BERLIN — The German president has marked the 70th anniversary of a conference in which plans were coordinated for the genocide of European Jews with the message that Germany must never forget its responsibility for the Holocaust.
President Christian Wulff said Friday that so much time has passed since the Jan. 20, 1942 Wannsee Conference — at which senior Nazis and bureaucrats coordinated plans for the Holocaust — that it has become increasingly hard to fathom how genocide became the country's official policy.
"Therefore it is important and a national task to keep the memory alive," he told an audience at a villa on Berlin's Wannsee lake where the conference was held.
"We cannot be allowed to forget that this — the unbelievable and unimaginable — actually happened."
The villa is now a museum, memorial and education site focused on the six million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.
The conference was once thought to be the point at which the Nazis chose to stop deporting and randomly killing Jews — instead deciding to industrialize their murder. Most historians now agree, however, that the decision was made some months earlier by Adolf Hitler himself, even though no written order from him has ever been found.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been murdered by the time the 15 civil servants, SS and party officials met at Wannsee. It is now believed by many that Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Security Service and Security Police head, called the meeting to make sure everybody knew what Hitler wanted done and to establish SS oversight of the process.
"This place and the name 'Wannsee' has become a symbol for the bureaucratically organized decision between life worth living and life not worth living, for state-organized extermination, for the planned and official systematic killing of Europe's Jews," Wulff said.
"This place became a place of cold cruelty, a trigger for carrying out systematic genocide, a place of German shame."
Dieter Graumann, president of Germany's Central Council of Jews, warned in an op-ed piece in the top-selling Bild newspaper Friday that "there are still people who pay homage to the insane doctrine of the Third Reich," pointing out that the far-right National Democratic Party has seats in two state legislatures, though it remains marginalized at the national level.
"Anti-Semitism and xenophobia still poison too many people today," he wrote. "A day like this shows us where the intoxication of racism can lead, with all the consequences."
Wulff noted that a small group of neo-Nazis killed nine members of ethnic minorities between 2000 and 2006 and a policewoman in 2007 before police finally caught up with them last year after a botched bank robbery.
He said the killing spree was also something that authorities didn't believe to have been possible in this day and age.
"It fills us with shame and anger," Wulff said. "We will do everything to ensure that terror and the murderous hatred of others never finds a place in Germany again."