The International Monetary Fund fuelled the economic crisis in emerging Europe in 2009 to create a situation in which it would be asked to help bail out the region, and consequently elevate the IMF's status and importance. The ravings of a fringe blogger perhaps, an angry anti-globalization activist or far-right ideologist? If only. In fact, this statement was made by the Vice Governor of the Czech National Bank in 2010. Statements of this kind from the banking sector are usually uncommon. Statements like this in a time of crisis have however, a long history.
The global financial crisis that began in 2008, just like the depression of the 1930s, has led to a proliferation of conspiracy theories among Europeans. The main reason is simple: "Unorthodox" explanations of highly complex, global, political and social tendencies tend to flourish following unexpected, extraordinary and undesirable events. Furthermore, crises, of any kind, generally provide fertile soil for conspiracy theorizing. Unquestionably, Europe is currently going through its deepest economic and political crisis for many decades.
On the surface, conspiracy theories are an odd source of comfort. Why would it be more reassuring to live in a world where evil, selfish, powerful forces are actively conspiring against innocent people? For many it seems, it is better to live in a world full of familiar enemies-Jews, Americans, greedy Bankers, Liberals, Cultural Marxists-then remain uncertain or powerless. Understanding the economic crisis as the machinations of a few sinister characters is by far more appealing than getting your head around systemic errors inherent in our economic and political institutions.
Personalizing abstract problems like financial crashes is always attractive. Without this human element these problems remain too distant from everyday experiences and too difficult to comprehend. In this extended period of Eurozone crisis, we have seen conspiracy theories about the European Union spread at breakneck speed.
The European Union as an "elitist" organization, laden in bureaucracy and abstraction makes it the perfect surface for populist forces to project their conspiracy theories onto. Recent conspiracy theories suggest that the Eurozone crisis, the bailouts and their impact on member states are all deliberate-aimed at realizing a political master plan. Popular theories suggest for example that certain Anglo-Saxon interests are behind the crisis or that Germany planned it all so as to extend her power in Europe. Some nationalist and populist forces go as far to envision a post-bailout Europe in which sovereign states are dissolved and a European super state and new world order created.
Blaming "out groups"-groups that the majority do not belong to or identify with-for the world's woes can be especially attractive in difficult and frustrating times such as these. Again, the recent economic crisis has allowed ample evidence for this. The theory that Jews are somehow profiting from the economic crisis, for example, has gained a foothold in Europe, even in countries that have negligible Jewish populations such as Spain.
In France, during the course of the last French electoral campaign, conspiracy theories flourished on both the populist left and the populist right. As Catherine Fieschi, head of Counterpoint UK and participant in the deconspirator project pointed out: "Jean Luc Mélenchon the demagogue candidate of the left has made no bones about the role of the United States against a strong Europe and against strong rival currencies. (...) his ‘populist lite' discourse points to the enemies of France and the Republic in ways that echo conspiracy." On the far-right, Fieschi continued "Marine Le Pen's fully fledged populism relies explicitly on the notion that intellectuals and a liberal elite are forever conspiring against ordinary people." In Hungary, the radical right-wing party Jobbik and its supporting media has become a factory of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are popular rallying cries and, it seems, great campaign material.
In Poland, Russia has not left the conspiracy limelight since the Smolensk catastrophe, a plane crash that killed the president of Poland and more than 90 other leading Poles. The accident triggered accusations at the highest political levels and as the Guardian newspaper reports "a small but vociferous minority of Poles insist the Smolensk crash was no accident, but a Russian conspiracy involving artificial fog and deliberately misleading information from Smolensk air traffic control."
While a touch of healthy scepticism and suspicion towards political institutions is an inherent feature of any well-functioning democracy, understanding and portraying the world as a scene of widespread conspiracy is certainly not. Rampant conspiracy theories are poisonous to representative democracy, depict the political world as deceptive, false and incurably elitist-as a world that does not deserve to be sustained at all. An even more worrying trend is that conspiracy theories which begin as populist can easily turn extremist, serving as justification for discrimination, exclusion or even violence against some minority groups. The horrific events that unfolded in Norway in the summer of 2011 were clear evidence of this notion: Anders Behring Breivik's belief that "Cultural Marxists" all over Europe were in the process of Islamizing the continent is echoed in a wide range of theories such as "Eurabia" and "Londonistan", in which liberal elements are portrayed as betraying the interests of ordinary people by conspiring with Muslim foreigners.
While conspiracy theories may seem innocent and often ridiculous at first sight, they pose a significant threat to democracy and social peace in Europe and elsewhere. The 20th century was full of conspiracy theories that proved capable of detrimentally shaping history. To challenge this rising threat, a group of think-tanks in Europe have launched a project, www.deconspirator.com aimed at researching conspiracy theories and finding the best tools to combat them.
Why do you think conspiracy theories are on the rise in Europe; what do you think are the best ways to combat them and should we even try?