Conspiracy theories are nothing new. We’re more aware of them today thanks to the ceaseless buzz of social media. But back in ancient Rome, Nero was blaming Christians for burning down the city. While in Stuart London after the Great Fire of 1666, a monument was erected pointing an accusing finger at Roman Catholics as devious arsonists.
What’s often not recognised is the extent to which conspiracy theories and fact have blended to the point where accepted facts often don’t have much of an evidential base. So let’s look at five conspiracy theories grounded in what we think is factual history. I’m not going to include the more far out stuff like the Bermuda Triangle here – which I’ll be examining soon.
For today, it’s conspiracy theories about kings, popes, princes, and presidents.
So – here goes!
Hitler survived World War Two
Two years after Germany was defeated in the Second World War, the American public was polled by Gallup and asked: Do you think that Hitler is dead? The year was 1947 and many Americans had fought in the war and even picked their way through the ruins of Hitler’s capital, Berlin. The poll result was astonishing. Nearly half the respondents, 45%, believed Hitler was NOT dead.
War veterans, men, and college educated Americans were more likely to believe that Hitler was no more. While women in particular thought he was still alive. A similar poll in Germany noted that working class people were more likely to believe that the Fuhrer had survived than the middle class.
In the 1970s, when there will still quite a few Nazis knocking around, there was huge interest in claimed sightings proving that leading figures in the Third Reich had fled to Latin America. These stories were undoubtedly fuelled by Soviet disinformation campaigns after the war.
As early as June 9, 1945 – as the war was concluding – the Soviet military commander Marshal Zukhov openly speculated that Hitler hadn’t committed suicide but instead been flown from Berlin to Denmark or Norway and then taken by submarine to Latin America to live among German settlements in Brazil or Argentina.
But why would the Soviet Union invent a myth that Hitler was still alive and kicking? In 1981, Professor Don McKale wrote a debunking book called Hitler: The Survival Myth. He argued that the Soviets needed the bogeyman of a still-alive Hitler to justify seizing control of eastern Europe. Though the Soviet leader Stalin seems to have genuinely hoped that Hitler was alive so that he could be brought to Moscow, interrogated, and put on trial.
And belief in a living and breathing Hitler came from some odd quarters. In the 1970s, the Worldwide Church of God led by end-times preacher Herbert W. Armstrong claimed that Hitler and the Pope were in league to take over the world. As with other predictions made by this organisation, the Nazi-Catholic coup d’etat failed to materialise.
The Knights Templar had a secret mission!
Years ago, I spoke at a book festival with a professor of medieval studies who is a recognised expert on the Knights Templar. The night before we went for a meal and I suggested that the next day I’d do the mystery while she could do the history. “Oh,” she retorted, “so I do the boring stuff then?”
I was then treated to a lecture over our curry about the way in which fact and fiction about the Templars have been intertwined from the very beginning. The accounts of medieval chroniclers about the knights are laced with propaganda, falsehood, and just bitching. Their origins, mission, and downfall are shrouded in lies and calumnies.
Much of the so-called history written about the Templars in the centuries since is just a continuation of the half-truths told by these chroniclers. Though of course, it’s drifted considerably from the truth over the last two hundred years. Freemasons, esoteric theorists, and darker political forces have cast the Templars as something I doubt they’d remotely recognise.
The most popular conspiracy theory in recent times, featured heavily in Dan Brown’s works, is that the Knights Templar were set up by a secret society called the Priory of Sion dedicated to protecting the bloodline of Jesus. The descendants of Christ. The true meaning of the Holy Grail. This theory originated in France in the 1950s before being popularised in the 1980s bestseller, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.
There is a variation on this theory that replaces the Priory of Sion with a network of families descended from the priests of the Temple of Solomon who call themselves Rex Deus. This theory was championed by the late Tim Wallace-Murphy in his books. According to him, many of the top movers and shakers of the Middle Ages were part of Rex Deus and committed to protecting the Jesus bloodline from a murderous Vatican.
JFK assassination involves a cover-up by top American politicians
Let’s distil this one down to the basic proposition: President John F Kennedy was murdered as a result of a conspiracy covered up by the subsequent Warren Commission, set up to investigate the killing. Other figures complicit in Kennedy’s untimely demise were his successor President Lyndon Johnson and at least two other future US presidents.
Here are the three main conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination:
- He was killed as a result of a Communist plot hatched in the Soviet Union, Cuba, or both
- He was killed as a result of an extreme Right-wing conspiracy hatched in the United States
- He was killed as a result of a conspiracy by anti-Castro Cubans
And who actually fired the bullet – or bullets if you prefer – into the President’s car? One supposition is that the mafia was contracted to carry out the assassination.
One characteristic of JFK conspiracy theories is that they take a long time to explain. Oliver Stone’s three-hour conspiracy laden movie JFK released in 1991 being a case in point. Many of the allegations raised in the movie were shaped in the early 1970s, especially during the Watergate scandal – ten years after JFK was shot – when confidence and trust in the US government all but collapsed.
So, how does one prove that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t a lone operator in the assassination? A favourite angle is the single bullet argument. Theorists refer to it sarcastically as the “super bullet” because it would have had to inflict seven fatal and non-fatal wounds on JFK and Texas Governor John Connolly who was in the same vehicle. This single bullet’s trajectory, it’s argued, is impossible.
In fairness to the conspiracy theories, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby has never sat right with me. Ruby was a sleazy night club operator known to the FBI and police. We are asked to believe that in a fit of high-mindedness, he single-handedly took it upon himself to terminate Oswald. If there is a gap into which conspiracy theorists can enter my mind – then that is it.
In 1998, The History Channel – as it then was – polled Americans and found that three-quarters believed a conspiracy lay behind the JFK assassination. Only 18% thought not. In 2022, the Biden administration released a slew of documents on what happened back in November 1963 but at the time of writing, nothing sensational has emerged.
FIND OUT MORE: Movies that promote conspiracy theories
Pope John Paul I murdered – or was it suicide?
From October 1978 to April 2005, the Roman Catholic church was under the control of Pope John Paul II – the first non-Italian pope in centuries. Because of his charisma, it’s now largely forgotten that John Paul II’s predecessor was the man who adopted this rather unusual name as Pope John Paul I. A modest pope who refused to be crowned, carried around in a chair, and referring to himself as “we”. All measures no subsequent pope has dared to reverse.
His papacy lasted only 34 days. Because 1978 was the year of three popes. And the one in the middle – John Paul I – died relatively young and in circumstances that aroused almost immediate suspicion.
Pope Paul I was the last Italian-born pope after an unbroken run of popes from Italy going back five-hundred years. He succeeded Paul VI and before him, John XXIII. An admirer of both men, who had very different approaches and policies, he adopted their names – hence, John Paul. Unlike the rather other worldly Paul VI, the new pope – real name Albino Luciani – was a handsome, permanently smiling individual. Genuinely liked by millions after being chosen.
But not by everybody. On September 29, 1978, the Vatican issued a statement that stunned the world. The Pope was dead. Official cause of death – a heart attack. Within days the Vatican was having to correct its own account of how his body was found in his room. Allegations that he was murdered soon surfaced. As did one implausible claim – that may even have originated within the Vatican – that he had committed suicide.
In 1984, author David Yallop wrote a blockbuster book titled In God’s Name: An Investigation Into the Murder of Pope John Paul I. He alleged that John Paul I was poisoned by members of a Masonic lodge as he prepared to launch a full-scale investigation into the Vatican’s murky finances and planned the removal of several leading church officials. Those out to kill the smiling pontiff included the mafia and Freemasons embedded within the Holy See.
Yallop even has one cardinal who shall remain nameless (you’ll have to read the book) taking out a contract on the pope while another senior cleric in Rome does the dirty deed to stop John Paul changing church policy on birth control. The Vatican denied the book as “absurd fantasies”.
However, Yallop’s book delved into very real financial scandals swirling round the Vatican in the 1970s and 1980s culminating in the gruesome discovery in 1982 of the Vatican banker Roberto Calvi’s body hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London.
And the Masonic claims were not so far fetched as one might have thought. Italian police investigating the ultra-secretive P2 Masonic lodge in Italy during 1981 and 1982 uncovered a network of Freemasonry extending through the Italian government, military, and secret services with a mission to destroy communism and even entertaining the idea of an authoritarian regime of some description.
Little wonder that Godfather III, released in 1990, had a plot heavily influenced by both the death of Pope John I and the alleged Masonic conspiracies.
In recent years, views on Pope John Paul I have coalesced around three positions. The Yallop view that this pope was a determined reformer intent on rooting out corruption and was killed. A rebuttal from author John Cornwell who penned a Vatican approved book arguing that John Paul I was an incompetent pope overwhelmed by his election and bedevilled by ill health. A more recent account argues that he was on track to be a great pope but died through natural causes.
DISCOVER: Pius XII – the Pope who exploded!
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln – by his own government!
Four presidents of the United States have been assassinated – the two most famous being JFK and Abraham Lincoln. So what do we know about the shooting of Lincoln? The man who wielded the pistol was actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser who entered the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre and fired the fatal bullet.
Did he act alone? Well, in contrast to the JFK slaying – we know the answer was no. He was beyond doubt part of a conspiracy. In the immediate aftermath of the slaying, the US government went into overdrive rounding up and imprisoning suspects. Booth was killed in a shoot out while four of the convicted plotters were hanged. But how widespread was this plot and how many people were involved?
Possibly one of the most extraordinary conspiracy theories is that Lincoln’s death was planned by his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The proponent of this theory was Austrian-born American industrial chemist and author, Otto Eisenschiml. He argued that Stanton not only facilitated the assassination but helped Booth escape Washington DC.
However, Booth was falling into a trap. Having used him to get rid of Lincoln for political reasons, Stanton couldn’t afford to have Booth still alive. So he was essentially ambushed and gunned down by Union troops. Eisenschiml also alleges that Stanton tore incriminating pages out of Booth’s diary. The reason Stanton wanted Lincoln dead was that he feared the president was going soft on the defeated southern states.
Eisenschiml was born in 1880 and died in 1963. He was a regular fixture on the lecture circuit and newspaper coverage of him in the United States from the 1930s to his death is broadly positive. For example, in February 1937 he was getting an honorary degree from the Lincoln Memorial University – described as an “author and lecturer of national repute”. And I found one classified ad where the veteran Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg calls Eisenschiml’s book Why Was Lincoln Murdered? a “masterpiece of inquiry, research, discussion, and statement”.
This book was so persuasive that it was a well-regarded and recommended work for history graduates studying the Civil War into the 1970s. Today, however, it has been roundly attacked. But could there be any truth to its central thesis?