It’s Fascinating What One Can Deduce about a Man Just by Knowing his Name

When ideology takes on greater value than science, things get messy

I’ve been watching the National Geographic show Genius. The first season, about Albert Einstein, only three episodes in right now, has been mainly focused on his time as a university student. But the antisemitism he faced as a Jew in Germany early in the last century has already become a major theme.

The show portrays Philipp Lenard, who is just beginning to turn against the Jews of the scientific community in Germany. He runs across a paper by the protagonist and says:

Einstein. It’s fascinating what one can deduce about a man just by knowing his name.

This portrayal of him as a bigot can hardly be called unfair as Lenard was a vocal opponent what he said were the misleading lies of “Jewish physics”, which was how he referred especially to the theories of Einstein, and “the Jewish fraud” of relativity. Lenard espoused “Deutsche Physik” as a counter to this insidious influence, becoming an advisor to Adolf Hitler and Chief of Aryan Physics under the Nazis.

And this reminded me of something I had read in Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari):

[O]ccultism, hostility towards any form of modern scientific theory (thought to be of Jewish origin) and the frantic research for a pure and original German wisdom—all these were elements that circulated in the Nazi community.

And again later:

[W]hat even modern Nazis call the knowledge of tradition was […] set against the false knowledge of liberal and Jewish science.

First, let me say that despite its light-hearted title, Eco’s book is quite serious: it documents non-existent places, the search for which has cost countless lives (and mainly those of the innocent, rather than those pursuing these fantasies) and money, but these are ultimately based on lies, forgeries, fictions, misinformation, misinterpretation, over-credulity, and many other categories of human failing.

It is not the point of the book to tie these things to antisemitism, but it is a thread that runs through them, repeatedly appearing in seemingly unrelated contexts. And it seems that a lot of the anti-science movement stems from antisemitism: the “theories” of Atlantis, the hollow earth, Hyperboreans, Aryans, and many other crackpot ideas, all circle around the general feeling that the Jews are behind a universal conspiracy theory.

Eco has noted that he first learned of the universal conspiracy theory because he was schooled in it under the fascists who were in power in the Italy of his youth. He said he was taught that the British and the Americans were conspiring to keep his country poor and weak.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Протоколы сионских мудрецов), one of the most pernicious forgeries of the 20th century, takes the point of view of the invented Jewish conspirators attempting to undermine society, spelling out the case thus:

Moreover, the art of diflecting [sic] masses and individuals by means of cleverly manipulated theory and verbiage, by regulations of life in common and all sorts of other quirks, in all which the goyim understand nothing, belongs likewise to the specialists of our administrative brain. Reared on analysis, observation, on delicacies of fine calculation, in this species of skill we have no rivals, any more than we have either in the drawing up of plans of political actions and solidarity.

This work was originally published in Russia in 1903 and rapidly spread across the globe in many translations with Henry Ford notably funding the printing and dissemination of half a million copies in the US in 1920. The work is still widely available today despite being discredited as both a forgery and heavily plagiarized from fictional sources.

Let me also be clear that this is not to say that everyone who is a science denier is perforce an antisemite—indeed, Marin county, whose population is quite liberal, is now infamous as a bastion of anti-vaxxers. The link is really irrationality and a willingness to believe in conspiracies.

Returning to Eco’s work, the contexts in which antisemitism appears alongside outlandish pseudoscience, include the confluence of notions about Atlantis, the origin of the Hyperborean/ Aryan race, and an icy origin of the world:

A pseudo Elmar Brugg [i.e. the author himself does not exist.] (1938) had published a book honoring (Hanns) Hörbiger as the Copernicus of the twentieth century, maintaining that the theory of eternal ice explained the deep bonds that unite earthly events with cosmic forces and concluding that the silence of democratic-Judaic science regarding Hörbiger was a typical case of a conspiracy among the mediocre.

Another context that came up repeatedly was that of the hollow earth:

The idea was propounded by Cyrus Reed Teed (1899), who asserted that what we believe to be the sky (according to “the ignorant Copernicus’ gigantic and grotesque fallacy” and Anglo-Jewish pseudoscience) is a gaseous mass that fills the interior of the planet with zones of brilliant light. The sun, moon and stars are not heavenly bodies but visual effects caused by a variety of phenomena.

This same theory was then taken up again:

After the First World War, the hollow-earth theory (Hohlweltlehre) gained acceptance in Germany through the agency of Peter Bender and Karl Neupert, and was taken very seriously by high-ranking members of the German navy and air force, who were evidently sensitive to some extent to the occultist atmosphere that has been established among some representatives of the regime.

With some specific applications such as:

Bender had suggested that the German navy make an expedition to the island of Rügen (in the Baltic) to try to identify British ships with powerful telescopes aimed upwards, along the presumed terrestrial concavity, using infrared rays.

And in spite of Bender ending up in a concentration camp for wasting the navy’s time and money in such a way, the ideas still didn’t go away, resurfacing in the Reich’s missile program:

[S]ome V-1 rocket launches went wrong precisely because the trajectory had been calculated on the basis of a concave and not convex surface.

Many of Eco’s (and the believers’) sources were admitted works of fiction, rather than forgeries, including such noted authors as Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Victor Hugo, and Jonathan Swift. One work in particular, Vril, the Coming Race, a 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, spawned one of the key societies that prefigured Nazism—the Vril Society (Vril Gesellschaft). Iron Sky: The Coming Race, a comic-action SF film, and sequel to the original Iron Sky which featured Moon Nazis, takes both its title and theme from the book and the society it inspired. Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier authored a work titled The Morning of the Magicians (Le Matin des magiciens) in 1960, discussing a variety of paranormal, occult, and conspiracy themes, and in particular how the philosophies of the Vril Society and the Thule Society essentially paved the way for that of Nazism.

We also encounter Edgar Rice Burroughs, who draws from many of these ideas for works like his Opar cycle (Opar is a city deep in the jungle and an ancient colony of Atlantis, which Tarzan discovers and has various adventures in), and Pellucidar, a hollow-earth where an entire adventure series takes place, including a Tarzan crossover. As I detailed previously, Borroughs’ fiction and beliefs are closely interrelated, and the fact that his essay on eugenics, “I See a New Race” echoes the title of Bulwer-Lytton’s book is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Other writers satirized the conspiracy, as Jorge Luis Borges did in his short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. Eco describes the farfetched plot thus:

[T]he author says that the origin of that disturbing and occult place is due to “a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, moralists, painters and geometricians, under the direction of an obscure man of genius.”

A host of important thinkers from Aristotle to Nietzsche also appear in Eco’s book, as both witting and unwitting abettors of these flights of fancy, alongside mystics like Helena Blavatsky and William Blake.

In the end the universal conspiracy theory is comforting—it is due to others plotting against you and keeping you down that your life is hard, rather than it being random, or worse yet, your own fault.

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