How conspiracy theorists get traction

A little ago I encountered someone whose arguments highlighted how conspiracy theorists get traction, and how they disable any who object.

Let me explain. On the night of 16-17 January 1945, U-862 – under Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Timm – cruised across Hawke Bay on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island and loitered off Napier harbour. It was the last thing anybody expected. Timm followed a coaster that left harbour and attacked it a few hours later, unsuccessfully. They then sailed south and were shortly ordered back to base.

This is well documented across a wide range of archival sources, down to the US radio intercept that told the Allies of U-862’s departure for Australasian waters. It was not, however, publicly known in Napier until the mid-1990s, and was immediately shrouded in misconception. A tall tale spouted by Timm to Sir Rochford Hughes in 1958-59, when Timm was working with NATO – that he had sent men ashore to milk cows – was received as true. A retired local dairy-herder even insisted it had been his cows, because they’d been found dry one morning. There were even suggestions the U-boat had entered Napier’s breakwater harbour.

In fact the Germans never landed or tried to enter the shallow and confined harbour, but the U-boat certainly cruised by. I wrote about it at the time, and since – here’s my article on the Navy General Board website.

As you can see the problem was one of a story growing in the telling, wrapping the dramatic but relatively mundane reality with post-fact exaggeration and drama. However, the guy I encountered didn’t believe this drive-by encounter happened at all. What was more, his method for proving his point was to challenge others to state whether they had seen, in original, the diary kept by Oberleutnant zur see Gunter Reifenstuhl, the U-boat executive officer describing the events. Any admission of not seeing it became admission that the original didn’t exist, therefore the whole U-boat encounter was a fabrication.

When I pointed the ‘U-boat denier’ to my summary article, disentangling mythology from documented event, he informed me that I doubted the story myself. I have no idea how he came to that conclusion.

The logic my critic used underscores the way conspiracy theories emerge: trawling words, out of context, for unintended meaning and then applying logic fallacies. These included ad hominem attack (attacking the person); fallacy of division (‘the person questioning me has not seen something I define as proving events, therefore these events did not happen’); and fallacy of composition (‘I disbelieve one piece of evidence, therefore the whole did not occur’).

I suppose it’s possible that a mind-set built around petty nit-picking, out-of-context literalism and the idea that history is a quest for an absolute independent truth might have led my critic to doubt events. Aside from the fairy tales about landing to milk cows – known to be fabricated afterwards as part of a beggar-my-neighbour contest in bragging over war adventures – there are apparent ‘literal untruths’ in the actual documentation. For example, the Germans remarked that they saw seaside cafes and dancers. These did not literally exist in Napier. Is that ‘proof’ the story was made up? Of course not. The Germans were looking with European eyes at a place unknown to them, which they interpreted through the lens of their own frameworks. There was plenty that might have presented as ‘cafes’, including a water-front cabaret and shore-front private hotels with dining rooms. And there was a water-front skating rink, partly masked by a low wall.

One of the German accounts also described the town as glittering ‘with a thousand lights’. Napier literally didn’t have that many visible from sea at the time. Is that another ‘inconsistency’, therefore a ‘clue’ to the story being false? The figure of speech ‘with a thousand lights’, meaning ‘a lot of lights’, is well known: it even appears in Grimm’s Fairy Tales (‘mit tausend Lichtern‘). It does not mean there were literally ‘a thousand lights’. Europe remained blacked out; it was like magic to see a place at peace, and the Germans made that clear, repeatedly noting the way towns down the New Zealand coast were lit up. To me the metaphors give human credibility to the record.

To me all of this adds human credibility to the story – it doesn’t invalidate it. But, of course, I don’t think like a conspiracy theorist.

Have you had experience such as this? Let me know in the comments.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021

7 thoughts on “How conspiracy theorists get traction

  1. I’m fascinated by the story of the Germans seeing the lights – aka a peaceful scene – and interpreting them in their own context. And getting the wrong answer! The fact that people 70 odd years later re-interpret the same scene, with a totally different perspective, and get an even -cough- wrong-er answer says something rather important about how the human brain works. I mean I knew that we filter everything we see, hear, taste etc through our expectations, but suddenly that knowledge feels a whole lot more visceral.
    Sorry for the detour. As an historian, does it help with this perception issue if you can study primary sources? And how accurate are the translations – i.e. from German to English? Or in some instances, a German speaker translating his own perceptions into a second language?
    Just for the record, I don’t speak German, but I know from Hungarian that there are some words/concepts that can’t be translated exactly.

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    1. I have been looking for the primary documents associated with these events – it’ll need travel and a budget unfortunately, both of which are unavailable to me just now. Certain elements definitely get lost in translation, for sure. Still, I think there’s no question that these Germans were weary of the war. And here, in the South Pacific, they found a town essentially at peace, glowing with lights. It had been blacked out early in the war (my parents’ house still had the nail-holes where a previous owner had tacked up blackout curtains) but by 1945 there was no danger. The day the submarine cruised by there was a swimming tournament in the sea-front baths, and skaters on a water-front skating rink under lights. I suspect this last is what the Germans mistook for dancers.

      For me, the fact that this relatively straight-forward (if dramatic) evening gained mythic aspects later indeed reveals how the mind works. And the fact that some people, today, seem to have to take it as ‘all or nothing’ – that if the myth is wrong, then the underlying events also never happened – is telling.

      There is no question it happened, of course – or that there is a live WW2 torpedo sitting out on the bottom of Hawke Bay. The RNZN actually searched for it a few years back but found nothing. Unsurprising, it’s a large area to search even though the track of the U-boat is known and the time of its attack can be approximated.

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      1. Weary, yes, I can imagine that the crew of the U-boat would have found that scene truly magical. I notice there’s no mention of any attack against the town. I know torpedoes are hardly going to damage a town, but I’d like to think they wouldn’t have wanted to, even if it had been possible.
        lol – talk about being a romantic. -blush-
        I think we’ve become as polarized as our politics. All or nothing, black or white, right or wrong. Maybe it’s a response to not knowing what, or who, to trust any more?

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  2. The thesis that, as you reported it, “Any admission of not seeing it became admission that the original didn’t exist, therefore the whole U-boat encounter was a fabrication,” is a variation on the good old “if a tree falls in a forest” conundrum. It would have it that my claim that during a storm last December a tree fell in the forest near my home would be true only if I witnessed it falling. But I didn’t and it did.

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  3. On an expanded scale, the conspiracy thinkers deny everything that doesn’t t fit their notion of truth, no matter how much evidence there may be. Which is how we arrive at Holocaust denial. In Canada in 1942 we had a very real period of significant U-boat incursion deep into our coastal waters. The ships sunk spawned rumours of impending invasion all along the eastern seaboard. The only German landings there was any evidence for were in very isolated remote areas to set up weather stations with remote transmitters. But wild rumors of multiple spies and saboteurs proliferated based on speculation and “my neighbour saw…” reports.

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    1. That issue of the public suddenly seeing spies on every beach in wartime was true in NZ too – stories of Japanese submarine incursions (which actually happened – but were known even at the time) became transformed into tales of Japanese spies being dropped off. I even interviewed someone who insisted that, in their youth, they’d seen someone on a beach with a briefcase who – naturally – had to be ‘the spy’. As you say, wild rumours…


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