For this installment of Historical Movie Monday, we look at bureaucracy, memos and meeting minutes, jurisdictional wrangling, fine hors d'oeuvres in comfortable surroundings, and the murder of six million people. The film is Conspiracy, a 2001 TV movie starring Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth, and directed by Frank Pierson.
“Politics is a nasty game. I think soldiering requires the discipline to do the unthinkable and politics requires the skill to get someone else to do the unthinkable for you.” —Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy
On January 20, 1942, fifteen men from Nazi Germany's chief security, economic planning, legal, and administrative agencies met at a lakeside villa outside Berlin for a one-hour meeting. The invitations noted that lunch would be included.
Adolf Eichmann, a low-ranking but influential SS official, had organized the conference. The meeting's chair was Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, head of the Reich Main Security Office (and therefore the Gestapo and the SS intelligence service), and second-in-command to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler himself, the head of the SS and one of Hitler's most trusted subordinates.
Among the attendees were Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, a legal expert and one of the leading architects of the Nuremberg Laws; Drs. Georg Leibbrandt and Alfred Meyer, representatives of the Reich ministry for occupied Eastern European territories; Dr. Josef Bühler, second in command to the Governor-General of occupied Poland, where millions of Reich Jews had been forced into squalid ghettos; Heinrich Müller, head of the Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo); and Dr. Roland Freisler of the Reich Ministry of Justice.
One of the original purposes of the meeting had been to settle plans for Nazi policy toward Mischlinge and people in mixed-race marriages. When the meeting finally convened on January 20—after a delay caused by the entry of the United States into the war—Heydrich had several other more sweeping purposes to cover.
First and foremost, Heydrich asserted his authority and that of the SS, authority bestowed by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Hitler himself, as the decision-makers in the "Jewish question." Heydrich announced mass "evacuations" of 11,000,000 Jews from all areas of Europe—including England and neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland, which Heydrich included in his calculations—to the east where, separated by sex, they would be used for manual labor. The difficulty of the work and the poor conditions would diminish the number of Jews involved through "natural wastage." After that, the remainder would be collected, transported using Poland's extensive railway network, and exterminated using poison gas. Heydrich was proposing a "final solution."
What became clear in subsequent discussion—and in two further meetings held later that year—was that Heydrich's proposals were orders, and the meeting was a formality. Gassing had already begun. He was merely informing the various ministries of the Reich government of their subordination to his authority, and they had no actual room to debate it. The Wannsee Conference was an announcement and a call to coordination, not an invitation for feedback.
This was important to Heydrich, who needed the entire apparatus of the Third Reich to carry out his plans. The long-anticipated genocide of the Jews would no longer be carried out by ad hoc teams of gunmen firing point-blank into crowds over open graves, killing a few hundred at a time—or in rare circumstances thousands—but efficiently, scientifically, and on an industrial scale. "What had hitherto been tentative, fragmentary and spasmodic," writes Sir Martin Gilbert, "was to become formal, comprehensive and efficient." For that, he needed the bureaucracy informed and, if not on his side, subservient. He was not disappointed.
Also important was that all of the men at the conference were now on the record as part of the process. And they were not shocked or upset by the topics of conversation. This was no gathering of ignorant or squeamish functionaries. One of them, Dr. Rudolf Lange, was an SS officer who had helped in the shooting of 24,000 Jews from Riga, in Latvia. Another, Dr. Stuckart, had handed his own one-year old son, who had been born with Down syndrome, over to be killed by the state in the T4 program. While some of the attendees apparently bridled at Heydrich's display of authority, all of them agreed to cooperate.
Eichmann later reported that, after the meeting, an ebullient Heydrich allowed himself to smoke and drink in front of some of the remaining guests—a rarely seen liberty—and relaxed by the fire with music.
Conspiracy premiered on HBO in the spring of 2001. I vividly remember my high school senior trip to New York City, at least in part because of the enormous posters for Conspiracy plastered high above Times Square, with Branagh and Tucci glaring down.
The film recreates the Wannsee Conference in almost real time. The script is based on the sole surviving copy of the meeting's minutes, discovered after the war, supplemented by things like Eichmann's testimony after his capture by Mossad. Conspiracy is play-like, with lengthy scenes of dialogue, argument, and debate in a limited number of locations, and the film was shot on Super 16 so that the scenes could play out in longer takes. There is no music in the entire film until Heydrich puts on a record at the end; the film is carried along by the rhythms of its characters' speech. The result is a film that is essentially an hour and a half of men sitting around a table, talking.
And it's riveting.
The subject matter is a key part of the reason why, but the performances elevate the film as well. Kenneth Branagh is great as the charming, urbane, cruel Heydrich, a man Hitler described as having an "iron heart." Stanley Tucci, as Eichmann, is demure and retiring, but makes it clear what kind of authority he and his boss have and that he is in total control of the meeting, from the arrangement of the flatware to what goes into the minutes. The actors also deliver their euphemisms and bureaucratese in a banal, businesslike way that only heightens the horror. Even the famously histrionic Roland Freisler, the Nazi judge who harangued Sophie Scholl and the survivors of the Officers' Plot on the way to the gallows, is relaxed and dispassionate. Conspiracy immerses us in a world where it is normal to talk of the destruction of life with boredom, even flippancy, and no small amount of theory and rationalization.
The best example is Colin Firth's scene-stealing performance as Stuckart, who fumes and finally explodes at Heydrich and some Party functionaries over what he views as the lawlessness of the plan. By this point of the film, the viewer is casting about for a good guy, and at first Stuckart, with his talk of law and principle, seems to fit the bill. But it quickly becomes clear in his rant against Heydrich that his objections are strictly legal, strictly about form and protocol, and the only real difference between himself and the rest of the meeting's attendees is one of method. It's powerful and deeply disturbing. (Take the four minutes to watch him in this scene here.)
The film as history
Conspiracy is remarkably faithful to the facts of the Wannsee Conference as we understand them. Most of the inaccuracies are minor: Heydrich arrives flying his own plane, though Himmler had ordered him grounded before the conference; Gerhard Klopfer, depicted by Ian McNeice as a crass, obese thug, was a much younger and trimmer man. Most of these things fall under legitimate artistic license—McNeice, through his performance, conveys to the viewer a man confident of his position thanks to the power of the Party—and they don't impair the film.
I recommend Conspiracy as a Holocaust film that is chilling without any onscreen violence, and as an example of the way the Final Solution had to be planned.
I think a lot of people assume the Holocaust just happened. This ignorance—of the Holocaust's origins and mechanics—is what Holocaust deniers take cynical advantage of. What Conspiracy dramatizes is the quiet, bureaucratic working of evil, as men at desks coordinate their powers through paperwork, memos, and lunchtime meetings to kill millions. The Holocaust was industrial, which meant that it was bureaucratic, which meant that it was impossible without the modern state.
Conspiracy is also valuable for depicting the different kinds of evil men that made up the Nazi regime. The Nazis have become so ingrained as an image of evil that we believe we can spot it immediately: evil comes wearing jackboots or with a shaved head, shouting racial slurs and waving torches. But the ignorant thugs at Charlottesville last year are only one kind of Nazi. Klopfer, as he's depicted here, fits that stereotype. Far more pernicious, and far more damaging, are the suave Heydrichs, the quiet and hardworking Eichmanns, and the eloquent, well-educated, intelligent, and principled Stuckarts. The state system is a tool; the evil is in the men themselves.
Finally, Conspiracy should caution us, warn us about how much evil people can accommodate. The banter and joking around the conference table in that elegant mansion on the Wannsee remind me of nothing so much as a the blase, flippant attitude toward abortion captured by the undercover videos of meetings with Planned Parenthood functionaries released a few years ago. And again, the fifteen Nazis at this conference were not ignorant men being coarse and flippant—eight of the fifteen had doctorates, and the majority were lawyers. It is comforting to us to imagine evil worked only by monsters of ignorance, but once you have accepted some basic premises, established a system both to support yourself in the work and shield yourself from the consequences, and begun to move forward, there is no limit to what you can get used to.
Or, to defer to Shakespeare:
Hamlet: Has this fellow no feeling of his business? He sings at grave-making.
Horatio: Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.
Hamlet: 'Tis e'en so. The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.
More if you're interested
The historical literature on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany is vast, so for the purposes of this post I'm limiting myself to a handful of books that I have read or regularly consult, plus one more film that I plan to write about in a future Historical Movie Monday. There is much, much more out there.
Among general histories of Nazi Germany, the best coverage of the Wannsee Conference that I've seen is in The Third Reich at War, the final volume of Richard J. Evan's trilogy on the Reich. For other surveys that cover the Wannsee Conference, see The Third Reich: A New History, by Michael Burleigh; The Storm of War, by Andrew Roberts; and The Second World War, by Antony Beevor, all of which offer succinct discussions. A more recent book by Burleigh, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, only briefly discusses the conference but deals with its consequences in detail.
KL, Nikolaus Wachsmann's comprehensive history of the concentration camp system, has a good passage on the conference, and emphasizes the eventual adaptation of Heydrich's plan to the preexisting camp network. The late Sir Martin Gilbert's book The Holocaust includes a chapter on it, with quotations from the only surviving copy of the minutes and Eichman's later interrogations, and ties the day's topics of discussion to the logistics of their future implementation under Eichmann.
Hitler's Shadow War: The Holocaust and World War II, by Donald McKale, under whom I studied the war at Clemson, includes a chapter on the Wannsee Conference and its place in the long-planned genocide of the Jews. McKale also gives good attention to the question of Mischlinge, which consumed a large amount of the conference's time, and situates the meeting in a time when Hitler himself gave repeated, blunt public pronouncements about the Reich's intended destruction of the Jews.
Christopher Browning, one of the great historians of the Holocaust, covers the Wannsee Conference in some detail in his magisterial book The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. His earlier and perhaps more famous book Ordinary Men is worth reading for its graphic description of what genocide meant before the Wannsee Conference industrialized the Holocaust.
Finally, last year saw the release of the film Anthropoid, about the much deserved assassination of Heydrich in Prague just a few months after chairing the Wannsee Conference. I plan to write on this film at the beginning of the summer. I recommend checking it out if you haven't seen it already.