On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking members of the Nazi Party, the SS, the fascist economic administration, and the government bureaucracy were summoned to a top-secret meeting in the quiet Berlin suburb of Wansee. There was only one item on the agenda. The meeting lasted all of 90 minutes. At its close, the attendees were granted time to memorize their notes, as all scratch paper and note pads were to be collected and burned. There was to be no trace of this meeting ever having taken place. Hosted by SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, head of Reich Security and second-in-command of the SS, the meeting had a single purpose: to orchestrate the annihilation of 11 million people.
This chilling event, known to historians as the Wansee Conference, is the subject of director Frank Pierson’s 2001 film, Conspiracy. Pierson (1925 – 2012), whose other films included The Looking Glass War (1969), A Star is Born (1976), and Citizen Cohn (1992), based his interpretation entirely on the single known surviving record of the Wansee Conference, a transcript of the meeting which was discovered buried in the archives of the Nazi Foreign Office in 1947. Headlining Pierson’s cast were veteran performers Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich, Stanley Tucci as Heydrich’s chief aide, Adolf Eichmann, and Colin Firth as Nazi racial “theorist” and author of the fascist regime’s racist legal code, Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart.
The Historical Background.
The Wansee Conference did not initiate the extermination of the Jews, indeed, the purpose of the Conference was to secure the active cooperation of key sectors of the Nazi state apparatus in the extension of a policy already being carried out. From the earliest days of the war, as the Wehrmacht occupied conquered territory, the regular army was followed by SS assassination squads, the Einsatzgruppen, whose stated task was to pre-empt possible resistance on the part of the subjugated peoples by murdering any potential leadership: political activists, writers, teachers, intellectuals. From the first, the Einsatzgruppen followed close at the heels of the regular German Army, enforcing submission to Hitler’s New Order.
It was, however, only with the Nazi’s invasion of Soviet Russia, Operation Barbarossa, that the conscious slaughter of civilians reached gargantuan proportions. In preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler issued a directive known as the Kommissarbefehl, which ordered the shooting of all Communist Party members, captured Red Army political officers, and Soviet government employees — these to be added to already established lists of intellectuals and community leaders typically earmarked for killing. Many Einsatzgruppen leaders claimed after the War, that it was while being briefed on the Kommissarbefehl that they first heard of Hitler’s decision to exterminate all Russian Jews, as they were supposedly “transmitters of bolshevism.” (Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship, 2000, p. 117.)
“The mass crime thereby announced was not, of course, openly stated. Initially Hitler referred ‘only’ to the annihilation of Jews in Soviet leading circles; his directive contained not a syllable to show that in practice every single Jew would be handed over to the extermination machine — following the Nazi Jew-baiter’s obscure reasoning that Bolshevism was a typical manifestation of Jewry. Hitler tightened the SS murder screw only by degrees. At first only Jewish ‘Bolshevist leaders’ were to be exterminated, but gradually the circle of victims widened; political functionaries were followed by the intelligentsia, the intelligentsia by all officials, officials by persons suspected of partisan activity — and finally the circle spread to every individual Jew.”
(Heinz Hohne, The Order of the Death’s Head, 1989, p. 401.)
Thus, murderous anti-communism was the motive for eventual murderous anti-Semitism. Indeed, the Nazi policy towards Jews before the invasion of the Soviet Union consisted of:
1) discrimination and marginalization — as exemplified by the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 which removed Jews from participating in German life through confiscating their property, forbidding them to practice their professions, segregating their communities; and
2) forcible emigration — initially realized by encouraging Jews to willing leave Germany, later developing into mass deportation of the Jewish population to the ‘East,’ typically Poland.
In pursuing this dual policy of segregation and deportation, the Nazis found enthusiastic allies in representatives of the Zionist movement, who felt that Nazi severity would compel their fellow Jews to shed their European identity and emigrate to Palestine.
As monstrous as this may seem to contemporary readers, the fact remains that throughout the 1930s and up to and into the beginning of World War II there was active collaboration and partnership between the SS and various Zionist organizations. (Hohne, pp. 375-83, 392-93.)
In fact, Feivel Polkes, one of the founders of the Zionist terrorist organization, Haganah, is quoted as having said that “in Jewish nationalist circles people were pleased with the extreme German Jewish policy, since the strength of the Jewish population in Palestine would be so far increased thereby that in the foreseeable future the Jews could reckon upon numerical superiority over the Arabs in Palestine.” (Ibid., p. 382.)
Hence, isolation and expulsion not extermination, was the Nazi policy towards the Jews before Barbarossa. It was only with the marriage of anti-communism and anti-Semitism, that fascist policy turned to wholesale murder. Moreover, it was only with the Red Army’s fighting the German invaders to a standstill at the end of 1941/beginning of 1942 that the fate of European Jewry was sealed.
“The summer and autumn of 1941 were characterized by a high degree of confusion and contradictory interpretations of the aims of anti-Jewish policy by the Nazi authorities. It was a period of experimentation and resort to ‘self-help’ and ‘local initiatives’ in liquidating Jews, particularly once the transportations from the Reich and the west of Europe had (in this case clearly on Hitler’s orders) started rolling eastwards in autumn 1941, persuading Nazi bosses in Poland and Russia to adopt radical ad hoc measures — liquidation — to cope with the countless numbers of Jews from the West pouring into their domain and randomly deposited on their doorsteps. Meanwhile the killing process was escalating rapidly — and not just in the ‘Jewish Question.’ . . . The Wehrmacht willingly collaborated in the multiplying ‘war of annihilation’ through its close co-operation with the Einsatzgruppen and by its direct involvement in the liquidation of almost two-thirds of the Soviet prisoners of war to fall into German hands. It was initially to house Soviet captives that the then small concentration camp at Auschwitz was expanded, and the first experiments with gas chambers there had as their victims not Jews but Soviet war prisoners.” (Kershaw, p. 111.)
In the meantime, Nazi officials, such as Hans Frank, German governor of occupied Poland complained with increasing desperation of the intense overcrowding, and the problems of disease control caused by the mass deportations to Poland. As Frank stated,
“We can’t shoot these 3.5 million Jews, we can’t poison them, but will have to somehow take steps leading somehow to annihilation in connection with large-scale measures under discussion by the Reich.” (Ibid., p. 128.)
The last remark was a reference to the Wansee Conference.
The Wansee Conference was, thus, not the orchestration of an existing plan of the “Final Solution;” rather, it ushered in the final stage of escalation of the extermination policy originally directed at Soviet communism — the incorporation of the whole of occupied Europe into a comprehensive program of genocide.
This, then is the backdrop to the Wansee Conference. It is also the point-of-departure for Frank Pierson’s film, Conspiracy.
Written by Loring Mandel, and produced under the auspices of the cable TV network, HBO, Conspiracy unfolds in real time as the various Nazi officials sit at a conference table — in between sessions of cognac, cigars and hors d’oeuvres — and argue over the new policy of extermination.
Pierson’s direction is brilliant. In its own quiet, sometimes even amusing way, this film steps forward and seizes the viewer by the shoulders (and intestines) and draws them down into a vision of horror that far surpasses any fiction writer’s imagination. Don’t just listen to what these gentlemen are saying…LISTEN to what is not shown as well. Watch their faces as they talk, their body language. Rarely has one seen a movie where what is not taking place on the screen is just as chilling as what is. One needn’t be shown snapshots of concentration camps, or bodies burnt or starved. There isn’t a single drop of blood oozing anywhere. Yet as the characters speak, and look, and speculate, the full horror of what they’re discussing begins to sink in. That a group of men could sit down one afternoon and casually chat about gas chambers and pink bodies, and eat lunch while doing so, is perhaps the most disturbing image conceivable.
Conspiracy individualizes the Nazis at the conference, and shows the different faces of fascism. The attendees’ reactions range from insisting that Jews must be oppressed only according to the strict letter of the law to zealously uncritical compliance with orders, to cheerful indifference, to a sort of put-upon resentment that the work of extermination is falling on them.
Shrewd direction, sharp writing, outstanding performances, and a meticulous dedication to historical detail make Conspiracy a powerful, potent film. Quietly, almost gently, it succeeds in capturing the evil of fascism.