I bet you haven’t. I hadn’t, and stumbling upon it yesterday on Amazon’s streaming service was one more reason I failed to get an ethics warm-up posted, but it was worth it.
“Conspiracy” is a remarkable HBO film that first ran in 2001, when my attention, and probably yours, was elsewhere. I never have read or heard a word about the film; no friend ever recommended it to me or my wife, who is a WWII buff. Nobody mentioned if on Facebook. (There it is! Finally a downside of ignoring the Emmys and Golden Globe Awards! The film was much honored.) I can’t believe that “Conspiracy” had a large audience: it’s a movie about a meeting, albeit a real one, and consists almost entirely of men sitting around a table, talking. (So does “Twelve Angry Men,” but “Conspiracy” makes that film look like “Die Hard” as far as action is concerned.) No women. No “persons of color.” This is because all of the attendees at the actual meeting were Nazi officers and officials, but never mind: if “Conspiracy” were made today, Adolf Eichmann would have to be played by Ice-T and Reinhard Heydrich by Jennifer Lopez because of Hollywood’s diversity rules.
I wish I were kidding.
I knew about the meeting, but not the movie. The 1942 Wannsee Conference was the infamous gathering of Nazi officials to discuss how to deal with the “Jewish Problem,” and it produced was the strategy of “The Final Solution.” The film’s script by Loring Madel was based on the only surviving transcript of the meeting, and reveals the psychology of corruption as well as the perils of group dynamics. As you would guess, this is an ethics movie for the ages. You could build an ethics course around it. Someone should. I am seriously considering making the film a centerpiece of the upcoming Ethics Alarms Zoom conference.
Among the ethics lessons advanced by the film (and the uniformly superb performances by the mostly British cast, especially Kenneth Branaugh, Colin Firth, and Stanley Tucci):
- How tunnel vision prevents ethics
- The corrupting nature of peer pressure
- How strong leadership by unethical leaders can strain the ethics out of most individuals.
- How approaching human beings in the abstract allow ethics to be by-passed.
- How hate makes ethics nearly impossible.
- The power of hubris.
- Where law and ethics intersect, and the danger when they don’t.
- How humor can make unethical conduct easier.
- The use of cover-words and Orwellian euphemisms to allow decision-makers and policymakers to avoid dealing with the ethical import of what is really being done. The meeting participants were urged to use the word “evacuation” rather than “extermination”—you know, like calling abortions “choices.”
That’s just off the top of my head.
I need to watch the film again, the next time while taking notes. It is repellent, revealing, and disturbing. I also found myself thinking that this is exactly how I picture Democratic party strategists and allies plotting out how to end Donald Trump’s Presidency while convincing themselves that he, and Republicans, were the menace to America justifying their plot. The fact that this meeting is the absolutely worst instance of political maneuvering and the thirst for power leading to a horrific result doesn’t mean that the obligatory “How dare you trivialize the Holocaust by comparison?” complaint is justified. The lessons of the film (and the actual conference) are applicable to all meetings that lead to a consensus to do wrong while the group convinces itself that it is the opposite.
If you have children or grandchildren who are 12 or so, or younger and precocious, let them watch the film too, and discuss it with them afterwards. I’m pretty sure the experience will be more valuable than anything they are likely to learn in school this year.
Or maybe ever.
Near the end of the film, in a scene that I assume is the screenwriters invention, a break is called in the meeting. Ministerialdirektor Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, the Deputy Head of the Reich Chancellery and the most vocal opponent of exterminating the Jews (on strategic rather than ethical grounds), is directly threatened by Heydrich, who tell Kritzinger that he demands consensus, and that the consequences of Kritzinger opposing him will be dire. Defeated (and unwilling to risk his life on principle, even to try to say millions of human beings from death) , he tells Heydrich a apocryphal tale that Heydrich repeats later as an amusing anecdote to Eichmann and another meeting attendee.
Kritzenger’s story, Heydrich says, was there was once a man who hated his father intensely. The father was cruel and abusive, but his son loved his supportive and loving mother. When his mother died, the man was surprised couldn’t weep, though he was devastated. Years later, his father, from whom he had been long estranged, died as well. At the funeral, the son couldn’t stop weeping uncontrollably. Kritzenger explained that the man wept because his life been controlled hatred of his father. Without the object of his hate, the man realized that his life no longer had meaning.
Eichmann doesn’t understand the point, and Heydrich, smirking, explains that Kritzenger was arguing that similar fate awaited Germany its allowed hatred of the Jews to control its destiny.
Someone should tell Kritzenger’s story to Nancy Pelosi.