Our lords and masters became our lords and masters through conspiracy…and the odd murder. The only way they can justify that to themselves, since they don’t want to think of themselves as greedy, power hungry bastards, is to imagine that they have to conspire because there’s a much larger conspiracy trying to destroy them. The more they’ve killed, the more fervently they have to believe in evermore elaborate counter-plots. Otherwise they’d tear themselves apart with guilt.
–Kommissar Rolf Wundt Summer of Long Knives
The Nazi gospel was built on the paranoid logic of conspiracy theory. The particulars of the conspiracy against Germany varied somewhat from Nazi to Nazi: Himmler and Rosenberg tended to couch it in more mystical terms than Hitler and Goering were comfortable with, but the idea of a international conspiracy against Germany lay at the heart of Nazi thinking.
The history of antisemitism and its incorporation into conspiracy theories of various kinds, in Germany and elsewhere, is too large to be treated here. Antisemitism had certainly been part of the undergrowth of Western culture long before the Nazi movement was born, or Hitler himself, was born. (The term dates back to 1879, ten years before Hitler’s birth.) Suffice it to say that the pieces of the Nazi conspiracy theory–the association of Jews with socialism, communism, and capitalism; the belief that Jews were an alien, parasitic influence; the myth of pure blood–were all lying around, waiting for events to motivate someone to fuse them into a whole.
The end of World War I was just such an event.
Germany’s surrender confused and angered many of its soldiers. Because they still held territories beyond Germany’s borders, German soldiers had thought that their position in the war was better than it really was. Many of them didn’t know, or didn’t want to understand, the economic and political peril Germany was in. Policymakers in Berlin understood that, even with the Russians gone, Germany’s economy was broken in 1918. The population wanted peace. The Navy had mutinied. Germany’s allies were on the bring of surrender, and the United States had seemingly endless resources to bolster Britain and France. The reality was no alternative but to reach an armistice. The conspiracy theory that grew, however, was that Germany was on the brink of victory only to be stabbed in the back by leftists and Jews.
Another fuel source for antisemitic conspiracy theory was the sudden rise and rapid fall of the Bavarian Soviet Republic (known in Germany as the Räterepublik). This attempt to turn Bavaria into a Bolshevik allied state inspired many ex-soldiers, including many future Nazis like Ernst Roehm, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and Rudolf Hoess (future commandant of Auschwitz) to join anticommunist paramilitary units collectively known as the Freikorps. A short but deadly war led to the collapse of the Räterepublik and the execution of its leaders, who were mostly Jewish. It was natural for many Freikorps members to take this as further proof that a Jewish conspiracy was at work in Germany, and that it was in league with Russia as well as Britain and France.
For those whose biases craved further confirmation, 1920 saw the publication in Germany of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous tract purporting to be the minutes of a meeting at which a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world through banking, internationalist revolutionary movements, and media control was planned and agreed upon by Jewish leaders (the titular Elders of Zion). There is no evidence that such a meeting ever occurred, and the London Times exposed the book as a fraud a year later. Nevertheless, for people already inclined to believe in a Jewish conspiracy, this book served as all the proof they needed. Henry Ford, yes that Henry Ford, published credulous articles concerning the authenticity of the Protocols in his newspaper, lending credibility to bigots everywhere. At the same time, Alfred Rosenberg was introducing the book to a ex-soldier friend of his, Adolf Hitler.
The conspiracy theory that emerged from this was so vast as to encompass almost the entire world. According to it, Jews had created both international capitalism and international communism as part of a scheme to weaken the Aryan race–which Hitler and friends took to associating with Nordic types–and in doing so destroy the purity of the most intellectually creative and valuable human race, sinking it into race mixing and degeneration until its greatness is forever lost. Jews, according to this conspiracy theory, stabbed Germany in the back to leave it open for plunder from Western Democracies and Socialist revolutionaries. They controlled the banks. They schemed to seduce German women into racially mixed marriages. They encouraged degenerate art and music–especially modern art and jazz, the latter of which earned Nazi scorn because of its association with African-Americans.
Why did this conspiracy theory find such fertile ground in Germany? Historians will continue to debate this question, but I think much of it comes down to why most conspiracy theories are believed. In hard times, and Germany certainly suffered extraordinary difficulties from 1918-1924, and again from 1929-1933, people want certainty. They want explanations for their plight that make emotional sense to them. Impersonal forces of history, the bad decisions of their leaders during the war, and the weakness of Germany’s government institutions and mainstream political culture during the Weimar years just aren’t as satisfying as a secret plot by an alien few. The modern mind turns to these kinds of conspiracy theories during troubled times in the same way that our ancestors looked for witches and devils to explain plagues, crop failures, and the other 998 shocks that their flesh was heir to. It was this line of thinking that transformed Herr Birnbaum, the Hamburg florist with a shop on the corner, into Herr Birnbaum, Hamburg’s International Jewish Conspiracy Representative.
It was all nonsense, of course. But if Nazi Germany proves anything, it proves that nonsense, in the right hands at the right moment, has terrible power.