“Hitler also had Jewish blood”: Why do people believe false conspiracy theories?

It’s one thing for an international leader to make a claim that there is no historical evidence to support, and it’s another for masses of people to actually believe it.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) hold a press conference following their meeting at the Reception House of the Russian Foreign Ministry, in Moscow, Russia on September 9, 2021 (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

We’re curious…

“I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview on Italian television last week (there is no historical evidence that Hitler was of Jewish ancestry, and top World War II historians have repeatedly dispelled this theory).

Since Russia first invaded Ukraine, the Kremlin has struggled to explain why it needs to “de-Nazify” a country whose president, ​​Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish and whose great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

Zelensky’s Jewishness “means absolutely nothing,” Lavrov continued. “The wise Jewish people said that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is seen in an interview with Italian media on May 1, 2022 (Screenshot: YouTube)

Lavrov’s claims that Hitler had Jewish roots and that the worst antisemites are Jews created a firestorm in Israel and the Jewish world. The day after he made the remarks, Israel summoned the Russian ambassador to demand that Russia clarify, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that the Russian government should apologize to Holocaust victims and the Jewish people.

In response to the backlash, Russia’s foreign ministry doubled down on Lavrov’s claims, accusing Israel of supporting the “neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine, adding that while during the Holocaust “some Jews were forced to participate in crimes,” Zelensky, who is Jewish, “does this quite consciously and quite voluntarily.”

Barak Ravid of Axios noted that “This is the first time Israel has publicly condemned the Russian claim that Zelensky is a ‘Nazi’ and the pretext of ‘de-Nazification’ of Ukraine.” Israel is reportedly weighing expanding its military assistance to Ukraine in the wake of Lavrov’s comments.

Up to this point, although Israel condemned the Russian invasion at the UN and recently accused Russia of committing war crimes, it has “taken a careful approach to the Ukraine crisis to ensure military cooperation with Russia in Syria continues,” Ravid explained.

Given that Israel is rethinking its policy toward Russia and Ukraine because of Lavrov’s comments, we wanted to unpack his outrageous claims and why they matter. Lavrov is far from the first person to claim that Hitler had Jewish roots — instead, he is reviving a longstanding conspiracy theory that goes back to the 1920s (read more about this below). 

So, this week we took a deep dive into the history of this conspiracy theory and why the Russian minister’s comments were important enough to make Israel rethink its stance toward the Ukraine war. Plus, why do people believe conspiracy theories even when there is strong evidence refuting them?

Blaming Jews for the Holocaust: A longstanding conspiracy theory

Let’s start with the history of the claim that Hitler had Jewish origins, shall we? What’s the source of this conspiracy theory?

Hitler’s father, Alois, was born out of wedlock in 1837 to Maria Anna Schicklgruber (who was Catholic), but no father is recorded on his baptism certificate. In the 1920s and 1930s, rumors began spreading that Hitler’s grandfather was actually Jewish.

Feeding the rumors were unverified reports that “Heidler,” a variation of the name “Hitler,” was a Jewish family name. There is no evidence to support any of these claims and the theory has been debunked by historians as the stuff of fantasy, but nevertheless, the idea persisted.

In 1946, Hans Frank, a convicted Nazi war criminal, revived the idea when he wrote in his memoir that Hitler had instructed him to investigate the rumor. Frank likely invented the story in an attempt to save his own life after World War II (it didn’t work, and the cruel overseer of occupied Poland was executed after the Nuremberg military tribunal in 1946).

“The idea is dangerous because of its logical conclusion. [It] would mean that a Jewish individual was the architect of the mass murder of six million Jews and millions more,” Sara Brown, executive director of Change, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education, told The Times of Israel.

Brown added that the myth has lasted because “antisemitism did not end in 1945. And resulting Holocaust denial, even blaming Jews for their own suffering and that of millions more during World War II, is a convenient way to distract from the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators.”

Yair Rosenberg, contributing writer at The Atlantic, expanded on why people are drawn to conspiracy theories that pin the Holocaust on its Jewish victims:

“To understand the allure of accusing the Jews of genocide — whether their own or of others — one has to understand what the claim accomplishes for those who level it,” Rosenberg wrote, adding that over the decades, people have blamed the Jews for their own genocide “often for political and ideological purposes.”

“For Lavrov, a man tasked with defending a regime that stands accused of crimes against humanity, inverting the Holocaust is simply another iteration of what he has already been doing for his own government: recasting its victims as aggressors and using this to justify further victimization,” he continued. 

“In other words, Lavrov’s comments don’t simply distort the past, but attempt to justify similar acts in the future,” he concluded.

Rosenberg added that Lavrov’s comments are the extreme version of the idea that Jews cause antisemitism (watch our video on this topic to learn more about this centuries-old claim).

Lavrov is not alone in believing that Jews actively collaborated with the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust: “David Icke, one of the world’s most prominent conspiracy theorists…claims that wealthy Jews funded the Holocaust,” Rosenberg noted.

Diversity of perspectives (not much diversity on this one)

How did the world react to Lavrov’s comments? The Jewish world and some Western leaders condemned his remarks. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted:

“Foreign Minister Lavrov’s remarks are both an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error. Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust. The lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews themselves of antisemitism.” (Lapid’s grandfather was murdered by the Nazis.)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his “friend Yair Lapid put it perfectly,” adding, “It is incumbent on the world to speak out against such vile, dangerous rhetoric and support our Ukrainian partners in the face of the Kremlin’s vicious assault,” Blinken tweeted.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also issued a strong rebuke of the Russian Foreign Minister, saying in a statement:

“His words are untrue and their intentions are wrong. The goal of such lies is to accuse the Jews themselves of the most awful crimes in history, which were perpetrated against them, and thereby absolve Israel’s enemies of responsibility…The use of the Holocaust of the Jewish people as a political tool must cease immediately.”

Dani Dayan, the chairman of Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial in Israel, went even further, saying that “blaming the Jews for the Holocaust is an unacceptable blood libel.”

Jewish Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives also condemned Lavrov’s claims, saying in a joint statement: “Defaulting to antisemitic tropes, including blaming the Jews for the Holocaust and using the Holocaust to cover their own war crimes, reflects the gutless depravity of the Russian regime.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (whose great-grandparents were murdered by the Nazis) also expressed outrage over the remarks, saying in a video posted on his Telegram channel in Ukrainian: “Russia’s top diplomat is blaming the Jewish people for Nazi crimes. No words.”

Piotr M. A. Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, said in a statement that Lavrov’s claims that “Hitler also had Jewish origin” and that “the worst antisemites are Jews” were “only the latest in a series of Russian lies.”

Similarly, Ken Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, strongly denounced Lavrov’s statements, but stressed that Zelensky should also not characterize his Russian opponents as Nazis: 

“It is a pure Russian conspiracy theory to falsely accuse Zelensky of leading a government of Nazis…This is historical revisionism and disinformation that only serves to trivialize and undermine the real history of World War II,” he wrote in an NBC News op-ed.

“At the same time, let’s commit to avoid comparing the tragedy that is happening today in Ukraine to the unique genocide that was the Holocaust and, particularly, doing anything that either diminishes that epic tragedy or suggests — falsely — that the Jews themselves were responsible for it,” he added.

Why do people believe these conspiracy theories?

Lavrov’s remarks raise an even bigger question: Why do people believe conspiracy theories like this one? It’s one thing for an international leader like Lavrov to make a claim that there is no historical evidence to support, and it’s another for masses of people to actually believe it.

But first, let’s define the term — what is a conspiracy theory?

According to Quassim Cassam, a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick and author of the book “Conspiracy Theories,” a conspiracy theory is “an attempt to explain an event…by reference to the activities of a group of individuals or an organization who brought the event about but who are concealing their role in bringing it about.”

According to Cassam, there are various theories that explain why people hold on to these claims in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. One explanation is that the person is “informationally isolated. They don’t have enough information about what happened, and that’s why they believe what they believe.”

In this case (think of a person with no access to the internet and whose only source of information is someone in their small village), the remedy is to “introduce cognitive diversity into their bubble” and hope to induce a change in belief.

Fair enough. But what about conspiracy theorists who have access to all the information? The problem with these characters is that they attach more weight to certain information rather than others. They trust some sources and don’t trust others, Cassam explained.

In this case, “you’re very unlikely to succeed…by trying to reason them out of their theories. Any evidence you give them, they’re going to reject. Indeed, they’re going to interpret the very fact that you’re trying to reason them out of their theories, in some cases, as part of the conspiracy.”

There is also a powerful emotional component to conspiracy theory beliefs, Karen Douglas, a social psychology professor at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, explained on the Speaking of Psychology podcast.

People have a desire to feel good about themselves, and “one way of doing that is to feel that you have access to information that other people don’t necessarily have…[You feel that you] know the truth” of what’s really going on, which can “give you a feeling of superiority over others,” she explained.

According to both Cassam and Douglas, people with lower levels of education tend to be drawn to conspiracy theories. This is not because they aren’t intelligent, but because “they haven’t been given access to the tools to allow them to differentiate between good sources and bad sources or credible sources and non-credible sources,” Douglas said.

In fact, the most effective and practical way to stop the spread of conspiracy theories in the long-term is to teach people critical thinking skills while they are in school, Cassam said.

So, what about the conspiracy theory that Hitler had Jewish roots and that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust? Why have people believed that over the decades?

People might believe it because they “are not well-informed enough to know how thoroughly debunked they have been,” Robert Rozett, senior historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, hypothesized.

To use Cassam’s vocabulary, “informational isolation” in Russia could be another reason. 

Given that Russia has reasserted state control over the country’s major media companies, and has criminalized reporting that contradicts the government’s version of events, “the truth about the war is hard to find and mostly is discovered by people who already distrust the Kremlin and its state-sponsored media,” NPR reported.

Applying Cassam’s theory, it’s not a stretch to see how people would believe Lavrov’s claim, if the only news they have access to is sponsored or censored by the state, and if their access to platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok has been blocked.

“Vladimir Putin’s Russia is driven by conspiracy theories,” Ilya Yablokov, a historian of Russian media and the author of “Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World,” declared in a New York Times op-ed.

“Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two months ago, the gap between conspiracy theory and state policy has closed to a vanishing point. Conspiratorial thinking has taken complete hold of the country, from top to bottom, and now seems to be the motivating force behind the Kremlin’s decisions,” she added.

The conspiracy theories that Putin has endorsed “tell a story of a regime disintegrating into a morass of misinformation, paranoia and mendacity, at a terrible cost to Ukraine and the rest of the world,” Yablokov concluded.