Bashkim Shehu is an Albanian fiction writer, who lives in exile in Barcelona.
Many of his books have been published in Albania and some of them have
been translated and published in French, English, Spanish, Catalan,
Italian, Rumanian, and Serbian. He was awarded with the Prize
Balkanika (2015), the most important literary award in the region, with the
Special Mention of the Jury of Prix Méditerranné (France, 2018), and with
several Albanian national prizes. He is also a translator of literature and of
books from the field of humanities and social sciences. He is a founding member
of Academia Balkanica Europeana, and editor-in-chief of The Bridge.
Conspiracy theories are a common phenomenon in the modern world. The most famous, and infamous, conspiracy theory is the “Protocol of the Elders of Zion”, an apocryphal book which claimed to prove a conspiracy of global domination by the Jews and the Masons or the Communists. It was first used to justify pogroms in tsarist Russia, and later used in Nazi propaganda to rationalize anti-Semitic discrimination and the eventual extermination of the Jews.
In Albania, the most well-known conspiracy theory, and perhaps the strangest one in Eastern Europe, is known as “Katowice”. In sum, this theory posits that everything in the post-communist transition was orchestrated by Gorbachev on the basis of a plan that he presented to his counterparts during a top-secret meeting in the city of Katowice: parliamentary democracy would be a facade used to cover up the communist nomenclature’s monopoly on political and economic power in the new conditions of pluralism and capitalism. This story has circulated for years in newspapers and on social networks in Albania. It is a variation on the “Protocol of the Elders of Zion”, but with no practical consequences. It just provides cognitive and moral consolation by claiming to explain all the evils of the post-communist transitions in the world. In Albania, during the communist period, the predecessor to the “Katowice” theory was a fatal series of imaginary plots, as a rule all of them uncovered before they had any real consequences.
Conspiracy theories have a fundamental link with totalitarianism and, more broadly, with the totalitarian mindset. On the one hand, they are the projections of a dictator’s paranoia, inverted images of his destructive tendencies in a delirium of persecution. On the other hand, under totalitarian conditions, they resonate in the minds of the ruled as a negative complement to a delirious love whose object is the dictator, according to Wilhelm Reich in his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, referring to an absolute love that seeks as a complement an object of absolute hatred, a political allotrope of the Devil. According to Reich, this mental tuning of the ruled with their totalitarian ruler occurs through what he calls “emotional plague”.
The creation of conspiracy theories and the inclination to accept them is not however, exclusively related to totalitarianism. Regardless of the type of regime, and under certain conditions, especially when dealing with great hardship, the human psyche needs support so as not to remain undefended in front of threatening and inexplicable dark forces. The conspiracy theory fulfils this role. It offers a simple and clear explanation. And, most importantly, it identifies an intentional human action at the root of evil, the identification of which produces a dual psychological benefit: if the cause of evil is a deliberate human action, it is possible for man to fight and defeat the evildoer; furthermore, in this case, it is possible to blame someone for what is happening, and thus, even if it is not possible to defeat evil, man still has the cognitive and the moral consolation of being the judge of a suspect who has already been discovered and found guilty.
In earlier times, great calamities and disasters were attributed to supernatural, divine, or demonic forces. If the Devil were responsible, there was always a belief that God would prevail. Alternatively, if the result of divine intervention, the evil that plagued people was explained as providence, thus it was for the good of man, or as a punishment for sins, and if so, it might require appeasing the wrath of the Gods through sacrifice to absolve sins, or in the case of the monotheistic God, it might lead to hope in mercy and compassion. A conspiracy theory is therefore no more than the adaptation of primitive or medieval beliefs to a secularized world of reason and science, where God, along with the Devil, is excluded from causal explanation and instead is replaced by man as a deliberate actor. Conspiracy theory is modern demonology. After all, in its depths the human psyche has not changed much since the dawn of times when our ape ancestors decided once and for all to walk on their hind legs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a number of conspiracy theories. For example, all over the world, there is a revival of movements against vaccination, which is explained as a strategy to reduce the population of the planet, on the pretext of protecting people from dangerous infectious diseases. This theory is widespread on social networks. In another version, specifically for this pandemic, the claim is that vaccination will install microchips in our bodies to control us at all times. In this conspiracy, the plot is hatched by the IT magnate Bill Gates, who would get richer by trading the microchips, and by all the governments of the world, who want to control us – and so this explains why they spread fake news about the pandemic and pretend to believe it is real by taking extraordinary measures. Another conspiracy theory claims that the pandemic is caused by 5G internet antennas. Perhaps the most bizarre theory of all, largely because of the author’s intellectual reputation, is that of the celebrity left-wing thinker Noam Chomsky. At the start of the pandemic, he argued that it was in reality a war for American global supremacy, a low intensity biological war, aiming to temporarily wound the Chinese economy and to prepare for American neo-colonial exploitation by selectively eliminating the elderly and leaving alive the young who are tomorrow’s cheap labour, etc.
The COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and especially those about vaccines with microchips, are circulating in the Balkans. These theories are often found on Albanian social networks, and even occasionally in the mainstream media. For example, a prominent theory explains the pandemic as an interstellar battle between armies with headquarters in distant galaxies, and the coronavirus as a sophisticated weapon being used to reduce the Earth’s population sevenfold. One side of the war, the good side, has President Trump as its top representative on Earth, while on the other side, the bad side, there is – and it could not be anyone else – a rich and liberal Jew, the ever present George Soros, disciple of his namesake George Orwell, who allegedly denounced totalitarianism, but who is in fact the author of the textbook par excellence of communist totalitarianism.
There is no doubt; the COVID-19 pandemic is a very fertile ground for conspiracy theories: a virus imposes restrictions on societies and general suspicion of human relations reminiscent of totalitarian regimes. Modern man, the self-proclaimed god of nature, cannot accept that he is part of nature, and therefore explains the existence of the coronavirus by the deliberate and diabolical actions of his two-legged fellowmen.
Translated by Alexandra Channer