One of the big challenges for professional historians in recent years has been the worrying growth of conspiracy theory. Questionable claims with no empirical evidence often spread like wild-fire across the internet and, disturbingly for scholars, are regularly taken seriously by people who really should know better (‘Hitler did not die in Berlin’, ‘the Moon landings were faked’, ‘9/11 was an inside job’, and so on).
Such myths also tend to become embedded among the general public and in popular culture, and it is often difficult for historians and other experts to dislodge them once they take hold. Sometimes, though, the tide turns. Here’s a good example.
According to the Guardian, a longstanding theory that the Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess (pictured) was replaced by a doppelganger in Spandau Prison has now been fully debunked. Genetic tests conducted by scientists on blood samples taken from the famous prisoner known as no.7 (Hess) and a living relative have demolished the popular but bizarre conspiracy theory that the man known as Hess was really a double.
Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) was effectively Hitler’s deputy until he surprised the German Fuhrer (and, indeed, the whole world) in May, 1941, by taking a plane and embarking on a solo flight, parachuting into Scotland. Hess apparently hoped he could make contact with sympathetic British aristocrats and, via them, eventually negotiate a peace treaty with Winston Churchill and the British government, and that this would meet with the Nazi leader’s approval. However, on being told of the dramatic news, Hitler flew into a rage and disowned his former friend, and Churchill (who could hardly believe his luck) had Hess imprisoned in the Tower of London and then in a secure mansion in Surrey. It was a major propaganda blow against the Nazi regime.
At the war’s end, Hess was tried alongside the other surviving Nazi leaders as a war criminal at the Nuremberg war trials, and was given a life sentence. He spent the rest of his life in Spandau prison in Berlin (see photo), and the four victorious Allied powers (Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union) took it in turns to guard the old Nazi, who eventually became the only prisoner left in the gaol. He committed suicide in 1987, aged 93.
However, over the years, various conspiracy theories emerged about Hess, with one suggesting that the man the world knew as Rudolf Hess was not the ‘real’ Hess, but actually a double. Persuasive scientific evidence can now put this irrational claim firmly to rest, although one suspects that die-hard conspiracy fans will probably dismiss this new information being as part of the ‘plot’.
Writing in the journal Forensic Science International, Prof. Jan Cemper-Kiesslich, of the University of Salzburg, along with other colleagues, has reported their conclusion that the ‘Hess was a double’ theory has no basis: analysis of a blood sample taken from prisoner no.7 in 1982, together with a DNA sample given freely by a relative of Hess, has shown that the two people were more than 99.99% likely to be related. Cemper-Kiesslich was quoted as commenting that he and his team were ‘extremely sure’ that both samples originate ‘from the same paternal line’.
It is perhaps worth noting that a whole ‘Hess industry’ of conspiracy theories has built up over the decades: apart from the Hess-double theory, conspiracy-mongers have claimed, amongst other things, that Hess did not commit suicide but was murdered by British agents, as the UK’s government feared Hess still held secret and potentially damaging information about British wartime dealings with the Nazis. Similarly, a number of other conspiracy-minded ‘researchers’ have claimed that the original Hess mission in 1941 was a consequence of the Nazi deputy’s interest in the occult, and that he had been lured into a trap set up by British Intelligence agents who had been advised by a leading Satanist and black magician, Aleister Crowley.
Conspiracy theory more generally always sees ‘purpose’ and devious manipulation at work in history; ‘secret’ forces are supposedly at work behind the scenes, plotting and planning and pulling the strings, eager to keep the ‘real’ version of history under wraps.
It is no exaggeration to say that this kind of dogmatic conviction about the past and how things occurred is probably one of the most difficult things for historians to challenge in our digital and information-saturated age, but we would be neglecting our duty if we did not. And science can be an invaluable ally in this important task.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey
(All images: Wikimedia Commons)