An important part of this project is to investigate conspiracy theories as a form of alternative knowledge. Many conspiracy theories posit a massive cover-up of historical truth by governments, historians, the media and the publishing industry have colluded in suppressing. In recent years, there has been a growing vogue for books that take this belief as a point of departure for arguing as a matter of historical fact that Hitler (and, usually, his partner Eva Braun) escaped the Berlin bunker after faking their deaths. The vogue was begun by a British surgeon, W. Hugh Thomas, who attracted considerable attention with a book, published in 1995, purporting to demonstrate that the charred human remains found in the Reich Chancellery garden, above the Berlin bunker, in 1945, were not those of Hitler and Eva Braun. However, he had already claimed some years earlier that Rudolf Hess, the former deputy leader of the Nazi Party imprisoned for life at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in 1945, and incarcerated in the fortress at Spandau, just outside Berlin, was not in fact who he seemed to be, but someone else; and in 2001 he similarly claimed that SS leader Heinrich Himmler, whom eywitnesses recorded as having committed suicide in 1945 after being arrested and recognized by British troops, was actually someone else too. Clearly Thomas had too much of a habit of discovering unlikely doubles, and the more he added to his list, the less plausible his theories became.
Considerable media interest was created by a recent investigation by two journalists, Gerrard Williams and Simon Dunstan, published as Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler (London, 2011). The evidence, the authors were reported to have told the Daily Mail on 28 October 2011,, was ‘overwhelming’, and they told Sky News: ‘We didn’t want to re-write history, but the evidence we’ve discovered about the escape of Adolf Hitler is just too overwhelming to ignore. There is no forensic evidence for his, or Eva Braun’s deaths, and the stories from the eyewitnesses to their continued survival in Argentina are compelling.’ The problem was, of course, as critics pointed out, that the authors’ endnotes became vague or were missing altogether when it came to supporting crucial claims and allowing readers to check them. In addition, the mass of genuine evidence for the bodies outside the bunker being Hitler’s and Eva Braun’s – including Hitler’s teeth, verified against his dental records – was passed over or sweepingly dismissed, along with the numerous eyewitness accounts by members of his entourage gathered immediately after the war by Hugh Trevor-Roper and published in his book The Last Days of Hitler (London, 1947). Once again, the theory depended on the postulate of a vast conspiracy to suppress the truth, extending over many decades.
As our project develops, we will be asking questions about such claims. Do those who advance them really believe them? Is there an implicit pact between reader and writer to suspend their disbelief in the interests of a good story?