, instead of dehumanizing, suppressing, or even killing certain groups, be it for political, for religious, or for ethnic reasons?
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