The Meeting from Hell: Conspiracy

Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age
Originally published in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission.

We’ve all attended this meeting, convened by the leadership to discuss some new organizational undertaking and—ostensibly—to collect and synthesize the views of all assembled. Neophytes among us believe that; the more experienced know the score. We enter the conference room resigned, wary, even disposed to revolt. But the leadership has the clout to cram its agenda down our collective throats.

Such meetings occur in all walks of life: governmental, commercial, educational, ecclesiastical. The conference held on January 20, 1942, in Wannsee, a lakeside district southwest of Berlin, was like any other of its kind—except that this meeting was organized by the Schutzstaffel, and its agenda was the destruction of 11 million European Jews.

Directed by Frank Pierson and released in 2001, Conspiracy re-creates the Wannsee Conference in nearly real time, using as a set the mansion in which the actual event took place. Writer Loring Mandel based his script on the “Wannsee Protocol”—the meeting’s top-secret minutes. The original document is deliberately vague; its language gives no hint that the subject is mass murder. Nor does the protocol paint the conference as anything less than wholly harmonious. But anyone who has watched bureaucrats war over turf knows differently, and a close reading of the minutes suggests fault lines and objections. The filmmakers have fleshed these out to deliver a riveting drama that takes place almost entirely around a large conference table.

Conspiracy opens with SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann (Stanley Tucci) overseeing final touches for the meeting that include excellent wines, fine cigars, and a lavish buffet lunch for 15. As they enter, the guests, who represent some of Nazi Germany’s most powerful men, introduce themselves to one another and the viewer. Two look decidedly glum: Dr. Friedrich Kritzinger (David Threlfall), deputy head of the Reich Chancellery; and Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Colin Firth), chief architect of the Nuremberg Laws that have legally stripped German Jews of their civil rights, defining “Jew” using formulas of Stuckart’s devising. Kritzinger and Stuckart believe that their offices have resolved the “Jewish question.” Suspicious that the SS, the meeting’s sponsor, is about to hijack that “question” and impose a solution of its own, the two quietly grouse to one another.

Last to arrive is the host, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (Kenneth Branagh), Chief of the Reich Security Main Office. Heydrich, who called the meeting, presides with the jaunty, self-satisfied air of a man who knows that he is going places. He begins by quoting a directive from Reichsmarschall Herman Goering that assigns Heydrich to find “a complete solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe” and stipulates that relevant government agencies are to “cooperate” with the security chief in this endeavor. Kritzinger instantly objects; the Chancellery, he declares, has received no directive on this subject. He fruitlessly tries to gain a hearing but Heydrich smoothly and stubbornly plows on, leaving the sidelined Kritzinger to fume.

Hitherto, Heydrich explains, Nazi policy has been to force Jews living in Germany to emigrate “voluntarily” to other countries or involuntarily “emigrate” to ghettoes the Germans have established in Polish cities. That situation has changed, Heydrich says. Jews under Nazi control now number several million, with five million to be added as the conquest of the Soviet Union proceeds. But Operation Barbarossa has stalled.

“We are standing still in Russia, the Americans have joined the war. Both events are a further drain on our military, our economy, our manpower, our food supply,” Heydrich says. “We cannot store these Jews. Emigration is over.” The new policy, he continues, is “evacuation,” a mysterious term whose meaning becomes clear as the security chief fields a query.

“I have the real feeling I `evacuated’ 30,000 Jews already, by shooting them at Riga,” an SS major remarks. “Is what I did `evacuation’?”

Yes, Heydrich tells him. It was.

Kritzinger explodes in fury. “That is contrary to what the Chancellery has been told. I have directly been assured!” the chancellery representative says. “Purge the Jews, yes. . . But to systematically annihilate all the Jews of Europe? That possibility has personally been denied to me by the Führer.”

“And it will continue to be,” Heydrich replies, locking eyes with Kritzinger to let his message sink in. The lay of the land is very different from what Kritzinger has understood.

Stuckart protests—not out of humanity, but territoriality—when it becomes obvious that Heydrich is going to junk Stuckart’s elaborate formulas, based on tallying the Jews in a person’s family tree, for racially identifying Jews. Without his system, Stuckart warns, legal chaos will ensue. Kritzinger and Stuckart—supported by others among the bureaucrats on hand—suggest that instead of killing Jews outright the Nazis sterilize them en masse, an option Heydrich sweeps aside.

“We won’t sterilize them and wait until they die. That’s farcical,” the SS man says. “Dead men don’t hump. Dead women don’t get pregnant. Death is the most reliable form of sterilization. Put it that way.”

Heydrich has Eichmann describe programs already under way to annihilate Jews using gas chambers. So far participants responsible for administering occupied Poland have been enjoying the sight of Heydrich running rampant over Kritzinger and Stuckart, but now these men start to comprehend that most of the work Eichmann is describing has been taking place in their Poland, under their noses, and without their knowledge or assent. Soon everyone understands that this consultation has been even more of a sham than any of them could have guessed.

The meeting adjourns. The officials walk to their waiting cars, a bit shaken—not by the industrialized horror they now realize to be taking place, but by the tour de force of bureaucratic mastery they have witnessed.

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