Fake news and Nazis: Richard J Evans on the spectre of conspiracies
From the ‘stab in the back’ to Hitler’s escape from the bunker, conspiracy theories swirl around the Nazis. But how far do they really help us understand the Third Reich? | By Richard J Evans
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The idea that nothing happens by chance in history is as old as history itself. For a significant number of people, nothing is quite what it seems to be at first sight; everything that occurs is the result of the secret machinations of malign groups of people manipulating events from behind the scenes. Conspiracy theories seem to be growing more popular and more widespread in the 21st century: powered by the rise of the internet and then social media; enabled by the declining influence of traditional gatekeepers of opinion such as newspaper editors and book publishers; and encouraged by the spread of the uncertainty about truth and falsehood encapsulated in the perverse concept of ‘alternative facts’.
Go on to social media and you will quickly realise how widespread conspiracy theories about key events in history have become. They have even found their way into television programmes, not just in fictional form, but in presentations that claim to pursue the ‘real’ truth that has up to now been suppressed by ‘official’ historians, or in other words, those who teach and research the past as a profession at universities and historical institutes.
Few topics in history have attracted more conspiracy theories than Nazism. Conspiracists have focused on events such as the Reichstag fire in 1933, the flight of Rudolf Hess to Britain in 1941, and the death of Hitler in Berlin in 1945. And it is often claimed that the Nazis themselves were influenced by conspiracy theories such as the ‘stab-in-the-back’ theory of Germany’s defeat in World War I, or the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
But, broadly speaking, the Nazis were not particularly obsessed with conspiracy theories themselves. Compared with Stalin, who saw plots and cabals everywhere and manufactured fake conspiracies supposedly hatched by some of his closest ‘Old Bolshevik’ comrades so that he could rid himself of potential rivals, Hitler was relatively disinclined to believe in conspiracies. He was, in 1944, forced to admit that Colonel von Stauffenberg’s unsuccessful attempt to blow him up on 20 July 1944 was part of a wider conspiracy, but this was something of a unique occasion.
While Stalin had many rivals in the Communist party before he took supreme power, Hitler was unchallenged within the Nazi party from the outset. He enjoyed the unconditional allegiance of the second rank of Nazis, including Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels. True, the stormtrooper leader Ernst Röhm did aim to push on for a “second revolution” against Hitler’s wishes after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, but far from being a conspirator, Röhm was quite open about his intentions. This was why Hitler could dispose of him so easily in the infamous Night of the Long Knives in 1934 by having him arrested and shot.
However, Hitler did, of course, subscribe to one major conspiracy theory: the conviction that Jews, everywhere, were intent on destroying Germany and indeed the ‘Aryan race’. Students of conspiratorial thinking have termed this kind of belief a systemic conspiracy theory, in which a single secret organisation carries out a wide variety of activities with the aim of taking control of a country, a region or even the world. Conspiracy theories of this type are often hatched over a long period of time – sometimes centuries.
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The systematic conspiracy theory found its classic expression in the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This text emerged in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century and was widely translated and reproduced in the explosion of anti-Semitic propaganda that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the defeat of Germany in the First World War.
The Protocols have been accorded an extraordinarily powerful, demonic influence in the 20th century. They have been described, as in the title of the classic study by Norman Cohn, as a Warrant for Genocide, inspiring Hitler to launch the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Yet anyone who takes the trouble to read them will quickly realise how intellectually and rhetorically feeble they are.
The Protocols purported to be the minutes of a meeting held by a secret cabal of Jews to plot the takeover of the world through ideologies such as liberalism and socialism, anarchism and Freemasonry, and the destruction of the social order. They contain neither the tropes of traditional anti-Semitism, such as the supposed ritual murder of Christian boys or the desecration of the Host (the wafer that Catholics believe contains the body of Christ), nor the racist clichés of modern anti-Semitism, with its hate-filled diatribes against racial mixing. They were exposed in 1921 by the Constantinople correspondent of The Times, Philip Graves, as a clumsy plagiarism of a 19th-century French satire and other sources.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been accorded a demonic influence, but anyone who reads them will quickly realise how intellectually feeble they are
None of this mattered very much to hard-core anti-Semites, though. Hitler dismissed the question of the genuineness or otherwise of the Protocols as irrelevant. Rather than confront the evidence head-on, he declared the fact that the “Jewish press” (by which he meant, rather strangely, The Times; for Hitler, all liberal newspapers were ‘Jewish’, since liberalism itself was ‘Jewish’) had tried to discredit them proved they must be genuine. And even if they were forged, they all the same revealed a deeper truth about the Jews. “What matters,” he announced, “is that they uncover, with really horrifying reliability, the nature and activity of the Jewish people, and expose them in their inner logic and their final aims. But reality provides the best commentary.”
The key fact was that they purported to be the minutes of a secret meeting of Jewish elders in 1897, and so emanated from what anti-Semites understood to be the Jewish community itself. This enabled anti-Semites to cite them as “proof” of the Jews’ subversive intent. Few people probably bothered to read the actual “protocols”; insofar as they were relevant to modern anti-Semitic beliefs at all, it was because of the chapter headings, commentaries and explanatory notes added by later editors.
From the point of view of their actual content, as officials in the ministry of propaganda advised their boss, Goebbels, they were “not suitable as propaganda on the issues of the day”. The Protocols were too closely tied to the state of politics and the economy in early 20th-century Russia, too rambling and incoherent, and too far removed from Nazi ideology. Goebbels concluded: “One can’t speak of a conspiracy of the Jewish race in any straightforward meaning of the term; this conspiracy is more a characteristic of the race than a case of intellectual intentions. The Jews will always act as their Jewish instinct tells them.”
In the end, therefore, the impact of the Protocols would seem to have been seriously exaggerated by historians. Nor, contrary to what one might have expected, was another, somewhat more focused and coherent conspiracy theory – the stab-in-the-back myth championed by the ultra-right – particularly central to Nazi ideology.
According to the nationalist ultra-right in Germany, their country had been defeated in the First World War because of the subversive actions of socialists and revolutionaries. These groups had apparently undermined the German army’s will to fight and destroyed their chances of victory by overthrowing Kaiser Wilhelm II in the German Revolution of November 1918. It was of no matter that the army was militarily defeated weeks before the revolution; or that it lacked the supplies and munitions needed to fight on; or that Germany had lost its key allies, Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary. For military leaders such as General Erich Ludendorff, it was an easy way of shifting the blame for the defeat away from themselves and on to the democrats and socialists they so bitterly hated – the people who had brought the democratic Weimar Republic into being.
In the most extreme version of this myth, the socialists had been working to defeat Germany because they were themselves part of the purported global Jewish conspiracy that the Protocols were supposed to have uncovered. But, contrary to what one might have expected, Hitler consistently failed to make significant use of this version of the stab-in-the-back legend – or indeed any other iteration.
There was no doubt, of course, about the visceral anti-Semitism of the Nazi party, and of Hitler himself, from the very beginning. But neither Hitler in his speeches, nor the Nazi press in its propaganda, made more than very occasional mentions of the supposed stab in the back. They preferred to concentrate their fire instead on the ‘November criminals’, the men who had (in their view) cravenly accepted the armistice terms and therefore betrayed the German race in the peace settlement. It was the weak will of the kaiser and his regime that had lost the war.
In their early propaganda and in the official Party Programme promulgated in 1920, the Nazis focused on what they portrayed as the economic criminality of Jewish “war profiteers”. But even this propaganda line faded, as the Nazis came closer to power in the early 1930s. Rather than continuing to attack the old imperial elites for their supposed lack of willpower in 1918 – a line that would have alienated them at a time when he needed their support – Hitler preferred to instead pull them along with him in the drive towards war and conquest.
The stab-in-the-back myth represented a step along the road from a systemic to a more genuine type of conspiracy theory: the event conspiracy theory. Germany’s defeat in the First World War was more a bundle of events than a single occurrence. On the night of 27–28 February 1933, however, something happened that immediately became the object of two diametrically opposed conspiracy theories: the German national parliament building, the Reichstag, in Berlin, burned down.
Hitler had only been Reich chancellor for a few weeks, as head of a coalition government in which conservatives held the majority of posts. He saw this as the opportunity to seize quasi-dictatorial powers and, declaring that the arson attack marked the beginning of a communist coup, persuaded Reich President Paul von Hindenburg to promulgate a decree suspending civil liberties. Nazi stormtroopers subsequently rampaged across Germany suppressing opposition, often with extreme violence and brutality.
Communists across Europe had repeatedly tried to seize power by force, from Russia in 1917 to Hungary and southern Germany in 1918–19. During the time of the Weimar Republic they had been remarkably successful in winning votes, increasing their representation in the Reichstag in November 1932 to 100 seats. The Nazis, conversely, in the grip of a deep political and financial crisis, lost heavily in this, the last free election of the Weimar Republic, although they did remain the largest party.
It was not wholly implausible to suggest that the communists were launching a bid for dictatorial power in Germany in February 1933. But in reality, the Communist party of Germany, well-organised and supported though it was, expected the Weimar Republic to collapse of its own accord, as the capitalist system, in the middle of the Depression, proved unable to reproduce itself.
In the autumn of 1933, the Nazi leadership arrested several leading communists for the destruction of the Reichstag building and put them on trial along with one non-communist: a young Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, who was caught at the scene. In a humiliating defeat for the Nazis, the Reich Supreme Court, which had not yet been fully Nazified, was forced to acquit them for lack of evidence: only van der Lubbe, against whom alone the evidence was overwhelming, was convicted and executed.
In the meantime, the communists developed a rival conspiracy theory, alleging that the fire had in fact been started by the Nazis themselves in order to provide an excuse for seizing dictatorial power. The communist propagandist Willi Münzenberg staged a counter-trial in London, at which, not surprisingly, the Nazis were found guilty of the crime. For decades, this view was widely shared, including among historians.
But in 1959 a German civil servant, Fritz Tobias, published research, which subsequently appeared as a formidably lengthy and deeply researched book, arguing that van der Lubbe had burned down the Reichstag on his own. The young Dutchman was an ultra-left anarcho-syndicalist who had already tried, and failed, to burn down other public buildings in Berlin in protest against what he regarded as the shameful treatment of the unemployed by the German government. But with the Reichstag building he got lucky: breaking in through a window just after nine in the evening of 27 February, he rushed through the corridors with a blazing torch and fire-lighting equipment. Curtains and wooden furniture caught fire, and updraft spread the flames into the dome above the debating chamber. Soon, the building was in ruins.
For more than 60 years, communists and their sympathisers have tried to shake the evidence presented by Tobias and discredit him as an old Nazi. In fact, he was a lifelong Social Democrat who blamed his own and his father’s dismissals from their jobs on the measures introduced by the Nazis after the fire. Many of the communists’ arguments are characteristic of conspiracy theories in general: key documents have disappeared or have been destroyed; key witnesses have been murdered; minor discrepancies in the actual evidence prove it was falsified; critics of the conspiracy theory are politically motivated or perpetuating ‘official’ lies. Above all, their central belief – that whoever benefits from an event must have caused it – is also one of the central beliefs in conspiracy theories of many kinds.
Similar allegations can be found in the burgeoning literature concerning another celebrated incident in the history of Nazi Germany: the unexpected flight of the Nazi party’s deputy leader Rudolf Hess from Germany to Scotland in the middle of the war, on 10 May 1941, armed with a “peace offer” for Churchill’s government. The offer was rejected – it would have amounted to a virtual capitulation in the long term – and Hess was arrested, tried at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal after Germany’s final defeat, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in Spandau prison in August 1987, at the age of 93.
It was obvious to most people in 1941, including Hitler, that Rudolf Hess had acted on his own. Soon enough, however, the conspiracy theories began to multiply
It was obvious to most people in 1941 that Hess had acted on his own. He had lost power in the Nazi leadership and planned his harebrained flight in order to restore it. Hitler was horrified when he learned of Hess’s actions, as were all the other leading Nazis. Soon enough, however, the conspiracy theories began to multiply, and in recent years they have been propagated with increasing frequency. Hess was sent by Hitler; he was invited over by a secret ‘peace party’ in Britain; he was lured over by the British security services; he was collaborating with Himmler, or Heydrich, in a bid to oust the Nazi dictator; even, most bizarrely of all, the man who landed in Scotland was not Hess at all, but a double – but why anybody would have agreed to spend decades in prison without revealing he was not the real Hess has never been explained. Yet again, there are allegations that evidence has been suppressed or destroyed, and key witnesses murdered. As with the Reichstag fire conspiracy theories, documents have been presented that are clearly forgeries, designed to substitute for the real thing. None of this is at all persuasive.
The fantasies of the Hess conspiracy theorists seem almost conventional, however, in comparison to the most widespread event conspiracy theory about the Nazis today. Namely, the idea that Hitler, his wife, Eva Braun, and in some versions Blondi the dog, did not die in the Berlin bunker at the end of April 1945 but escaped to Argentina, where they lived peacefully in retirement after the war.
The fact is that Hitler was simply too ill in April 1945 to have undertaken a daring escape from Berlin, and many eyewitnesses have testified to his suicide in the bunker
Newspaper and magazine articles, a growing number of books, and even a three-season television series (Hunting Hitler, broadcast on the History Channel) have presented this thesis – though without a shred of genuine evidence. Instead, all the ‘evidence’ presented is second-hand, hearsay, or, most commonly, supposition (Hitler ‘could have’ been here; he ‘might have’ been seen there). The fact is, of course, that Hitler was too ill in April 1945 to have undertaken a daring escape from Berlin, even had it been possible, and many eyewitnesses testified to his suicide in the bunker and the destruction of his corpse at the time.
Common to many such theories is a counter-factual suggestion amounting, in the minds of at least some of those who purvey them, to a degree of wishful thinking: if only the Jews had not been conspiring, then, according to conservative anti-Semites, the modern evils of liberalism, equality, free-thinking and secularisation would not be with us. If only the German army had not been stabbed in the back, according to German nationalists, it would have won the First World War. If only the Reichstag had not been burned down by the Nazis, according to the communists, then Weimar democracy would have survived, and the Holocaust would not have happened. If only Hess’s peace mission had succeeded, according to British nationalists and nostalgic imperialists, then the Second World War would have been brought to an end, millions saved and the British empire preserved. If only the world had realised Hitler had escaped from the bunker, then, according to his admirers, we would know how great a genius he was – or alternatively, for his detractors, we would have been able to bring him to justice for his crimes. Conspiracists’ claims about discovering unrecognised truths are often accompanied by assertions of having realised unconsidered possibilities.
Conspiracy theories present to their consumers a world of black and white: of individual heroes, usually outsiders, who strive against overwhelming odds to uncover the truth; and of collective villains, usually in positions of power, who do everything to conceal it. Against the moral ambiguities of real life, they paint a picture of moral absolutes, of good and evil – a picture that is both easier to understand and, because of this, more interesting and exciting to portray than the grey complexity of documented reality. The reader, television consumer or moviegoer can gain satisfaction from identifying with the intrepid hero as he or, less commonly she, penetrates the veil of secrecy drawn by officialdom to unmask the plotters and conspirators who are manipulating events to their own advantage.
The current proliferation, and, in some cases, revival of conspiracy theories involving Hitler is part of a much wider trend, in which different influences have come together to blur the boundaries between truth and fiction; or rather, perhaps, to present alternative ‘truths’, each of which claims to correspond to reality and presents its own panoply of evidential support to back up its claims.
But there cannot be different and opposing true statements about something; there can only be one truth, even if it can sometimes be very hard to ascertain. Discovering what really happened in history is difficult. It requires a great deal of hard work, it demands direct examination of the evidence, it presupposes a willingness to change one’s mind, and it involves the suspension of one’s prejudices and preconceptions. But it can be done.
This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine
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