Ethics Movies: And Speaking Of Conspiracies, Have You Seen “Conspiracy”? Do.


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.

7 thoughts on “Ethics Movies: And Speaking Of Conspiracies, Have You Seen “Conspiracy”? Do.

  1. The original German version, titled simply, “The Wannsee Conference”, is actually far better, and lacks any “schmaltz”. Both are based on Eichmann’s nearly verbatim notes of the meeting, and delineate clearly the boring, business-as-usual tone of it. The most important point, for me, comes about 2/3 of the way through, where the two bureaucrats in attendance, who have clearly been struggling the entire time with the terminology, such as “Final Solution,” finally think they understand what the meeting is about, and ask directly. Upon being given a short blase answer, in the affirmative, as if to say, “of course…”, they are then flummoxed at the audacity of the planning, but must go along.
    This is why I push the film on anyone interested in trying to understand the “banality of evil.” Reading about the normal family lives, etc., of people like Heydrich, Himmler, Goebbels or the camp commandants, does this, too, and ought to point up the incredible dangers of “othering” another group of people and applying terms like “Lebensunwertes Leben” (Life not worth living).

    • 1. Not Eichmann’s notes, but Martin Luther’s, according to every source I’ve seen.
      2. How did you encounter the German version? When was it made?
      3. What instance of “schmaltz” did you notice in the 2011 version?

    • Thanks for the lead. I’ve always found Conspiracy chilling because of how calm it is. Colin Firth’s sole objection is to destruction of the German part of those from “mixed marriages”. The essential issue, the destruction of the Jews, isn’t a question.

      • Not quite right. Firth, who plays Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, passionately argues that the groups evident willingness to ditch the rule of law for subjective, ad hoc law was a disastrous step, as indeed it was.He objected to the attitude prevailing around the table that anyone was a Jew if they decided he or she was a Jew—if they “acted like a Jew” or “looked like a Jew.” Stuckhart’s Nuremberg Laws were monstrous, but they were still laws, and his point was valid even though the laws he was defending were human rights violations.

  2. How tunnel vision prevents ethics

    i.e. “just get it done and don’t tell me how you do it.”

    The corrupting nature of peer pressure

    i.e. “we are going to do this, with or without you, and when it’s all over, we’re going to remember who helped and who didn’t.”

    How strong leadership by unethical leaders can strain the ethics out of most individuals.

    i.e. “get it done or else.”

    How approaching human beings in the abstract allow ethics to be by-passed.

    i.e. “one dead man is a tragedy, a million dead men is a statistic.”

    How hate makes ethics nearly impossible.

    i.e. “I want this guy dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! I want to go there in the middle of the night and piss on his ashes!”

    The power of hubris.

    i.e. “how dare you?”

    Where law and ethics intersect, and the danger when they don’t.

    i.e. “don’t tell me what’s right or wrong, tell me what’s legal.”

    How humor can make unethical conduct easier.

    “Sooooo, there’s these two Jewish guys…” before long that’s all there are.

    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.”

    Semantics is the verbal equivalent of statistics, making words say what you want them to say rather than giving them their plain meaning.

  3. I was stationed in Berlin and went to the Wannsee, I think (not certain 70% sure) to the actual building this meeting took place, then seeing “Conspiracy” has had a disturbing effect on me ever since. Akin to going to the concentration camps that I visited. Knowing that within the very walls I walked and drank, that very meeting took place in such casual discussion is horrific.
    The feeling of trespassing in an unholy place comes to mind.
    The mass of people that went along with it scares the shit out of me. Never again? I fear, never again, until the next time.
    I think of the Uyghur’s in China and wonder why the world isn’t doing more. why isn’t Germany leading in the outrage?
    I think of the life of the fetus being redefined as the “choice” or “clump of cells”
    I think of the current language of rounding up “Domestic Terrorist” (a.k.a Republicans/conservatives).

    The avenues to communicate what is really happening are being closed off. The voice of decent is being silenced.
    The muffling of our ethic alarms is truly happening to us all.

  4. You know the historical error of projecting current values onto the past? Well, in a similar way I have trouble getting people to see that a lot of that Nazi stuff wasn’t about “hate” (hatred) at all. Yes, they tapped into hatred that was an undercurrent in German culture, but to those involved they were just dealing dispassionately with a problem. And there’s no need to demonise to get people “othered” if they aren’t viewed as “us” to begin with. It’s the inverse of the Lincoln story about an abolitionist leaving a meeting who observed that Lincoln was detached; Lincoln commented that he was supporting all that just as he would support a motion to deal with bad drains, but he didn’t love slaves any more than he did drains.

    The thing is, those who only look out for hatred not only miss the signs of other wrong in others, they miss it in themselves. They miss the chance to learn from history when they project their preconceptions onto it.

    By the way, the French had already used “evacuation” as a euphemism during the French Revolutionary Wars, to describe the processes they used to drain resources from puppet states (a bit like “liberate” meaning “loot” between about 1943 and 1953).

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