Events

An Oppidan Event: Conspiracy Theories in the 20th Century

This article is written by Oskar Schortz, a History Teacher currently at Rugby School, who ran The Conspiracy Theories Event for Oppidan on Friday 8th May.

‘When fairytales do come true’

Conspiracy theories are supposed to be a thing of the past. They are theories and opinions from the fringes of society that explain big historical events in colourful and inventive ways. The Moon Landing was fake, the world is flat, aliens have landed, the lizards have taken over – surely we can’t be duped into these whacky theories in the 21st century?! 

Well in recent years, conspiracy theories have been found to be on the up. Fuelled by a wide range of dubious news sites online, and creative uses of photoshop and video editing, the internet has provided a new home for like-minded groups.

By looking back into history, the presence of conspiracy theories should not surprise us. Conspiracy theories have been around as long as people have been recording decisions and events. And what’s even more worrying when we look at history – many conspiracy theories have actually worked!

Looking at the big three totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century of Russia, Germany and China – the leadership of all three were able to take absolute power through the use of some rather suspect political theories. Russians were convinced that a ‘Mad Monk’ called Rasputin was taking over Russia from inside Tsar Nicholas II’s court; Germans believed Nazi ideas about being ‘stabbed in the back’ by Jews, Communists and politicians; and Chinese fear was fuelled by rumours of both an internal takeover of the country as well as dangerous foreign influences.

 Interestingly all three dictators (Hitler, Stalin and Mao) not only used conspiracy theories to great effect to achieve power but continued to spread them once their power was firmly established – as a way to help cement their strong positions.

This all seems far off from conspiracy theories that appear in popular culture nowadays, but a series of more sinister theories have been circling in the aftermath of the Brexit and Trump votes. Almost half (47%) of Trump votes believe global warming is a hoax, and according to a 2018 Cambridge university study, 60% of Britons believe in at least one conspiracy theory. This spells danger for democracy across the world because if a ruler can achieve power through the spreading of lies – doesn’t this make the whole voting process irrelevant?

From whacky explanations to meticulously described motives and connections – conspiracy theories have the power to enchant and entertain. But one thing is for sure, they aren’t going away anytime soon…