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News analysis: Fertile soil for Sept. 11 theories
Richard Bernstein/NYT NYT
Wednesday, October 1, 2003
BERLIN The first sign of the appeal of the new theory among people for whom it should have none was a standing-room-only meeting in June at Humboldt University of Berlin, one of Germany's premier institutions of higher learning. But a lower sort of learning was taking place.

More than 700 people enthusiastically greeted a series of speakers whose argument was that the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were not actually carried out by the 19 young Islamic militants identified by the FBI. That, the argument went, is one of many lies and distortions being perpetrated by something vaguely called "the media" and by something very specific: the United States government and the administration of President George W. Bush.

Who, then, did carry out the attacks? The answer was not clear, but the implication was: It was either allowed to happen or supported by the United States itself, or the United States actually organized the attacks to give it a pretext to send troops to Iraq and, more generally, to dominate the world.

Since the meeting at the university, the Sept. 11 conspiracy theory mania has grown in strength in Germany. At least four books are on the market here. One of them, "The CIA and Sept. 11: International Terror and the Role of the Secret Services," by Andreas von Bülow, who was Germany's federal research minister from 1980-82.

Von Bülow's book, which has been as high as No. 3 on the bestseller list in Germany, is, as the magazine Der Spiegel put it, "full of the subjunctive, would have, could have, may have." He does not directly accuse Washington of anything, but he writes that the planes hijacked on Sept. 11 had been secretly fitted with equipment allowing them to be guided from the ground.

Most unsettling, perhaps, in a poll first published by the newspaper Die Zeit in April and published again two weeks ago by Der Spiegel, roughly one in five Germans agreed with this statement: "Do you believe that the attacks were carried out by the United States government itself?" Germans are not alone in subscribing to the theories. One of the four books available here is the German translation of "The Appalling Lie," by a French conspiracy theorist, Thierry Meyssan, who contends that the Pentagon was not hit by a plane at all but was bombed in a way to make it look like it was hit by a plane. The book has sold 200,000 copies in France.

"There's a group of people in every country who will believe any nonsense," a senior German government official said, dismissing the popularity of the theories here as nothing unique. But some analysts say there is something about both Germany and Sept. 11 that does make the Germans especially vulnerable to the conspiracy claims.

"The simple answer is that Germany, as well as France, was against the war in Iraq, and that nonacceptance of the war in both countries has created a lot of mistrust about the explanations for the war," said Klaus Hillenbrand, managing editor of the newspaper die tageszeitung, which has done exposés of Sept. 11 rumors.

A prevailing explanation for the popularity of conspiracy theories is that they give psychological comfort to believers. Der Spiegel quotes the American political scientist Michael Barkun as saying that conspiracy theories allow people to "understand everything perfectly" because they disclose that "all the evil in the world can be attributed to a single cause."

Some people contend that Germany is prone to theories that attribute great evil to somebody else because it gives a sort of exoneration for its Nazi past. "There was a small portion of the population in Germany that used the Vietnam War as an excuse for the crimes of the Nazis," Hillenbrand said.

"They had the impression, 'Ah, the Americans do crimes, like My Lai, as well, so they are the same as us.' It's a special form of anti-Americanism that has gained some support in Germany," he said.

The New York Times


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