Conspiracy theories are not by-products of the 21st century. Throughout history, secret societies, religious minorities, foreigners and destitute people have been held responsible for the scourge of their times. Those witch hunts have never stopped since…
Conspiracy theories predate social media and the web. Actually, the ones that spread nowadays are inherited from a conspiracy culture born in the Middle Ages. Such so-called plots have served as pretexts for exorcizing popular fears or disposing of cumbersome challengers; they bear witness to the appeal of conspiracy rhetoric, up until now. Let’s check out the most infamous conspiracy theories in history.
The Great Fire of Rome
Many theories have been put forward to explain the causes of the Great Fire of Rome, which swept through the Eternal City in July 54. Some have put the blame on servants and slaves, presumably setting fire to their masters’ palaces to escape their lot. Others have accused the emperor Nero, said to have danced and played the fiddle before the burning city… It seems, however, to be a gross historical misconception – the dictator was away from the capital city when the fire broke out, and also helped coordinating the firefighting teams. Plus, his whole art collection had been reduced to ashes. One may reasonably think that, would Nero have started the fire, he would have spared his own palace and belongings…
That did not prevent the emperor from being targeted by rumours. His political rivals seized the opportunity to put the blame on him and tarnish his reputation. Nero responded violently. According to Tacitus (Annals, XV, 44), “Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians” so as to wipe out the gossip. In 64, hundreds of them were burnt alive or condemned to beasts, immediately reducing the appeal – and the influence – of the new religion…
The (fixed) trial of the Templars
Founded in 1129, the Order of the Knights Templar served first as a military unit escorting pilgrims on their way to to the Holy Land. A few decades later, its influence had grown so much that Templars now offered credit (with interest), lent money to kings and owned thousands of acres of land across Europe… That shift in power gave rise to wild rumours: the Knights Templar were said to be guilty of debauchery, greed and lust. In France, the expression ‘drink like a Templar’ became popular in the 13th century, proof that their reputation was already tarnished. In other words, the context was ready for a coup de force.
Giving as a pretext an occult organisation and the soldiers’ heretic behaviour, King Philip IV of France ordered the seizure of every Templar possession and acre of land, and had the Templars rounded up and arrested on Friday the 13th, 1307. Subjected to torture, the accused quickly confessed whatever deeds they were blamed for. With this fake conspiracy, the French monarch got rid of a powerful and rich organisation, while at the same time resupplying his treasure…
Church v. Women
There is a reason why a ‘witch hunt’ is defined in our modern dictionaries as ‘a campaign to find and punish people whose opinions are unpopular’. This stems from the tireless persecution orchestrated by the Church against medieval women, starting in the 13th century. At the time, the myth of the original sin was used to depict women as eternal sinners and weak beings, more likely to be tempted by the Devil’s work and succumb to heresy.
Issued in 1484 by Innocent VIII, the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus marked the first step towards the many witch hunts punctuating the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Most of the women considered guilty of heresy were poor, aged women whose miserable way of life had them suspected of witchcraft, secret abortions or dark magic. No witness was necessary, and false evidence gathered from concerned residents was enough to throw the accused upon the stake. “A sorcerer, ten thousand witches” French historian Jules Michelet would later write to denounce those sham trials, 80% of which targeted women.
The Popish Plot of 1678
In the 17th century, Anglicanism had spread over most of England. Following Henry VIII adamant policy of persecution, a strong anti-Catholic sentiment had settled, reinforced by the failure of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Catholics have thus been (falsely) accused of kindling the Great Fire of London or spreading plague within the city walls, and most Protestants still believed, in the late 17th-century, that renegade Catholics were plotting against them, lurking in the shadows…
In 1678, priest Titus Oates made up a fictitious ‘Popish plot’, pretending to reveal a nationwide Catholic conspiracy aimed at murdering King Charles II. Although the document that served as evidence for his story (and that he had forged himself) was never fully investigated, his lie sew discord at the English Parliament, which immediately decided the execution of 22 priests supposedly involved in the conspiracy. Catholic citizens were also chased away from British cities. Eventually, in 1681, Oates’ plot was finally discovered, and the priest was arrested for sedition. Three years later, he was pardoned and granted a pension…
The Bavarian Illuminati
Peppered with esoteric references, the Illuminati myth is certainly one of the most popular conspiracy theories of the day, although pierced with grey areas. Surprisingly, the Illuminati originate the free-thinking philosophy of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment. In 1776, German philosopher Adam Weishaupt founded the Order of Illuminati, a group of progressist thinkers who strived to promote freedom and tolerance against all kinds of despotism. Borrowing some of its codes from freemasonry, the order included a few hundred active members until its dissolution in 1785 by Bavarian authorities. End of the story.
But what if it wasn’t really dissolved? This hypothesis led many to believe that the Illuminati survived and, gathering in the shadows, conspired for world supremacy… Some imagined that the Illuminati were responsible for the 1789 French Revolution. Others have incriminated them whenever their privileges were in jeopardy. And the list of its secret members is rumoured to feature the Founding Fathers of the United States, French revolutionary La Fayette, and even George Bush…
The (timeless) Judeo-Masonic conspiracy
Jews have been accused of imaginary crimes for centuries. Considered a ‘deicidal people’ (they supposedly played a part in the arrestation and subsequent execution of Jesus), they were suspected of poisoning public fountains and wells in times of plague. During the 14th-century Great Plague – which wiped out a third of European population in a mere four years – 50,000 Jews were slaughtered as panic-induced pogroms swept across the continent. When they were not the victims of outright murders, Jews were discriminated against, confined to special districts and forced to wear a distinguishing feature, the roundel, since the 1215 Lateran Council – an infamous symbol predating the Nazis’ Yellow Star.
From the 19th century on, Jews have been associated with Freemasons, both sides supposedly handling shady operations for world domination. In 1903, the anonymous publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion reinforced the conspiracy theory. Although a fabricated anti-Semitic text, which later proved to be fake, it was translated in multiple languages and spread from Russia to the rest of Europe in the early 20th-century. The document, shown to German schoolchildren as the Nazis took power, helped justify the Final Solution…
The Great Terror of 1936
Nobody, it seems, is better at turning a trial into a farce than Joseph Stalin. His willingness to dispose of every political opponent led him to order the clean-up of the Soviet Communist Party in 1933, arguing that he wanted its ‘deviant’ and ‘opportunistic’ members out. The Moscow Trials, held between 1936 and 1938, were a mockery of justice. Pretending to thwart a secret anti-Soviet conspiracy, Stalin had the Party’s senior officers executed, most importantly the architects of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The charges: treason, espionage, sabotage, assassination attempts, selling of secrets… No evidence whatsoever was required: the accusation files were fabricated by the NKVD (Stalin’s state police), lawyers were forbidden, and torture was perpetrated to ‘help’ the accused spill the beans! It usually took no longer than 24 hours to have the verdict executed. With those horrific purges fuelled by conspiracy theories and state-sponsored propaganda, Stalin strengthened his grip on Soviet politics. Overall, one Soviet citizen out of 100 was incarcerated, one out of 200 was sentenced to death.
The Red Scare
In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, a new conspiracy theory took root in the United States: the ‘Red Scare’, a nationwide propaganda campaign that spread terror of a communist rise, sowing suspicion and fear in the hearts of American citizens. The main message was: beware of Communists and Socialists! It was widely believed that the ‘Reds’ had secretly infiltrated American administration and government, and would overthrow it any time soon. Behind this fabricated hysteria, Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, a relatively unknown man whose populist and alarming tone made him a media idol in a few weeks.
Driven by panic, anti-Communist legislation was quickly passed with the blessing of John Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Trade unions were monitored, members of the Communist Party kept under surveillance. This was a time of denunciation: 1,054 U.S. civil servants were fired between 1947 and 1954. Others whose names were featured on McCarthy’s ‘black lists’ were marginalized, and many fled the country. Eventually, the Red Scare died down in the 1960s, President Harry Truman famously calling McCarthy “the greatest asset the Kremlin has”.
- Jean Verdon, Intrigues, complots et trahisons au Moyen Âge, Perrin, 2012.
- Pierre-André Taguieff, Les Théories du complot, PUH, « Que sais-je ? », 2021.
- Mohanna Haddad, « Le mythe du complot juif », L’Histoire n°243, mai 2000.
- Michael Gray-Fow, “Why the Christians? Nero and the Great Fire”, Latomus, vol. 57, no. 3, 1998, pp. 595–616.
- Julien Théry, « Une hérésie d’État. Philippe le Bel, le procès des « perfides templiers » et la pontificalisation de la royauté française », Médiévales, 60, printemps 2011.
- Bernard Blumenkranz, « Les auteurs chrétiens latins du moyen âge sur les Juifs et le Judaïsme », Revue des études juives, tome 17 (117), janvier-décembre 1958.
- Jean-Patrice Boudet, « La genèse médiévale de la chasse aux sorcières », Entre science et nigromance : Astrologie, divination et magie dans l’Occident médiéval (XIIe-XVe siècle), Paris, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2006.
- Pierre-André Taguieff, « L’invention du « complot judéo-maçonnique ». Avatars d’un mythe apocalyptique moderne », Revue d’Histoire de la Shoah, vol. 198, no. 1, 2013, pp. 23-97.
- Romain Ducoulombier, De Lénine à Castro. Idées reçues sur un siècle de communisme, Le Cavalier Bleu, 2011.