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“The best conspiracies are those you’ll never hear about”

Interview: Dirk Pohlmann. The 51-year-old journalist knows something about the risks and difficulty attached to investigation.

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Dirk Pohlmann is a journalist and author of numerous documentaries, mostly about the military and secret services during the Cold War, for German TV channels such as ARTE and ZDF. His investigations have led him to investigate many conspiracies and conspiracy theories, on subjects such as UFOs (UFOs, Lies and the Cold War), U-boats (In Hostile Depths – The Secret U-boat War of Superpowers) and the clandestine use of human guinea pigs for military purposes (Mengele’s Heirs – Experiments on Humans in the Cold War). The 51-year-old, who lives in Berlin with his wife and three daughters, knows something about the risks and difficulty attached to investigation and the thin line between critical journalism and conspiracy theory.

What’s the difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?

Conspiracy would be several people coming together to do something that is not publicly known in order to gain an advantage. Conspiracy is about secrecy and effect – staging an event: start the war by attacking yourself, for example. Like the Gleiwitz incident in 1939, when Nazis disguised as Poles attacked a German radio station near the border. Or the Mukden (or Manchurian) incident in 1931, when the Japanese detonated explosives on their own railway near Mukden, accusing the Chinese for the incident and using it as a pretext for invasion. You could argue that this happened in the Lusitania incident in 1915, where a German U-boat was accused of sinking a passenger ship, but the investigation was sabotaged by the UK and US. Conspiracy theory is an easy way to explain things conveniently, without much understanding or investigation of things, leaving contradictory things out. There are things that are not easily explainable, but it does not mean there is a conspiracy.

Is the Reichstag fire a good example?

Yes, and historians are still arguing if Marinus van der Lubbe acted alone or whether there were more people behind it – whether Nazis staged the event. If you take a tour near the Reichstag they can show you a tunnel connecting the Reichstag and the former quarters of Hermann Göring, arguably very convenient to get in and out of the Reichstag unnoticed! Today, you can argue in both directions: it was a conspiracy, or it’s a conspiracy theory. Well-planned conspiracies you can conceal forever. Intelligence people will tell you: The best conspiracies are those you‘ll never hear about!

So are conspiracy theories the sign that there is some secret service at work?

If you have a real conspiracy, let’s say there is a murder, for example JFK, and you have two or three good leads pointing in very different directions, the probability is high that a secret service is involved. The best way to disguise something is to hide it in uncertainty. In the case of JFK there is a well-founded theory that the Cuban Secret Service was behind it, but there is also a theory that it was the Mafia in collaboration with the CIA and Cuban exiles, also well documented. As a journalist, whenever you come close to the truth, they just pop up with some information supporting another ‘truth’. Some other journalist will hook onto the story and the public will be left totally confused, as both stories appear ‘true’.

How can you make sure not to follow a wrong track? Where does investigative journalism end and conspiracy theory begin?

Many critics say that my movies don’t arrive at any definite conclusions. But that’s my way as a journalist to remain critical. I try to lay the facts in a certain order that will give you an idea of what I think is true. But it’s not only up to me to protect myself from falling into wrong conclusions; it is also up to the public. Mainstream explanations are just a consensus on a reality, but things behind it turn out to be very different.

So reality – our perception of what is a conspiracy theory or not – can change when one day we discover more, for instance, declassified documents or new archive findings…

Yes. Take the deportation of Jews in WWII: it was meant to be secret. There was the Wannsee Conference: about 20 high-ranking SS officials plotted to use the Jews as free labour until their extinction, and one guy, Reinhard Heydrich, was particularly in charge. The historian found only one protocol of the conference, which was supposed to be destroyed upon completion. But imagine that the document had never been found. It could then be speculated that claiming that such conference ever existed is a conspiracy of the Jews against Germans – that would be the perfect case of ‘conspiracy theory’. Some historians still argue that way: show me the documents where Hitler said, “Kill the Jews.” They don’t exist. Still, by the sheer set of events after the conference, we believe that he approved the Wannsee protocol. What I mean is that whenever you don’t have any clear proof, you can build any theory that fits your worldview.

What’s the role of the media in conspiracy theories?

Media can easily be used as a tool. There is an example in the 1960s when American intelligence hired more then 500 journalists, serious ones, at CBS, ABC, the LA Times, Washington Post, to influence public opinion. That was a crude method.

What’s cleverer is to stage an event that, through its reporting in the media, will urge the government to act in one way or another. In my film Der geheime U-Boot-Krieg der Supermächte (The Secret U-boat War of the Superpowers), I describe such an event. There was a series of submarine intrusions within Swedish waters in the 1980s. Apparently, in 1981, a Soviet submarine was discovered on Sweden’s shore. All later incidents were reported by the press and presented as Soviet provocations. By 1983, 45 percent of Swedes perceived the Soviet Union as a threat. But then-classified documents and interviews show that the intrusions were regularly performed by the US and Britain, who covered up their manoeuvres to exert influence over Sweden.

Can it be dangerous to report on such top-secret conspiracies?

When filming The Secret U-boat War, I got a phone call and was told not to waste my time with the story, that it was ridiculous and there was nothing to it. That’s the first level of warning. Then they find child pornography on your computer, or cocaine in your flat. The point is to discredit you so that whatever you say or write can’t be trusted. The worst was to get an anonymous phone call “Your daughter just left the school, and so on…” It’s intimidation. The next level would be to get physical, which I never experienced.

Your top three highly credible conspiracy theories?

The secret war against Sweden, which I myself worked on getting out. Operation Gladio is another good one. There are historians [such as Daniele Ganser] who claim that US intelligence-sponsored groups were involved in the Oktoberfest bombing. What’s interesting is that all the information we have comes from Italy, where the judges can work independently. If he wants to open an investigation, no one can stop him really, except by killing him… Which happened to about 40 of them! In Germany the state controls the state attorney who investigates the case. That’s why Berlusconi wants to change the juridical system, so that he can control what will be investigated, like in Germany!

Your top three totally bullshit conspiracy theories?

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (it is a proven falsification!). Illuminati – Bavarian freemasons regrouping to become influential over the ocean: that’s ridiculous. Nazi UFOs: also bullshit. Nazis were trying to make circular planes, yes, but they were not UFOs.