Hitler among conspiracy theorists • International Socialism
A review of The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination, Richard Evans (Penguin, 2021), £9.99
Even a historian as astute as Richard Evans could never have foreseen the excellent timing of his latest work, which emerged amid the maelstrom of Covid-19 conspiracy theories. We have witnessed, among other conspiracy phenomena, the QAnon ‘cult movement’ flashing across the United States, claiming that Hilary Clinton is part of a child abuse ring and making many other bizarre claims . With his latest book, Evans explores the various conspiracy theories surrounding Hitler – from his rise to his downfall and beyond – occasionally tearing them apart with humor.
Having a clear definition of conspiracy theories is important. Paraphrase Lobster magazine editor Robin Ramsay, conspiracy research is about separating “the wheat from the chaff for real conspiracy research”. Indeed, there have been many real conspiracies, including, for example, the Watergate scandal and the Iran-Contra affair. Evans concedes this, stating that “many real conspiracies exist”, but also rightly points out that, for the conspirator, “no major event in history happens by chance”. Of course, such disbelief in chance differs from the conscious peddling of propaganda lies by Joseph Goebbels and Donald Trump. The famous words of Karl Marx in relation to the philosophy of GWF Hegel come to mind: “All great world historical facts happen twice: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce.”
Evans’ range is wide, even citing a The Simpsons episode that ridicules the myths about Hitler. He explains: “With many conspiracy theories, the truth doesn’t matter. The truths, even if they refute a given conspiracy theory, seem irrelevant. The disturbing number of people following Q – the anonymous poster of the picture board that led the QAnon movement – shows that “once down the rabbit hole, rationality can quickly dissolve”.
Evans was a key witness in the trial involving Holocaust denier David Irving, who lost heavily after suing historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel in 1996. Irving’s courtroom defeat owes much to Evans’ authority. Methodically, Evans disentangles “fantasies and fictions” concerning the revisionist myths around Hitler and the Third Reich. Among these are claims by David Icke, Britain’s most prominent conspiracy theorist, that Hitler fled to Colombia. The intertwining of QAnon and fake Hitler stories can be seen from the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory, which emerged after emails between Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta , were published online in 2016. claimed that Angela Merkel was one of Hitler’s daughters.
A theme that will interest more than one is the hoax surrounding The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Evans notes that Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that the Nazis used the Protocols as a textbook for their anti-Semitism despite being “widely discredited”. Parallels can be seen between Hitler’s worldview and QAnon believers today, who see Jewish financier George Soros and the “New World Order” as the “true forces behind the story.” However, Evans shows that the Protocols do not have as much influence on Nazi ideology and barbarism as many claim. The book was a vile forgery, largely written under the anti-Semitic Tsarist regime in Russia, which purports to describe a plot for Jewish world domination. As Evans explains, the text’s power was in revealing the alleged “fundamental truth” that Jews want world hegemony, and this gave it continued influence despite the common knowledge that it was a falsification. . Evans shows that the Protocols were shaped by far-right anti-Semitism in the French Third Republic, of which the Dreyfus Affair was another product. The tsarist popularizers of the text relied on French and German anti-Semitism, and Evans demonstrates that the Protocols themselves were actually drawn from a number of earlier sources. Nevertheless, their impact in Russia was considerable; for example, the counter-revolutionary White armies held that the Bolsheviks were representatives of the Elders of Zion.
the Protocols found a huge following in Weimar, Germany. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933, 33 editions had been printed, although it is unclear how widely read they were, Evans points out. Hitler himself never fully believed Protocols, but that didn’t stop him from using them. Hitler’s propaganda maintained that the Protocols revealed the plans of the Jews, even though the individual Jews knew of these plans only “unconsciously”. The secret machinations of the Jews did not require conscious conspiracy; instead, it was enough to have Jewish genetic material to be implicated in the conspiracy. Goebbels’ use of the “big lie” is here broadly.
Defenders of the Churchill statue in Westminster might think differently from him reading here that Churchill also praised the Protocols. Yet, despite their enormous influence, the lies of Protocols were exposed by a highly publicized court case that began in 1933 in Bern, Switzerland. The court condemned the far-right Swiss National Front for distributing the Protocols, which he condemned as “laughable nonsense”. Nevertheless, of course, the Nazis continued the myth of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.
The chapters on the Reichstag fire of 1933 and Hitler’s alleged escape from his Berlin bunker at the end of World War II show Evans’ great strengths as a historian. Putting together immense data, he demolishes the absurd claims of various charlatans. As Evans says, to really work, a conspiracy must be tightly knit; here, small is beautiful. Evans argues that “false narratives” and vague allegations can give conspiracy theories malicious force. Those who become “believers” can see a conspiracy in anything and the hidden hand everywhere. This was evident at many recent anti-lockdown protests during the Covid-19 pandemic. Evans documents incredible arguments from those describing Hitler’s alleged post-war travels in Latin America. Living in an “ideologically sealed cocoon”, many do not accept rational criticism. The numbers perpetuating such wild claims show how far such illusions can go.
Evans’ rigorous examination of the myths surrounding the disastrous escape of Vice-Führer Rudolf Hess to Britain in 1941 is gripping. Several ridiculous but profitable tomes about Hess’s flight have surfaced. Evans painstakingly proves that Hess’s mission was pure hubris rather than a calculated Nazi effort backed by pro-appeasement sections of British politicians – however real those political currents are. However, a necessary caveat comes from Tim Tate Hitler’s British Traitors: The Secret History of Spies, Saboteurs and Fifth Columns; contrary to Evans’ claims that there is no evidence of an organized plot to overthrow Churchill, the M15 files reveal that such plots existed. For example, the Right Club, led by Scottish Unionist MP Archibald Maule Ramsay, plotted a fascist coup.
Evans’ conspiracy debunking sometimes overstates his case. Is it correct to say that the objections to the official account of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas are merely pseudo-explanations? The rigorously researched work of acclaimed writers such as Anthony Summers runs counter to this.
Throughout the book, Evans points to the pervasive anti-Semitism in establishment circles in Germany and elsewhere. The alleged “stab in the back” by the German army in 1918 was littered with myths about “Jewish crooks” who allegedly shied away from war duty. Germany’s tiny Jewish population was also the target of accusations that the “Jewish spirit” was causing huge wartime inflation. As Richard Donnelly has written recently, there are material economic, social and political circumstances that provide important backdrops for which bizarre and illogical conspiracies can unfortunately strike a chord with many (“Conspiracy Theories: Feeding Off the Social Faintness”, Socialist Review 462).
Evans’ work here is significant, although it is surprising that no reference is made to American fascist philosopher Francis Parker Yockey and his book Imperium: the philosophy of history and politicswho is very influential among today’s neo-Nazis and Trump fanatics.
John George’s and Laird Wilcox’s Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Other Marginalized: Political Extremism in America is a useful companion to Evans’ book. George and Wilcox focused on Nazi conspirators. QAnon’s anti-Semitic tropes about Mark Zuckerberg and other high-profile Jews have their precedents. Evans’ emphasis on debunking “unscientific” conspiratorial explanations around Hitler carries a lot of weight. The preponderance of far-right material on new social media platforms such as Parler, Gab and Telegram means that Evans is playing a valuable role. Conspiratorial movements such as QAnon have had dire consequences; not only did QAnon help fuel the riots at the United States Capitol in January 2021, but its themes influenced the murderer of 11 people in the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Its “believers” often deny that ethnic minorities possess “civilized values”, which reinforces Islamophobic and anti-Semitic theories of the “great replacement” of a global conspiracy against the “white race”.
Evans’ book is a vigorous outburst against these “alternative knowledge communities”, and Marxists will agree with his conclusion that “the elaboration of what happened in history matters” and that ” careful research and evidence” are essential. Not all views carry the same weight – Holocaust denial is “the denial of the existence of millions of people”. History, Evans argues, can only be revised and challenged when subjected to reason, science, and proven assumptions. This book empowers anyone who appreciates history, and anyone looking to find meaning in history will benefit from reading it. It is a deeply informed book that will enrage little Hitlers who seek to distort the historical record. Evans’ acquisition of particle-by-particle information is a solid, refreshing, and welcome defense of the discipline of history.
Paul Silet previously worked for Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up to Racism. He now works in security.