Nick Sweeney's Reviews > Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History

Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch
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's review
Jan 10, 2012

it was amazing
Read in March, 2011

I love a good old conspiracy theory, so probably shouldn't have read this book. I wouldn't have, either, but I bought it as a present for somebody who already had it, so was stuck with it. David Aaronovitch, a journalist whose work I really like, is eloquent in demolishing a lot of the theories that people like me tend to cling to. He identifies this with a wish to believe that there are dark forces out there, rather than a belief in the mundane, that people fuck up, get careless, that totally random events just sweep in to upset the best-laid plans. It seems that we prefer the outlandish to the everyday when things go wrong; it's easier for Americans to hint at unstoppable forces in wide-ranging conspiracies when JFK was shot, rather than just admit that having a Catholic president ride around in an open-topped car was a really stupid idea that laid him - and his whole generation and generations to come - low. Aaronovitch shows us that there had always been plenty of assassination attempts on presidents, so it wasn't as if shooting the president was some weird idea totally out of left field. So, while being, mostly, convinced by Aaronovitch's arguments, I'm still determined to enjoy Oliver Stone's JFK, with its cast of conspirators - and I still don't quite believe in that magic bullet. The one argument of the author's that I wasn't convinced by is the case of the Stalinist show trials of the late 1930s. He thinks it's absurd to believe that the defendants - made to confess to the wildest crimes, from collaboration with the Nazis to sabotaging factories to putting grit into motorbike engines - must have been made to rehearse their testimony for months before it was played out in court; he can't conceive of that notion. I believe they were. Stalin and his police chiefs (a grisly succession through Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria) were obsessive about these things - they were writing the history, after all, and, like many obsessives, lost all sight of plausiblity. There is a telling scene in a book that comes elsewhere in these reviews of mine, David Peace's Red Riding 1974, in which a character undergoes what can only be described as a rehearsal for his eventual trial; in the face of increasing brutality, he is talked through how he will make his confession, word-for-word, until he has learnt it off by heart and is reciting it with no prompting, and this scene rang a bell with me, as I read both books around the same time, immediately redolent of those unfortunates in the dungeons of Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, being put through the same paces.

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