What The Hitler Conspiracies MeanRoundup
tags: conspiracy theories, Nazism, Adolf Hitler, World War 2, Neonazis
Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, and the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory (Abacus).
The story of Hitler’s survival has escaped the confines of the lunatic fringe and made its way into the mainstream media. Fuzzy photographs have appeared in the press purporting to be images of Hitler in old age. Time and again, the US national press has reported the discovery of newly released secret service files reporting sightings of the former Nazi dictator after the end of the war. Not only will the story not go away, it seems to be finding new traction in the age of social media and the internet. Hitler sells.
Why, then, in view of the overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence for Hitler’s death, do so many people appear to believe he survived? There is no one single answer to this question. For some on the far right it seems inconceivable that he would have died such a cowardly and ignominious death. Surely a political genius of his stature must have hoodwinked the Allies and proved once more his superiority to ordinary mortals. In some cases, the proponents of Hitler’s survival have strong links to the neo-Nazi scene, or betray anti-Semitic beliefs, or are involved with white supremacy organisations in the US that regard Hitler as an inspiration for their activities.
For others on the American right, Hitler appears as an evil being whose survival was the result of work by malign forces within the “deep state” of the US government and intelligence services that have brought “Nazi” policies such as “Obamacare” and other products of an imaginary socialist “New World Order” into being.
More generally, like other conspiracy theories, the idea of Hitler’s survival provides a kind of compensation for feelings of marginalisation and exclusion. Those who believe, or purport to believe, in it can boost their own self-esteem by assuring themselves that they know the truth, whereas everyone who takes a different view is either deliberately covering it up or is being hoodwinked by government agencies and agents.
In the age of social media, when 280-character tweets are, for many, taking on the main function of conveying information, opinion is replacing argument and prejudice is replacing knowledge. More and more people seem to think that it is pointless to make a judgement about a topic on the basis of detailed research and a careful appraisal of the evidence. The traditional gatekeepers of opinion, such as newspaper and magazine editors, radio and television producers, and book publishers, have been bypassed as even the most bizarre and irrational theories find their way into the public sphere.
That this is dangerous as well as disturbing seems obvious. Portraying Hitler as a genius who was never defeated undermines the legitimacy of the historical profession, demeans genuine researchers and writers, and insults the memory of the millions who suffered under Nazism or contributed to its overthrow.
But conspiracy theories of this and, indeed, other kinds also make evidence-based discourse more difficult, and open the way to decision-making, including at the highest levels of government, becoming detached from the rational appraisal of the situations it addresses. Dismissing serious historical research is no different in the end from dismissing serious climate research, or serious medical research. In a situation such as the one we face with the coronavirus pandemic, contempt for science and reason can, as we have already seen, cost lives. It could also, in the long run, cost the human race its future.
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