The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination. By Richard J. Evans. Allen Lane. £20.00 $US30.99

Richard J. Evans, former Regius Professor of History at Cambridge and a specialist on Germany’s wartime history, has written a highly readable as well as scholarly account of five 20th century conspiracies, some of which still reverberate today. They are the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the “stab-in-the back” thesis behind Germany’s defeat in WWI; the question of who burnt down the Reichstag in February 1933; what was behind the flight of Rudolf Hess to Britain in May 1941; and — easily the most far-fetched of all these conspiracy stories: Did Hitler Escape the Bunker? 

As the author explains, there are two variants on conspiracies: that they are systemic and do their insidious work over decades, even centuries by, variously, Jews, freemasons and so on; and those that arise over particular events, such as the moon landings or the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. Evans concentrates on the latter, for which there are proper paper trails that can be analysed, discarded or accepted by trained historians. 

Anyone who reads about conspiracy theories or who has been button-holed by someone on the subject, will immediately recognise the key features of such fantasies as laid out by Evans.

They are: the assumption that these events must have been planned in advance; the claim that witnesses have been murdered or have mysteriously disappeared to stop the truth being known; the belief that those who benefit from a event must have caused it; the refusal to accept that a major historical event might be caused by a lone individual rather than an organised group; the involvement of occult forces; and the forgery of documentary evidence “in the conviction that it is allowable because the forger knows what really happened and is justified in creating the proof in a situation where other, decisive proofs are for whatever reason not forthcoming”. 

There does seem to be a weakness in the human psyche that makes it prey to conspiracy theories. As Evans points out, they are “as old as history itself”. Doing the hard, scholarly work to sift the true from the false is unglamorous and time-consuming. It also makes for mundane conclusions rather than exciting narratives.

Perhaps those who indulge in them — I suspect that when you are open to one far-fetched yarn, you become highly susceptible to others — prefer the magical stories of childhood and simply transfer them to historical events that can be fitted into a beguiling narrative. If you add ancient prejudices, such as anti-Semitism, to an uncritical, undisciplined approach to facts as they are, you can easily fall into fantastic conjectures and persuade yourself they are credible. 

As Evans writes in his introduction, his is a work of historical investigation, but one particularly suited to our era of the internet, “post-truth” and “alternative facts”. It is, as he puts it, a “book for our own troubled times”. When anyone can become their own “expert” at the click of a computer button, when multiple crazy theories are given oxygen on the world wide web and when all truth is regarded as relative, the serious purpose behind this book becomes more important than ever. We need to be able to say: this is what happened; here is the evidence; these are the true facts. 

The notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a fabricated antisemitic text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination) which, despite being “rambling, chaotic and unstructured”, gave ammunition to all those believing in the old trope, a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, was proved beyond doubt in 1921 to be a forgery that had been printed in Russia by an unknown author. 

Evans quotes approvingly from a critical essay on the Protocols by historian John Gwyer published in 1938, in which the author neatly describes those who swallow such nonsense, as “members of that unfortunate crew who see a plot in anything. They can no longer open their newspapers, or read a book, or go to the cinema without observing the Hidden Hand at work…” 

Hitler’s library, interestingly, did not contain a copy of the Protocols among his 16,000 books (of which he had read very few). The fact that it was a forgery was irrelevant; it merely confirmed what he believed, that “the will to conspire and subvert social, political, cultured and economic institutions in Germany in particular and the civilised world in general, was innate to the Jewish character”. 

Given his mindset it was easy for him to connect the Protocols with his conviction that Germany had been robbed of victory in WWI and that “the overthrow of the Kaiser’s regime had been prepared” in order to establish “the rule of the Jews”, in the form of the Weimar Republic. 

Evans easily demolishes this idea, showing how a series of events, starting with the failure of the 1918 spring offensive, conspired to conceal the real reasons for Germany’s defeat from an unsuspecting German public. They were deliberately deceived by official war bulletins throughout the War as well as rigorous censorship at home; as a military analyst, General Sir Frederick Maurice, wrote in The Last Four Months (1919), there was no question that “the German armies were completely and decisively beaten in the field.”

This was too hard for the Prussian military caste, led by Ludendorff and Hindenburg, to accept. In addition, Germany’s alliances had collapsed; by summer 1918 there was widespread desertion by demoralised, ill-equipped and hungry troops. 

Answering the question “Who burned down the Reichstag?” on February, 27, 1933, after sifting all the evidence Evans comes to the generally accepted conclusion, that it was the work of one man, the young Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe. An investigation at the time concluded correctly that he was the sole perpetrator — but this did not stop the Nazis from believing it was “part of a Communist plot” and for the Communists to then develop their own conspiracy theory: “The Nazis had benefited so the Nazis must have started it.” In fact, the Nazis, ever opportunists, cynically exploited this event to crush all opposition by the summer of 1933. 

The strange flight to Scotland of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, on May 10, 1941, has excited regular speculation, probably because it was so unexpected. Indeed, I heard a full-blooded conspiracy theory talk about it at my own village hall, full of respectable members of the local history society, only a couple of years ago. Not knowing the facts I was prepared to entertain it — until I read Evans’ masterly chapter and realised that the local lecturer had relied heavily for his conclusions on a dubious book, full of speculations, Hess: A Tale of Two Murders, by Hugh Thomas, the former surgeon at Spandau Prison in Berlin.

Hess had been imprisoned there until August 1987, when he finally committed suicide after several earlier attempts. He had become seriously depressed as soon as he realised that his private, highly eccentric, mission to bring about peace between the UK and Germany, was doomed from the start: there was no British “peace party” ready to welcome him and Hitler, entirely ignorant of his deputy’s plans and planning his Russian invasion, repudiated him. 

The last chapter, “Did Hitler Escape the Bunker?” is about easily the most farfetched conspiracy, to put it politely. Yet it hasn’t gone away, especially in Argentina where he was supposed to have taken refuge, along with Eva Braun. Indeed, I watched a travel program recently on TV, in which the interviewer met a pleasant Argentinian at a remote railway station, who solemnly declared that many locals had seen the German war leader over the years. 

Although, as Evans points out, historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s celebrated short book, The Last Days of Hitler (1947), was “hurried and incomplete” — he had not had access to the Soviet files on the case — nonetheless, his conclusions were correct: Hitler had shot himself in the Berlin bunker and his body, along with that of Eva Braun, was burnt in the Chancellery garden by his valet, Heinz Linge, and SS orderlies. His teeth were identified by his dental records. 

Discovering the true facts is a vital historical enterprise. But it is not a literary one; one recalls the unlovely figure of Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. The difference between imaginative fiction and conspiracy theories is that the latter seriously pretend to provide the “real” truth, which has been hidden by the authorities and traditional accounts from an unsuspecting public for their own sinister purposes. This is dangerous nonsense. As Evans comments in his conclusion, “conspiracy theories cast doubt not only on the truth of the conclusions reached by painstaking and objective historical research, but on the very idea of truth itself”. 

I would like to give this book to a friend whose unusual mental world includes the conviction that Lord Bacon wrote Shakespeare and that Rudolf Hess died at the hands of the British government, which replaced him with a substitute in Spandau. The trouble is, he would reject its sober, unarguable conclusions. “Ah, that’s the official story,” he would tell me. He knows better.