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Sept. 11 Conspiracy Theories Get Hearing in Germany

"Distrust of U.S. Fuels Stories About Source of the Attacks"

Ian Johnson, Wall Street Journal

Munich, Germany -- Andreas von Bulow's book has climbed the
German bestseller list, his lectures are jammed and, after
two years of mounting frustration, his ideas are gaining

His thesis: The U.S. government staged the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks on New York and Washington to justify wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a tentative theory, he admits,
based mostly on his doubt that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda
terrorist group launched the attacks. "That's something
that is simply 99% false," he said at a reading of his book
on the second anniversary of the attacks.A crackpot? A conspiracy theorist who believes that Elvis
lives and the CIA murdered Kennedy? Not exactly. Mr. von
Bulow, 66 years old, is a former German cabinet minister, a
trim, silver-haired man whose book comes from one of the
country's most prestigious publishing houses and who
lectures at well-known public institutions. He's not alone:
In recent months, Germany's leading broadcaster, ARD, ran a
purported documentary making similar claims, while half a
dozen other German authors have published like-minded

"If we are being asked to participate in a new world war
that's going to last years, then I expect that the cause of
[the Sept. 11 attacks] be explained in the minutest
detail," Mr. von Bulow told a crowd of 500 at the reading
at Munich's Literaturhaus, which often hosts famous
authors. "What we have received is a joke. I've just put
together the things that don't match up."

Conspiracy theories have long been part of the discourse in
some parts of the globe, especially in places where a
muzzled press and political repression warp public debate.
Wild conjectures have also flourished on the perimeter of
Western societies, with mini-industries devoted to plots
alleged to have surrounded certain events. But over the
past two years, improbable theories about the Sept. 11
attacks have attracted serious attention in some Western
countries, often in direct proportion to the sinking
credibility given to the U.S. and its motives in
international affairs.

In Britain, cabinet minister Michael Meacher, who resigned
from office this month, published a blistering attack in
the Guardian newspaper, implying that Washington was
involved in the attacks to justify a more-interventionist
foreign policy. In France, Italy and Spain, authors have
hit the bestseller charts over the past year by claiming
that the U.S. is hiding the truth about 9/11.

In most European countries, conspiracy theories have
remained the domain of a fringe minority, with even
bestsellers vanishing from the public forum after a brief
flash in the limelight. In Germany, however, the theories
have had legs, and over the past few months, wave after
wave of improbable and outrageous assertions have received
serious hearings. A recent public-opinion poll, by forsa,
one of Germany's leading polling organizations, found that
one in five Germans believes "the U.S. government ordered
the attacks itself."

The credibility given these theories has become so
pronounced that the country's leading newsmagazine, Der
Spiegel, ran a cover story earlier this month, giving a
point-by-point rebuttal to the most widely spread myths.
Among them: that Jewish people stayed out of the World
Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, because they had been
tipped off. ARD had to backtrack on its alleged
documentary, later identifying the program's producer as a
proponent of conspiracy theories whose ideas weren't
accepted by experts. A leading newspaper, the Suddeutsche
Zeitung in Munich, published a lengthy piece this month
called "Fools of Fear," ridiculing the ideas.

"I got more than 300 e-mails -- mostly hate e-mails --
after writing the article," said Hans Leyendecker, who
wrote the piece. Conspiracy theorists, he says, are "having
so much success. We had to do something to counteract it."

The spread of such theories about Sept. 11 is especially
striking because Germans have long been among the most
pro-American societies in continental Europe. While
countries such as France have a tradition of skepticism of
the U.S., Germans have generally approved of U.S.
leadership in the world, according to public surveys.

But over the past year, German opinion has turned,
according to two independent foreign-policy organizations,
the German Marshall Fund and the Chicago Council on Foreign
Relations. In an annual study released earlier this month,
the organizations reported 45% of Germans think the U.S.
ought to have the leading role in the world, down from 68%
the year before. During the same period, support for the
Bush administration's foreign policy also fell, to 16% from

The shift may be due in part to an administration in
Washington that is unpopular in Germany -- declarations
after the attacks that the world was either with the U.S.
or against it struck some here as polarizing and arrogant.
So, too, did U.S. charges that Germans hadn't done enough
to hunt down the alleged 9/11 attackers, some of whom had
lived in Germany. But home-grown factors also seem to be at
work. Since the reunification of East and West Germany 13
years ago, many Germans no longer want to follow the U.S.
lead in world affairs.

The war in Iraq was a turning point. Right after the Sept.
11 attacks, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pledged
"unlimited solidarity" with the U.S. and sent German troops
to help out in Afghanistan. But when success in Afghanistan
was followed quickly by U.S. plans to confront Iraq,
Germans had second thoughts.

"Somewhere between Kabul and Baghdad, we lost each other,"
said Ron Asmus, a senior fellow of the German Marshall
Fund. "At the end of the day, we didn't just disagree on
the policy but on the facts of what happened, and from that
there was a jump to the conspiracy theories."

Recently, there have been efforts to patch up relations.
President Bush met with Chancellor Schroeder last week and
the two sides have pledged to work together to rebuild
Iraq. But lurking beneath the diplomatic bonhomie is a
suspicion in Europe's most-populous country that the U.S.
is no longer the indispensable diplomatic partner it has
been for the past half century.

Most of the conspiracy theories go far beyond a critique of
Washington's preparedness before the attacks and its
reaction afterward. Among the more startling ideas that are
fit for discussion in Germany are: No planes crashed in
Pennsylvania or the Pentagon; detonations, not plane
crashes, caused the World Trade Center to collapse; and
U.S. intelligence, if it didn't outright plan the attacks,
at least knew about them before they happened and decided
to do nothing. Conspiracy theorists contend the motive for
all this could have been to persuade isolationist Americans
to intervene in world affairs -- just as they contend
President Franklin Roosevelt used the Pearl Harbor attacks
in 1941 to persuade Americans to enter World War II.

Few have profited more from Germans' changing view of the
U.S. than Mr. von Bulow. From 1976 to 1980, he was one of
the top officials in the West German defense department. In
the 1980s, the Social Democrat served as minister for
science and technology under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. In
1994, when he retired from parliament after 25 years of
service, he was the longest-serving member of parliament
from his state.

Mr. von Bulow then began writing, on such issues as the
role of intelligence in the Cold War. After Sept. 11, he
had doubts, he says, about the source of the attacks.
"Muslims wouldn't do this because they would know that it
would hurt the Muslim world," he says.

For a year, he says, he gathered information, taking most
of it from Internet sites. His book contains many of the
same ideas found in a bestseller from France last year
called "The Big Lie." This summer, just as German outrage
over the war in Iraq was starting to boil, Mr. von Bulow
came out with his book, "The CIA and the 11th of September,
International Terror and the Role of the Secret Services."
It has sold more than 90,000 copies, hitting No. 3 on Der
Spiegel's nonfiction bestseller list last week.

Like most skeptics, Mr. von Bulow is careful to phrase his
ideas in the subjunctive. "Could haves" and "might haves"
are sprinkled liberally throughout his book. But he is
among those who question whether planes crashed into the
Pentagon or Pennsylvania and suggests that they might have
been staged to whip up popular outrage. He implies that the
alleged hijackers who were on those planes could still be

When asked directly about the matter, he declined to
elaborate on or explain his theory. "I simply listed in my
book many questions," he says, during an interview at his
home in a leafy suburb of Bonn.

It's a line repeated by others. "We are fighting a war on
the basis of this attack, so we should get some answers,"
says Gerhard Wisnewski, a freelance TV producer, who made
"Unsolved Case 9.11," which appeared on ARD, a publicly run
German broadcaster. In a subsequent broadcast shown on the
same network, Mr. Wisnewski was presented as a proponent of
conspiracy theories.

"We don't claim to know what happened," says Ekkehard
Sieker, producer of another program alleging U.S.
manipulation of 9/11 facts, which ran on "Monitor," one of
Germany's leading television news shows. "But we demand
that those who claim to know answer these questions.
Otherwise, we can't believe them."

The well-known institutions that have given the conspiracy
theorists a forum say they did so in the spirit of open
discussion. The prestigious Piper Verlag in Munich, which
published Mr. von Bulow's book, said in a statement: "The
public interest and the debates justifies the questions and
opinions of the author. They are a contribution to the
democratic process of forming opinions."

Likewise, a spokeswoman for the television network that
produced the program that ran on ARD said: "We should have
the courage to bring controversial theses to the public and
to discussion."

Another profiteer of the conspiracy theories has been
Zweitausendeins, a book chain and publisher that has a
knack for latching onto hot topics. The company devoted
several pages at the front of its recent catalogue to books
and videos questioning the source of the 9/11 attacks. It
even published some books itself. "Our publisher stands
behind the content, or else he wouldn't have published it,"
a spokeswoman says.

At Mr. von Bulow's reading at Munich's Literaturhaus, not
all those in the audience agreed with, or were familiar
with, his specific charges. He seemed to win favor with his
more-general claim that the U.S., once a model for postwar
Europe, has become an unreliable state, from which Germans
had best keep their distance.

"We Europeans shouldn't be arrogant. Each one of our
countries has in the past tried to be the dominant world
power," Mr. von Bulow said to murmurings of approval. "But
I don't want to be dragged into another world war, one that
will last for years and years."

In conversations with a dozen visitors, one woman said she
found Mr. Bulow's theories bunk, while others said they
found them plausible.

"I can't believe all of it," said Daniel Feifal, a
24-year-old architecture student. "That would destroy my
belief in humanity. But that they knew about the attacks
and let them happen because it could further their
foreign-policy aims, yes, I'm prepared to believe that."

--Special correspondent Almut Schoenfeld in Berlin
contributed to this article.

Write to Ian Johnson at ian.johnson@wsj.com