Products of paranoid imaginations, less closely linked than might appear
This is a strange book, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More a collection of essays than a straight read-through, Richard Evans examines five issues concerning the Third Reich that continue to attract huge amounts of speculation.
He starts by looking at whether the Holocaust was inspired by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Then he considers whether the German army really was “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Socialists in 1918. Next he spools forward to examine who burned down the Reichstag, after which he scrutinises the thorny old question of the flight of Rudolf Hess to Scotland in 1941. Finally, he tackles the theory that Hitler hotfooted it out of his bunker at the end of the war to live out his twilight years in the vast Nazi retirement home that was Patagonia.
It is the latter topic that has attracted the most attention over the past few years, with numerous books, articles, websites, and even a popular multi-season documentary series called Hunting Hitler, which, it should be declared, this reviewer was approached to appear in. Because of the popularity of this conspiracy theory, there have even been a few books published that rebut the notion of the fleeing Führer, most notably Hitler’s Death by Luke Daly-Groves, who managed to write that book while in the middle of completing his doctorate.
It is tempting to suppose that Evans’s book was born out of this vogue. However, by looking at other conspiracy theories concerning Nazi Germany, instead of focusing purely on Hitler’s supposed escape, the former Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, has produced a somewhat disjointed work. Although Evans links his essays by claiming they are all products of the “paranoid imagination” concerning the Third Reich—a phrase deliberately redolent of Richard Hofstadter’s famous piece “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in Harper’s magazine in 1964—the problem is that these topics are not connected as closely as they may appear. Besides, some are conspiracy theories that were propagated by Nazis, while others are about the Nazis.
No matter because all five essays are engaging and well-researched. It would perhaps be a plot spoiler to repeat here what Evans concludes, although nobody sensible will be in for any surprises. However, it is that lack of surprise that reveals a flaw with the premise of the book—who is it for? Sensible people, and especially those who have read properly into the history of the Third Reich thanks to giants such as Michael Burleigh and Ian Kershaw—and indeed Evans himself—will surely already have more than a good idea of what to expect. And it would be optimistic to hope that this book will be read by conspiracy theorists, because as Evans and all decent historians know, there is no point in arguing with a conspiracist. The fundamental essence of the paranoid imagination is that it is indeed paranoid, and paranoia does not respond well to scholarship. It almost seems naive to claim, as does the publisher, that it can be “countered by painstaking research and evidence-based argument”.
The other problem is a vast lacuna. Where is the chapter on Holocaust denial? At the risk of being flippant, this is surely the daddy of the application of the paranoid imagination to the Third Reich. It is, of course, possible that Evans has had more than his fill of the topic after appearing as an expert witness in Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt two decades ago, about which he wrote a book. Or maybe, as Holocaust denial is a massive topic, it is simply not possible to address it in a book of little more than 200 pages. Such reasons are understandable, but it does seem a shame. Smaller lacunae include the exciting fantasy world of Nazi secret weapons, the existence of a Fourth Reich, a supposed escape network called the Odessa, and the Nazi relationship with the occult and the supernatural—perhaps these could all form a second volume.
Ironically, and despite his loftiness, Evans himself is not above peddling the odd conspiracy. Back in 2012, in a review he wrote for the Guardian, he heavily implied that the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) murdered one of its own officers in 1946 because of suspicions that he was sending to Moscow information about the CIC’s “ratline” operation. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this tale, which is essentially a conspiracy theory which sits well with those who like being anti-American. What this shows is that the boundaries between presupposition, prejudice and paranoia are very fine indeed, and we would all do well to guard ourselves from crossing those lines.
The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination
By Richard Evans
Allen Lane, 288pp, £20