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Review of "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History" by


13 August 2011

The author is a well-known journalist who set out to answer the question "Why are people so willing to believe conspiracy theories?" In the book Aaronovitch covers a number of major conspiracy theories and draws out some of the common features they have. It is very well written and quite entertaining.

Introduction: Blame Kevin

In 2002 Aaronovitch was sent by the BBC to Tunisia to make a program on holiday destinations in countries that mistreated their citizens. While they were together, his cameraman Kevin told him how the 1969 Apollo moon landings had been faked by NASA and the American government. Kevin cited a variety of pieces of evidence such as apparent fluttering of the flag despite the absence of breezes on the moon.

Aaronovitch’s immediate reaction, which is the same as mine, was to think about the thousands of people who would be needed to participate in such a conspiracy and the problems of keeping it secret. Given the balance of probabilities, it was unnecessary for Aaronovitch to focus in detail on Kevin's alleged evidence.

Afterwards, Aaronovitch started to think about why conspiracy theories are currently so popular. After considering a couple of alternatives, Aaronovitch comes up with his own definition of a conspiracy theory:

"I think a better definition of a conspiracy theory might be: the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended. And, as a sophistication of this definition, one might add: the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another. So a conspiracy theory is the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable. It is, for example, far more likely that men did actually land on the moon in 1969 than that thousands of people were enlisted to fabricate a deception that they did."

Aaronovitch goes on to remind readers of the principle known as Occam's razor. One simple way of stating this principle is that "other things being equal, one hypothesis is more plausible than another if it involves fewer numbers of new assumptions."

From his research, Aaronovitch comes up with the following common characteristics of conspiracy theories:

  • Pointing to historical precedent. A new conspiracy theory will seem less improbable if you point towards past conspiracies such as the gunpowder plot or Reichstag fire.
  • Populism. Conspiracy theories usually claim to lay bare action being taken by a small power elite against the people.
  • "Just asking questions". The conspiracy theorist presents himself as simply asking disturbing questions because they wish to seek out the truth; in practice the questions are slanted and only make sense if there is indeed a secret conspiracy.
  • Expert witnesses. A regular feature of modern conspiracy theories is the exaggeration of the status of experts. For example David Ray Griffin who is one of the 9/11 "truthers" is an academic theologian but pontificates on physics, aerodynamics and engineering.
  • The veneer of scholarship. Work by conspiracy theorists often has endless footnotes and masses of undifferentiated information laid out as if it were an academic text, combined with selective quotation from non-conspiracist sources.

Aaronovitch's book has eight chapters dealing with specific conspiracies. I have mentioned just a few that I find particularly interesting below.

"The Uncanny Note of Prophecy"

This chapter goes in detail into the history of that famous forgery "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion".

This 80 page book started circulating in Germany around 1919 and gives details of a Jewish plot to destroy all existing powers to establish a new world Empire ruled by a supreme Jewish autocrat. They allegedly report discussions that took place during a secret session at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.  Aaronovitch explains how quickly the Protocols spread around the world being translated into other languages, in the USA being propagated by Henry Ford.

However it very quickly emerged that the text of the supposedly secret meeting of Jewish elders in 1897 had been published 30 years earlier in a novel in Germany in 1868 called "Biarritz" allegedly authored by a Sir John Retcliffe but actually written by a German journalist called Hermann Goedsche. This novel features a scene in the Jewish cemetery in Prague where representatives of the Jewish tribes explain what mischief they have carried out in the last 100 years.

Aaronovitch explains that the chapter set in the Jewish cemetery in Prague ended up in 1872 as a pamphlet in Russia and then in 1881 was published in a French magazine under the title "The Rabbi’s Speech". This in turn was published in 1891 in Odessa in a local newspaper but allegedly set at a secret meeting eight years prior and then reprinted in France in 1896 in an antisemitic book.

The origins of the Protocols became clearer still when in May 1920 the Istanbul correspondent of the Times of London was approached by a Russian exile. This person had been sold some old books by a former officer in the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana. One of the books was written in French and closely resembled the Protocols. When the exile carried out a line by line comparison he realised that the Protocols were a substantial paraphrase of this book and in many cases a direct copy. Interestingly the French book was not about Jews; it was about French politics in the 1860s and was an allegorical satire written against Napoleon III. The London Times published this refutation of the Protocols in August 1921.

However that was ignored by anti-Semites and in Nazi Germany the Protocols became a best seller and sadly still circulate in the world today.

Conspiracies to the Left

The extreme right of American politics always regarded Franklin Roosevelt as unspeakably evil. This chapter discusses one of the most powerful lingering conspiracy theories regarding Roosevelt, namely that he deliberately got the USA into World War II by facilitating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The claim is that the USA had broken the Japanese naval codes and therefore knew in detail about the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor yet Roosevelt ensured that defensive action was not taken.

After explaining the conspiracy theory in detail Aaronovitch quotes a piece published in the New York Times in 1992 by Stephen Ambrose challenging the conspiracy theory:

"About Pearl Harbor one must ask could Roosevelt, by himself, have kept Information about an imminent attack from the commanders in Hawaii? Of course not. Teams of men were involved in breaking the Japanese diplomatic code in 1941; admirals and generals in Washington got the intelligence and took it to the President. They would have had to join him in a conspiracy. Can anyone believe the admirals would have allowed their men and battleships to go down without a protest?"

The Ambrose article goes on to point out that Roosevelt did not want a war with Japan; he wanted America to go to war against Nazi Germany. From Roosevelt’s perspective, the inevitable declaration of war on Japan on 8 December 1941 was an unwanted distraction. Fortunately Adolf Hitler solved Roosevelt's problem by declaring war on America on 11 December 1941, probably an even greater mistake than Hitler’s invasion of Russia earlier in 1941.

A Few Clicks of a Mouse

This chapter looks at the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11. While it is extremely interesting to read, it is slightly depressing how so many people are ready to believe so much drivel.

For example Aaronovitch spends several pages dealing with the allegation that the telephone calls made by passengers and crew of the hijacked airliners to their family, friends and fellow employees were faked. The claim is that mobile phone calls cannot be made from aeroplanes above a certain height. Aaronovitch meticulously proceeds to demonstrate the unreliable nature of these allegations.

He also spends a while dealing with the allegation that the hole in the Pentagon caused by Flight 77 was too small. Aaronovitch points out the sheer scale of the evidence of the aeroplane impact that actually happened.

If you read this book only for the section on 9/11, it will have been worth the price.

Conclusion: Bedtime Story

In his final chapter Aaronovitch returns to the question of why some people are so ready to believe conspiracy theories. He points out that it is normally the educated middle class which believes them.

"If the preceding chapters have demonstrated anything, it must be that conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and the middle class. The imagined model of an ignorant priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious and superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the artists, the managers, the journalist and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies."

Aaronovitch has an insightful section headed "History for losers" which begins:

“There is a more than plausible argument to be made that, very often, conspiracy theories take root among the casualties of political, social or economic change. More particularly there is something of a pattern in which overarching theories are formulated by the politically defeated and taken up by the socially defeated, deriving 'from the concrete experience of modernity by losers who will not go softly into the night but instead rage against it'. These losers left behind by modernity can be identified in the beached remnants of vanished European empires: the doomed bureaucrats, the White Russians and the patriotic German petit bourgeois. They are the America Firsters, who got the war they didn't want, the Midwest populists watching their small farmers go out of business, the opponents of the New Deal, the McGovern liberals in the era of Richard Nixon, British socialists and pacifists in the decade of Margaret Thatcher, the irreconcilable American Right during the Clinton administration, the shattered American Left in the time of the second Bush.

If it can be proved that there has been a conspiracy which has transformed politics and society, then their defeat is not the product of their own inherent weakness or unpopularity, let alone their mistakes; it is due to the almost demonic ruthlessness of their enemy."

Concluding comments

David Aaronovitch's book is very well written and once you start reading it, you don't want to stop. It covers some of the most important conspiracy theories of our time and is often extremely informative, for example when covering the origins of the Protocols. Reading it may help to vaccinate you against the common desire to believe conspiracy theories. I would recommend it to everyone.

The above review is based upon my copy of the original hardback edition. There is now a paperback edition linked below and it is also available on the Kindle.



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