The Deadly Power of Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories
Our nation is getting a crash course in conspiracy theories. With the rise of social media, the messenger may be new, but the message is not. Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries, well before mass communications amplified their potency. The human desire to explain complicated events in simplistic ways often leads to blaming minorities for them, sometimes with deadly consequences.
People have long attributed extraordinary power and influence to Jews, and names like “the Rothschilds” are stand-ins for an alleged global Jewish conspiracy.
A family of bankers, the real-life Rothschild family rose to prominence during the Napoleonic era. They were outliers: many Jews in Europe at that time were impoverished and lived in rural areas. Though the portrayal of the Rothschilds as powerful, greedy schemers dates to the mid-19th century, this ugly caricature mutates to fit the crisis du jour: the “Rothschilds” control the weather; they manipulate the course of wars for financial gain; they blackmail politicians to steer the tides of history.
The Nazis recognized the resonance of the Rothschilds as shorthand for Jewish evil. They even made a movie about them in 1940, an odd mashup of antisemitism and biopic, part of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s strategy that cinema should be the “vanguard of the Nazi military.”
The Holocaust was the most murderous and massive manifestation of Jew hatred — and it began and ended with the aid of conspiracy theories. State-sponsored conspiracism fueled the genocide of six million innocent human beings. A major pillar of Nazi ideology — and an effective method of drumming up antisemitism — was the false accusation that Jews had “stabbed Germany in the back” during World War I.
In this rewriting of history, German Jews were traitors who, along with communists, had deliberately undermined their nation’s war efforts. How else to explain disastrous losses on the battlefield? The government had misled its public and average Germans were shocked by defeat. Someone needed to shoulder the blame and it was more comfortable to attribute it to an already hated minority, rather than the military brass. Someone needed to be behind the punishing economic penalties of the Treaty of Versailles and the national humiliation. Let’s blame the Jews.
One of the slippery things when writing about conspiracy theories is this: how to explain their convoluted logic without making them sound more sensible? How to lead the reader along the twisted path, without constantly having to shout “it’s not true!”? During World War I, German Jews served in the imperial military with distinction — and in far greater numbers than their proportion of the population. After the Nazi rise to power, many German Jewish veterans assumed (and then hoped in vain) that prior sacrifice and service would shield them from intensifying persecution. That was a reasoned line of thinking. But rationality is irrelevant in a world permeated by conspiracism.
The Nazis were opportunists. They built on millennia of widespread hatred of Jews, archaeological strata of lies. Some of these lies were spread by Catholic and Protestant leaders, most dangerously through the myth of the blood libel. Having already cast the Jews as responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, the blood libel upped the ante. Jews were now murderers of Christian children, quasi-cannibals who needed the blood of innocents for ritual purposes. But as Europe became more secular, so did its antisemitic conspiracy theories.
The Nazis exploited the ubiquity of the character of the Jewish predator, amplifying it in their popular newspaper Der Stürmer (The Attacker). The May 1934 edition trumpeted the headline “Jewish Murder Plan against Gentile Humanity Revealed.” In a moment of intense anxiety in Germany, summoning a familiar actor from behind the curtain made sense, may even have offered comfort in a return to traditional answers.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” originally published in the Russian Empire in 1903, is the foundational text of those who cling to the myth of a shadowy Jewish cabal seeking world domination. Its vision of sinister “elders” is a more malleable version of the Rothschild conspiracy. In the last years of the Stalin regime, dozens of Jewish doctors were put on trial, accused of a conspiracy to murder Soviet leaders. Despite a lack of evidence, the charges were plausible in a society acclimated to the idea of Jewish plots. Today, updated versions of the “Protocols” enjoy robust sales in countries from Egypt to Japan, with Jews secretly behind everything from the 9/11 attacks to COVID-19.
Inherent contradictions rarely seem to bother the conspiracist. In different tellings, Jews are both warmongers seeking to profit from conflict and they are against war, sabotaging the brave efforts of non-Jewish soldiers. Jews are both the most avaricious capitalists and the backers of socialist policies that undermine honest businessmen and farmers.
In a nasty irony, the Holocaust has been portrayed as a conspiracy theory in and of itself. Holocaust deniers allege that the brutal crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators are fabrications, a massive lie invented by Jews to elicit pity and profit. They argue that the documented historical record is a massive fraud — the work of a clandestine movement designed to benefit Israel and individual Jews.
Psychologists teach that the human mind seeks out patterns, explanations that suggest order. The concept of confirmation bias is our desire to interpret data or events in ways that reinforce our existing beliefs. Myths that portray Jews as puppet masters, pulling the strings behind the scenes of a chaotic world, confirm for some people a sense of “order,” even if it is a malevolent one. Jews are convenient usual suspects.
Conspiracy theorists like to portray themselves as “skeptics,” truth-seekers willing to bravely challenge the official line. Holocaust deniers have adopted this same pose for decades, masking their antisemitism under the guise of legitimate academic inquiry. Make no mistake — the motive is hatred, not skepticism or intellectual curiosity.
In 1710, Jonathan Swift observed that “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” In today’s environment of viral headlines and retweets, the speed with which a lie can spread has become supersonic. Conspiracy theories are a threat to all of us — not only those who are their explicit targets. We need to call them out as what they are: hateful, dangerous lies.
Edna Friedberg is a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A version of this story was first published in the Chicago Tribune.