What has surprised you the most in your study of conspiracy theories?
Because I am a historian, naturally I began with a historical view of the evolution of conspiracy theories over the last couple of centuries or so, based on the idea that the broader and wider the public sphere becomes, the more likely you are to get conspiracy theories based on popular suspicion of government, while the narrower and more restricted and controlled the public sphere is, the more likely you are to get conspiracy theories in which government suspects the people of conspiring against it. I still think there’s some mileage in this idea, but of course it’s all much more complicated than that. Rather than there being a gradual evolution in which an ever-expanding public sphere grows through the reduction of censorship in nineteenth-century Europe, the rise of the popular press, and then the emergence of the Internet, leading to an ever greater proliferation of conspiracy theories, there have been reversals and hiatuses along the way. Thus for example Hitler, Stalin, Franco and other twentieth-century dictators have used conspiracy theories – about Jews, Trotskyists and Freemasons respectively – as tools of political control, but they also appear to have believed in them. Yet their achievement of supreme dictatorial power did not owe much in the end to these theories, which did not have a lot of popular support – Hitler downplayed anti-Semitism in the elections of 1930-1933 because it did not strike a chord with the electorate, Stalin came to power through bureaucratic manipulation, and Franco won power through the barrel of a gun. They only used conspiracy theory after they came to power. Though I still think it’s the case that conspiracy theories are prevalent in dictatorships because the only way to oppose a dictatorship is through conspiracy, I’ve realized that the conspiracy theories deployed by dictatorships bear almost no relation to the actual conspiracies by which these dictatorships are opposed; rather, they are fantasies by which dictatorships try to discredit opposition by labelling it as part of a widespread, malevolent conspiracy that in practice does not exist. For example, Hitler denounced the Social Democrats and Communists as part of a ‘Judeo-Bolshevik world conspiracy’, and there were indeed some Jews among the Communist and Social Democratic conspirators against Hitler, but they of course renounced their Jewish identity in joining these Marxist movements, and the most important conspiracy against Hitler was hatched and carried out by the conservative military resistance grouped around Claus von Stauffenberg. We are dealing therefore with something more complex and indirect than I originally thought was going on. Plunging into the murky world of conspiracy theories about the alleged survival of Hitler and his supposed emigration to Argentina in 1945, I realized it is much too simple to reduce them to a product of neo-Nazism or the hero-worship of Hitler. It became clear to me that there are communities of alternative knowledge (UFO enthusiasts, occultists, Holocaust deniers etc.) which operate by their own rules and conventions.