The Big Con: Throwing some light on the role of conspiracy theory in history

I recently gave a talk on the role of conspiracy theory in history, and tried to address the very difficult question of why so many people appear to believe that ‘secret’ forces are at work in the world, and allow themselves to be seduced and conned by the claim that there is no such thing as ‘accident’ in history. One of the conspiracy theorists I covered in the talk was the former footballer and Green activist David Icke, author of books such as And the Truth Shall Set You Free (1995) and Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster (2002).

David Icke

By coincidence, in the very same week that I delivered my talk, Icke (pictured right) was touring the UK with his latest special stage show, where he presents his controversial theories about the past and the present. This new tour, which also functioned as a book-launch, included a session in Edinburgh and a big event at the Troxy Theatre in London’s East End.

However, his latest tour/book launch did not go as smoothly as he had hoped. Two days after the London event, Icke was banned by Manchester United football team from holding ‘An Evening with David Icke’ at their Old Trafford stadium in Manchester. In a statement, Manchester United said: ‘The booking was made by a junior member of staff who was unaware of Icke and his objectionable views. The event has been cancelled’.

The decision to cancel Icke’s event came after complaints had been made by the UK’s Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and also from the Labour MP Kate Green. Predictably, in comments made on his own Twitter account, Icke said Manchester United was ‘a disgrace’ for cancelling his show ‘on the say-so of ultra-Zionist hate group and freedom-destroying Labour MP’.

For those unfamiliar with Icke and his work, there is quite a disturbing history attached to him. Icke (b. 1952) is infamous for writing a series of long and turgid conspiratorial books which have become best-sellers among those drawn to such views. Each book ranges across a variety of topics and there is considerable use of a very selective version of history and key historical events. Coincidence in history is radically downgraded, and replaced instead with purpose, design and ‘plots’ as the most important factors in interpreting the major events of the past. Some of this ‘history’ has become notably strange. In particular, Icke has claimed that ‘interdimensional reptilian aliens’ operate behind the scenes, brainwashing and controlling the world’s governing elites and shaping history for particular ends.

Icke’s obsession with ‘reptiles’, however, as I explained in my talk, was the result of a more coded language that he subsequently adopted when there was an outcry over one of his earliest books. In The Robots Rebellion (1994), Icke had made uncritical use of the Czarist anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (1903), which claims that the world is subject to manipulation and control by a secret ‘cabal’ of Jewish elders who meet annually. In the second edition of Robots Rebellion, this material was carefully edited out, but Icke’s general claim of a grand conspiracy at work across the globe remained. His books and sell-out talks have repeated this ‘global’ thesis ever since, in ever more bizzare and elaborate ways.

David Icke and Protocols

More importantly, though, in recent years Icke has returned back to his earlier obsession with the Protocols, and now talks more boldly and explicitly about the book and about ‘Rothschild Zionists’ more generally. He has evidently decided that sufficient time has now elapsed since the huge row caused by The Robots Rebellion in 1994, and that it is now ‘safe’ again to push some classic conspiracy ideas about ‘Zionist’ puppet-masters and ‘secret’ forces operating behind the scenes. In a recent radio interview, for example (available on YouTube), Icke put forward a detailed ‘history’ about the role of the Protocols and even linked the book to Allen Dulles and the American CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). Dulles was supposedly a ‘front man of the House of Rothschild’. Icke’s version of the history of the Middle East would also have left a professional historian tearing their hair out.

As I pointed out in my talk, conspiracy theory, or ‘conspiracism’, has had a long and ugly history, with roots that can be traced right back to at least the time of the French Revolution, and to extravagant ideas about Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati. But it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that conspiracy theory really began to grow and gain ground, and the Protocols was a classic example of such thinking.


In the early 1920s, the book was printed and distributed widely by the ‘Britons Publishing Society’, an extreme rightwing and highly anti-Semitic publishing group in the UK, created by Henry Hamilton Beamish (1873-1948). The Britons Society also exported many copies to other countries, and Hamilton, along with sympathisers and supporters of the Britons, helped translate and promote the Protocols in all corners of the world, including in the Middle East and Africa. The book was also taken up by the famous American motor manufacturer Henry Ford (1863-1947) in the USA, and by Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, especially by the Nazi movement’s main ideologue of ‘race’, Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946).

And the book did not disappear after the Second World War and the Holocaust. In fact, it has been reprinted on many occasions ever since, and there are now numerous versions available today on the internet. Indeed, in recent years, the Protocols has been used by conspiracy theorists to ‘explain’ a diverse number of historical events, ranging from the death of Lady Diana in 1997 to ‘9/11’ in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003. The Financial Crash of 2008 was also (apparently) deliberately engineered by the secretive Elders of Zion to undermine the West and bring about a ‘New World Order’, with a ‘One World’ dictatorship policed by the United Nations from New York.

Frankly, the fact that David Icke is himself utilising the basic tenets of the Protocols once again speaks volumes about the man.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)



This entry was posted in British history, European History, Fascism, French History, German History, Media history, Public History, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Big Con: Throwing some light on the role of conspiracy theory in history

  1. Tim Hodgson says:


    One thought that occurred to me as I was listening to your excellent ‘Lizards and Lies’ lecture last week on this topic was that it might be interesting to complement the historian’s perspective on conspiracy theories with that of the psychologist. The historian’s focus is inevitably on the theories and the evidence or lack of evidence upon which they may be based.It would be interesting to understand if any research has been done into the psychological mindset of the originators, the transmitters of conspiracy theories and also of those most susceptible to receiving their messages.



    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks very much for your kind comments. I am glad you enjoyed the talk. Regarding your point about complementing the work of historians on this subject with that of psychologists, there have been some exciting developments in this direction. In 2015, Rob Brotherton’s book ‘Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories’ put forward some fascinating points drawn from psychological research: he argues that conspiratorial thinking is not just confined to a handful of paranoid people, but can be found in more mainstream parts of society; he also suggests that ‘conspiracism’ may be the natural product of the way our minds work i.e. there is a desire to see ‘patterns’ where none exist. I am also aware of one or two other researchers on the history of conspiracy theory who have been influenced by some of the latest psychological research on this area. It’s certainly food for thought.

      Best wishes,



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