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The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination (Allen Lane) by Richard J Evans

It isn’t often that historians can boast about claiming a scalp. Such a privilege is usually reserved for journalists, or mafia hitmen. Yet when Richard Evans, then Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, took the stand in a 2000 libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt, what occurred was the most satisfyingly complete evisceration of a body of work ever put to record. By the time Evans was finished, David Irving – a well-regarded if controversial writer of popular Second World War histories – was nothing but a puddle of ooze on the courtroom floor: unmasked as a second-rate forger, serial liar, and all-around Nazi sympathiser. Irving’s reputation never recovered. We’ve been blessed by his absence.

It is also a rare thing that facts, on their own, truly matter. Since at least 2016, as the detritus of the internet bled into everyday life, there has been plenty of vexed hand wringing about "post-truth" and "alternative facts"; without a firm basis in evidence, the claim goes, liberal society will not survive. Richard Evans is disturbed by this decline, and The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination is his defence of the long hard slog of doing history, as well as a polemic against those who belong to (in the tundra-like dryness of his humour) “communities of alternative knowledge.” This is, he asserts, “a book for our own troubled times.”

Over five tight and methodical chapters, Evans handily deals with some emerging untruths about the Second World War, Hitler, Nazism, and the midnight of the century. Far from being the "warrant for genocide", as so many have alleged, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a bad, boring, and hysterical construction, and even then, was barely referenced by the Nazis; they had arisen with their own versions of antisemitism, race "science", and will to power already built in. Rudolf Hess was not acting on secret orders from Hitler when he flew to Scotland in 1941 seeking peace from British appeasers and anti-communists. Nor was Germany "stabbed in the back" at the end of the First World War – the infamous Dolchstoss myth that fuelled so much interwar reaction. Far from being a covert communist or stormtrooper plot, the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 was in fact carried out by a lone anarchist. Lastly, and most enjoyably in the book, Evans deals with the persistent rumours that Hitler didn’t blast his brains out in April 1945 but instead fled to some kind of serene senescence in South America.

“Absolutely no basis in reality”; “no evidence at all to back up allegations”; “absence of any real facts”; “fantastical claims”; Evans is ruthless and even-handed in his demolition of these fabulations, while also musing on the broader pull and allure of conspiracies. Yet there are some differences which Evans elides: not all "post-truths" are so easily dismissible as conspiracy theory. Disinformation (the deliberate sowing of uncertainty) is quite distinct from ratfucking (targeted sabotage), and neither necessarily requires an element of conspiracy. In turn, propaganda can contain aspects of all three. Correctly identifying what the fiction represents is the first task in attempting to respond. And just as important as knowing how to argue against falsehood is understanding what drives people to it in the first instance.

Evans frequently bumps into some provocative thoughts which, unfortunately, aren’t brought up to the modern day. He intuits early on that conspiracies provide “a key to understanding seemingly incomprehensible, complex events and processes, from wars and revolutions to stock exchange crashes and economic crises…The puzzling complexities of politics and society are reduced to a simple formula that everyone can understand.” Indeed, conspiracies are frequently the refuge of the dispossessed and the alienated, frustrated with their own inability to influence a wider world dissolving in detail and over-information. In this sense, conspiracy theorising fulfils a need to bring order, sense, and focus to an otherwise chaotic existence. “For some,” Evans writes, “it’s a chance to enter alternate or parallel worlds where they can mould and control reality rather than having to confront its intractable complexities.”

The question for those who care deeply about the decline of shared experience, the very existence of a wider truth is thus: why is our own world so cacophonously unendurable that we must flee to another? What can be done to mend it? Facts alone, I fear, won’t do the trick.