A review of The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination, Richard Evans (Penguin, 2021), £9.99
Even as astute an historian as Richard Evans could never have foreseen the excellent timing of his latest work, which appeared amid the maelstrom of Covid-19 conspiracy theories. We have witnessed, among other conspiracist phenomena, the lightening spread of the QAnon “cult movement” across the United States, arguing that Hilary Clinton is part of a child abuse network and making many other bizarre claims. With his latest book, Evans studies the various conspiracy theories surrounding Hitler—from his emergence to his downfall and beyond—at times ripping them apart humorously.
Having a clear definition of conspiracy theories matters. To paraphrase Lobster magazine editor Robin Ramsay, conspiracy research is about separating “out the handful of wheat from the chaff for the real research about conspiracies”. Indeed, there have been many real conspiracies, including, for instance, the Watergate scandal and the Iran-Contra affair. Evans concedes this, stating that “numerous real conspiracies exist”, but also rightly points out that, for the conspiracist, “no major event in history happens by chance”. Of course, such incredulousness towards happenstance differs from the conscious peddling of propaganda lies by Joseph Goebbels and Donald Trump. Karl Marx’s famous words in relation to the philosophy of G W F Hegel spring to mind: “All great, world-historical facts occur twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
Evans’s range is broad, even quoting a Simpsons episode that ridicules myths about Hitler. He explains: “With many conspiracy theories, truth does not matter. Truths, even if disproving a given conspiracy theory, appear irrelevant.” The disturbingly large numbers who followed Q—the anonymous imageboard poster who led the QAnon movement—show that “once down the rabbit hole, rationality can fast 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 defeat in the courtroom owed much to Evans’s authority. Methodically, Evans unravels “fantasies and fictions” concerning revisionist myths around Hitler and the Third Reich. Among these are the claims by David Icke, Britain’s most prominent conspiracy theorist, that Hitler fled to Colombia. The dovetailing of QAnon and fake stories about Hitler can be seen from the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which emerged after emails between Hilary Clinton and her presidential election campaign chair, John Podesta, were published online in 2016. Amid other preposterous claims, Pizzagate adherents argued that Angela Merkel is one of Hitler’s daughters.
A theme that will interest many is the hoax surrounding The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Evans notes that the Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that the Nazis used the Protocols as a text book for their antisemitism despite them being “widely discredited”. Parallels can be seen between Hitler’s worldview and today’s QAnon believers, who posit Jewish financier George Soros and “the New World Order” as the “real forces behind history”. However, Evans shows that the protocols are not as influential to Nazi ideology and barbarism as many claim. The book was a despicable forgery, largely written under the antisemitic Tsarist regime in Russia, that purports to describe a plot for Jewish world domination. As Evans explains, the text’s power consisted in revealing the supposed “fundamental truth” that Jews want global hegemony, and this gave it a continued influence despite common knowledge that it was a falsification. Evans shows that the Protocols were shaped by the antisemitism of the extreme right in the French Third Republic, of which the Dreyfus affair was another product. Tsarist popularisers of the text built upon French and German antisemitism, and Evans demonstrates that the Protocols themselves were actually drawn from a number of prior sources. Nevertheless, their impact in Russia was considerable; for instance, the counter-revolutionary White Armies argued that the Bolsheviks were representatives of the Elders of Zion.
The Protocols found a huge audience in Weimar Germany. By the time of Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, 33 editions had been printed, although how widely read they were, Evans points out, cannot be known. Hitler himself never completely believed the Protocols, but that did not stop him using them. Hitler’s propaganda argued that the Protocols revealed the Jews’ plans, even if individual Jews knew these plans only “unconsciously”. The Jews’ secret machinations did not necessitate conscious plotting; instead, it was enough to have Jewish genetic material to be in on the conspiracy. Goebbels use of the “big lie” is writ large here.
Defenders of the Churchill statue in Westminster might think differently of him when reading here that Churchill also once praised the Protocols. Yet, despite their huge influence, the falsehoods of the Protocols were exposed by a high profile court case that began in 1933 in Berne, Switzerland. The court found against the far-right Swiss National Front for distributing the Protocols, which it condemned as “risible nonsense”. Nevertheless, of course, the Nazis continued the myth of a global Jewish conspiracy.
Chapters on the 1933 Reichstag fire and Hitler’s alleged escape from his Berlin bunker at the end of the Second World War show Evans’s great strengths as a historian. Assembling immense data, he demolishes absurd assertions by various charlatans. As Evans says, in order to actually work, a conspiracy has to be tightly knit; here, small is beautiful. Evans argues that “false narratives” and vague allegations can give conspiracy theories a mischievous force. Those who become “believers” can see a plot in anything and the hidden hand everywhere. This was evident on many of the recent anti-lockdown demonstrations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Evans documents unbelievable arguments from those who describe Hitler’s alleged post-war Latin American travels. Living in an “ideologically sealed cocoon”, many fail to countenance rational critiques. The numbers perpetuating such wild allegations show how far such delusions can go.
Evans’s rigorous scrutiny of the myths surrounding deputy führer Rudolf Hess’s disastrous flight to Britain in 1941 is enthralling. Several ludicrous but profitable tomes about Hess’s flight have surfaced. Evans painstakingly proves Hess’s mission was sheer hubris rather than a calculated Nazi effort backed by sections of British pro-appeasement politicians—real as such political currents were. However, one necessary caveat comes from Tim Tate’s Hitler’s British Traitors: The Secret History of Spies, Saboteurs and Fifth Columnists; contrary to Evans’s claims that there is no evidence of an organised conspiracy to overthrow Churchill, M15 files reveal such plots did exist. For example, the Right Club, led by Scottish Unionist MP Archibald Maule Ramsay, schemed for a fascist coup.
Evans’s conspiracy debunking occasionally overstates his case. Is it correct to say that objections to the official narrative about the 1963 assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, are mere pseudo-explanations? The rigorously researched work of recognised writers such as Anthony Summers speaks against this.
Throughout the book, Evans underlines the pervasive antisemitism in establishment circles in Germany and elsewhere. The alleged “stab in the back” of the German army in 1918 was peppered with myths concerning “Jewish shirkers” who supposedly avoided war duties. Germany’s tiny Jewish population was also targeted with accusations that the “Jewish spirit” drove huge wartime inflation. As Richard Donnelly wrote recently, there are economic, social and political material circumstances which form important backdrops to why bizarre and illogical conspiracies can strike a chord, sadly, with many (“Conspiracy Theories: Feeding Off the Social Malaise”, Socialist Review 462).
Evans’s work here is important, although it is surprising that no reference is made of US fascist philosopher Francis Parker Yockey and his book Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics, which is very influential among today’s neo-Nazis and Trump fanatics.
John George’s and Laird Wilcox’s Nazis, Communists, Klansmen and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America is a useful companion to Evans’s book. George and Wilcox focused on Nazi conspiracists. QAnon’s antisemitic tropes about Mark Zuckerberg and other high profile Jews has its precedents. Evans’s emphasis on debunking “unscientific” conspiracist explanations around Hitler carries great weight. The preponderance of far-right material on new social media platforms such as Parler, Gab and Telegram means that Evans performs a valuable role. Conspiracist movements such as QAnon have had appalling consequences; not only did QAnon help to fuel the riots at the US Capitol building in January 2021, but its themes influenced the murderer of 11 people at the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Its “believers” often deny that ethnic minorities possess “civilised values”, and this buttresses Islamophobic and antisemitic “great replacement” theories of a global plot against the “white race”.
Evans’s book is a sturdy blast against these “communities of alternative knowledge”, and Marxists will concur with his conclusion that “working out what happened in history matters” and that “evidence and painstaking research” is critical. Not all views hold equal weight—Holocaust denial is the “denial of millions of individuals’ existence”. History, Evans argues, can be revised and questioned only when subjected to reason, science and evidenced hypotheses. This work empowers all who value history, and those looking to find meaning in history will gain from reading it. It is a deeply informed book that will enrage little Hitlers who seek to twist the historical record. Evans’s acquisition of information particle by particle is a robust, refreshing and welcome defence of the discipline of history.
Paul Sillett previously worked for Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up to Racism. He now works in security.