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  • The Wannsee Conference and Re-embodying the Historical Archive:Trauma and the Moral Imperative
  • Rebecca Rovit (bio)

On the morning of 20 January 1942, fifteen Nazi functionaries assembled at Berlin's lakeside resort Wannsee to attend a "meeting, followed by breakfast." SS Chief of Security and Police Reinhard Heydrich had convened the conference to address the issue of how to resolve the nagging "Jewish Question." In just ninety minutes, according to the fifteen-page protocol prepared by Adolf Eichmann, Director of the Reich Security office for "Clearing Activities" and Jewish Affairs, the men agreed to "legally" implement the systematic "cleansing from German Lebensraum" of eleven million European Jews, thus sanctioning what would become known as genocide.1

The Wannsee Conference Protocol provides a summation of what the conference participants discussed. Discovered in 1947 as part of a Foreign Ministry dossier on "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question," the document's description of methods to eradicate Jews serves as a blueprint for action. It contains no dialogue. Eichmann took note of the circumstances and discussion items as is evident from the first pages of the historic protocol:

II. At the beginning of the discussion Chief of the Security Police and of the SD, SS-Obergruppenführer Heydrich, reported that the Reich Marshal had appointed him delegate for the preparations for the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe. . . . The wish of the Reich Marshal to have a draft sent to him concerning organizational, factual and material interests in relation to the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe makes necessary an initial common action of all central offices immediately concerned with these questions in order to bring their general activities into line.2 [End Page 167]

The meticulously-noted Minutes record the process whereby a handful of Hitler's henchmen—loyal civil servants—unanimously signed off on a plan to "evacuate" European Jewry. Dry and chilling in its matter-of-fact rendering and using a coded shorthand term for murder, the dispassionate tone of the Minutes belies the horrors about which the men spoke. The Wannsee Protocol's bureaucratic language deliberately obfuscates actual references to killing, masking the men's intent, while at the same time leaving no doubt to those assembled on the winter day in 1942 that "finalizing" the "Jewish Problem," or ridding the expanding Reich of Jews was the matter at hand. The plan to "evacuate" Jews from Europe would spur the mass murder of a targeted group of people, leaving a void so hollow that decades later we still feel the reverberations of loss.

We know now only too well how the Nazi government exploited the conference protocol as a license to kill. The historical event that gave rise to horrendous crimes against humanity hardly lends itself to a theatrical reenactment. But director Christian Tietz believes that theatre can be effective in creating a collective memory of the Wannsee Conference.3 How can we stage a theatrical history in 2012 that makes the dreadful details of the meeting tangible? What would such an event mean for the spectators, most of whom are too young to remember WWII or have first-hand experience with the Holocaust? And how can the theatre invoke the traumatic past to reconcile its aftermath with our present times? I will address such questions as I draw on Holocaust studies and theories of performance to examine Tietz's innovative documentary theatre project-in-progress, Die Wannsee-Konferenz, whose premiere at the original site of the Berlin conference took place seventy years after the fateful day of 1942, on 22 January 2012.

Lawrence Langer has written about how so much of the language we use to represent the Holocaust is made to "console" instead of to "confront" us. Yet because of the enormous death toll and the societal rupture instigated by WWII and the Holocaust, Langer calls on us to adopt a new discourse, what he refers to as a "discourse of ruin" to mirror the age of atrocity in which we live.4 The Wannsee Conference theatre project engages precisely such a discourse, a discourse that can remind audiences of the nature and scope of catastrophe. What began as a commemorative...


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