Where did conspiracy theories come from?

Michael Butter: "Conspiracy theories are not new"

DW: More and more conspiracy theories are spreading in the corona crisis. However, the phenomenon in itself is not new. Since when do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Michael Butter: In fact, I don't think that conspiracy theories have experienced an unbelievable upswing as a result of the Corona crisis, they are just being perceived more strongly. The corona conspiracy theories are basically not new either. It's just the final chapter, the newest element in a much longer-running narrative. That's why they came up so quickly, because they simply added on to existing theories.

The question of when people started believing in conspiracy theories has not yet been conclusively clarified in research and primarily depends on how conspiracy theories are defined. For a long time it was assumed that it existed at any time and in any culture, i.e. always and everywhere. However, most researchers now believe that they are a product of early modern European history. This is where conspiracy theories as we still know them appear for the first time. There are important precursors in Roman and Greek antiquity, then they are long gone and reappear in the age of denominational wars.

There were already conspiracy theories in antiquity - Julius Caesar, however, fell victim to a real conspiracy

What was that?

This has to do with the fact that only then were the conditions required for conspiracy theories. You need a reading public in which texts can also circulate anonymously, and for that you needed the printing press. Above all, one needed a certain idea of ​​history and the influence of people on history. This required a certain perception of the past, present and future.

In which circles did these theories particularly circulate?

For a long time, conspiracy theories were firmly anchored in the mainstream - from antiquity to the early modern era and well into the 20th century. This is pretty well researched for the 17th and 18th centuries. The mechanistic picture of cause and effect elucidation led to conspiracy theories. It was assumed that there was an intention behind every action and it was impossible to imagine that unintentional things could also happen. In ancient times, we can demonstrate conspiracy theories in the speeches of the great politicians. They are guaranteed to circulate in people's everyday conversations, but unfortunately we have no evidence of that.

The Internet has accelerated the spread of conspiracy theories by leaps and bounds. Do more people believe in conspiracy theories today than they did then?

In the US, depending on the poll, one in two people believes in at least one conspiracy theory. If you compare the various studies in Germany, I would assume that around a quarter to a maximum of a third of Germans are really receptive to conspiracy theories.

Professor Michael Butter does research on conspiracy theories

It would certainly have looked very different in the past. If we had polls from Germany, Great Britain and the USA from 150 or 200 years ago, we would certainly be well over 90 percent because it was just normal at the time. It was only after the Second World War that a process of stigmatization began, as a result of which conspiracy theories moved from the center of society to the margins. In Eastern Europe and the Arab world, this process did not take place to the same extent. Conspiracy theories are still widespread there.

How do historical conspiracy theories differ from today's theories?

They have a lot in common, especially in the way they argue. It's always about derivation. One observes something, then one thinks about who is using it - cui bono - then one identifies the guilty party and creates a chain of circumstantial evidence. The world is always divided into good and bad, the conspirators and the victims of the conspiracy. One difference is certainly the range. Even Cicero could only imagine a conspiracy against Rome, today we are dealing with global conspiracy theories. For example, Bill Gates is currently being accused of controlling vaccinations in over 150 countries around the world through his foundation.

There have been countless conspiracies throughout history - think, for example, of the assassination of Caesar or the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler on July 22, 1944. What is the difference between these real conspiracies and conspiracy theories?

There have always been and always will be conspiracies. When we talk about conspiracy theories, it doesn't mean that we are denying that there are real conspiracies. But there are differences. In real conspiracies there are usually far fewer people involved than in what conspiracy theories imagine. The conspiracy against Julius Caesar 44 BC It was quite a big deal because several dozen senators were involved in this murder plot. However, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people would have to have been at least unknowingly involved in the present day conspiracy theories, such as 9/11, the moon landing or Corona, who would then find out afterwards at the latest that they had been abused. Keeping such a conspiracy a secret is impossible. In addition, real conspiracies are often only successful in the short or medium term. So things are not going according to plan for the conspirators as in the conspiracy theories. Again the example of Caesar: The aim of the conspiracy was on the one hand to kill him - that was successful. At the same time, the conspirators wanted to preserve the form of the republic through the murder. But the conspiracy was followed by a civil war, at the end of which Octavian rose to be emperor. With that, the Roman Republic, which had existed for centuries, was history.

We see today that conspiracy theories are being used politically. In Hungary, the conspiracy theory surrounding billionaire George Soros is a reason of state. US President Donald Trump also repeatedly plays with conspiracy theories. Is that a new development?

It used to be even more pronounced because it was more of an elite discourse - in the sense that conspiracy theories were for a long time considered normal and spread by the powerful. Accordingly, at that time they were mostly directed against the underdogs and the weak, unlike today, when they were mostly directed against the elites. Ultimately, one difference is that people back then really believed these theories.

Many protesters accuse Bill Gates of being to blame for the corona crisis

Nowadays it is often difficult to see whether politicians really believe in it or not. Usually conspiracy theorists spread their theories because they believe they are doing the world a service. They believe that they have discovered the truth and are now doing something good by revealing it. But that doesn't mean that people don't spread conspiracy theories cynically, either for economic reasons, i.e. to make money with them, or for political reasons.

As early as the Middle Ages, conspiracy theories led to violence, especially against Jews. Journalists were attacked several times during the current protests, and right-wing extremist terrorists also repeatedly invoke conspiracy theories. How dangerous are conspiracy theorists?

One cannot generalize here. There are harmless conspiracy theories. I don't know anyone who went off because of the moon landing or 9/11 and committed an act of violence. However, conspiracy theories can actually be a motor for political radicalization and therefore lead to a willingness to use violence and actual violence. There are historical examples of this. We saw it in Christchurch and Halle too. People feel called to intervene in this conflict that they believe they have discovered. It is very difficult, however, to find those who move from talking to doing. Science has not yet found any clear criteria, and it will probably never really be able to find them.

The medical conspiracy theories are also dangerous, as in the current Corona crisis, because the people who believe in them tend not to protect themselves and others adequately.

Michael Butter is professor of American literary and cultural history at the University of Tübingen. He has done extensive research on conspiracy theories and is one of Germany's leading experts in this field. Butter is also the coordinator of the "Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories" (COMPACT) project, in which a total of 160 scientists from 40 countries deal with conspiracy theories. Recently the project published a "Guide to Conspiracy Theories".

The interview was conducted by Felix Schlagwein.