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Conspiracy Theories in historical Perspective

Conspiracy theories seem to surround us everywhere. But it's not just current media reports that are full of fictions about secret machinations and plans, about masterminds and their puppets. Even state leaders resort to them. This is because conspiracy theories are characterized by a clear message: They try to explain complex relationships that are perceived as grievances in monocausal terms as the machinations of a group of conspirators. For example, when the construct of “Jewish Bolshevism” makes “the Jews” the masterminds of the October Revolution - an idea that spread to the West and experienced its real boom, particularly in the war-traumatized and crisis-ridden young post-war states of Europe. Or when the agricultural crisis in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War is explained by the dropping of “Ami bugs” on behalf of the military and Wall Street or sabotage by “bourgeois Zionists”. Conspiracy theories were (and are) intended to be conveyed. The media products - text and image sources - are analyzed comparatively. The first results of the course are the exhibition “Who pulled the wires? Conspiracy theories in images” (winter semester 2010/2011) and the exhibition catalog of the same name, which was published by Düsseldorf University Press in 2012.

Conspiracy Theories in Images


The exhibition, which emerged from the project seminar “Conspiracy Theories in Images” (Dr. Ute Caumanns), showed the development and communication of conspiracy theories in images using six historical case studies since the 15th century. While the mechanisms of conspiracy theory as an anthropological concept are very similar despite this long period of time, their visual manifestations seem to have been reinvented time and again. This is one of the reasons why images are the highlights of this exhibition. The selected material is shocking, comical, grotesque, sometimes even repulsive. It was not the artistic quality of the pictures that was the decisive selection criterion, but their effectiveness as a historical source.

The exhibition was shown at the HHU from March the 25th to May the 6th, 2011.



Conspiracy theories seem to surround us everywhere. As trivial as their content may seem, a closer look reveals that their mechanism of action is complicated. So far, theories about conspiracy theories have mainly been based on texts. However, words work through images and create images. The conference explored these connections.


In the 2011/12 winter term, students of history at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf worked together to produce an exhibition catalog on the visualization of conspiracy theories. The publication is entitled “Who pulled the wires? Conspiracy theories in pictures".

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