A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
The Rise of the Fourth Reich: The Secret Societies That Threaten to Take Over America
By Jim Marrs
William Morrow/HarperCollins (2009)
Review by Karl Wolff
First off, I'm a big fan of Oliver Stone's epic conspiracy thriller JFK. I also enjoy James Spader camping it up in The Blacklist. With that said, I've come to terms with enjoying most Oliver Stone movies, but finding his brand of ideology naive and troublesome. As Nathan Rabin said in his book My Year of Flops about the film W, "there comes a moment in every cinephile's intellectual and creative development when he or she comes to realize that Oliver Stone is full of shit." I continue to enjoy the baroque styling and lurid paranoia of JFK compelling as a narrative. Stone's screenplay was partially based on Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, by conspiracy author Jim Marrs. While the film raises many, many important questions about the behavior of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, it isn't the same as cold, hard historical fact.
In 1967, Richard Hofstader wrote "The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a "vast" or "gigantic" conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy." (Italics in original.)* Jim Marrs falls into the later category. His book, The Rise of the Fourth Reich: The Secret Societies That Threaten to Take Over America, posits America is under the sway of Wall Street, globalists, Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, and secret societies. Once again, as with JFK, Marrs can write a sweeping narrative full of fascinating details. To call it historically accurate would be a travesty.
I read this as someone privileged with an advanced degree in History. Studying the history of the United States, one encounters The Master Narrative. Think Ken Burns, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Shelby Foote. This is the history you learn in high school and college. The names and dates falling into place to create a story about freedom, progress, civil rights, and rugged individualism. Various identity groups (Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, gays, women, etc.) have worked hard to create their own counter-narratives. If included at all, these groups would be seen as nothing more than token sidebars in the Master Narrative. Conspiracy theorists also create their own counter-narrative to American myths and hagiography.
In A Few Good Men Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) says, "It doesn't matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove." Kaffee is a lawyer doing his best to get his clients acquitted of murder. The practice of history is not about right and wrong, it is about what the historian can prove. In order to win the case, or in this instance, to compel the reader to believe the United States has been infiltrated by Nazis wanting to create a Fourth Reich. ("Hail HYDRA!") As a piece of tabloid sensationalism, The Rise of the Fourth Reich excels and entertains. As a piece of historical investigation, it falls flat in spectacular fashion. Throughout my reading experience, I was constantly shuffling back and forth between the text and the footnotes. (Arguably, one of the worst examples of citation.) Jim Marrs has no credible proof. He has innuendo, hyperbole, guilt by association, and poor reasoning.
The book cites evidence from The Institute of Historical Review (a notorious institution of Holocaust-denial), Adventures Unlimited (a conspiracy theory mill), and The New Benjamin Franklin House Press (an organ of Lyndon LaRouche). These get buried amid more mainstream sources ranging from websites to history books. It doesn't help that Marrs gets his information about the Third Reich from The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. It's not a bad book, but it was published in 1969. Since this was published in 2009, he could have picked more recent scholarship and traced the current trends in the historiography of the Third Reich. But that would mean Jim Marrs is a serious scholar, not a third-rate hack. The book also contains laughable mistakes like misspelling Victorian novelist Edward Bulwar-Lytton (not Bulward Liton, jackass!).
The book also has some great howlers, including:
"Apparently, overseas communication between the Nazis in America and the Nazis in Russia continued unabated, which has raised the possibility of a parallel space race controlled or manipulated by the very globalists who had created and financed both communism and the Third Reich." (Ah, yes, go with the sensible explanation.)
"Numerous Web sites and periodicals have carried the accusation that sodium fluoride was placed in the drinking water of Nazi concentration camps to keep the inmates pacified and susceptible to external control." (I'm not sure if this is offensive or stupid or a combination of the two. Barbed-wire, starvation conditions, and SS men with guns pointed at you are also effective measures of pacification.)
"It should be noted that [George H.W.]Bush's name--including his then little-publicized nickname "Poppy," which has caused many to wonder if this referred to his parenthood or the narcotic plant--address, and phone number were found in the personal notebook of oil geologist George DeMohrenschildt, the last known close friend of Lee Harvey Oswald." (I'm no fan of the guy, but come on! The "Poppy" thing comes across as desperate and reaching.)
When one peels back all the innuendo, hysteria, and paranoia, it leaves a rather tenuous premise: The United States is secretly run by a bunch of rich Wall Street types who are members of The Council of Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateralists, and, of course, Illuminati and Freemasons. I wonder if Jim Marrs knows that the SS had its own division investigating the Freemasons? Membership in any one of these groups immediately makes someone suspect and inherently evil. Marrs even tars Jimmy Carter as a Trilateralist pawn, even though Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security advisor, actually created the organization. Carter had his faults, like every other politician, but this book's circular logic is pathetic.
Or, to put it another way, here's Jim Garrison reviewing The Warren Report from the movie JFK, "Again and again they ignore credible testimony, leads are never followed up, its conclusions are selective, there's no index, it's one of the sloppiest, most disorganized investigations I've ever seen."
But why do people fall for conspiracy theories? The present situation doesn't help. It's common knowledge about the revolving door between government and private industry. Money has corrupted everything in the election process, turning every candidate into a groveling lap dog to big-dollar donors. Conspiracy theories help make sense of the situation. It also absolves people of individual agency. We get to live a consequence-free existence. That isn't to say what Marrs said is untrue, since countless politicians, moguls, and business leaders belong to secretive organization. But to imply they are somehow orchestrating world events takes a heroic leap in logic. If anything, these secretive puppet-masters are doing a terrible job. Wouldn't peace be more profitable? Why would they want to kill their own customers? It defies commonsense logic.
In my own case, I'm a skeptic of The Official Story of the American Master Narrative. But the recently exposed misdeeds of the CIA under Allen Dulles and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover makes Marrs's assertions half-right. From the Kennedy assassination to Watergate, it was a paranoid time in American history. Just look at the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. I have many doubts about the Lee Harvey Oswald Lone Gunman theory. The closer one looks, the more the Official Story begins to fray. On the other hand, saying 9/11 was an inside job is giving the Dubya Administration too much credit. If anything, Hurricane Katrina proved the only principle the White House ran on was the Peter Principle.
The challenge with reading something like this is the echo chamber effect. Over and over, Jim Marrs writes about how this or that conspiracy researcher makes some claim. It's the same problem with social media. Liberals only talking to liberals, conservatives only talking to conservatives, and so forth. This has led to a kind of critical illiteracy. Akin to cultural illiteracy, critical illiteracy is an ability to spot fallacious arguments, poor sources, and to formulate relevant questions. One has to know how to think before one can think for oneself. Conspiracy theory becomes a kind of dogma, since each thinks he or she has found THE TRUTH. Then questioning this Truth becomes an act of heresy. Try asking a conspiracy theorist about their sources and reasoning and you might get accused of being one of Them. If you don't agree with The Truth, then you are an apologist for The Official Story. (It doesn't help that the sectors under investigation - intelligence agencies, corporations, the federal government - are good at hiding their tracks. On the other hand: The Freedom of Information Act.) Perhaps the best remedy is a dose of equal opportunity skepticism. Be skeptical of The Official Story, but also be skeptical of the conspiracy theorist hawking The Truth. (In the case of Jim Marrs, a conspiracy theorist who has been published by a mainstream publisher, Random House. Not exactly an underground press. If Marrs really was dangerous and these secret societies so evil and ruthless, why is he still alive? The Nazis had a way of dealing with their vocal opposition.)
The Rise of the Fourth Reich has countless problems with sources and interpretation. For those interested in the nefarious misdeeds of the Dulles-era CIA, I would recommend reading The Devil's Chessboard, by David Talbot. While far from perfect, it has credible sourcing and a sensible (and sensibly limited) interpretive framework.
*This is quoted in Devon Jackson's Conspiranoia! The Mother of All Conspiracies, my previous installment in American Odd
Coming next: Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson