Book cover of The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination
Thanks to the internet, conspiracy theories have graduated from the lunatic fringe into mainstream politics. That is bad news for democracies. In the attack on the US Capitol we have a potent example of the damage that can be done when a populist position actively propagates a conspiracy theory.
But the overlap of alternative facts (or fake news) and politics is not a US monopoly. From Hungary, Poland and Russia to Turkey and India, the list of regimes that leverage conspiracy theories to curtail democratic freedoms is a grim reminder of the fragility of democratic institutions. That makes The Hitler Conspiracies uniquely relevant for our times.
Richard Evans, author of a peerless trilogy on the Third Reich, focuses on conspiracy theories masquerading as revisionist histories of Hitler’s regime. His scrupulous research and calibrated prose demonstrates how the internet has enabled long discredited conspiracy theories to acquire a new lease of life, “given credence by claims of freshly discovered evidence”. The polarising figure of Adolf Hitler, unambiguously evil in western culture but admired by many on the extremes of the political spectrum (including the Shiv Sena), offers rich pickings for wingnuts and assorted charlatans.
For an idea of how these conspiracies have acquired fresh dynamism, consider one with which we are familiar. This is the theory that Hitler escaped with his mistress/wife Eva Braun to Argentina (or Brazil or Colombia), lived out his life in domestic bliss, dying at the age of 72 or 90, and fathering two daughters (one theory claims German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of his daughters).
A cottage industry of books
and TV serials — including on the History Channel — has flourished around the notion that the western powers have a vested interest in suppressing the “truth” about Hitler’s escape. “Despite all the evidence to the contrary, more book-length arguments of Hitler in Argentina have appeared in the twenty-first century than the whole of the fifty-five previous years,” Dr Evans writes. All are based on spurious evidentiary data, forgeries and are often laughably wrong (an Argentinian maid said she served Hitler sausages; it is well-known that he was faddishly vegetarian).
No surprise, one of the most enthusiastic champions of this myth is the right-wing politician Jerome Corsi, author of Hunting Hitler (2014). Dr Corsi is purveyor of falsehoods about John Kerry’s Vietnam record, 9/11 and Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He became an ardent supporter of Donald Trump and was appointed Washington bureau chief of the fake news website InfoWars in 2017.
The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination
Author: Richard J Evans
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 900; Pages: 276
Hitler’s South American after-life is one of five conspiracy theories that Dr Evans covers in this book, which is the outcome of a research project titled “Conspiracy and Democracy”. The others are: The role the forged document “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” played in genocide; the “stab-in the-back” theory explaining Germany’s defeat in World War I; the Reichstag fire that enabled Hitler to acquire dictatorial powers; and Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess’ flight to Britain.
The leitmotif of the conspiracy theory is, as Dr Evan writes, “the idea that what conspiracy theorists describe as the ‘official’ or, in other words, generally accepted version of a process or an event… is false”. Conspiracy theorists seek credibility by claiming that historians, journalists and academics are coerced into concealing the truth to which only the conspiracy theorist is privy. The breadth of Dr Evan’s scholarship is on full display. He debunks the conspiracy theories not just with a forensic examination of the claims against documented evidence — a result that ranges from hilariously entertaining to chilling — but also by setting them within their historical context, explaining how they shaped the Third Reich and influence extremist politics today.
Protocols was revealed, as early as 1921, to be a work of multiple plagiarisms and forgeries.
The Protocols was a forgery, but he believed the “inner, not the factual truth” of the document.
It is a pity that Dr Evans did not examine the biggest conspiracy theory of this genre: Holocaust denial. Perhaps that is because the connection between the Holocaust and Palestine’s tragic history would require a book-length exposition. His 2002 book The Hitler Conspiracies — in which Dr Evans appears as an expert witness. Both books
are a reminder that away from the serious historian’s craft, history can be manipulated to suit many ignoble purposes.