Hitler on the Campaign Trail
Republican and Democratic politicians are reviving a favorite Nazi debating point this election season
Nevertheless, providing historical context for the recent spate of “big lie” accusations, the Associated Press told readers that “Nazi leader Adolf Hitler believed the ‘big lie’ had a greater chance of being believed.” Well, not exactly. Hitler believed that the Jews believed the “big lie” had a greater chance of being believed.
Nor can the reference be attributed the to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, whose only reference to a “big lie” comes in a 1941 speech attacking Winston Churchill: “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” This is only at slight variance with the Hitler citation, as Goebbels’ ministry routinely argued that the English government and media were manipulated by Jewish power.
As historian Randall Bytwerk, an expert in German propaganda, observes in his brilliant excavation of the “big lie” myth, “only an incompetent propagandist warns his audience” that he will embark on a massive campaign of manipulation and lying. Bytwerk, who tracks the proliferation of the bogus Goebbels quote on his blog, explains that while it is “widely believe[d] that the Nazis brazenly proclaimed their duplicity, they in fact proclaimed the opposite” in their propaganda.
Indeed, the Nazi film industry, obsessively micromanaged by the propaganda minister, who saw cinema as the most important medium for political communication, largely avoided Leni Riefenstahl-like propaganda in favor of treacly melodramas, historical epics, and lighthearted comedies. (Direct and sustained attacks on Jews were actually quite rare in German cinema, with the notorious productions Der Ewige Jude, Die Rothschilds, and Jud Süß the exceptions.)
While fascism is a major political force almost nowhere, it is inaccurately referenced everywhere. The “Big Lie” myth is bipartisan, popular with excitable representatives of both political parties and all ideologies: Sen. Chuck Grassley, Rush Limbaugh, Joe Scarborough, and Chris Matthews have all accused their enemies of planning to lie loud and lie often—just like the Nazis. And the fear of impending American fascism, a charge made most recently by Rep. Ron Paul during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, are distressingly common. Even the recent kerfuffle over an anti-Obama cover story in Newsweek led one Huffington Post blogger to dismiss the author, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, as a “British fascist.”
If an American politician playing fast-and-loose with the facts is indistinguishable from an editorialist for Der Stürmer, than how does one distinguish between Paul Ryan and Heinrich Himmler? If Niall Ferguson is a “British fascist,” what would one call Lord Haw-Haw, Oswald Mosley, or the bald-headed street brawlers of the British National Party? “Rather severe British fascists”?
Slate’s Dave Weigel argues that “the idea of the ‘big lie’ is useful, and it’s odd to think that its users literally think their foes are like the Nazis.” But sustained lying in politics predates fascism, wasn’t deployed in any unique way by fascists, and, as Weigel acknowledges, wasn’t an acknowledged fascist propaganda technique. So, why the constant invocation of Nazism instead of, say, Stalinism?
Beyond the ugliness of comparing a political opponent to genocidal racists, and the anti-Semitic etymology of the phrase, the less-remarked-upon problem is that such arguments pervert and simplify the historical record. In defending himself, Cohen, the Tennessee congressman, argued that he actually said, “Goebbels lied about the Jews, and that led to the Holocaust.”
This statement reinforces the long-debunked view of a hypnotist Führer, repeating the catechism of anti-Semitism, and convincing a pliant nation to commit genocide. By flatly stating that it was Goebbels’ “big lies” that led to the Holocaust, Cohen minimizes the breadth and depth of anti-Jewish feeling prevalent in prewar Germany.
The “big lie” wasn’t a Nazi propaganda “technique.” It wasn’t “invented” or “pioneered” by either Hitler or Goebbels. Nor was it the backbone of an anti-Semitic media strategy that precipitated the Holocaust.
If the ubiquitous and industrious fact-checkers bothered to check the claim, they would have gotten a two-for-one: the irony of supposedly truth-seeking politicians perpetuating a historical myth, and the satisfaction in helping rid the Internet of junk history. And perhaps most important, preventing a uniquely evil regime from being banalized by wildly inaccurate historical analogy.
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