Agents of darkness

Voodoo Histories: the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
David Aaronovitch

In these straitened times, conspiracy theories remain one guaranteed growth industry. Historians will record the past 20 years as the period in which conspiracies migrated from the margins to the mainstream. Once the preserve of cranks and green-inkers, such theories now receive respectful treatment in the national newspapers, while the most vigorous proponent of the view that the government scientist Dr David Kelly was murdered in 2003 has been the hitherto unremarkable figure of Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP.

Given this lamentable trend, one might expect an acerbic social commentator like David Aaron­ovitch to have written a strident polemic in which he contemptuously despatched the conspiracists. Instead, although his stance is unambiguously hostile, Aaronovitch displays great patience and intellectual curiosity in guiding the reader through a dozen conspiracies, including those surrounding the Pearl Harbor and 11 September 2001 attacks as well as the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, JFK and Marilyn Monroe. Voodoo Histories is as concerned with understanding conspiracies as it is with rebutting them, and Aaronovitch’s tone throughout is that of the sage psychologist, his method that of the forensic historian.

Yet if this approach is illuminating, it is also at times underwhelming. For instance, he extensively documents the Trotskyist sabotage that Stalin invented to provide political cover for the show trials of the 1930s. Unfortunately, the internecine warfare of the Soviet Communist Party is too rooted in time and place to be of more than passing interest. Thus, it is no coincidence that the most successful chapters – on Dr Kelly and the 9/11 attacks – are about the most up-to-date events.

Skilfully wielding Occam’s razor, Aaronovitch favours those explanations that rely on the fewest new assumptions. So, for example, it is far more likely that in 2001 the World Trade Center was brought down by jihadists (who, as the 1993 car-bombing attack of the same site demonstrated, had form in this area) than that it was destroyed by an opaque network of bureaucrats, CIA agents and demolition experts, all of whom apparently took a collective vow of silence. The extravagant assumptions involved drain such theories of all credibility.

In fairness to the conspiracists, however, one should note, as Aaronovitch does, the many genuine conspiracies – from state infiltration of the National Union of Mineworkers to the Iran-Contra scandal – that provide good reason to be suspicious of authority. But this, in fact, tells against them: the evidence shows that a combination of state incompetence and courageous whistleblowers ensures that real conspiracies are usually exposed.

Aaronovitch’s decision to select his subjects not “for their similarities, but for their outward differences” is a risky one, and occasionally Voodoo Histories feels more like a collection of historical essays than a unified work. However, his narrative is often redeemed by insightful analysis. He reminds us that conspiracy theories have no clear political character: they have emanated from left and right; have been religious as well as secular; and have flowed from the bottom up and the top down. This last insight is a useful corrective to the assumption that conspiracy theories inevitably pit the little man against Leviathan. Indeed, for authoritarian regimes, Aaronovitch writes, conspiracy theories offer “a painless explanation for massive failure”. Today, it is the Hamas-led government in Gaza and the Iranian theocracy which have resurrected the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Conspiracy theories, we find, are written by the losers. For weary protesters, the projection of an omnipotent and ruthless enemy offers a blissful release from the hard work of democratic politics, with its trade-offs and compromises. Furthermore, when, as Aaronovitch writes, “the opponent has magic powers . . . then the forces of good, though overwhelmed, have their excuse: we were robbed”. Those who believe – and their number includes that great man of letters, Gore Vidal – that President Roosevelt either allowed, or even planned, the assault on Pearl Harbor, thus prompting the entry into the Second World War of the United States, do so at least partly to avoid facing up to the fact that the non-interventionists simply lost the argument.

By far the most urgent objection to such delusions, surely, is that the extraordinary time and resources devoted to them (the part-time conspiracy theorist is a creature yet to be discovered) distracts believers from taking action against all-too-real horrors: environmental destruction, nuclear proliferation or corporate malfeasance. However, the author casually consigns this argument to the final pages of his book. Voodoo Histories says nothing about the kinds of political formation required to halt the forward march of conspiracy theories. The appeal to scepticism is insufficient in an age when the internet provides the cloak of anonymity necessary for conspiracies to flourish. Nonetheless, Voodoo Histories is a welcome reminder that the sleep of reason breeds monsters, and an elegant attempt to rouse misguided souls from their slumber.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis