Conspiracy theories as criticism of elites: on the long history of a current phenomenon
By historians Dr. Marcel Bubert, Prof. Dr. Wolfram Drews and PD Dr. André Krischer
During the ‘hygiene demonstrations’ that took place in various German cities in May 2020, notorious conspiracy theorists claimed that political and social elites were using the pandemic to implement secret, long-planned goals. Such goals were imagined as the establishment of a world government or the transformation of German democracy into a dictatorship, which the demonstrators protested against with the slogan, ‘We are the people’. The vaccination programme of the Gates Foundation is denounced as a deceitful means of making people compliant, and Bill Gates is seen as the mastermind and secret profiteer of the ‘corona conspiracy’.
The literary scholar Michael Butter has pointed out that such conspiracy theories directed against elites have become especially virulent since the 1960s, and that such theories were more likely to have been made by the authorities or governments against marginal actors and groups (such as witches, Jews, freemasons) in the centuries beforehand (Butter 2018: 173).
There are indeed good reasons to see the widespread scepticism towards elites as a historically new phenomenon linked to the structural changes undergone by modern societies since the 1970s. These include not only a growing ‘economy of inequality’ and a closure of social milieus evoking fears of social exclusion or a sense of a lack of political representation (Reckwitz 2019). The transformation of media culture has also played a major role in this, openly promoting the cultivation of ‘alternative truths’ and contributing to uncertainty about the relationship between fact and fiction, and between honesty and hypocrisy.
It is worth taking a closer look again here, though. In fact, there have often been scenarios in which accusations of conspiracy have increasingly been levelled at certain elites in society since the High Middle Ages. These could be accusations that were made in conflicts between leading elite groups, as well as those that were strongly vented from ‘below’ to ‘above’. Here, too, it is evident that this suspicion was linked to a mistrust of the relationship between appearance and reality.
It cannot be denied that the conspiracy theories of the European Middle Ages related not least to (imagined) marginal groups in society such as heretics, Jews, lepers, and witches, and were sometimes used to legitimize the targeted persecution of such groups. However, these theories were not only directed at these actors, but provided a scheme of interpretation that could be applied to the actions of all groups in society. This was initially based on the fact that the “conspiracy” (conjuratio/conspiratio) was a firmly established social practice of communitization in medieval societies (Oexle 2011; 1995). Municipalities, guilds, trade associations, and even universities were typologically considered to be bands of conspirators.
These interpretations came close to a ‘conspiracy theory’ in the Middle Ages, especially when it was thought that secret machinations to achieve a hidden goal were afoot. The accusation of conspiracy was at the same time closely related to the accusation of hypocrisy, which itself was based on the discrepancy between appearance and reality. On the one hand, this particular mixture was encountered prominently in the struggle within the church against hypocritical heretics, but also increasingly expanded into the political field from the High Middle Ages onwards. The distrust of hypocritical advisors in the environment of those ruling became a breeding ground for conspiratorial thinking. For example, rumours soon began to circulate about a powerful confidant of King Edward II of England (died 1327), these rumours branding the confidant as a deceiver, schemer and cheat, as someone who was collaborating with criminals and secretly working towards the destruction of the kingdom (Bubert 2020b).
Once this figure of thought was in the world, it became obvious to transfer it to emperors, kings and popes. The conflicts that the French King Philip the Fair (died 1314) had with Pope Boniface VIII and the Knights Templar saw the suspicion of conspiracy spread in all directions. Sources close to the King report of a secret pact between the Pope and the King of England, the pontiff being said to have paid the latter a great deal of money to start a war against France. Likewise, Boniface called the French clergy to a synod in Rome, where in actual fact he merely wanted to hatch a plan against the King. The Templars, on the other hand, which was by no means a fringe group, but an economically and politically powerful elite organization, was accused not only of heinous crimes and blasphemy; the accusation that the Templars had only fought for Christianity for the sake of appearances, and that they had in reality made a secret pact with the Muslims, spread in Europe. The French King was not spared either. Several chroniclers reported that the monarch fought the Templars not out of sincere motives, but because he had a secret plan to confiscate their goods and thereby achieve selfish political goals (Bubert 2020a).
Conspiracy theories then repeatedly assumed the presence of economic interests and political plans. However, conspiratorial suspicions also focused on the purported existence of powerful secret societies that, consisting of high-ranking members of society, were pursuing global goals and interests. At the time of the plague in the 14th century, when the conspiracy theory that Jews were poisoning the wells became widespread, some contemporaries suspected other masterminds behind the events. A secret society whose members were rich men holding high posts and offices was claimed in northern Germany in 1350 to have been behind the poisoning. Here, it was the city councils who carried out such investigations, and in some cases came to results that contradicted the ‘official’ position of the church. The bulls in which Pope Clement VI had spoken out against the rampant conspiracy theories regarding the plague remained largely ineffective, while the rumours of planned poisoning, which were also spread by word of mouth, were greeted with glee. Although the Pope argued against the conspiracy theory, there occurred savage pogroms against the Jewish population (Cohn 2007; Graus 1987). The other type of media coverage thus apparently helped an ‘alternative truth’ to stand up against the position imposed ‘from above’.
That this was successful is due not least to the fact that the conspiracy theory could be linked to the distrust of the leading representatives of the church that existed anyway. Since the High Middle Ages, a central element of the criticism directed at the church was the accusation of greed (avaritia) – this was also directed at the papal curia and raised suspicions that it was secretly striving for wealth. How this scepticism could be mixed with conspiratorial ideas and promote the spread of a conspiracy theory is illustrated by a caricature of the Pope that a Frankfurt town clerk produced around 1450. The illustration shows a papal figure being bribed and manipulated by two Jews. While one Jew is sitting on the Pope’s back with a banner of a pig in his hand, the other is handing the Pope coins from below, thereby creating the scenario of Jewish world conspiracy: the wealthy Jews appear as string-pullers who make the Christian authorities serve them through bribery. Because pope and church are corrupt and greedy, they allow themselves to be bought by the supposed enemies of Christ. Whoever had such ideas could certainly gain a coherent picture of the papal objection to the conspiracy theories at the time of the plague: the fact that Clement VI had issued bulls to protect the Jews in 1348 and 1349 was apparently only due to the fact that he was allowing himself to be bribed (Heil 2004; 2005). It becomes clear here that the theory of a Jewish conspiracy was not simply something that elites used against fringe groups; rather, as an alternative to the position of the high church, it could also be an outlet for scepticism towards the clerical elites. The decisive role played by this fundamental mistrust points to the fact that the presumption of a Jewish conspiracy in the Middle Ages was located in larger discursive contexts (Bubert 2020b).
However, behind this superficial level there may be another, more profound level, one that very much extends the scope of the conspiracy theory illustrated here: the figure with the tiara is possibly not the Pope, but the Antichrist appearing in the guise of the Pope, who is manipulated by the figure caricatured as a Jew by means of anti-Semitic stereotypes, the latter holding in his hand the banner of the pig that floats over the whole scene, the pig symbolizing the impure counter-church. If this interpretation is correct, then the papal figure thus represents the Antichrist, who is controlled by two Jews, with this image illustrating the supposed Jewish world conspiracy at an early stage; secret powers were using established elites to pursue selfish goals directed against the general public. At the same time, the hierarchical head of the Roman Church, the successor of the Prince of Apostles and Christ’s representative, was exposed as the very opposite of what he claimed to be: the Antichrist or his representative. Criticism of the elite could not have been expressed more strongly. It is also significant that this criticism was expressed in secret, as a marginal note in a Frankfurt cartulary – in a conspiratorial, secretive gesture, as a discreet hint that comments on the official tradition of documents by pretending to unmask their secret meaning. According to Johannes Heil, the typical characteristics that mark the two Jews as being different (nose, Jew’s hat and yellow spot) first appeared in England in the 13th century, i.e. much earlier than on the continent (Heil 2005). The Frankfurt caricature takes up these older English traditions and accentuates them in the run-up to the looming topographical marginalization of the Frankfurt Jewish community, whose members were first crammed together in 1462 in a separate quarter, Judengasse, on the outskirts of the city. The caricature reminds us that conspiracy theories have often been permeated by anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic motives since the Middle Ages, and not only since the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In doing so, such theories have been able to draw on a long-established tradition of anti-Jewish prejudice (Drews 2019; Funkenstein 1993).
Another elite group in society, the university scholars, also made not only friends during the plague years. Although read, the astrological explanation that the Medical Faculty of Paris, for example, formulated in October 1348 in an expert opinion for the French King Philip VI was powerless against the plague. Given the criticism voiced by many contemporaries that the learned experts could not say anything certain about the causes of the plague, the explanations that postulated human string-pullers and secret machinations sometimes seemed more attractive. And, while some of the criticism of science came precisely from those who propagated the idea of a Jewish conspiracy, it is significant that some scholars polemicized against the homines populares, who in their simplicity refused to see what scholars had long since proven. To profess a certain interpretation (and to reject another) could thus obviously be part of a strategy by which social groups distinguished themselves from one another. The conspiracy theory thus also served to fuel hostility towards the academic elite, whose expertise had not prevented many people dying.
One of the disconcerting experiences with ‘social media’ is that an expansion of communication possibilities through ‘new’ media does not necessarily rationalize social discourse, but rather opens up multipliers for all kinds of conspiracy fantasies. Even the first media revolution, which was the implementation of printing technology in the 16th and 17th centuries, led to a rapid increase in conspiracy stories (Zwierlein 2020), and it was therefore no coincidence that the centre of the Gutenberg galaxy – namely, London with its countless publicists, newspaper makers and printers – should have also become the hotspot of conspiracy theorists in early-modern Europe (Krischer 2012).
In 1678/79, for example, many people in the English metropolis were convinced that, at the behest of Pope Innocent XI, Jesuits had concocted a plan to assassinate King Charles II, to massacre the Protestants in England, and to bring the country back under the rule of Rome. At least 16 English Catholics were executed because of this story, which had been concocted by the failed Jesuit student Titus Oates. Numerous pamphlets and illustrated prints brought the story to the city population, and even playing cards and tiles were printed with pictures of the alleged ‘Popish Plot’ (Krischer 2019).
In November 1679, Oates’ story brought onto the streets of London nearly 200,000 people, who celebrated an elaborately arranged procession in which the figures of the Pope and other Catholic clerics were first carried across the city and then in the end burned. These processions were repeated in 1680 and 1681. They show that conspiratorial radicalization takes place not only through suggestive print media, but also through the mass encounter of like-minded people – a phenomenon also known from the ‘hygiene demos’, which were first prepared online and whose messages were then carried to the streets and squares of Berlin, Stuttgart and Düsseldorf.
But back to the year 1679: the King, whose life after all was apparently under threat, was more than sceptical about the rampant conspiracy. For, it was clear to his contemporaries not only that traditional anti-Catholic resentments were emerging, but also that the protests were directed against the court and especially against his younger brother Jacob, who was openly Catholic. Since Jacob would follow his brother, who had no legitimate descendants, to the throne, his faith was politically explosive: the horror of a Catholic king ruling over the predominantly Protestant English was a very real prospect.
This is also an example of conspiracy theories as a ‘criticism of elites’, although this involved elites themselves, too: a circle of radical opponents to the government, who from that time on were called Whigs, further fuelled the circulation of the ‘fake news’ about the ‘Papist conspiracy’ and, after the belief in the conspiracy died out in 1681, even formed a conspiratorial circle itself, in which people thought at least out loud about assassinating king and heir to the throne.
As an antidote even then, attempts were made to ridicule conspiracy theories, with the same media being employed that had been used to spread these theories in the first place: namely, illustrated stories, but in this case they were grotesquely distorted and not unlike a comic strip. In this way, powerful counter-narratives were created, which pointed out how implausible, because impossible in practice, the alleged machinations really were. But mockery and the highlighting of contradictions led just as little to the disappearance of conspiracy theories in the 1680s as they do today. On the contrary, mockery simply strengthened the group that was in each case being stigmatized.
As a key to interpreting all possible crises, conspiracy theories therefore remained a hallmark of English history, which thus stands almost as a parable for the ambivalent consequences of a media revolution. The Civil War of 1642-1649 was considered to be the work of conspirators (Lake 2015), as was the huge speculative bubble of 1720. Ruined small shareholders no longer saw in this ‘South Sea Bubble’ Jesuits and the devil at work, but an elite clique of profiteers operating in secret, whose piracy even God could not protect them from (Lindeman 2015: 254). When at the same time the plague threatened to return and the government was considering protective measures, there were rumours that a despotic regime was in fact being prepared. And while then in early-19th-century Europe all kinds of reform movements were criminalized by the restoration regimes as conspiratorial gangs, there grew the belief in a ‘conspiracy of the bourgeoisie’ against the common people and their social concerns.
If, as Butter rightly points out, the belief in conspiracies was until the early 20th century a legitimate knowledge shared by all social classes, it is not surprising that this knowledge could be mobilized against those who were considered the elite (and that included experts) long before the ‘hygiene demonstrations’. They might have been based on conflicts between social groups that were culturally and religiously distinct and that set different interpretations of the world against one another. A conspiracy theory could create identity for one group and at the same time evoke rejection of the forms of thought and values of other groups. If this was accompanied by a scepticism towards the external appearance, the visible façade, of other actors, it was obvious to mistrust the elites of a society and to accuse them of underhanded machinations, too. At the same time, it became clear that conspiracy theories have since the Middle Ages often been imbued with anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic motives. Although Bill Gates (like the pope in the Middle Ages) does not belong to Judaism, we can trace elements of his and his foundation’s demonization back to anti-Semitic patterns of scandalization, which help to recall and activate archetypal scenarios of threat in the public domain. Other ‘agents of evil’ were imagined instead of the Jews in the early-modern period, but their role remained basically the same in the respective conspiracy theories.
The tendency that has been observed for the second half of the 20th century to shift the accusation of conspiracy from fringe groups to elites thus appears less as a historical caesura, but at best as an intensification of a phenomenon that had already been structurally established long before by the dynamic relations of social groups in European societies. Nevertheless, significant differences can be identified with regard to the conditions under which the respective interpretations could be disseminated and made to prevail. The established elites who stigmatize outsiders or other elitist groups acted on a different social level than the ‘prevented elites’, insofar as they are endowed with different resources. While prevented elites, who themselves did not have power, sometimes used accusations of conspiracy to deny the legitimacy of those in power, the latter could in turn use conspiracy theories as a strategic means to stabilize or maintain their position. The fact that today there are no conspiracy theories emanating from democratically legitimized elites (but very well from autocrats) seems to be linked to new forms of legitimizing power, which have led to a change in the ‘rules of the game’. But conspiracy theories emanating from prevented elites do – still – exist.