The idea of a ‘Fourth Reich’ is a regular theme in certain strands of conspiracy theory. A diverse but notable number of conspiratorial-minded theorists remain desperately keen to persuade us that, after the collapse of the German Third Reich, the Nazis who escaped justice in Europe (including even Hitler himself), and who ended up in living new lives in South America and elsewhere, invested their time and resources in a project to construct a Fourth Reich to ressurect National Socialism.
It’s a truly bizarre idea, but is a claim that refuses to die, and has taken on even greater currency since the emergence of the internet in the mid-1990s, which has become an invaluable tool for conspiracists to disseminate such fraudulent versions of history. There are now numerous websites pushing these ideas, claiming they have ‘incontrovertable’ evidence that Hitler ‘escaped’ Berlin, or the Nazis built the first flying saucers, or that today’s Nazis are planning for the ‘big day’ when a clone of the Fuhrer will make a dramatic appearance on the global stage.
In 2019 Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s fascinating book The Fourth Reich traced the history and nature of this conspiratorial theme in popular culture since 1945 and up to the present-day. As he pointed out, ever since the collapse of the ‘Thousand Year’ Third Reich, big anxieties have persisted about Nazism’s possible revival in a ‘Fourth Reich’.
More recently, the historian Richard Evans has penned the excellent book The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination (2020). In this important study, Evans stated the need to expose the ‘fantasies and fictions, fabrications and falsifications’ of conspiracists concerning the Third Reich, including the so-called ‘escape’ of Hitler in 1945.
Hitler as Conspiracist
The Nazi leader himself was, of course, a notorious conspiracy theorist and made use of conspiratorial themes in his extreme anti-Semitism. This included utilisation of the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which, Hitler claimed, exposed the Jews’ ‘ultimate final aims’. The Nazi regime even added the Protocols to the German national school curriculum in 1933.
Some conspiracy theorists have claimed that Hitler was also interested in ‘special powers’ and may have dabbled with the ideas of the occult. This has been a regular source of fascination for writers of popular ‘pulp’ history; when I was putting together a module for students on the nature of conspiracy theory, and trawled the field of publications on this, I was especially struck at the number of books that have sought to exploit this in a highly sensationalist way: books such as Satan and Swastika by Francis King and Hitler and the Age of Horus to give just two examples.
Another strand of conspiracy theory about leading Nazis has been some pretty wild speculation about Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, who suddenly flew to Britain in 1941 on a probable ‘peace’ mission (or so he thought). Conspiracy-minded ‘researchers’ have raised a whole series of questions about the Hess affair, ranging from claims that he had secret links with Nazi sympathisers in the British Establishment, to suggestions that he had fallen into a special ‘trap’ mounted by British Intelligence using advice from astrologers or the infamous English occultist Aleister Crowley.
Some conspiracists assert that the Hess who parachuted into Scotland in 1941 was not the’ real’ Hess, but a ‘double’. In addition, there has been a reoccuring claim that the Hess imprisoned in Spandau by the Allies was not the genuine Hess, or that he did not really commit suicide in Spandau but was ‘murdered’ so that certain embarrassing secrets he held about the wartime Allies would remain completely secret.
Fourth Reich racists
Another regular strand in conspiracy theory is the claim that ‘secret’ Nazi super-technologies will be utilised by those members of the Aryan race who are constructing or preparing the ‘Fourth Reich’. There is a tediously persistent claim that the Nazis invented Flying Saucers in World War Two, and that the wave of sightings of UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) that came in the late 1940s and 1950s were actually examples of surviving Nazis testing such technologies, in readiness for the ressurrection of Nazism.
Fairly typical of this kind of assertion came in the writings of the Chilean neo-Nazi Miguel Serrano (1917-2009), an exponent of so-called ‘Esoteric Hitlerism’. Serrano claimed that a ‘super-race’ (of extraterrestrial origin) had hidden the escaped Hitler in the Antarctic, where the Fuhrer was suposedly planning a ‘Fourth Reich’, with new super-weapons and fleets of spacecraft as part of this project.
It was all utter nonsense, of course, but had a certain appeal to those of an extreme rightwing tendency who loved to fantasise about a new Reich and a new racial utopia ‘saving’ the world.
Moreover, such themes have seeped into popular culture in a big way: it is now common to see new books or TV documentaries devoted to the idea of ‘Nazi UFOs’, and to claims that there is physical evidence dotted across Europe of secret Nazi ‘testing’ centres, where flying saucers, nuclear techonologies and other ‘advanced’ inventions were tried out, and then such knowledge was passed into the hands of eager post-war neo-Nazi networks.
More recently, the ‘Hitler did not die’ strand of conspiracy theory has taken on fresh momentum due to the work of the controversial TV journalist and producer of corporate videos Gerrard Williams. His 2011 book Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler, written in partnership with Simon Dunstan, seemed to capture the imagination of many people who are susceptible to ‘alternative’ history or ‘faction’.
Unfortunately, what gave added momentum to such absurd material was the decision of the History cable TV channel to produce three and a half series of a show entitled Hunting Hitler, which commenced in 2018. The programme seemed to persuade an alarming number of viewers that they had not been given the ‘real facts’ about Hitler, that there had been a ‘cover-up’, and that he had indeed escaped Berlin 1945 and made it to South America by plane and submarine.
Presented in a documentary-style format, with plenty of dramatic mood music and hand-held camera shots, the series followed a special ‘team’ of experts (including Gerrard Williams himself) as they followed up clues and ‘evidence’ about the escape route taken by Hitler and other Nazis out of Europe. The show purported to find evidence that Hitler and his entourage had indeed arrived in South America and had set about building the foundations of a Fourth Reich from the safety of bunkers or hidden houses in secluded areas of the jungle.
From a professional historian’s perspective, it is depressing how many times one now comes across people who appear to have been influenced by such TV programmes and have accepted the fraudulent claims that form the core of such material.
Perhaps the last word should go to Richard J. Evans again, who notes that the current proliferation and, in some cases, revival of conspiracy theories involving Hitler ‘is part of a much wider trend, in which a number of influences have come together to blur the boundaries between truth and fiction…’. Conspiracy theorists seek to present alternative ‘truths’, with quasi-evidential support to back up their claims.
For academic historians, as Evans observes, working out what really happened in history is difficult: it requires a great deal of hard work. But in an age like our own, where conspiracy theorists seek to challenge ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditionalist’ history, it remains very important, therefore, to establish what is true and what is false ‘by painstaking research’ by scholars.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge specialises in the study of fascism and the far right
(Images: Wikipedia Commons)