Reverse conspiracy theories and Ukraine

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Reverse conspiracy theories are when instead of blaming shadowy forces for the ills of the world, people blame themselves or their governments for atrocities obviously committed by others.

On my first visit to the Berlin Wall Museum in April 2000 I got into an argument with a bloke at the information centre. The building of the Wall, he said, like the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, had not been the responsibility of the Soviet Union but was the fault of the United States. Timely intervention by the US, he said, could have stopped both. The CIA must have had a secret agenda to encourage the building of the Wall. I demurred, baffled.

Berlin Wall Germany reverse conspiracy theories
The Berlin Wall running through Potsdamer Platz, 1980 – photo LT

Reverse conspiracy theories

With hindsight, my exchange in Berlin was an early example of what I call reverse conspiracy theories. 

One of the arguments for classic conspiracy theories is people’s fear of chaos. Rather than accept that the universe is unpredictable and that random bad things may happen, they try to identify – and often find – a hidden hand or dark force behind events. There is no evidence[1]. Other explanations may be likelier. But attributing blame for whatever has happened to a sinister conspiracy that only a select few people know about gives them comfort: the illusion that their special insights give them the inside track on what is really going on and that someone is responsible.

Reverse conspiracy theories are when, in response to cataclysmic events such as the building of the Berlin Wall, people focus not on the perpetrators of the atrocity, but on asking ‘what did we do wrong?’ or attribute blame to themselves.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, TV and radio stations asked me to comment. Some asked – an excellent question, I thought – why on earth the Russian leadership had decided to do such a thing. But the most common questions were: ‘what could we have done to prevent this?’; or even ‘is this our fault?’ I was reminded of tragic cases of children who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. 

Focus on the culprits

In most such cases the culprits are obvious. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956 to snuff out an anti-communist uprising. The East German government built the wall in 1961 to stop its citizens leaving for the west. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 to try and keep President Putin in power as long as possible.

Academics will discuss in years ahead what other countries could have done differently. It is understandable that in these circumstances we turn on our own governments or leaders for failing to have stopped whatever catastrophe has occurred. We have more control over them than we do over, say, the Russian army and it gives us at least some sense of control over events. It is less scary that accepting that nothing we could have done would have made any difference. But in most cases the more urgent question than “what did we do wrong?” is “what can and should we do now to combat or reverse whatever bad things are happening?

Some people don’t like to hear this because in a democracy, criticising your own country’s leadership is a duty and can be good sport. I’m not saying that our own governments and leaders aren’t hopeless, venal, corrupt, confused, ineffectual or foolish. They may regularly make colossal mistakes on countless other things, or simply be ghastly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are responsible for everything that goes wrong.

Reverse conspiracy theories: the alternative

If you are tempted to get sucked into a frenzy of debate about why you or your people are to blame for bad things happening, don’t automatically blame yourself. Whoever is actually carrying out the atrocity will be happy to do that for you, on the lines of the bully who punches a small child in the face and then whines “he made me do it”. Instead, think carefully about who bears the main share of responsibility; and focus on practical steps to put right the wrong. 

This post is inspired by some of the debate I’ve heard about how Russia invading Ukraine is somehow the fault of someone other than President Putin. For more on this, you may like to see my Russia-Ukraine war explainer.

For more on the dangers and psychology of conspiracy theories, and why the Welsh Secret Service is the most feared and capable intelligence operation on earth, see my post Who is watching the watchers?

“The Motherland” statue in Kyiv

[1] Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a conspiracy theory.

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