A frequent complaint I’ve received over the past nine months or so is that it is inappropriate of me to mix into my discussion of ancient astronauts and alternative history anything smacking of either politics or contemporary implications for the claims alternative history proponents make. On one hand, I understand the desire to isolate historical studies from modern political controversies, but on the other hand I find it impossible to divorce the two since alternative history is born of politics and speaks to political discontent. I believe that restricting discussion to purely mechanical issues of what facts alternative historians faked, or which quotations they got wrong, or how ancient sites could really have been built impoverishes our understanding of the underlying meanings and motives behind fabricated history.
This process is in evidence from the very dawn of modern alternative history movements—and even before, back at least to the time when the priests of Marduk rewrote the Mesopotamian creation myth to place the Babylon’s god in the center of events in place of Enlil, transforming and altering what had heretofore been the established history of creation. Make no mistake, this was an act of politics as much as religion.
In the eighteenth century and nineteenth century, the alternative theory of the lost white race of the Mound Builders, eventually canonized as Mormonism, emerged essentially as a political act, placing white American securely on the American continent by first providing justification for the suppression of Native American “interlopers” and by secondly providing a fictive “white” history of America independent from that of Britain. While today many prefer to ignore the political implications of the Mound Builder myth, they were not lost on U.S. government officials like Pres. Andrew Jackson, who discussed these political implications in a speech delivered to Congress, as well as future presidents William Henry Harrison and Abraham Lincoln, who both embraced the idea that ancient white tribes and/or biblical giants once roamed America, uniquely descending ancestral and divine blessings onto the Republic.
Such a relationship between politics and alternative history is relatively uncontroversial when sequestered deeply enough in the past that it no longer has a clear effect on modern political controversies.
This continued in the nineteenth century. Alexander Hislop’s painfully influential Two Babylons, which posited a millennia-old global pagan cult masquerading as the Catholic Church, was part of the anti-Catholic hysteria of nineteenth century politics, just as the anti-Freemason conspiracies originated in the political paranoia of the American and French Revolutionary eras.
Thomas Sinclair explicitly stated in 1892 that he advocated the alternative history claim that Henry Sinclair had discovered America in the 1300s because it could be used to create a less welcoming environment for Italian immigrants, whom he viewed as Latin interlopers using Columbus to justify the mongrelizing of Anglo-American white populations.
The father of Atlantis and lost civilization nonsense, Ignatius Donnelly, was a U.S. congressman and held several other government posts. His promotion of Atlantis as the true Aryan homeland during an age dominated by imperialism supported the politically-motivated idea that “Aryan” peoples once ruled the world and therefore had the political right to reign over the non-Aryan peoples again.
The Victorian British adopted the idea of lost white civilizations to help impose Britain’s imperium across the British Empire. Most directly, this took the form of denying that black Africans constructed Great Zimbabwe, and the idea of “white” construction of the site remained an officially-sanctioned government lie down to the end of white-ruled Rhodesia in 1980, a lie specifically designed to prevent black Africans from getting the idea that they had a powerful past that might contribute to a powerful future.
The Nazis promoted the most notorious version of these claims, advocating a lost Aryan homeland and sending archaeologists around the world to manufacture proof of it in order to justify German claims to lands across Europe and around the world, as well as to support the notion of Aryan racial superiority. I hope it is not controversial (except perhaps to Scott Wolter, who argued that at least one Nazi sympathizer did crackerjack research into white colonization of the Americas) to say that this distortion of history existed in service of ideology.
As we move forward in time, the political nature of alternative history starts to become more troublesome for many observers because these politics begin to directly impinge on political ideas and controversies that directly affect them. Somehow recent alternative history no longer has anything to do with politics or society and is now simply an “open-minded” way of looking at the truth. The facts, however, belie this.
We know that the United States government worked to create fake UFO sightings to mess with the Soviets, and the Soviet government actively and officially promoted the fiction of ancient astronauts for a time in a concerted effort to undermine Western religious beliefs. These Soviet propaganda efforts spilled over into the West, where leftist sympathizers adopted them. Foremost among them were Jacques Bergier (a Russian émigré) and Louis Pauwels, whose ur-text for the ancient astronaut movement and historical conspiracy theories, Morning of the Magicians, derived much of its ancient astronaut material from Soviet sources. At the time of writing, Pauwels and Bergier were actively promoting New Age counterculture socialism, though Pauwels eventually became a conservative, renewed his Catholic faith, and denounced Morning and its offshoots as “paganism.”
By contrast, Erich von Däniken has always been a political conservative and was unabashed in asserting that his ancient astronaut theory could be used as a tool to promote conservatism and defeat socialism. He wrote a letter to then-U.S. president Gerald Ford in 1976, which I obtained from the National Archives last year, in which he explained this in detail:
…Western Europe seems to be penetrated nowadays by leftist blockheads. The press of the countries surrounding my neutral native country Switzerland is dominated by socialist dreamers. The big masses do not realize the ins and outs of our today’s situation and are blindly falling to the big deception.
Von Däniken advocated manned space travel as the solution, and he hoped that ancient astronauts would help inspire the youth to embrace the West and reject communism. These feelings remained evident in his work down to the present. Recently, in Twilight of the Gods, von Däniken expressed contempt for a number of political views and policies associated with liberals, including women’s equality and climate change. In his view, the aliens serve as semi-divine enforcers of tradition, demanding that humans conform to a conservative agenda laid down in holy books or face nuclear annihilation and/or anal probing.
In Scott Wolter’s new book, Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers, he explicitly states that his interest in a global super-cult venerating the sacred feminine and living in harmony with the environment stems from his political beliefs in feminism, the dangers of overpopulation, and his concern that current government policies are leading to the depletion of natural resources. Therefore, by finding a super-society that had successfully solved these problems in the past, he could effect change in the present.
Most noticeably, fundamentalist creationists have married their revision of the historical record to a political agenda that stretches into areas beyond science. In a slightly different arena, Raël has not been shy about injecting the Raëlian ancient astronaut cult into everything from international relations to the debate over human cloning.
Now, obviously, not every hack with a book deal is explicitly trying to influence political debates or change government policies. In fact, many probably have never given a moment’s thought to the political origins or impact of the ideas they advocate. I’m fairly certain, for example, that David Childress doesn’t view his work as having any broader meaning beyond serving as a mass of entertaining secondhand anecdotes.
The point, however, is that it isn’t possible to simply divorce alternative history claims from the political contexts in which they emerge and participate.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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