The Big Lie

If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie, and tell it often. People will believe you.

Joseph Goebbels

The above quote is something I learned many years ago as part of my History course. It is in fact the only quote I remember from those days of writing history essays and the need to include relevant quotes in exams. It tells of how the Germans used the propaganda technique of the “big lie” to deceive the German people. It is also, coincidentally, a lie in itself.

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

Joseph Goebbels

The above quote is the proper version of the quote, but it too is a big lie. There is no evidence – no primary source – to suggest he ever said it though the internet clearly believes he does, with many websites attributing the above to Goebbels.1Fabricated Nazi Quotations

In this they [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 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. Such a falsehood will never enter their heads, and they will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others.…

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

Here we have the true source of the big lie theory supposedly espoused by Goebbels. A quote from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in which he accuses his enemies of using “big lies” to deceive the masses – thus claiming that his version of events was the truth.

In truth, Goebbels was an advocate of using the truth to manipulate people. And certainly never to admitting that any lies he used were actually lies. It would rather defeat the point of things if the Minister of Propaganda admitted he was lying, wouldn’t it? As seen in this 1941 article, Goebbels accuses Churchill of using Big Lie tactics while advocating for bringing forth facts.

The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it.

Joseph Goebbels, Churchill’s Lie Factory

Something I have heard on this topic but have been unable to source a citation for is that the attribution of the Big Lie quote to Goebbels actually comes from British propaganda used to try and discredit Goebbels. This explanation makes far more sense to me, but I am unable to verify it due to a lack of a primary source for the information.

There is of course another question to be answered: why am I talking about this at all? The answer is that I don’t really know. The history of Germany between 1919 and 1945 is one of my true areas of historical academic study and it’s always been an interesting period to me. I have known for some time that the Big Lie quote was not in fact Goebbels and perhaps it has been bothering me enough that I wanted to research it and see what I could find out. Mostly I have found out that the quote I memorised was inaccurate as well as being misattributed.

In fact, there are a lot of quotes misattributed to Nazis, and new quotes being attributed to them even now. History is written by the victors, and with the thorough vilification of the Nazis comes the opportunity to smear their reputations with falsehoods decades later.

It should be said, since this is the internet, that this post contains no endorsement of Nazis or any other similar group. My interest is purely scholarly. But it is very interesting to watch current affairs and see them through the lens of history. To see echoes of Kristallnacht in the assault on the Capitol; to see the same tactics used by the Nazis to generate popular support used by Trump’s fanatics and Brexit’s advocates. So much of what made the Nazis successful was creating a feeling of “us versus them”, of giving the German people someone to blame for their problems and promising that everything would be better once they’d taken over.

Brexiteers blamed all of Britain’s problems on the EU and promised that once we left, we’d be an unparalleled success – no longer held back by the stagnant EU which suppressed our market forces and our rights. Instead, we have suffered horrendous losses in essentially every field as EU funding disappeared, EU workers abandoned the UK, and external trade became subject to massive taxation.

Trump blamed immigrants, the Middle East, Islam, Liberals, and anyone else who he saw as a target for America’s problems. He used the cry of “fake news!” to convince people not to trust the media while he himself twisted the narrative. Seizing on that desire to have a concrete cause of blame and a way to fix things, people fell in behind him. It has taken four years, two impeachments, and a coup attempt to oust him from office and it will take a lot longer for America to heal.

What is my point? Perhaps we should remember that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it;2“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana, [source] that in an age of unparalleled access to information, the key skills required of us are critical thinking and fact-checking; that it is never to late to question what you know and verify your sources – even on something you’ve known for more than half your life.

How to spot fake news (from IFLA)

Further reading

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