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  • True Lies May 24, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing has recently been reading and enjoying David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History. For those who have not heard of the book, AD takes an unremittingly hostile look at the many conspiracy theories that have characterized the last two broken centuries. Beach certainly doesn’t always like DA’s caustic tone. But, no question, the exegesis on the individual theories is entertaining.

    While reading though a question kept nagging away. If a conspiracy theory is ‘a counter-historical theory where human agency is used to explain events’ (not, btw, DA’s definition) has there ever been a conspiracy theory that has gone mainstream? That is a minority and ‘eccentric’ way of explaining the past that has gradually been accepted as fact by the majority of the human ant-hill, including historians? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Beachcombing has tried to make this definition and question as ecumenical as possible because, one of his experiences writing this blog has been that nothing is more likely to garner obnoxious emails than a post saying that Marilyn wasn’t murdered or God forbid, that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. So make no mistake Beachcombing is NOT asking about what really happened – we are never going to agree on that – but on the perception of what happened.

    Beachcombing has certainly been struck reading books like Voodoo Histories, not to mention the odd eviscerating emails he receives, that a ‘deal-breaker’ in the conspiracy community is the notion that governments, yes even western democracies, kill their own citizens.

    Here there are frightening examples such as GAL in the Spanish war against ETA or Operation Northwoods over Cuba (scotched by Kennedy) that demonstrate that even goody-two-shoe states are capable of doing or thinking these things: as if any sensible person could have doubted it… Perhaps this would be a fruitful area to look then.

    However, so many of the ‘cast-iron cases’ quoted by conspiracy-heads: e.g. the Bologna Station Bombing in 1980, alleged to have been the work of rogue elements in the Italian intelligence community, are anything but cast-iron when examined in detail.

    In the case of most western democracies – with a couple of endearing exceptions – murder outside war seems to be an occasional and desperate rather than a routine solution to problems.

    It is also striking that those examples that have been proven – e.g. GAL and Operation Northwoods – were never really conspiracy theories because they were never counter-theories. They were revealed to the world with good evidence and they were believed.

    So is there a striking instance where a conspiracy theory was proved right? The one that stands out in the twentieth century is the Moscow Trials in the late 1930s – with its prequels going back to 1928. Here Stalin essentially butchered his old Bolshevik comrades in kangaroo courts.

    But are we right to talk about those who opposed the trials as conspiracy theorists? Well, while this was happening most citizens in the Soviet Union (as far as we can tell) and, interestingly most westerners believed there was ‘something’ to the prosecution’s case: ‘no smoke without fire’. This does not mean that conservatives were signing up to every allegation in court – but there was a feeling that the allegations could not have been entirely invented. After all they were so detailed and sophisticated.

    It was only just before the war and its aftermath that the truth of what had happened seeped out beginning with the non-Soviet left, taking in rapidly the conservative right, which had always had its own reasons to be suspicious, and finishing in the 1970s and 1980s with intransigent ‘Euro’-communists, who  decided, rather late in the day, to acquire a conscience.

    DA (65) is very good at explaining why: his discussion of the trials is perhaps the best chapter in the book. Here he is describing Dudley Collard’s Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek and Others (1937) ‘One by one Collard took on and disposed of the arguments of those who saw the trial as a put-up job. Were, for instance, the confessions fabricated? Collard was incredulous. For that to be the case, ‘Someone other than the defendants must have written a seven-day play (to play eight hours a day) and assigned appropriate roles to the seventeen defendants, the five witnesses, the judges and the Public Prosecutor’. It just wasn’t possible. The accused would have needed to spend the entire period between their arrest and the trial rehearsing together what they were going to say ‘in such a way as to deceive all those who were present into thinking the play was real’. Besides, there was corroborative evidence from expert witnesses and documentary evidence including a diary with the phone numbers of German secret agents in it, names which checked off against the appropriate German telephone directory. Etc etc etc

    Curiously though DA includes the Moscow Trials as an example of a conspiracy theory, whereas the conspiracy theory, for Beachcombing, was (the truth) that the trials were invention. There was, admittedly, an alleged conspiracy in the material of the trial, but there was nothing – thinking of the definition above – counter-historical about this kind of theorizing. Collard was not working for an eccentric opposition group, he was, so to speak, on the government benches. In fact, reading the quotations above, Beach seems to hear not a conspiracy theorist but one of those able types, say DA, who were born to mock and pick such theories apart. Only in this case time proved Collard and Stalin’s ‘murdering dogs’ wrong.


    24 May 2011: David Aaronovitch himself kindly wrote in with another perspective – ‘ While I was writing up the Collard I had a moment when I thought just the thing that you wrote down. Was he me, in this instance? The problem is that Collard had to believe the much more improbable idea of the conspiracy involving Trotskyists, anti-Trotskiysts (ie Bukharin etc), most of the old Bolsheviks, the intelligence services of Japan and Nazi Germany, and countless acts of sabotage that always ‘looked’ as though they were accidents. In other words, he chose the more incredible explanation rather than it was possible to torture people into false confessions.’ Thanks David!!

    30 Dec 2011: DB writes in ‘I submit that in the Carter v Reagan election of 1980, Reagan was accused of secret negotiations with Tehran to prevent any early hostage release becoming an october surprise in Carter’s favour. This was widely pooh poohed (and is still officially denied). However I’m sure that most reasonable historians now agree that negotiations did take place (I recall reports of Bush the greater meeting Iranian officials in Paris), and Tehran (??) has verified that this is the case.’ Thanks DB