With the seeming surge in conspiracy theories during the current coronavirus crisis, it is important to be aware of the history of such views, and understand the claims of some of the ‘classic’ advocates of these paranoid and distorted interpretations of the way things work.
A case in point is the arch-conspiracy theorist Nesta Webster (1876-1960), a British author of eight ‘history’ books, an autobiography and numerous articles and speeches. Webster (pictured) was arguably one of the most influential conspiracy theorists of the last century, and a number of her books remain in print today. There is also intense interest in her ideas on certain internet sites, especially those of the far right, religious cults and New Age ‘alternative’ thinkers.
While Nesta Helen Webster produced three novels, it is her prolific non-fiction historical work that remains popular, although critics (including me) would point out that much of her ‘non-fiction’ work seriously blurred fiction and fact.
Life and career
What was Webster’s background? Born Nesta Helen Bevan in August, 1876, on her wealthy family’s estate, Trent Park, in Hertfordshire, Nesta was the youngest of eight children, whose parents were strongly religious. In childhood, she split her time between the family estate and their London residence, which overlooked Hyde Park. Although Nesta had ambitions to go to Cambridge or Oxford University, her mother regarded both institutions as too ‘liberal’, and forced Nesta to attend Westfield College in Hampstead instead, where she studied classics and mental and moral science.
In 1903, while on a tour, Nesta met Arthur Webster, a District Superintendent of Police, and married him in 1904, soon giving birth to two daughters. In the immediate years prior to World War One, Nesta Webster decided to pursue a writing career and her first novel, The Sheep Track, appeared in 1914. Although Webster was of a conservative disposition, the novel appeared to show some strong sympathy for the plight of women and their lack of rights, and it had an underlying message: that women should have the freedom to develop their own independent careers.
In the same year, Webster also published what was to be her first ‘political’ text, Britain’s Call to Arms: An Appeal to our Women. This urged the women of Britain to encourage their men to join the war effort against Germany, and warned gravely that a German victory would result in an ‘iron government’ which would do away with all personal liberty. Overall, Webster adopted a markedly patriotic stance, intolerant of anybody who appeared insufficiently loyal.
During the course of the Great War, Webster also continued to develop her own research interests in history, especially the French Revolution. She decided that much that had previously been written on the revolution was ‘false’ and that she would present the ‘truth’ to the world. This resulted in The French Revolution: A Study in Democracy (1920).
It is in this book where the first signs of a conspiratorial mind-set are in evidence. Webster argued that it had been impossible for the masses to create such an all-encompassing revolution by themselves, and the ‘dark design’ of secret forces had been behind the events of 1789. In particular, the Lodges of German Freemasons and Illuminati had created the ‘anarchy’ which had led to ‘The Terror’, and this was all part of their plan to destroy ‘Christian civilization’.
Although the book was widely reviewed, there was considerable scepticism from critics about its central thesis. However, Webster continued to develop such ideas in her subsequent writings, linking Freemasons, Illuminati and the new creed of Bolshevism, and suggesting they were all part of the ‘design’ of secret societies at the heart of all political events and historical occurrences. There was no room for accident or chance in history; rather, there was planning, manipulation and underhand purpose behind everything that occurred. Moreover, this ‘alien conspiracy’ had taken on international dimensions, and could be traced back over the course of a hundred or so years.
Unfortunately, the decade of the 1920s, with all its political and social upheavals, major economic difficulties, and a general sense of ‘crisis’ – and where many individuals sought firm and simple ‘answers’ with which to comprehend the world – was a period where there were plenty of people who were receptive to simplistic conspiratorial ideas of the type offered by Webster.
Webster was certainly convinced she had the right answers. Another work of ‘history’ from her pen soon followed: World Revolution: The Plot Against Civilization (1921). In this lengthy volume, Webster claimed that her work was the first to fully comprehend the role of secret societies in fomenting revolution in history, which she referred to as ‘a deep-laid conspiracy’ that uses ‘the people to their own undoing’.
An important point to grasp is that Webster also saw herself not just as an interpreter of the past: she also saw her task as ‘educational’. In particular, looking at her own country (Britain), she wished to educate her fellow citizens in the ways that she believed the world really worked, in contrast to the mainstream ‘narrative’ they were being given in the press, in history texts and by governments. This book, and her other subsequent writings, also contained a warning about the future: it was essential to grasp the ‘real’ nature of history in order to protect Britain and its Empire from these threats in the coming years, securing ‘Christian Civilization’ in the process.
Many of these themes were on full display in a book that arguably became her most influential work of conspiracy: Secret Societies and Subversive Movements (1924). In this deluded tome, Webster claimed that it was her ‘duty’ as a historian to trace the origins of the current ‘revolutionary movement’, which was out not just to overthrow Christianity but ‘all social and moral order’. In her estimation, the tools of this grand design included Freemasonry, the Illuminati, Pan-Germanism, Socialist Revolutionary thought, and International Jewry. Indeed, the last chapter of Webster’s book was entitled ‘The Jewish Peril’. The latter theme, especially, has appealed to the anti-Semitic obsessions of the far right over the decades, and continues to do so today.
Plenty of other such writings followed during the course of the 1920s and 1930s, and – despite the apparent crushing of irrational ideology during World War Two – Webster still continued to pen the occasional article for the rightwing journal The Patriot in the immediate years after World War, still convinced a conspiratorial stance offered the real key to unlocking the past and present. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Webster came to be seen by her readers and supporters as one of the leading authorities on the conspiratorial role of ‘hidden’ or secret forces at work in history and global politics.
Webster’s web of influence
Since her death in 1960, Mrs. Webster’s malign influence has been regularly detected by academic observers in the works of other conspiracy theorists and like-minded networks and lobby groups.
More worryingly, while much of this material remained for many years on the margins of society, the current explosion in conspiracy theory in the early 21st century appears to suggest that the appeal of Webster-style ideas about how history works is very much on the rise again. The first signs of this occurred in the 1990s, when Militia movements in the USA and critics of the ‘New World Order’ became increasingly vocal (the late Jim Keith alleged that ‘Black Helicopters’ were signs that UNO was plotting a ‘world government’, while others claimed the Rothschilds or the Bilderberg Group were manipulating politics, ‘secret’ forces were ‘implanting’ microchips in people, mass brainwashing was being undertaken, and so on).
A good example of this mind-set was the work of the British conspiracy theorist David Icke (pictured), whose books The Robots’ Rebellion (1994) and its rapid follow-up And the Truth Shall Set You Free (1995) echoed and repackaged for a modern audience many of the bizarre allegations about the role of the Illuminati and other ‘secret’ forces at work in the world originally contained in Nesta Webster’s work. In And the Truth Shall Set You Free, for instance, Icke’s views on the French Revolution were strikingly similar to Webster’s. Icke wrote: ‘The French Revolution of 1789 was an Illuminati coup d’état, the methods of which have been repeated over and over…’.
Many of his subsequent books and talks have re-visited these allegations and put forward an ever more detailed version of the plots of the ‘Brotherhood Elite’. As Icke himself likes to remind us, he has devoted the last 20 years or so to further elaborating on the ‘Grand Designs’ at work in history and across the globe today, and he and his network of sympathisers – together with plenty of other conspiracy-minded individuals – have created something of an ‘industry’ of conspiracy theories of all kinds and stripes, with many websites devoted to these ideas and numerous films and interviews on the topic available on YouTube.
A pandemic such as the coronavirus provides conspiracy peddlers such as Icke with lots of tempting opportunities to spread his irrational obsessions and disseminate falsehoods about public health or the machinations of ‘secret’ forces. Icke recently claimed, for example, that Covid-19 simply ‘doesn’t exist’ and was a typical piece of propaganda from what he termed the ‘global cult’ that wishes to control the world.
Although I do not wish to push the analogy too far, the 2020s already contain intriguing and alarming parallels with the conspiratorial paranoia of the 1920s. In this sense, the ghost of Nesta Webster still casts an unwelcome shadow.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)