LONDON — After his escape from the bunker in April 1945, Adolf Hitler became something of a traveler. He was seen at a ballet in the Brazilian town of Cassino; in Dublin, disguised in women’s clothing; and at a building site in the Argentine coastal town of Mar del Plata.
And then there was the sighting of a man — “having numerous characteristics of Hitler,” it was claimed — dining at a restaurant chatting amiably with the other guests. But this was, the British historian Sir Richard Evans drolly suggests in his new book, “extremely unlikely to have been Hitler, since Hitler did not chat with other people at mealtimes in a friendly or any other manner but subjected them to endless monologues.”
Nor does Evans, one of the world’s foremost experts on Nazi Germany, believe that Hitler took refuge at a Tibetan monastery, fled to Argentina on a submarine with Eva Braun — or that the couple had two daughters, one of whom — Angela Merkel — went on to become the Chancellor of Germany. The truth, he argues, is rather simpler. As a wide range of eyewitnesses testified to, after marrying Braun and poisoning his dog, Hitler and his new wife retired to his study on April 30, 1945. A short while afterwards, the pair committed suicide and their bodies were taken into the gardens of the bombed-out Reich Chancellery, doused with petrol and set alight.
In the “The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination,” Evans clinically dissects and demolishes not only the baseless but persistent claims that Hitler survived the bunker, but a series of other myths which continue to swirl around Nazi Germany. It is, he argues, a book about “fantasies and fictions, fabrications and falsification.”
“Nowhere has the spread of conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’ become more obvious than in revisionist accounts of the history of the Third Reich,” Evans writes. “Long-discredited conspiracy theories have taken on a new lease of life, given credence by claims of freshly discovered evidence and novel angles of investigation.”
From the assassination of John F. Kennedy to 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic, modern-day conspiracy theorists feed on a host of historical and current events, spreading their half-baked ideas through the internet and social media. But Nazi Germany appears to hold a special appeal.
“Hitler is a figure who, in an increasingly secular age, attracts the attention of a lot of people because he’s a kind of icon of evil, he’s universally recognizable … and he’s obviously hugely important in the modern history of Europe and the world,” Evans says in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Indeed, 75 years after the Third Reich’s defeat, the appetite for conspiracy theories surrounding Hitler’s death seems, if anything, to be growing. In the first two decades of the 21st century, more book-length arguments for the survival of Hitler in Argentina have appeared than in the previous 55 years. And it’s not just books: from 2015 to 2018, for instance, the History Channel ran a three-season series chasing down claims of Hitler’s escape to South America. It was, the broadcaster claimed, “the most in-depth and revealing” investigation ever conducted and attracted an audience of 3 million people for each of its episodes.
Evans’s assessment is brutal. “Not one single concrete finding is presented in any of the twenty-four episodes,” he writes. The series contains little more than “innuendo, suggestion and invention.”
Evans, a former regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, is acutely aware of the potential dangers posed by the “alternative facts” that underpin the claims of Hitler’s survival. Some of those who peddle these myths are, he believes, motivated by the desire for profit, entertainment or simply attention. Others appear to genuinely believe them. But some have darker reasons for wishing to claim, or believe, that Hitler did not commit suicide.
“There are some people who think that Hitler was such a world genius that he must have fooled the Allies; he can’t have died a squalid death by shooting himself at the end of the war. In that sense, they are admirers of Hitler,” says Evans.
Of course, he adds, among the many things they can’t explain is how, “if he did get to Argentina, he remained completely quiet after that. It didn’t seem to be in Hitler’s nature to remain quiet.”
Whatever their motives, almost all of those who push the Hitler survival myth share a contempt for what they term “official knowledge.” “They all believe,” Evans writes, “that the global media, historians, journalists and almost everyone who has ever written about Hitler have been hoodwinked by a clever plot into believing that he is dead when in fact he is not.”
“Wherever you see the phrase ‘official historians,’ you’ve got to be suspicious, because that’s conspiracy-theory talk,” Evans says. “It bolsters people’s self-esteem to believe that they know better than thousands of professional historians, [that] they have the real secret, the absolute truth and everyone else is lying.”
But, he continues, this isn’t simply deeply insulting to professional historians. It is also dangerous because it casts doubt on the objective and evidence-based methods we use to determine what’s true. The implications, Evans says, are clear: “If Hitler did escape the bunker then perhaps the Holocaust never happened.”
‘Protocols’ of propaganda
The road to the Holocaust lays at the center of another of the myths the book tackles: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Evans — who was the principal expert witness in the 2000 libel trial in which the historian Deborah Lipstadt defeated Holocaust-denier David Irving — painstakingly examines the origins of the notorious forged tract which purported to “prove” the existence of a Jewish world conspiracy. Rather than being, as its promoters have claimed, the minutes of a clandestine meeting of Jewish elders in 1897, the “Protocols” were, Evans argues, “a hastily assembled mishmash of French, German and Russian sources.” Their “confused and chaotic nature,” he writes, “bear witness to the slapdash and careless manner in which they were composed.”
The popularity of the “Protocols” — by, 1933, they had gone through 33 editions in Germany alone, despite having been exposed as a forgery as early as 1921 — speaks to the appeal of the notion of a “hidden hand” guiding world events. Evans quotes historian John Gwyer’s 1938 essay on the “Protocols”: “It saves so much thinking to think like this, to survey the world and know that all its disorders are due to the malignity of a single group of mysterious plotters,” he wrote.
It has long been claimed that the “Protocols” were a key influence on Hitler and were thus, to quote the title of historian Norman Cohn’s book, a “Warrant for Genocide.”
“It took possession of Hitler’s mind and became the ideology of his most fanatical followers at home and abroad — and so helped to prepare the way for the near-extermination of European Jews,” Cohn wrote of the “Protocols.”
But Evans is unconvinced. “It seemed to me that this document was not as important as many people have claimed,” he says. “It didn’t inspire Hitler and the Nazis to commit the Holocaust.” The historian is, for instance, not convinced that Hitler ever actually read the “Protocols.” His private library of more than 16,000 books didn’t contain the “Protocols”; only a bound collection of newspaper articles ghost-written for Henry Ford which contained an exposition of them. Hitler also devoted barely a paragraph of “Mein Kampf” to them.
Nor was Joseph Goebbels convinced of their propaganda value, which his officials appeared to regard with some disdain. Goebbels himself confided to his diaries that the “Protocols” were a forgery, although he added: “I believe in the inner, but not the factual, truth of ‘The Protocols.’”
“What I wanted to get across,” Evans says, “was that it was used by people like Hitler and Goebbels to confirm their own already existing views.”
The “Protocols” and Nazi anti-Semitic rhetoric may both have propagated the notion of a Jewish world conspiracy, Evans believes, but the former contains little of the modern 20th-century biological racism which lay at the heart of Hitler’s worldview.
“I don’t think [the ‘Protocols’] had a great deal of influence,” Evans says. “I don’t think the Nazis needed a warrant for genocide, unfortunately.”
In a similar vein, Evans rejects the famous “stab in the back” legend — the notion that Germany’s defeat in 1918 was brought about not on the battlefield but by the activities of an unholy alliance of Jews, left-wingers and revolutionaries on the home front — and challenges the degree to which the Nazis utilized it in their rise to power. Indeed, Evans contends, Hitler believed Germany’s defeat stemmed from the fact that the Kaiser’s regime had, as he put it, not been prepared to “apply thoroughly radical means” to win the war. The Nazis instead concentrated their fire on the “November criminals” who had sold Germany out by agreeing to the Allies’ Armistice terms and the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Third Reich founded on conspiracy theory
As Evans shows, the Third Reich was itself “built on the foundation of a conspiracy theory”: the idea that the Communists had set the Reichstag alight in February 1933 as a prelude to seizing power. This gave Hitler the excuse to have an emergency decree issued which suspended civil liberties — a decree which was repeatedly renewed for the next 12 years. But there was no Communist plot; a Dutch ultra-leftist, Marinus van der Lubbe, who was caught red-handed on the scene, acted alone. Even the Reich Supreme Court, over which the Nazis did not yet exercise full control, cleared several leading figures in the party when they were put on trial several months later.
Likewise, the conspiracy theory developed by the Communists – that the Nazis had themselves set fire to the German parliament and pinned the blame on the hapless van der Lubbe in order to do away with their opponents – was also a lie. The Nazis simply seized upon an opportunity which fortuitously fell into their laps. Moreover, as Evans writes: “The Reichstag Fire was not, perhaps, the decisive, cataclysmic event it is often claimed to have been. Had the German parliament not burned down, Hitler and the Nazis would most likely have found another pretext for imposing a state of emergency.”
But the theory of a Nazi “false flag” operation continues to persist, and is one backed by some reputable historians.
“There is no tenable evidence for it. I went through it all,” Evans says. “It’s been revived I think because we’re in a culture now which favors the development and revival of conspiracy theories.”
The Reichstag Fire does, however, throw a light on some of the broader characteristics of conspiracy theories.
“Many conspiracy theorists start from the premise that it’s not believable that a single person, let alone a single, rather humble, obscure person, can have started a major world event,” Evans says.
They turn instead to what, he believes, is one of the central tenets of conspiracy theorists: that whoever benefits from an event must have caused it.
One of the most bizarre incidents in World War II — Rudolf Hess’s 1941 flight to Scotland — has attracted much attention from conspiracy theorists in recent years. Some falsely contend that Hitler sent his deputy with a genuine peace offer, perhaps at the invitation of a “peace party” in Britain or maybe as part of a plot hatched by the British security services to lure him to the UK.
“Conspiracy theorists often get into immense and enormous detail,” Evans suggests. “But you have to think of the big picture all the time. In that sense, I’m a devotee of ‘Occam’s razor’ — the Medieval principle that the most convincing explanations are usually the simplest ones.”
Hess had slipped down the Nazi pecking order, the historian argues, and the harebrained flight was a desperate attempt to climb back up it. Hitler himself knew nothing of what his deputy was planning and was appalled and angry when he found out.
But Evans is convinced that some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Hess’s flight, like the Hitler survival myths, are deeply problematic in their implications.
“The implication, of course, is that Hitler wanted a peace, a genuine peace, and Churchill was a warmonger who rejected these ideas and suppressed it, and that this prolonged the war which then led to the Holocaust,” he argues. “If you think of the wider implications, it’s Churchill, not Hitler, who’s to blame [for the Holocaust].”
Not all conspiracy theories have such dark connotations and some can seem quite harmless. But ultimately all of them are extremely perilous. They all have in common, Evans concludes, “a radical yet in some ways quite naive skepticism that casts doubt not only on the truth of the conclusions reached by painstaking and objective historical research, but on the very idea of truth itself.”
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