Skepticism undermined by an insufficient knowledge of history

I’ll admit it.

There have been at least two times since I started blogging that I fell for a dubious story because I exercised insufficient skepticism. The first time occurred very early on in my blogging history when swallowed a story about how legalization of prostitution was claimed to lead to the requirement that unemployed women take jobs as prostitutes or lose their unemployment benefits. More recently, I backpedaled a bit over a story about how supposedly history teachers in the U.K. were not teaching about the Holocaust out of concern for offending the sensitivities of certain of their constituents. Generally, I’m harder on myself than most of my critics, but I also realize that my record is probably not bad for over two years of continuous blogging.

Basically, there are two ways to get burned while exercising critical thinking. One way, which the two examples above illustrate, is simple laziness, to accept a report at face value without digging a little deeper. Another way is to have insufficient background knowledge to critically examine the report. For example, there’s a reason why I rarely comment on global warming. Even though I generally accept the scientific consensus that human activity is causing global warming, I don’t have sufficient background in the science to match the level of commentary that I can provide on alternative medicine, Holocaust denial, or my other usual topics. That reticence may change as I learn more about the issue, but for now it has served me well to be cautious. It is the cranks who tend to jump into discussions of fields that they clearly do not understand and make proclamations with unjustified confidence. All of this is my not-so-subtle way to introduce a discussion of how even die-hard skeptics can be burned. The example I happened to come across that disappointed me came, surprisingly, from my favorite skeptical podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, the most recent episode of which I was a bit late getting around to listening to. I don’t do this as a “gotcha” exercise, but merely as a cautionary tale that even the best skeptics can be burned if they have insufficient knowledge of a topic. In this case, it was knowledge of history, specifically Nazi history.

Basically, during the podcast, Steve Novella and crew were doing a fine job of debunking some of the sillier 9/11 conspiracy myths, in particular the analogy often cited that “9/11 was Bush’s Reichstag fire.” For those not familiar with the history, on February 27, 1933, only four weeks after Adolf Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany and before he had consolidated his power, the Reichstag (the German parliament building) burned. The man caught, convicted, and eventually executed by beheading for the crime (the favored method of execution in Germany at that time) was self-styled revolutionary and rabble-rouser, Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch council Communist, who was caught at the scene and who proudly confessed to the crime. In the days before that he had tried to burn down an unemployment office and other buildings but had not succeeded. He thought that his arson at the Reichstag would be the spark that would cause the workers to rise up and throw off the Nazi yoke. Not surprisingly, Hitler, blaming it all on the Communist Party, used the Reichstag fire as a pretext for rounding up his hated enemies, particularly Communist leaders, and for persuading President Hindenberg to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended the remaining civil liberties in Germany and set the stage for Hitler’s becoming absolute dictator. From the very day after the fire, not surprisingly, suspicions swirled that the Nazi Party was somehow involved and that van der Lubbe was a dupe.

This is what the letter by Patrick Pricken, to which our intrepid skeptics responded, said about the event and 9/11:

I just wanted to follow up on the (ridiculous) argument by 9/11 conspiracy theorists that Hitler burned the Reichstag, so Bush might as well have hijacked the planes.

First off, the Reichstag burned in the night, when nobody was in it. Also, as you can read for example in Sebastian Haffner’s account of his youth in Germany up to 1933, the general populace was very aware of what had really happened with the Reichstag; or at least, they knew it wasn’t the poor sod the Nazis said who did it. It’s just that a mixture of fear and carelessness (and of course people who approved of Hitler’s course) was stronger than any anger the people might have felt at some building burning down. Hitler not only burned the thing, but it was also he who instilled the symbolism into it. That was even a matter of some jokes, according to Haffner, of how Hitler didn’t respect the Republic at all, but then gets all puffed up when the Reichstag burns.

So this analogy doesn’t hold up, no matter where you’re coming from. It’s simply STUPID.

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I agree that the analogy is definitely exceedingly stupid, but for far more reason than the reasons above. Indeed, discussion of the letter on the podcast appropriately pointed out the logical fallacy in this line of argument and how ridiculous it is to have thought that President Bush or someone in the administration had been the “real” culprit behind the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The problem is, our skeptics missed the two biggest problems with Patrick’s characterization of this 9/11 Truther canard:

  1. No historian (or even proponents of the viewpoint that the Nazis were involved) seriously proposes that Hitler was involved. In fact, all the known contemporaneous accounts of what happened when Hitler learned of the fire suggest otherwise, given Hitler’s surprise and dismay upon learning of the news. His reaction has to be remembered in the context of the times. The Nazi Party was not yet in full control, and Hitler and his cronies had been fearing since they took power that the Communists would try to incite unrest and overthrow the fledgling goverment. They saw the Reichstag fire as the signal for the long-feared Communist revolt to begin.
  2. Although, as Pricken states, it was widely speculated among the populace that van der Lubbe was a dupe and that the Nazis may have planned the fire, more recent scholarship suggests that this was not the case. Most historians these days believe that van der Lubbe probably really did act alone. In other words, just because it was plausible to think that the Nazis were involved does not necessarily mean that they were.

Clearly our skeptics didn’t know these things. Consequently, although they criticized it for some good reasons, they missed the biggest flaw in this Truther chestnut: It’s based on really bad history to go along with the bad logic.

Perhaps the most famous of the chroniclers of Nazi history who believed that van der Lubbe was not responsible for the fire was American journalist William Shirer, who stated bluntly in his famous book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the Nazis who planned the arson and carried it out for their own political ends.” He went on to say that van der Lubbe was a “dupe of the Nazis” who had been “encouraged to try to set the Reichstag on fire” while the main job was to be “done without his knowledge” by stormtroopers. More recent scholarship casts considerable doubt on this version, however. For example, British historian Ian Kershaw, in the endnotes of part one of his recent (and massive) biography of Hitler, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, states with extensive references and documentation:

The question of who set the Reichstag ablaze has provoked the most rancorous of disputes. The Nazi version that it was a Communist plot was widely disbelieved at the time by critical observers and was not even convincing enough to secure the conviction of the leading Communists tried at the show trial at the supreme Reich Court in Leipzig in autumn 1933. The view that the Nazis, with the most to gain, had set fire to the Reichstag themselves was immediately given wide currency among diplomats and foreign journalists, and in liberal circles in Germany…Nazi authorship, as put forward in Communist counter-propaganda, orchestrated by Willi Münzenberg in The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag, Paris, 1933, carried the day for a long time. But the findings of Fritz Tobias in the 1960s, collected in his extensive evaluation and documentation…supported by the scholarly analysis of Hans Mommsen…that Marinus van der Lubbe acted alone, are compelling and are now widely accepted, though not by Klause P. Fischer…The counter claims of the Luxembourg Committee…that the Nazis were indeed the perpetrators, are regarded by most experts as flawed The consequences of the Reichstag fire were, of course, always more important than the identity of whoever instigated the blaze. But the question of authorship was nevertheless of significance, since it revolved around the question of whether the Nazis were following through carefully laid plans to institute totalitarian rule or whether they were improvising reactions to events they had not expected.

Here’s what historian Richard J. Evans wrote in the endnotes of the first volume of his recent history of the Third Reich, The Coming of the Third Reich, along with references and documentation:

Subsequently, the Communists attempted to prove that the Nazis had been behind the arson attempt, but the authenticity of van der Lubbe’s statement and associated documentation seems beyond doubt. Moreover, numerous forgeries and falsifications have been found among the documentary evidence purporting to prove Nazi involvement…A recent attempt to suggest that the Nazis planned the fire rests on an exaggeration of similarities between earlier discussion papers on emergency powers, and the Reichstag Fire Decree…So far, the conclusion of Tobias and Mommesen that van der Lubbe acted alone has not been shaken.

Finally, it is instructive to look at what Sebastian Haffner himself actually wrote about the Reichstag fire in his memoir about living in the Weimar Republic and his experiences in the early years of the Nazi regime, Defying Hitler. This is a truly fascinating book that I heartily recommend. Particularly fascinating his his first-person account of the hyperinflation of 1923 and of how life continued seemingly normally for a while after Hitler took power, with change only being noticed relatively slowly. Here are Haffner’s speculations about the Reichstag fire, apparently written within a day or two of the event:

So the Communists had burned down the Reichstag. Well, well. That could well be so; it was even to be expected. Funny, though, why they should choose the Reichstag, an empty building, where no one would profit from the fire. Well, perhaps it really had been intended as the “signal” for the uprising, which had been prevented by the “decisive measures” taken by the government. That was what the papers said, and it sounded plausible. Funny also that the Nazis got so worked up about the Reichstag. Up till then they had called it a “hot air factory.” Now it was suddenly the holy of holies that had been burned down…

More seriously: Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Reichstag fire is that the claim that it was the work of the Communists was so widely believed. Even the skeptics did not regard it as entirely incredible. That was the Communists’ own fault. They had become a strong party in recent years, and had again and again trumpeted their “readiness.” Nobody believed they would allow themselves to be “prohibited” and slaughtered without putting up a fight. During the whole of February we had been permanently at “eyes left,” waiting for the Communist counterstrike…A Communist attack was what we expected. The Communists were determined people, with fierce expressions. They raised their fists in salute and had weapons–at least, they used guns often enough in the everyday pub brawls. They boasted continually about the strength of their organization, and they had probably learned how to do “these things” in Russia. The Nazis left had left no one in doubt that they wanted to destroy them. It was natural, indeed obvious, that the Communists would retaliate. It was only surprising that there had been nothing of the kind so far.

Haffner then goes on to lament how, essentially overnight, Germans had given up their freedoms and privacy. Houses could now be searched without warrants, people arrested and held indefinitely without charges, and mail opened. Freedom of speech and of the press disappeared overnight.

What Haffner’s account sounds like to me is not unlike what happens after any major event: A lot of speculation without much real knowledge of what really happened. It is essentially irrelevant to the question of whether the Nazis were or were not involved. Contrary to what Pricken said, Haffner never said that “everyone knew what really happened.” He merely speculated about what happened and admitted that even skeptics of official version of what happened found the the Nazis’ claim that the Communists were the arsonists at least somewhat plausible. That’s because such claims were plausible, given events leading up to the fire. In fact, the question of plausibility is another instructive aspect to fallacious comparisons of 9/11 to the Reichstag fire. Given how much the Nazis benefited from the fire, it was not at all implausible to suspect that the Nazis had planned it. In contrast, to think that the Bush administration, with all its incompetence, could possibly have somehow planned and executed a conspiracy to launch the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and kept the secret is about as implausible as it gets, about as implausible as Kent Hovind suddenly deciding to pursue a real Ph.D. in evolutionary biology.

Finally, one of the more unintentionally amusing (but also infuriating) things about the likening of 9/11 to the Reichstag fire becomes apparent when you consider one little fact about this comparison. The Reichstag was burned at night, when there was no one in it. If the Nazis were involved in its burning, this would imply that even the Nazis shrank at the thought of the carnage that might have resulted from burning a government building during the day or launching some sort of other “black ops” that would cause casualties, even if casualties would strengthen their case for “drastic measures” in response. In contrast, in the 9/11 Truther‘s fevered world, apparently President Bush has no such scruples. This comparison thus seems to paint him as even worse than Adolf Hitler. (Indeed, where’s the Hitler Zombie when you need him?) Of course, it’s not entirely unreasonable to draw parallels between the reactions of the Bush administration after 9/11 to the reaction of the Nazi regime to the Reichstag fire, but there remains, as usual, the problem of scale. Bush’s actions after 9/11 are to Hitler’s actions after the Reichstag Fire as a minnow is to a whale–heck, as an amoeba is to a whale. In other words, the Patriot Act is not the Reichstag Fire Decree.

You may think that I’m being excessively picky here. Maybe so. After all, this happens to be in one of my areas of interest, and not in Steve’s or any other of the panel’s. Besides, how many people know much about the Reichstag fire, or even anything at all about it? Why should I be annoyed that people whose skeptical skills I respect are unaware of this basic history? The answer is that knowing this little bit of history allows me to be more effective in debunking this particularly idiotic 9/11 Truther gem of argumentum ad Nazi-ium to go along with all their other “Bush = Hitler” idiocy, and I hate to see skeptics that I like and respect reveal an ignorance about history that renders them unable, at least in this one case, to marshal the strongest possible counterarguments to rebut the brain-dead conspiracy-mongering idiocy of the 9/11 Truth movement. The implication that the “fact” that Hitler burned down the Reichstag and then used the event to take total power suggests that it is not so implausible that Bush executed 9/11 and then tried to use it to justify the curtailment of civil liberties is indeed stupid for the reasons discussed by Novella and crew. However, it’s stupid for at least one more reason: Although we can never be 100% certain about this and it’s impossible to rule out Nazi complicity totally, what we know today is that the Nazis probably didn’t burn down the Reichstag. Most likely, they just got very, very lucky that a zealot like van der Lubbe did it at such an opportune time for them.

ADDENDUM: A most interesting first-person account by Sefton Delmer. Some interesting excerpts:

Göring picked a piece of rag off the floor near one of the charred curtains. “Here, you can see for yourself Herr Chancellor how they started the fire,” he said. “They hung cloths soaked in petrol over the furniture and set it alight.”

Notice the ‘they’. ‘They’ did this, ‘they’ did that. For Göring there was no question that more than one incendiary must have been at work. It had to be more than one to fit in with his conviction that the fire was the result of a Communist conspiracy. There had to be a gang of incendiaries. But as I looked at the rags and the other evidence, I could see nothing that one man could not have done on his own.

And:

But while the story of the Communist plot to set the Reichstag on fire proved an enormous success in Germany and gave Hitler all the political leverage he hoped for, it was beginning prove a liability abroad. No-one outside Germany would believe that the fire was not a put-up job. The shirtless man who had been captured in the Reichstag while he was trying to spread the flames still further – a young Dutch hitch-hiker named Marinus van der Lubbe – was assumed by the world at large to be a tool of the Nazis.

The insistence of G̦ring and Hitler that not just van der Lubbe alone, but a whole group of people must have been at work Рa theory which they had to maintain and support in order to justify their story of a Communist plot Рhad just the opposite effect abroad. For people accepted it as a fact that more than one pair of hands was needed to produce such a big fire, and they decided the missing hands must be Nazi hands.

And:

But I have always believed that neither the Nazis nor the Communists laid and lit this fire, but that both exploited it for their political warfare. the Nazis did so for the immediate objective of suppressing all opposition to themselves in Germany, the Communists for the long term objective of rallying the world against the Nazis. My own view I put forward in an article on Hitler and the Reichstag fir in 1939, when I said, “I rather suspect there was really just one incendiary who lit that fire – the lunatic van der Lubbe.”

Today I no longer suspect, I am sure of it.

Finally:

The Nazis had suborned their scientific experts, twisted and faked the evidence, all in order to show that van der Lubbe could not possibly have raised the fire entirely by himself – as he claimed and as the CID men who had checked his story had confirmed. The Nazis insisted that a whole gang of incendiaries must have been at work. Now the Communists joyfully took up the Nazi thesis to use it as the foundation for the accusation that the Nazis were the authors of the fire and van der Lubbe their tool.

It’s worth reading the whole account. it gives a plausible account of how the Nazis may well have had no one but themselves to blame for the wide acceptance of the suspicion that the Nazis had either put van der Lubbe up to the job or had used him as a dupe and done it themselves–truly ironic if true.