Take, for instance, the common belief that Diana, Princess of Wales was assassinated. “Classic example,” explains Times columnist and author David Aaronovitch. “We got to the stage where there was an ITV documentary saying there were murky questions here and 35 per cent of the British population were saying, ‘yes, there is a murder plot involving the Duke of Edinburgh’. But look at the actual circumstances of her death. There isn’t a plot in the world that could have killed her.
“Nobody knew where she was going that night, nobody knew what car they were taking, nobody knew who was driving it, and nobody knew what route they were going, but somehow or other, the wicked powers-that-be planned it all. And, if that wasn’t enough, she would have survived if she had been wearing her seat belt. Not promising.”
For Aaronovitch, conspiracy theories possess an almost limitless source of comic potential, as well as paranoia, farce and danger. In his new book, Voodoo Histories — a witty, irreverent, yet systematic assault on the conspiricist tradition — he takes us on a whirlwind tour of some of the twentieth century’s most eccentric and pernicious theories, from Stalin’s campaign against acts of so-called counter-revolutionary industrial sabotage to the widespread perception that September 11 was planned and executed by the Bush administration.
Along the way, he provides a catalogue of intriguing, if frequently overlooked, historical facts: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were manufactured by an intelligence agent working for Tsar Nicholas II in pre-Bolshevik Russia; Frank Capell — the first historian to argue that Marilyn Monroe had been murdered — authored a crack-pot polemic called Henry Kissinger: Soviet Agent; Norman Baker, a sitting Liberal Democrat MP, is convinced that Tony Blair had Dr. David Kelly whacked by MI5 while still resident at 10 Downing Street.
Aaronovitch says he felt compelled to write a book debunking conspiracy theories after a conversation with a colleague on a BBC assignment in Tunisia in 2002.
“I was filming with a young guy called Kevin — who doesn’t mind being named, by the way — who was great, really bright. But all of a sudden, during a drive, he laid on me the moon landing theory. And I just thought it is kind of amazing that someone would want to believe this stuff.
“It seemed so clear to me that it would be much harder to organise a hoaxed moon landing than a real one. With a real moon landing, all you’d need is ten years research, trained astronauts, rockets and so on. Where as for a hoaxed moon landing you’d need thousands and thousands of people to fool their families and the rest of the world for decades. And that is really hard to do. Life just doesn’t tend to work like that.”
The discovery of Kevin’s subscription to this theory was a turning point for Aaronovitch because it revealed a fascinating truth about the phenomenon: “Conspiracy theories are, essentially, if you really want to categorise them, dumb things believed by clever people They are certainly invented by clever people. The people behind, say, the 9/11 theories tend to be students, academics and professionals.”
On the whole, though, Aaronovitch is reluctant to sketch out a conspiracist personality type — despite their being generally intelligent and well educated, they don’t share any further emotional or psychological characteristics.
“There are some who are, if you like, serial conspiracists, where there is not a conspiracy theory ever invented that they won’t grab on to. And, yes, I think for some there is a sort of semi-religious urge to grasp on to the notion that there is a big plan behind everything.
“But most people just become convinced at particular times and at particular moments. The obvious example is [the murder of] John F. Kennedy; a popular president shot down by this kind of absurd assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, purely because the motorcade was routed passed the place where this guy — who had already tried to shoot someone a few months earlier — was working. It’s no more sensible than that.”
Aaronovitch tempers his robust skepticism with bursts of good natured humour, approaching his targets with, for the most part, a measured jocularity, sometimes even with a degree of warmth — or at least pity. He is, however, keen to stress that while there is an obvious distinction between those conspiracy theories that peddle relatively harmless nonsense and those that develop into monstrous popular myths and inflict intense suffering, they both stem from the same conceptual root.
“The Templar bollocks, for example, which was put out on BBC Chronicle in the 1970s and fronted by this incredibly knowledgeable looking guy who told this story which then ended up on the front of Dan Brown’s book, nobody gets killed for that; the Catholic Church maybe gets mildly annoyed, but nobody dies.
“Whereas the Protocols of the Elder of Zion and the notion of Jewish conspiracy has been fabulously damaging. But although they are not at all the same, they are very, very distant cousins. If you can be induced to believe one, you can be induced to believe the other.”
Surprisingly, Aaronovitch himself admits to having fallen prey to at least two conspiracy theories over the years, both of considerable historical significance.
“For a large part of my life I was convinced about the JFK theory. I mean, I didn’t think it very hard and I didn’t have any evidence. The ‘magic bullet’ persuaded me. We were always told about this bullet that couldn’t possibly have been fired, but now we can do really first-class computer reconstructions of where people were sitting in the car and so on, and its now clear that there’s nothing left to explain here.
“And I’ve always thought that Hitler set fire to the Reichstag. But when reading Fritz Tobias’ really excellent book about the Reichstag fire, and looking at other sources, I discovered that he almost certainly didn’t. But we teach that in schools here, though, we actually teach it in schools!”
As is the tendency with conspiracy theories, the absurd meets the sinister. In Voodoo Histories, Aaronovitch dismantles many of the modern era’s most devastating untruths, without forgetting to draw heavily on the funny side of the unfunny.
Voodoo Histories is out now in hardback, published by Jonathan Cape, RRP £17.99.