For those of you who haven’t seen it, “Conspiracy” is a 2001 BBC/HBO film addressing the infamous 1942 Wannsee Conference in which General Reinhard Heydrich, upon orders of Adolf Hitler, convened a group of fifteen high-ranking German officials to set forth the parameters of what became known as “The Final Solution,” the comprehensive and systematic plan to exterminate all Jews from the continent of Europe. Only one written record of the proceedings at Wannsee, a locality abutting a lakeside in Western Berlin, survived the war, and it is largely from this written summary (prepared from transcripts of the meeting by Adolf Eichmann) that the film is based.
The most chilling aspect of this film is the banal manner in which the subject is discussed, the euphemisms employed (“evacuation” rather than “extermination” being a typical example), the jocular mannerisms of several of the participants and in particular, their susceptibility to the intimidation of Heydrich as well as representatives of the Nazi SS present at the conference, held in a beautiful lakeside villa and catered with liveried servants.
The juxtaposition of fifteen men sitting around an oval-shaped conference table, alternately breaking for refreshments and wine, then returning to discuss the logistical necessities, facts and figures relating to the identification and classification of Jews, the proposed means of transport for their “evacuation” and ultimately the efficiencies of various means of murdering them, is beyond jarring—it’s fairly horrifying. The acting (Heydrich is played by Kenneth Branagh; Wilhelm Stuckart, the author of the Third Reich’s racial laws, is played by Colin Firth, and Adolf Eichmann by Stanley Tucci) is superior and riveting; you forget rather quickly that the entirety of the action revolves around a seemingly dry bureaucratic discussion around a conference table.
But probably the most unnerving thing, chills aside, about the film is the degree to which a group of people can come to a mutual accommodation towards evil, when that evil is presented and explicated as a means to an end that all of them desire.
In the Trump administration we are not, as far as is currently known, dealing with anything anywhere close to the realm of evil that occurred at Wannsee, but as the media fixate obsessively on the aftermath of the 2020 election and the continuing antics of Donald Trump and other Republicans denying the result of that election, certain things done, and certain actions taken by this administration in our name over the past four years, actions which likewise had their genesis in dry, bureaucratic conferences between highly placed American officials, should not be forgotten or allowed to “slip through the cracks.’ Because the evil that they represent—though not on the par with systematic genocide of the Nazis—should be no less unforgivable and intolerable.
In 2018, the current administration held a meeting, doubtlessly around an oblong conference table, in which it was calmly determined to forcibly and permanently separate children, many as young as babies, from their parents after those parents had been stopped following unlawfully crossing– or attempting to cross–over the border into the United States from Mexico.
As reported by NBC News:
WASHINGTON — In early May 2018, after weeks of phone calls and private meetings, 11 of the president’s most senior advisers were called to the White House Situation Room, where they were asked, by a show-of-hands vote, to decide the fate of thousands of migrant parents and their children, according to two officials who were there.
The meeting was held at the instigation of one of Donald Trump’s senior policy advisors, Stephen Miller, who was unquestionably operating to implement the specific policy aims of Donald Trump. Miller’s rabid xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric had by that time (and has still) conferred upon him the unusual distinction of being one of the few members of Trump’s inner circle to have kept his position throughout Trump’s entire tenure.
As the NBC news report explains, the U.S. Justice Department under the orders of Jeff Sessions had already implemented Miller’s preferred “zero tolerance” policy towards prosecuting any undocumented immigrants captured crossing the U.S. border, a radical departure from decades of prior practice covering multiple U.S. administrations. Yet, as Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff of NBC News reported, the forced separation between parents and their young children had not yet been put into place. According to the report, Miller was “furious at the delay,” and had convened a meeting to emphasize his authority.
Those present at the meeting were Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. According to NBC’s sources, other participants may have included White House counsel Don McGahn, Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Liddell, and representatives of Vice President Pence’s office.
Nielsen, much like several of the participants at Wannsee nearly eighty years ago, had some issues she wanted to air out concerning the logistics. Specifically, she bemoaned the fact that DHS had insufficient resources to implement the separation process, in which children so taken from their parents would be removed to isolated separate facilities. Hers were practical objections, and she noted that the ability of her agency to ultimately return these essentially kidnapped children to their parents was in doubt. She warned that the process could “get messy,” and could end up in children getting “lost” in a system of holding pens, without any recourse.
These complaints did not find a willing audience in Miller, who not only did not perceive any inherent moral issues with separating children from their parents, but in fact wanted to accelerate and expand the process, so that such separated children would ultimately number in the tens of thousands.
The NBC report gives no doubt as to who was in charge of driving the policy:
At the meeting, Miller accused anyone opposing zero tolerance of being a lawbreaker and un-American, according to the two officials present.
“If we don’t enforce this, it is the end of our country as we know it,” Miller said, according to the two officials. It was not unusual for Miller to make claims like that, but this time he was adamant that the policy move forward, regardless of arguments about resources and logistics.
Around the same time, the Justice Department was given a similar mandate by Attorney General Sessions, one which was echoed and embellished by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. As reported in October, 2020, by the New York Times:
“We need to take away children,” Mr. Sessions told the prosecutors, according to participants’ notes. One added in shorthand: “If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.”
Rod J. Rosenstein, then the deputy attorney general, went even further in a second call about a week later, telling the five prosecutors that it did not matter how young the children were. He said that government lawyers should not have refused to prosecute two cases simply because the children were barely more than infants.
Back at the Cabinet meeting, a frustrated and angry Miller accused Nielsen of “stalling” and demanded that all present demonstrate their loyalty to the policy by a show of hands. Incidentally, the participants at Wannsee were also required to voice their assent for “the policy,” which they dutifully affirmed with varying degrees of enthusiasm (this is one of the more gut-churning events in the film).
With the exception of Nielsen, who still clung to her logistical objections, all hands went up.
Spokesmen for both the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services have denied this “vote” actually occurred. NBC stands by its story. DHS and the State Department have referred all inquiries about the meeting to the White House, and the key Cabinet officials involved, Nielsen and Sessions have refused comment.
In other words, they can’t or won’t confirm one simple point—was there, in fact, such a vote?
Thus did our lawfully elected government enter on a course that at this count, has left over 600 children permanently separated from their parents, trapped in holding cells at locations scattered throughout the United States.
As reported by the NBC, that number is even higher than Trump administration officials previously acknowledged.
Lawyers working to reunite migrant families separated by the Trump administration before and during its “zero tolerance” policy at the border now believe the number of separated children for whom they have not been able to find parents is 666, higher than they told a federal judge last month, according to an email obtained by NBC News.
Nearly 20 percent, or 129, of those children were under 5 at the time of the separation, according to a source familiar with the data.
The issue of immigration has been the touchstone of this administration’s domestic policy since the days of the 2016 campaign. It has been used as both a weapon, an excuse and a bludgeon against Trump’s political opponents. The evidence clearly indicates that the policy of forcibly separating children from their parents was instituted and ordered by persons at the highest levels of this administration. They are therefore—in theory at the very least—amenable to prosecution, possibly for crimes against humanity.
At the very minimum, immediately upon the inauguration of Joseph Biden as President, the Congress should instigate hearings and the Justice Department should initiate an investigation for potential prosecution and criminal or civil liability of those responsible for this inhumane and abhorrent policy decision and its implementation.