This is the debut installment of the Righteous Gentile, a monthly column by Michael Moynihan.
Voters are routinely told by politicians that they should be wary of other politicians, those preternatural liars who want to abscond with your money and freedoms. It’s the electoral version of the Epimenides paradox: If all politicians are liars, and the person saying so is also a politician, then he too must be a liar. But there are different degrees of lying, or supposed lying. There are white lies, half-truths, and apparently—at least according to a significant number of pundits and politicians this presidential election—campaigns of out-and-out fascist deception.
If you are unfamiliar with this last category, recall the many recent claims that one politician or another is mimicking the tactics and techniques of Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, by employing the “Big Lie theory”: the more grand the lie, the more likely the credulous voters are to believe it. It’s a common charge these days—and one that unwittingly resuscitates one of the Nazis’ favorite anti-Semitic debating points. But more on that in a moment.
On Monday, the gruff and charmless chairman of the California Democratic Party, John Burton, made headlines when he became the latest party hack to invoke the “big lie,” when describing the allegedly fascist methods of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and his speechwriters: “They lie and they don’t care if people think they lie. [Like] Joseph Goebbels. It’s the ‘Big Lie,’ you keep repeating it.” A convention speech that many commentators thought deserved a rigorous fact check, apparently needed de-Nazification, according to Burton.
The following day, Pat Lehman, identified by the Wichita Eagle as the “dean of Kansas Democratic delegates,” spoke to a reporter from the floor of the Democratic National Convention and described Republicans in similar terms, while shifting attribution to a slightly more recognizable monster: “It’s like Hitler said, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie, and if you tell it often enough and say it in a loud enough voice, some people are going to believe you.”
Back in January, Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen decried Republican attacks on President Obama’s health-care legislation, saying his critics were advancing the “‘big lie’ just like Goebbels. You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it.” (Glenn Beck, annoyed that Cohen was competing in the illiterate historical comparison business, blasted the congressman—while invoking Mao, Hitler, and Stalin, and adding that “Nazi tactics are progressive tactics first.”)
The modest backlash against such rhetoric framed the debate as yet another example of the triumph of crudity in American political discourse. But while the squadron of fact-checkers parse the claims of the Obama and Romney campaigns, no one bothered to explore the origins of the “Big Lie” theory, which is regularly conjured on Twitter, blogs, talk radio, and cable news.
A little detective work reveals the Big Lie to be a rather big lie.
In fact, there is only a single reference to the “big lie” in Hitler’s collected writings and speeches—most contemporaneous usage capitalizes the phrase in order to underscore its Nazi ancestry—and it is this slight and unremarkable passage from Mein Kampf:
By branding [General Erich] Ludendorff as guilty for the loss of the World War they took the weapon of moral right from the one dangerous accuser who could have risen against the traitors to the fatherland. In this [the Jews] proceeded on the sound principle that the magnitude of a lie always contains a certain factor of credibility, since the great masses of the people in the very bottom of their hearts tend to be corrupted rather than consciously and purposely evil, and that, therefore, in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds they more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big.
Like most of the ponderous anti-Semitism found in Mein Kampf, this isn’t a terribly sophisticated or original point. It was a sinister cabal of Jews—those who controlled the German press and manipulated public opinion—that propagated a “big lie” about Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. In other words, it isn’t a recommended method of propaganda, but an accusation by the Nazis against German Jewry.
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.