Remember back when there were just a few big conspiracy theories in the wild? I’m thinking primarily of these burning questions: who shot JFK? Were the moon landings faked? What is the US government hiding in Area 51?
Periodically, one of these tropes would be taken off the shelf and turned into a book, film or documentary: paranoia as entertainment, exemplified by the X-Files’ long run on TV in the 1990s. As for real connoisseurs, there was always David Icke: I could never look at the Queen in quite the same way after he revealed that she was actually a shape-shifting alien lizard whose favorite tipple was human blood.
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Today’s conspiracy theories, however, are much less entertaining. Things started to change with the notion that 9/11 was an inside job. This idea attracted some high-profile popularisers who believed that Bush was a moron but nevertheless able to pull off a “false flag” operation of diabolical complexity; it is still popular with many tinfoil hat wearers to this day.
Then, around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, the “New World Order” surged in popularity as people such as Alex Jones railed against the plot to create a totalitarian, One World government. Jones, meanwhile, rose from the status of Austin-area eccentric who I used to watch on public access TV, to a globally infamous figure pumping out misinformation at an incredible rate via his Infowars site and social channels.
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Eventually, Jones’s mouth got him into serious trouble, so we don’t hear from him as much these days. But conspiracy theories continue to proliferate. A few weeks back, I learned that something was afoot with the US postal service that could jeopardise the election. That was after I discovered that the national coin shortage was a ploy to eliminate cash so that I could more easily be tracked by the government and/or big business. Nothing is accidental or a result of incompetence in the world of conspiracy theorists: always there is a hidden hand moving the pieces on the board.
But these are small conspiracies compared to “QAnon”, which posits that Donald Trump is civilisation’s only defence against a cabal of paedos, Satanists and baby-eating Democrats. The theory has spread rapidly. Supporters were first spotted at a Trump rally in 2018 while the movement received a (vague) shout out from Trump himself at a recent White House briefing. Spittle-flecked and barking mad it may be, but let us not forget that large parts of the UK press, an MP and the police were taken in by a fantastical paedophile conspiracy theory not so long ago. Meanwhile this straight-to-video, porno-horror, Right-wing blend of nonsense comes hot on the heels of the collapse of the much more socially acceptable “Russiagate”, the liberal-Left fantasy that Trump was some kind of double agent, taking orders from his master in the Kremlin.
Paranoiacs we shall always have among us, but in healthier epochs they are relegated to the margins. Sometimes, however, a Joseph McCarthy can destroy careers, while a Stalin or Mao can destroy lives with paranoid imaginings. Our 21st century conspiracy theories have not reached that level, but the proliferation of poisonous fantasies is surely a sign, if more signs were needed, that something has gone badly awry in our hyper-partisan, hyper-online society.
Richard Evans, a respected historian of the Third Reich, is supremely contemptuous of conspiracy theories, and in his new book, The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination, he takes aim at five associated with the Führer: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the claim that the German army was betrayed in World War I by its own people; the belief that the Nazis started the Reichstag fire deliberately; the speculations surrounding Rudolph Hess’ flight to Scotland; and the unkillable notion that Hitler and Eva Braun escaped to Argentina to live out a cozy old age among the alpacas.
But if the title is suggestive of History Channel schlock, then the truth of the book is quite the opposite: Evans ruthlessly annihilates each conspiracy he tackles. Indeed, towards the end he demolishes the History Channel’s fatuous “Hunting Hitler” with all the vigor of an irate 1950s schoolmaster caning a blancmange into oblivion.
Yet Evans’ book does much more than make fans of dogshit cable channels disappointed. Referencing Richard Hofstader’s seminal essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, he frames his case studies in the broader historical context of conspiracy theories going back to writings about Freemasons and the Illuminati in the eighteenth century, while seeking to draw out common traits, from the core belief that only an elite few can detect the sinister forces lying behind events to the tendency towards accumulating piles of “alternative facts” which are martialed against “official histories” which (of course) only exist to serve the interests of the powers that be.
Not that facts are actually all that important. For instance, in his analysis of The Protocols, Evans not only traces the history of this notorious forgery but highlights the fact that many people knew and accepted that it was a forgery quite early on in its existence. Hitler referenced it only glancingly in Mein Kampf to address the question of its fakeness, while Goebbels admitted to his diary “I believe that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a forgery.” Henry Ford — a great populariser of the Protocols via his book The International Jew — also admitted as much. Yet this awareness did not stop them from finding the Protocols useful, or advancing the Piers Morgan-type argument that literal truth didn’t matter if they expressed a deeper greater truth.
For Evans, however, defence of the truth is non-negotiable: he rejects “naïve scepticism that casts doubt not only on the truth of the conclusions reached by painstaking and objective historical research, but on the very idea of truth itself”. Without this, he adds, “the possibility of organising society on rational lines and on the basis of reasoned and informed decisions is thrown into question”.
For me, the most illuminating section of Evans’ book is the second chapter, which is dedicated to the “stab in the back” theory. Typically, we imagine conspiracy theories to be the preserve of weirdoes and extremists, but this was a fantasy geared towards the psychological needs of the establishment: members of Germany’s officer class, nationalists and conservative clergymen could not accept that they had lost the war through their own failures. Instead, they blamed a collapse of morale and willpower on the home front for the army’s defeat; this eventually mutated into a belief that there was an active conspiracy undermining the war effort, involving socialists, communists and pacificists.
This flight by members of Germany’s wartime establishment into self-exculpatory fantasy, I think, helps us to understand the phenomenon of Russiagate — which similarly enabled large swathes of America’s political and media elites, traumatised by the defeat of their candidate at the hands of a ridiculous showbiz caricature, to retreat into a conspiratorial delusion that liberated them from the need to honestly assess their own failings. Initially, editors of major news organisations dispatched explorers to the heartlands to find out why the people had failed them so, while Clinton undertook a grand defeat tour of the country to blame others.
But this was not enough, and so it was that a bunch of unverified assertions in some oppo research developed into a conviction that Trump and his minions were consciously colluding with the diabolical Putin. This in turn developed into a multi-million dollar, three-year investigation and all-you-can-eat buffet of paranoia served up day and night by the media, and then amplified via social media…. only to turn out to have been a nothingburger of epic proportions. Conspiracy theories are not only for basement dwellers and loons: nice, respectable people who recycle and read The New York Times can get into them too.
Which brings me to my next point. Evans notes that the question “cui bono?” is “almost always” a feature of conspiracy theories: find out who benefits, and you know who is to blame. Now the metastasising of paranoid imaginings may very well represent a society losing its shit on a grand scale, but asking cui bono of the theories themselves reminds us that they are often packaged and sold to us as commercial products.
The fake moon landing myth inspired the film Capricorn One; The X-Files came with endless merchandising tie-ins and a movie; Alex Jones promotes conspiracy-as-lifestyle through his site, selling everything from survival foods to emergency radios to “ProstaGuard” prostate health pills “…because there’s a war on for your mind.” Meanwhile, non-stop Russiagate on MSNBC, CNN and in pages of The New York Times worked wonders for ratings, clicks and advertising revenue.
Thirty years ago, it took months or years and a large investment of money to make a documentary or book. Today these obstacles have disappeared: anyone anywhere can write, publish and distribute conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the paranoid imagination — apocalyptic, extreme, divisive, pornographic, Manichaean — provides almost perfect fodder for today’s click-fuelled news business model. But what the heck: it’s all fun, games and record profits right up until society collapses and we’re all fighting giant rats for scraps of food in the smoking rubble of our ruined societies, isn’t it?