Conspiracy theories can serve many functions. They may be tactical weapons wielded against political adversaries, or licenses for every form of revilement and victimization; they may be tools of induction into militant cadres or apocalyptic cults; they may offer seemingly reasoned justifications for already deeply held suspicions and animosities; they may provide entertainment in which any true believer can become an investigator, infiltrator, counter-conspirator, or, if committed enough, perhaps world savior. In the age of the Internet they continue to evolve into a proliferating and constantly mutating combination of scripture and adventure story, readily monetized by hucksters and proselytizers, able to incorporate any arbitrary detail—a reference to take-out pizza in a purloined e-mail, say—and inflate it into a building block of a global plot.
Richard J. Evans’s The Hitler Conspiracies is a suite of investigations into conspiracy theories relating to Hitler and the Third Reich—whether they paved the way for the Nazi regime and its policies, served propaganda purposes either for or against the Nazis, or provided fodder in the postwar era for what has become a deliriously unfettered global traffic in “alternative facts.” Having recounted the history of the Third Reich in a series of magisterial volumes and engaged closely and combatively with postwar revisionists (In Hitler’s Shadow) and Holocaust deniers (Lying About Hitler), Evans now confronts history that is not simply distorted or evaded but replaced altogether by a fantastic parallel version. The result, far from being a narrowly specialized study, could not be wider and more timely in its implications.
He has singled out—from a vast range of possibilities, since anything having to do with Hitler and the Nazis by now has its attendant corpus of folklore and fabrication—five focal points: the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and its influence on the Nazi regime; the “stab in the back” legend that Germany’s defeat in World War I was due to nefarious attitudes and actions on the home front; the question of who was responsible for the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933; the purpose of Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess’s flight to Britain in May 1941; and, in the book’s longest chapter, the multiple and ever-evolving scenarios in which Hitler, rather than dying in his bunker, somehow survived the war. Evans establishes with characteristic precision the background of each one and then traces, in necessarily intricate detail, the processes by which it was transformed and deformed. Since such processes tend to flourish in a climate of mystification and deliberately, sometimes sanctimoniously convoluted misdirection, it takes all his gifts for rigorously compact exposition to keep the narrative lines clear.
In a domain full of digressive rabbit holes and feverish flights of free association, Evans fixes his attention on the human circumstances out of which those flights arise: the freight of lives lived, actions committed, milieus inhabited. A tone of calm skepticism does not disguise his underlying theme of proliferating peril. Beginning in the aftermath of the French Revolution—a crucial juncture for the formation of modern-style conspiracy theories centering around libertine philosophers, Illuminati, Freemasons, and Jews—the book moves inexorably toward our present moment: “Nowhere has the spread of conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’ become more obvious than in revisionist accounts of the history of the Third Reich.”
Reading the book these past weeks has been like setting out to study with detached fascination the falsehoods and fabrications of earlier eras, and then finding by the final pages that in the meantime the ground under one’s armchair has been undermined by an army of diligent saboteurs who might at any moment break through the floorboards. The impression is fortified by how closely what Evans writes dovetails with daily newsbreaks, and how often unfolding events have seemed direct extensions of his text. As recently as late August, for instance, the Republican National Convention scrubbed at the last minute a video presentation on stricter immigration policies when the scheduled speaker, Mary Ann Mendoza, promoted on Twitter a long thread asserting, among other claims, that “‘The Protocols Of The Elders of Zion’ Is Not A Fabrication. And, It Certainly Is Not Anti-Semetic [sic] To Point Out This Fact.”
Evans’s first chapter meticulously lays out the circuitous process by which the Protocols was indeed fabricated from a “mishmash” of sources, and how it was first published in 1903 by a Russian newspaper editor who “had recently organized a pogrom in Kishinev, in his native province of Bessarabia, in which forty-five Jews had been killed and over a thousand Jewish homes and shops destroyed.”1 He further describes how it came to be published in Germany in 1920 by the founder of a right-wing group called the Association Against the Presumption of the Jews, and went through thirty-three editions up to 1933. All that would doubtless do little to convince the author of the aforementioned Twitter thread. Such clarifications, as Evans acknowledges, are of limited if any use in blunting the allure of conspiracy theories, since so often the final resort of their adherents is to assert that “it doesn’t matter in the end whether their actual claims are true or false”; what is in question amounts to revealed wisdom, a more fundamental truth beyond any need for evidence.
In the case of the Protocols, the fakeness of the document—cooked up from an episode in a pseudonymous novel by a Prussian police agent (Hermann Goedsche’s Biarritz, 1868), extracts from a left-wing French tract of 1864 attacking Napoleon III, and further additions by a still-unidentified Russian compiler, then passed off as secret minutes from the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897—had been widely and persuasively established by the early 1920s. But for Hitler in Mein Kampf, the newspaper accounts of the Protocols’ fraudulence provided “the surest proof that they are genuine.” While Goebbels remarked in his diary that he considered the document a forgery—“I do not think the Jews are so completely stupid as not to keep such important protocols secret”—he nevertheless accepted them as “the inner, but not the factual truth.”
Time and again Evans comes up against the same wall: for the truly committed, “ultimately facts did not matter.” He elucidates, for instance, how the belief that at the end of World War I the German army was “stabbed in the back”—by Social Democrats, Communists, profiteers, and slackers of all sorts—merged with the conviction that German Jews had systematically evaded combat duty.2 When the War Ministry in 1916 ordered a census to establish the truth of this, the results showed that “80 per cent of Jewish soldiers were serving at the front,” but this information was withheld from the public, and anti-Semitic activists remained free to brandish their imaginary statistics on the subject. When the census became available after the war, it made little difference. Evans cites the argument of the right-wing ideologue Hans Blüher in 1922:
It’s no use today for the Jewish press to try and refute the “myth of the stab-in-the-back.” You can prove and refute anything…. In this instance no “proofs” for and against are of any use, even if a hundred thousand Jews had fallen for the Fatherland.
In the case of the Protocols, Evans goes so far as to propose that relatively few of those inclined to cite it as a reliable source—including Hitler—had read much or any of it. For most it was enough to believe that there existed copious documentary evidence of a conspiracy to create a worldwide Jewish dictatorship, and to scan the lurid running heads provided by helpful editors (“Reign of Terror…The Poison of Liberalism…The Spreading of Epidemics…Gentiles are Sheep”); it was not necessary to wade through the many garbled and contradictory pages whose details reflected the political preoccupations of an earlier era. Hitler, Evans suggests, more likely gleaned its contents from the summary and extracts included in the auto manufacturer Henry Ford’s ghostwritten collection of articles The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, published in Germany in 1922.3 In any event, for Hitler and his colleagues the Protocols was only one item in the large and widely disseminated literature of anti-Semitism that served merely “to confirm what they already knew.”
Evans distinguishes two major categories: the systemic conspiracy theory—the notion of what Richard Hofstadter described in his pioneering study of the “paranoid style” in politics as “a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character”4—and the event conspiracy theory, exposing the hidden causes of singular occurrences, whether assassinations or plagues or lunar landings. He acknowledges that “the two types of conspiracy may, in the minds of some conspiracists, be linked…but this is not necessarily the case.”
Not necessarily, perhaps—but to speak anecdotally, they seem in contemporary America almost invariably to be linked; few conspiratorial threads exist in isolation without linking up eventually to a nearly infinite web of machinations. It feels like we are living through the baroque decadence of the genre, in which each round of complications must surpass what went before, as, in Evans’s words (about speculation on the JFK assassination and the events of September 11), “the proponents of rival theories construct evidential edifices of such staggering detail and complexity that they are frequently almost impossible for the layperson to navigate.” In such cases there can, however, be no telling how much farther, or farther out, things may go.
The Reichstag fire serves ostensibly as a pure—and, by comparison with later examples, relatively restrained—instance of the event conspiracy. Hitler became Reich chancellor on January 30, 1933. The fire broke out on the evening of February 27. A passerby saw a man with a torch shattering a window to enter the building; flames spread quickly; a twenty-four-year-old Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was arrested inside—sweating and half-naked—and claimed to have started the fire alone, as an act of protest. The Nazis immediately declared the fire to be the result of a Communist conspiracy.
Mass arrests followed within hours, and an emergency decree (never rescinded until the Reich’s fall) suspended civil liberties; a month later the Enabling Act gave Hitler total legislative power. Evans writes, “The Third Reich, therefore, was built on the foundations of a conspiracy theory.” The case for a Communist plot was weak enough—and the judicial system still sufficiently independent—that when three Bulgarian Communists and the German Communist Party chairman Ernst Torgler stood trial alongside van der Lubbe, all but the Dutchman (who was promptly executed) were acquitted for lack of evidence.
The idea of Communist responsibility for the fire gained little traction outside Germany. However, a counternarrative developed by the exiled Comintern propagandist Willi Münzenberg and others, and widely disseminated in The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag (1933), had more enduring influence. The Brown Book presented a detailed and documented account of how a team of Nazi arsonists had started the fire and planted the allegedly mentally deficient van der Lubbe to take the fall. For many this remains the classic example of the “false flag” operation, precipitating disorder to provide a pretext to eliminate the opposition and seize absolute power. The narrative continues to be evoked as a cautionary model. Commentators in the months before the 2020 US elections repeatedly wondered aloud if Trump’s apparent attempts to foment further chaos on the streets of Portland and elsewhere might constitute his “Reichstag moment.”5
Of course, one can have a Reichstag moment without a Nazi conspiracy to burn the Reichstag. The use made of the opportunity, even if the opportunity arose by chance, makes for a no less horrific chain of events. But there is no doubt that the element of prior planning adds dramatic intensity, while attributing to the Nazis a strategic cunning almost preternatural in its efficacy. In this case it is still the version that people tend to remember; for many it is the only one they have ever heard. I can recall that being told by a savvier classmate in elementary school that the Nazis themselves had burned the Reichstag was like the dawning of another way of looking at the world, a way that would forever involve doubting appearances and questioning motives: a moment of privileged initiation into the secret order of those who really know what goes on.
A quick scan of the Internet gives a more muted impression of current consensus regarding responsibility, with a range of websites rendering such final judgments as “almost impossible to know” (Smithsonian Magazine) and “a topic of debate and research” (Wikipedia, whose entry does however allot much space to arguments favoring Nazi guilt). Evans finds no such ambiguity, declaring that “the argument for van der Lubbe’s sole culpability for the Reichstag Fire is overwhelming”—the same conclusion reached by an initial report of the Berlin police and reaffirmed in what Evans considers highly convincing detail by the German writer Fritz Tobias in his book The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Reality (1962).
The Reichstag fire presents itself as a very different sort of matter from the Protocols. The latter conjured up an ancient conspiracy of global dimensions and forecast the future crimes that would arise from it, on the basis of no evidence other than the imaginary testimony of imaginary witnesses. The fire did actually occur; an investigation and a trial took place; material evidence was produced. One might imagine that many decades later it would be possible to converge on a plausible explanation. After Tobias’s research was published, as Evans recounts at length, quite the contrary occurred: denunciations of Tobias and his claims; a series of articles, books, and committee reports presenting seemingly irrefutable evidence for Nazi responsibility; the identification of much of that evidence as forged or misconstrued; elaborate efforts to undermine the credibility of Tobias and anyone who supported his conclusions. The claims and counterclaims continue, as a sampling of relevant websites makes clear.6
A hypothesis floated in good faith may turn out to be incorrect, just as a hypothesis floated in bad faith might in fact explain what happened. At what point does it become a conspiracy theory? For Evans, the indications here include the reluctance to accept that chance—including the chance intervention of an unaffiliated loner—can play a determining part in major events; reliance on the cui bono idea that to benefit from an event is evidence that one is responsible for it; the suggestion that crucial witnesses have been deliberately silenced (participants in the fire are said to have been liquidated, many during the Night of the Long Knives the following year); a willingness to engage in deliberate misrepresentation or outright forgery in the interests of a higher truth; and, as a last resort, the branding of researchers who question the explanation as part of the conspiracy themselves (Tobias has been characterized as a Nazi sympathizer and blackmailer).
Evans also notes the suggestion by one researcher in the 1990s—in an image straight out of an early Fritz Lang film—that van der Lubbe may have been hypnotized by a clairvoyant to make him a pliable tool of the Nazis, “an element of occultism and the paranormal” foreshadowing a great deal more of the same.
Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland in May 1941—he was anxious, he said, to meet with the Duke of Hamilton, to whom he attributed German sympathies—was a mysterious event in its own time, but before reading Evans I was not aware what a body of arcane speculation it continues to generate. Hess, an early and intensely devoted Hitler loyalist, had been nudged aside within the Nazi leadership; a devotee of astrology and the occult who was described by his secretaries as “confused and disoriented,” he told the British that on his own authority he had undertaken to negotiate a peace settlement that would take Britain out of the war. Apparently under the impression that there existed a powerful faction of appeasers within the UK government eager to make such a peace, he offered completely unacceptable terms. Held prisoner until the end of the war, he stood trial at Nuremberg and spent the rest of his life confined to Spandau prison in Berlin.
Evans’s account suggests the confusion created by Hess’s defection. The Duke of Hamilton—baffled by the whole situation—was summoned to Churchill’s country house and briefed him on what the prime minister called “this funny story of yours,” but further discussion was suspended while Churchill proceeded with a planned screening of a Marx Brothers film. Hitler, notified of Hess’s flight, reacted (according to Albert Speer) with “an inarticulate, almost animal outcry,” and vowed that if he did make peace with Britain it would be on condition that Hess be executed. British Communists denounced the Duke of Hamilton as a “Quisling.” Stalin, dining with Churchill at the Kremlin in 1944, proposed a toast to British Intelligence for successfully luring Hess to Britain.
The conviction that something much more complicated underlay Hess’s flight—something involving Hitler, or a dissident faction in the Nazi Party, or Churchill, or MI5, or a cabal of peace-minded English aristocrats, or a cabal pretending to be peace-minded English aristocrats—has provided material for a cottage industry of independent research and given rise to a stream of books such as Peter Allen’s The Crown and the Swastika: Hitler, Hess, and the Duke of Windsor (1983), Louis C. Kilzer’s Churchill’s Deception: The Dark Secret That Destroyed Nazi Germany (1994), and John Harris and M.J. Trow’s Hess: The British Conspiracy (1999).
The tales get progressively wilder, and often more deeply imbued with the most dubious ideological tendencies: Hess was an emissary of Hitler who sincerely sought peace. In rejecting Hitler’s offer, Churchill was ultimately responsible for the Holocaust and the cold war and the collapse of the British Empire—but then, Churchill and the Allies were responsible for the war in the first place. Hess was poisoned in prison to make him mad. His suicide—at the age of ninety-three, the last prisoner in Spandau—was faked. He had been murdered by British Intelligence to cover up his wartime dealings with British politicians who sought peace. He had been murdered to cover up what he knew about secret Nazi bases under Antarctica. He had been replaced by a double, and it was the double who crash-landed in Scotland and who died in Spandau—just as, in a parallel narrative, Hitler would be replaced by the double whose remains were burned in Berlin, while the Führer and Eva Braun were whisked off to South America in a submarine.
I heard that latter story on the playground too. In the Eisenhower era it wasn’t unusual for fifth graders to be swapping Hitler lore, no matter how far-fetched or off-base—and most of it was. Growing up after the war, we heard the fantasies and rumors before we learned any history. The fantasies and rumors, whether about Hitler or flying saucers or fluoridated water, continued to proliferate along the margins—a midden heap amounting to a parallel history—until in the late 1960s came a full flowering of the outlandish. It was amusing to sit with friends and parse the details of multiple assassination theories and convoluted espionage plots, all of which were somehow folded in with the mysteries of Atlantis, the cosmic pseudoscience of Immanuel Velikovsky, ancient astronauts, Soviet paranormal research, and the subterranean history of the Holy Grail. It was only when I got a job processing mail orders for an occult bookstore that the charm began to pall. The stuff went off in all directions, and wherever it went it seemed remarkably often to be absorbed into the most repulsive political subcurrents.
By the early 1980s we were awash in recovered memories of satanic child abuse that led to trials and convictions on the basis of what amounted to spectral evidence, and by the 1990s heavily armed militias were scanning the skies for black helicopters heralding the New World Order. William Cooper’s best-selling Behold a Pale Horse (1991) corralled the JFK assassination, the Trilateral Commission, the Knights of Columbus, the purported laboratory creation of AIDS, and the 1949 suicide of former navy secretary James Forrestal into a metanarrative about a cosmic conspiracy of space aliens to conquer Earth.
In 1999 the science fiction movie The Matrix introduced the red pill/blue pill metaphor beloved of conspiracy theorists (who prefer the red pill that reveals the horrifying hidden reality unseen by others), and Alex Jones founded InfoWars. (A proponent of Birtherism among countless other conspiracy theories, Jones was given a hero’s welcome by armed protesters outside the Maricopa County vote-counting center after the election, leading chants of “Arrest Bill Gates!” and “Arrest Joe Biden!”) In Oklahoma City in 1995, Timothy McVeigh took the lives of 168 people in a terrorist attack partly inspired by the political fantasy novel The Turner Diaries (1978). A different sort of counterculture was taking shape.
In Lying About Hitler, an account of the trial of David Irving, Evans wrote of a genre of popular pseudohistory about the Third Reich—tales of secret doppelgängers and caches of Nazi gold and ancient secret societies working for the Resistance—that offered “a perverse kind of entertainment” in which “nothing was quite what it seemed, and terrible secrets had been suppressed by mainstream historical scholarship for decades or even centuries…. On the whole it seemed fairly harmless.” He contrasted such material with the truly disturbing and dangerous disinformation campaigns of Holocaust deniers like Irving.7 The last two decades have made it harder to discern the line between perverse entertainment and ominous intercepted messaging.
As conspiratorial fantasizing spreads more widely thanks to digital technology, taking ever more extreme forms as it travels, even the most casual onlooker might feel that there is indeed a conspiracy underway, nothing less than a worldwide conspiracy of conspiracy theorists, whether motivated by cultic rapture, Machiavellian scheming, entrepreneurial zest, or the adrenaline of gaming. Perhaps it is a matter of surrendering, out of discontented boredom, to the pleasures of connecting dots, feasting on the “Easter eggs” (hidden images or messages) planted as treats for diligent consumers of video games and blockbuster movies and on the cryptic “breadcrumbs” laid out to provide hints for devotees of QAnon. Facts are confining and dispiriting; fantasy is unbounded and exhilarating even when goaded on by dread. These are narratives of escape, even if they must culminate—as they so often do—in a dream of annihilation.
Early in The Hitler Conspiracies, Evans quotes the British historian John Gwyer commenting in the year of the Munich Conference on the appeal of the Protocols: “One is reluctant to think that the average intelligence of mankind is really so low that it cannot distinguish between plain truth and fantastic falsehood.” Since 1938 it has not become any easier to think otherwise. More books on Hitler in Argentina have been published in the first two decades of this century than in the previous fifty-five years. In Argentina, it is said, Eva gave birth to daughters, one of whom may well be Angela Merkel. Then again, Hitler seems to have ended up in Indonesia, where he converted to Islam. Or was he buried in Antarctica among the secret Nazi bases housing anti-gravity rockets? Meanwhile, Jerome Corsi (remembered for having helped orchestrate the smear attack on John Kerry’s war record in 2004) has recounted in Hunting Hitler (2014) how Allen Dulles and the CIA helped Hitler make it to Argentina; in later writings he discerns Hitler’s ideological legacy in free trade agreements and the Affordable Care Act.
Evans gets as much humor as he can from all this, with the implicit irritation of the historian forced to spend so much time and energy demolishing theories that required so little effort to construct in the first place—knowing all the while the hardy persistence of the groundless and the certainty that his own scholarship will be vilified as the inherently compromised “official” cover-up. Hitler may have died in the bunker, but narratives asserting that he did not will endure as long as there is anyone on the planet who cares enough to perpetuate them. Such narratives exist in a timeless zone outside history, ready to be recalled to life at any moment.
Evans speaks at the end of “a willingness to change one’s mind” and “the abandonment of one’s prejudices and preconceptions in the face of evidence that tells against them” as prerequisites for the difficult job of “working out what really happened in history.” His own evidence in The Hitler Conspiracies makes clear how much more difficult it is when the people you need to reach may have migrated irrevocably to other channels.
The claim of a stolen election put forward by Trump and his supporters has for a number of commentators evoked ominous parallels to the “stab in the back” theory; see, among others, Jochen Bittner, “1918 Germany Has a Warning for America,” The New York Times, November 30, 2020. ↩
Donald Trump made no explicit reference to Ford’s proselytizing for anti-Semitism when, on a visit to a Ford factory in May 2020, he referred to “the company, founded by a man named Henry Ford. Good bloodlines, good bloodlines. If you believe in that stuff, you got good blood.” ↩
Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956–1965 (Library of America, 2020), p. 512. ↩
Dana Milbank, “This Is Not a Drill. The Reichstag Is Burning,” The Washington Post, September 25, 2020; Jeffrey C. Isaac, “Has Trump’s Reichstag Moment Finally Arrived?,” Public Seminar, June 2, 2020; John Buell, “Does Trump See COVID-19 and Protests Against Police Brutality as His Reichstag Moment?,” Informed Comment, June 1, 2020. ↩
Evans is unpersuaded of the reliability of the most recent supposed bombshell, the recovery of a notarized statement by a former SA member, Hans Martin Lennings, testifying that he helped deliver van der Lubbe to the Reichstag after the fire had already broken out. ↩
Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial (Basic Books, 2002), pp. 108–109. ↩