Berlin environs, 1942On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking Nazi Party and German government leaders gathered for an important meeting. They met in a wealthy section of Berlin at a villa by a lake known as Wannsee. Reinhard Heydrich, who was SS chief Heinrich Himmler's head deputy, held the meeting for the purpose of discussing the "final solution to the Jewish question in Europe" with key non-SS government leaders, including the secretaries of the Foreign Ministry and Justice, whose cooperation was needed.

The "Final Solution" was the Nazis' code name for the deliberate, carefully planned destruction, or genocide, of all European Jews. The Nazis used the vague term "Final Solution" to hide their policy of mass murder from the rest of the world. In fact, the men at Wannsee talked about methods of killing, about liquidation, about "extermination."

The Wannsee Conference, as it became known to history, did not mark the beginning of the "Final Solution." The mobile killing squads were already slaughtering Jews in the occupied Soviet Union. Rather, the Wannsee Conference was the place where the "Final Solution" was formally revealed to non-Nazi leaders who would help arrange for Jews to be transported from all over German-occupied Europe to SS-operated killing centers ("extermination" camps) in occupied Poland. Not one of the men present at Wannsee objected to the announced policy. Never before had a modern state committed itself to the murder of an entire people.

Key Dates

June 22, 1941
Killings accompany German invasion of the Soviet Union
German special duty units, called mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen), are assigned to kill Jews during the invasion of the Soviet Union. These squads follow the German army as it advances deep into Soviet territory, and carry out mass-murder operations. At first, the mobile killing squads shoot primarily Jewish men. Soon, wherever the mobile killing squads go they shoot all Jewish men, women, and children, without regard for age or gender. By the spring of 1943, the mobile killing squads will have killed more than a million Jews and tens of thousands of partisans, Roma (Gypsies), and Soviet political commissars.

September 3, 1941
Experimental gassings begin at Auschwitz
Experimental gassings are carried out at the gas chamber in Auschwitz I, the main camp at Auschwitz in southern Poland. 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 ill or weak prisoners are forced into an experimental gas chamber. The Germans test the killing potential of Zyklon B gas. Zyklon B was the commercial name for crystalline hydrogen cyanide gas, normally used as an insecticide. The "success" of these experiments leads to the adoption of Zyklon B as the killing agent for the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Mass killings begin there in January 1942.

December 8, 1941
Chelmno killing center begins operation
Chelmno is located about 30 miles northwest of Lodz. It is the first Nazi camp to use poison gas for mass killings. Victims deported to the camp are forced into gas vans. A tube directs the van's exhaust into the hermetically sealed compartment, which holds between 50 and 70 people. Once the carbon monoxide kills all those locked inside, the van is driven to mass graves and emptied. Three gas vans operate at Chelmno, and at least 172,000 people will be killed there by mid-July 1944.