Alleged secret plots have dominated ufology since the 1940s, but conspiracymongering has a longer and darker history. Steven Woodbridge throws some light on the disturbing historical background to modern conspiracy theories. From Magonia 67, June 1999
God did not appear on television on 25 March 1998, much to the disappointment of a Dallas-based UFO cult and to the glee of newspaper and media commentators. Throughout that month Chen Hong-ming, prophet and leader of the 150-strong `God’s Salvation Church’ (also known as the ‘True Way’) gained massive media publicity by predicting that the Heavenly Father would appear on TV to announce the date of his descent to earth. Mr Chen also claimed that the world has been corrupted by evil, and would suffer a ‘Great Tribulation’ of economic crisis, floods, and the onset of nuclear war. He also argued that members of his group would be saved from these events by being taken to another planet in flying sau-cers.
The case of the ‘True Way’ is yet another example of the tremendous growth in pseudo-religious cults and other ‘conspiracy’ groups that are accompanying us as we move into the 21st century. Some of these, such as the ‘True Way’, are merely very eccentric and have tapped into the latest burst of Millennial / New Age thought and ufology. Other groups are more sinister and fanatical. Not only are they able to persuade their members that the end of the century heralds Armageddon, but that their way to salvation is through mass suicide. In the 1990′s alone we have witnessed already the tragic activities of the Order of the Solar Temple, based in Switzerland and Canada, and the California-based Heaven’s Gate. Some cult ideologies go even further than self-sacrifice and advocate terrorist tactics against ‘decadent non-believers. The Japanese Aum sect demonstrated the horrific consequences of such ideas with their gas attack on the Tokyo Metro rail system.
There is also another disturbing trend that has arisen out of millenarianism and the calls for ‘salvation’ and ‘survival’ in the face of impending doom. This is the revival of extreme Right-wing conspiracy theory. It is feeding off the idea that present-day society can no longer offer solutions to our problems and that all democratic politics is corrupt and decadent. The massive bomb that destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995, claimed 168 lives and shocked American public opinion to the core. Not only did it overturn the illusion that the world’s most powerful nation was immune to domestic terrorism, it also made Americans realise that they no longer afford to ignore the increasing number of their fellow citizens who are resorting to membership of extreme right-wing groups. (1)
In the face of a seemingly more complex age such groups are providing fearful and dislocated individuals in America with a sense of firm ‘belonging’ once again. But there is also refuge in simplistic conspiracy theories about the world as it struggles to cope with the problems that abound at the end of the twentieth century. In fact there is the growing conviction in extreme right-wing circles, and moreover in wider American and European culture (expressed in TV series such as Dark Skies and X-Files) that the world is being controlled by `secret’ forces, shadowy networks of powerful groups who dictate to governments, manipulate populations and cause ‘spiritual’ decline. A variety of methods of control by these anonymous forces are pointed to: governments are supposedly employing mass brain-washing techniques through the media and education, and claims that subliminal messages are being beamed into homes through television sets to control unsuspecting viewers. New secret technologies, which may be extraterrestrial in origin, are sometimes cited. Surveillance by satellites and alteration to human behaviour by drugs or microchips are also mentioned. Timothy McVeigh, who was sentenced to death for his involvement in the Oklahoma bombing, claimed at one point that a microchip had been implanted in his left buttock. (2)
McVeigh’s supporters on the extreme right and the numerous militia groups also voiced their belief that the US government, through the FBI has deliberately blown up the Federal Building in order to justify a nationwide clampdown on any groups who might oppose a takeover of the nation by agents of a new World Government. Such material was disseminated widely by the Internet and was lapped up eagerly by the extreme right in many other countries. In many ways the Oklahoma bombing was a watershed in the development of a new wave of conspiracy theories in the 1990s and in the growth of the groups which advocate such ideas. The FBI reported in December 1997, for example, that it was now involved with more than nine hundred investigations into home-grown activist groups, compared to a hundred before Oklahoma. (3)
The extreme right itself probably perpetrated the bombing partly out of revenge for the FBI’s mishandling of the Branch Davidian siege at Waco in 1993. Although this sect was a religious cult group rather than a right-wing extremist organisation, it did blur some of the differences between pseudo-religious ideas and some extreme right-wing attitudes. It was led by a charismatic leader who had convinced his group of the need for collective armed resistance in the face of a hostile central government. The FBI’s mishandling of the infamous siege at Waco brought sympathy and gave ammunition to other groups that sought for ‘freedom’ from the state. In particular American neo-Nazis argued that it was an example of how the US Government was prepared to trample over the freedoms of any groups who disagreed with the allegedly totalitarian values of mainstream liberal society. At the same time they carefully avoided the evident contradiction contained in their own fascist ideologies, which envision the construction of a strong ‘alternative’ state based on a mixture of Nazism and `Christian’ white supremacy. As far as they are concerned the key ‘fact’ is that Waco exemplified a conspiracy by ‘ZOG’ – the Zionist Occupation Government. To frighten and lie to the general public in preparation for an oppressive New World Order. Sigificantly, Timothy McVeigh had been influenced by a video called Waco – the Big Lie. Although it would be a distortion to lump together all the neo-Nazi, militia and cult groups (many militia groups disassociate themselves from the neo-Nazis) certain common beliefs have emerged.
In general Waco and Oklahoma have taken on mythical proportions among the many US groups who believe that governments cannot be trusted. Outside the USA there has also been a notable growth in ‘cultist’ and New Age groups which, while not always adhering to extreme right-wing viewpoints, often tend to view democratic and materialist society as decadent and corrupt and governments as nothing more than huge lie machines. Furthermore they argue in their propaganda to potential recruits that the only way to escape the slide into societal breakdown is to set up pure elites of selected individuals who must prepare for the supposedly inevitable collapse of ‘the system’. In the meantime secret organisational strategies must be pursued in order to outwit the insidious arms of the State or the outside world, promot-ing a them-and-us mentality.
Indeed, as the century draws to a close there are now many examples of cross-fertilisation between a wide variety of cults and groups who all hold in common esoteric beliefs and conspiracy views about the nature of the modern world. In 1980 Roger Sandell reflected on ‘The World of Conspiracy Theories’ and pointed out that the conspiracy tradition has a long political history. (4) He located the origins of modern conspiracy theory in the 1790s when the fear of revolution, ignited by the French Revolution of 1789-92, had gripped ruling circles in Europe. Simplistic explanations arose about the forces behind revolutions: certain writers blamed the Freemasons or the Illuminati, or their paid agents, who were plotting the overthrow of Europe’s monarchies and of Christianity itself. Sandell records that by the mid-19th century it was the Jews – non-Christian, urban and recently liberated from civic restrictions – who came to be seen as the main enemy by the forces of reaction and clericism.
New forms of antisemitism were combined with older, more traditional anti-Jewish ideas in order to show that Jews were part of an evil secret society out to manipulate world events. One book, World Conquest by the Jews, published in 1875, argued that the most eminent leaders of the ‘Chosen Few’ deliberated on the most suitable means to ensure that Judaism spread from the North Pole to the South. (5) By the early 20th century these antisemitic themes found their strongest expression in works such as the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (1905), which had originated from Czarist Russia and was taken up by numerous antisemitic groups in Europe. In Britain a group called ‘The Britons’, publishers of a journal called The Hidden Hand, cited the Protocols as evidence that Jews were out to undermine the nation. This was a period of anxiety about national identity and the supposed decline of society. Some people wanted easy explanations for these perceptions and the Jews were traditional scapegoats.
The English translation of the Protocols had been published in 1920, under the title The Jewish Peril and it received wide coverage through articles in The Times and the Spectator. During the summer of 1920 the Morning Post published a series of eighteen articles supporting the Judeo-Masonic theory and used the Protocols as evidence. Nesta Webster, one of the most infamous conspiracy theorists of the interwar period and whose books are still regularly reprinted by right-wing publishing houses today, remained noncommittal on the Protocols. (6) Nevertheless Webster still put forward a comprehensive conspiracy theory about world history. The Freemasons and Illuminati were supposedly still behind world events, often in alliance with Jews and `Reds’.
Although certain elements on the political left were also guilty of antisemitism (conflating it with anti-capitalism), it was the right who found most comfort in the conspiratorial outlook. Moreover it was the extreme right which subscribed particularly to the simplicities of viewing the events and problems of the world as mere products of manipulation by secret forces. Nesta Webster, for example, was a member of the `British Fascist’ (BF) during the 1920s, a party founded
in 1923 by Rotha Lintom-Orman, the granddaughter of a Field-Marshall and an admirer of Mussolini’s fascist ‘revolution’ in Italy. Webster also briefly sat on the ‘Grand Council’ of the BF. As well as writing her own books for public consumption, which have since become classics of conspiracy theory, (7) she used her position on the BF to push her all-encompassing theories to other British fascists, reinforcing their siege-mentality about their position in society and future prospects of the nation.
In May 1926 she argued that in the event of a crisis, “or the continuance of slow disintegration”, Britain needed a group who would react against “the forces of destruction”. (8) She clearly had in mind the BF for this task. Its leadership consisted mainly of ex-military personnel who spent many hours training paramilitary street squads for the ‘inevitable’ clash between the forces of darkness and light which they were convinced would come one day. The constitutional government of the day was viewed as weak and corrupt, the democratic system being a front for lies and deception on a mass scale. The real centres of power in the world were Moscow and Wall Street.
There are a number of other examples of conspiracy thought on the extreme Right in Britain during the interwar years. Arnold Leese, leader of the Imperial Fascist League, held a highly detailed conviction that the world was under the control of Jews and Masons. He gave his outlook a pseudo-religious justification rooted in mysticism, irrationality and the racial pseudo-science of German Nazi anthropologists such as Hans F. K. Gunther. At one point Leese argued, “Freemasonry is simply the latest phase of organisation of the forces of Darkness against those of Light, of Evil against Good, in a fight which has been going on since the Jews first conceived of the idea of organising for world control”. (9)
Even as the Nazi death camps were being opened up in 1945, Leese was still convinced that the war had been a “Jewish war for survival”. He argued that the result was the “sheer destruction of the best part of Europe and its domination by Bolshevism”, whilst the British Empire, “nearly ruined and rotten to the core with Jews and Freemasonry” was sinking back into a “second-class power”. (10)
Conspiracy theory did not go away in the post-1945 period. The former Conservative MP Captain Archibald Ramsay, who had been imprisoned by the British Government in 1940, still very much subscribed to the theory that the world was subject to manipulation by shadowy forces. In The Nameless War (1952), Ramsay echoed Nests Webster’s theories on history by pointing to the machinations of the Illuminati, Grand Orient Masons, and `Cabalistic Jews’ (11). He hinted strongly that the conspiracy was ‘international’ in nature and consisted of an “unholy united front” between Jews and certain misguided Gentiles.
Webster, Leese and Ramsay are especially notable because their books and pamphlets have been ‘rediscovered’ in recent years and reprinted. Material by Leese and Ramsay, for example, has been widely distributed by the American ‘Sons of Liberty’ publications group in the 1980s and 90s. This group has also been instrumental in distributing conspiracy literature by more recent right-wing and militia writers. In fact, in the light of the mushrooming interest in wider popular culture in the belief that governments and secret groups are denying people ‘the truth’, the extreme right has done its utmost to cash in on this and infiltrate its own ideas into the maze of esoteric and conspiracy material that now exists. A short visit to the many SF shops that have appeared in Britain and America invariably finds such books in sections devoted to ufology and general conspiracy material. Many newsagents display SF, esoteric and UFO-related monthly titles which wittingly or unwittingly recycle and promote extreme right themes. An example is the Australian-based magazine Nexus which regularly contains articles on the secret networks that supposedly operate in the world and influence governments.
The high demand for such magazines is encouraged by the public’s appetite for historical mystery and fascination with anything ‘Nazi’ or esoteric. A highly competitive market in these magazines means the need of publishers for such material has become acute. The market has expanded with the development of cheap desktop technology, and almost inevitably one can find in this material examples of articles and ideas that have roots in the right-wing, conspiratorial outlook on the world briefly explored above, even though their authors would deny this. A good example is the work of David Icke. He has published articles in the New Age/UFO magazines and distributed his own books, which have appeared in a number of SF and ‘alternative’ bookshops in Britain and the USA. He has also spoken at conferences, including the 1994 Nexus magazine conference in Amsterdam.
When this controversial ex sports commentator and former Green activist conducted his own lecture tour of Britain, the media took a great deal of interest in the number of neo-fascists and other Right-wing individuals who attended his lectures (12). This was not mere sensationalism on the part of journalists and Icke’s squeals of protest at these revelations showed great naivety. Some of the dubious characters who attended the lectures obviously found much in Icke’s ideas that they could relate to. A short survey of his work can give strong clues as to why the extreme Right find it so attractive.
Icke is very much in the Nests Webster tradition of connpiratorial thought when it comes to explaining world events and, whether deliberate or not, he makes use of a number of ideas which have a long pedigree in the history of Right-wing conspiracy theory. To this he adds `technological’ material to give his work a pseudoscientific feel. The basis of his philosophy is that our thought-processes are ultimately controlled by an international network of Freemasons, Jesuits and secretive bankers. He points to subliminal messages transmitted by TV which create ‘mind controlled’ robots, and also to the influence of tiny micro-chips inserted into people. In The Robots’ Rebellion (1994) Icke presented a vision of the world where ‘the brotherhood Elite’ are employing `The System’ and the New World Order to manipulate education and the media in order to crush individual liberty and free thought. Not only was there mention of the ‘Illuminati Protocols’ and the influence of Masons, but also claims that secret technologies were deliberately being kept from the public by faceless companies and groups.
More disturbingly, there was uncritical use in the book of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Icke claimed, “Almost everything these documents proposed to do has happened in this century” (13). Similarly in his later book, And the Truth Shall Set You Free (1995), Icke continued and developed his conspiratorial outlook further by identifying the `Secret Government’ at work in the world. There was a chapter on ‘The Hidden Hand’, and in a classic piece of historical revisionism lumped the World War II Allies together with the Nazis and argued that “the same forces funded and manipulated them both” (14). The same book also made use of the ever-growing material on the world-wide UFO ‘cover-up’, arguing that “extraterrestrials are at the heart of human history and the events that have shaped that history” (15).
Another example of a body of work which has gone down well with the extreme Right and echoes a number of their ideas is that of the American writer Jim Keith. His material is distributed by the Illuminet Press, which has specialised in bringing a variety of fringe material into the mainstream, including work by the US militias. His work has also been on sale through Nexus magazine. The best and most influential example of Keith’s work is Black Helicopters Over America (1994) which is on sale in large SF bookshops in London. Although more codified in its language, the basic theme behind the book is that there is a conspiracy being perpetrated by a plutocratic elite, backed by the Illuminati and operating through secret networks. The aim of this conspiracy is world domination through a New World Order and the domination of the United Nations. The ‘black helicopters’ are but one sign of this plan, which also involves the creation of a network of detention camps for any groups who might oppose this.
Keith delves back into history to describe the roots of this plan. At one point he argues, “In actual fact, the New World Order is simply the long term game plan of the Fabians and other communists, plans which were most clearly elucidated in Fabian H. G. Wells’ non-fiction books…” (16) The plan would also involve the creation of a ‘World Constitution’ with a world federation, “which would control everything, everywhere, anyhow, period.” (17) In the last chapter of the book all these strands are brought together for Keith to argue that it is evidence that a war will be initiated within the borders of the United States “against the American people by the power-hungry internationalists” (18). By the year 2000 the USA will be merged into a totalitarian and Socialist New World Order (19). In sum, Keith’s work claims that crisis is imminent and only organised resistance will suffice. The ghost of Nesta Webster lives on.
Finally it might be worth analysing Nexus magazine itself. In many ways Nexus has come to exemplify the strange conjunction of New Age, conspiracy and extreme Right thought. As well as promoting the ideas of the US Militia movement, giving space to Linda Thompson a key Militia spokesperson, Nexus has carried a variety of conspiratorial articles ranging from material on UFOs and secret technology through to investigations of the secret elites who operate in the world. Particular interest is shown in the banking elites, in ‘forbidden’ knowledge and in ‘Big Brother’ theories. Indeed, David Icke in Robots’ Rebellion called Nexus ‘excellent’ and the magazine has sought to provide a platform for a number of people with rather conspiratorial views of the world.
A good example came in January 1996. In an article on the Bilderberg Group, Armen Victorian speculated on whether the membership of this, selected from the ‘power elite’ of Europe and North America, are conspiring to establish a New World Order (20). A similar theme occurred in another issue from 1996. David G. Guyatt analysed the ‘Pinay Circle’ and noted its links to intelligence, the military, politics and banking. He argued that the group was perhaps “more sinister and certainly more shadowy than the Bilderbergers” (21). Interestingly Guyatt noted that his theories might be called ‘Conspiracy Theory’, but argued that this “rarely takes into account the underlying evidence” (22). In other words, he implied, critics of such material are not opening their eyes sufficiently. This kind of attitude runs right through Nexus, and the contributions it prints.
A typical issue of the magazine contains a column entitled ‘Global News’ which is often billed as news from ‘behind the news’, the clear implication being that the public will not find this kind of material anywhere else. All in all Nexus functions as a forum for a variety of theories, including highly conspiratorial and dubious material, and makes use of right-wing material which would normally be dismissed by mainstream publications. In one sense this is admirable and can probably be justified in the name of free speech. On the other hand we should be very aware that the authors of articles in Nexus have hidden agendas which are often rooted in the attempt to legitimise right-wing conspiratorial material and make it more acceptable in the wider culture. We should be constantly vigilant.
In conclusion this brief discussion has tried to demonstrate two things. Firstly that right-wing conspiracy ideas have a long historical tradition and are still present in popular culture today, seeking to capitalise on the current fascination with ufology and the esoteric. Secondly, that there has been a cross-fertilisation between more recent New Age obsessions and the idea held by the extreme right that the present world order is a place of hostility and threat for ‘freethinking’ individuals.
On the growth of such groups see Martin Durham: `Preparing for Armageddon: Citizen Militias, the Patriotic Movement and the Oklahoma Bombing’, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol.8, no.1, 1996.Ibid. p.14.
Robert S Robins and Jerrold M Post. Political Paranoia: Psychopolitics of Hatred. London, Yale University Press, 1997. p.209.
US News and World Report, 21 December 1997.
Roger Sandell, `The World of Conspiracy Theories’, Magonia 5, 1980.
Norman Cohn. Warrant for Genocide: the myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1996. p.66.
On Webster’s career, see Richard Gilman: Behind World Revolution, the Strange Career of Nesta H. Webster. Michigan, Insight Books, 1982.
Nesta Webster. ‘Communism or Fascism’, Fascist Bulletin, 1 May 1926, p.1.
Arnold Leese. Freemasonry, (1935) (Sons of Liberty edition, n.d.) p.5.
Arnold Leese. The Jewish War of Survival (1945) (Sons of Liberty edition, n.d.) p.92.
A. H. M. Ramsay, The Nameless War (1952) p.26.
See, for instance, ‘Neo-Nazis Rally to “Son of Godhead”, Sunday Times, 9 July 1995.
David Icke. Robots’ Rebellion. Bath, Gateway Books, 1994. p.138
David Icke. And the Truth Shall Set You Free. London, Bridge of Love, 1995. p.147.
Jim Keith. Black Helicopters over America; Strikeforce for the New World Order. Georgia, Illuminet Press, 1994. p.123.
Armen Victorian. ‘The Bilderberg Group; an Invisible Power House’, Nexus, vol.3, no.1, December 1995 – January 1996.
David G. Guyatt. `The Pinay Circle; and Invisible Power Network’. Nexus, vol.3, no.5, August – September 1996.