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