In a villa, by a lake, 15 educated and competent bureaucrats sat down to establish certain principles that would dictate when and in what order millions of innocent people would be slaughtered. Less than 90 minutes later, they could be found relaxing in front of a fire with a glass (or more) of cognac. The meeting was held in secret inside a luxurious villa in Berlin, on the tranquil shores of Lake Wannsee; the date was 20 January 1942.
In this slim volume, Mark Roseman explores the gap between these commonplace perpetrators and their monstrous deeds. The book is partly a mystery story. After all, the paper trail is slim. As Roseman admits: "Our need for precise answers is greater than the ability of the documentation to supply them." A great deal has to be inferred from the only surviving copy of the minutes - known as the "Wannsee Protocol" - which are not really minutes at all, but an edited glossary of the minutes. Reinhard Heydrich called the conference. He was 37 and one of the most powerful men in Germany, and introduced the meeting by saying that he had been delegated to make "preparations for the Final Solution of the Jewish question in Europe". Most of his guests were bureaucrats holding ranks equivalent to permanent secretary in the British civil service, or deputy permanent secretary. All were ambitious and intelligent. Two-thirds had a university degree, and half bore the title "Dr" (the majority of them in law). As Robert Kempner, a prosecutor at Nuremberg, observed, they were "the gentlemen who knew the things you had to know". And what they knew, and approved, was genocide.
Questions abound. Was there a direct link between Hitler's Mein Kampf and these men's genocidal intentions? Probably not, but Hitler was crucial in shaping "the pace and direction of the journey his men had travelled". Was this entire group of young, bourgeois men really obsessed by anti-Semitic fantasies? Probably, but some of the participants were more opportunistic in their motivation, only gradually becoming converted to exterminationist ideology. Crucially, all of them had experience in killing before 1942. These were no "pen-and-paper" murderers.
Roseman's book is also about solving a moral mystery: what brought these men to the point where genocide could be planned in such a bland, routine tone? What becomes clear is that the threshold of their tolerance for violence had been nurtured over years. Cruelty was addictive. By the time of the conference, Nazi society had already been brutalised to an exceptional degree. The move eastwards into the Soviet Union made things much worse. For the Nazis, the Jews were at the centre of the ideological battle against communism. The war on the Eastern Front was always conceived as a war against the Jews. Long before the conference, a variety of units, including regular units of the German army as well as the notorious Einsatzgruppen ("action groups", a curious term for execution squads), had participated in vicious killing sprees. Wannsee did not initiate the killing. It simply proved the moment when mass murder decisively shifted into genocide.
All the participants were content with the decisions made. The only real debate seems to have been about the fate of half-Jews and people in mixed marriages. After all, the morale of "German relatives" might be compromised by the wholesale slaughter of members of their families. Sterilisation or deportation to a ghetto might be considered a better solution for a minority of individuals in "intermediary categories". All other Jews would be "deported", and either worked to death or (if they survived the brutal conditions) killed. As the Protocol warned, "any final remnant that survives will consist of the most resistant elements. They will have to be dealt with appropriately, because otherwise, by natural selection, they would form the germ cell of a new Jewish revival." Either way, Europe was to be "cleared" of all Jews. "Deported" now meant murder.
Roseman's book is a lively contribution to work on a terrifying period in history. It is no simplistic account - chaos and uncertainty are the very "stuff" of history - but, throughout the book, we are forced to recognise the very ordinariness of these men as we follow, step by step, the diverse routes they followed in their will to destroy. Before 20 January 1942, Europe witnessed mass murder; after this date, there could be no denying that systematic genocide had become an official policy of the Nazis.
Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck College, is the author of The Second World War: a people's history (Oxford University Press, £14.99)