Monday, February 28, 2011

Lessons from Hitler and Goebbels

Reposted from my post at the Pragmatic Progressive; 3 in my series on truth.

3. Taking a Propaganda Lesson from Hitler and Goebbels

At the end of my article “Snip & Snails and Puppy Dog Tales” about Frick & Frack and their absurd lies, I said I wanted to look next at why people believe such s**t.
Social psychologists and behaviorists have produced extensive credible research showing why people believe what they believe but none of their studies resonate with me as much as what we’ve learned from Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. Hitler understood why the best lies are the biggest lies and he explained it brilliantly in Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Goebbels expanded on Hitler’s understanding about why people believe the most absurd lies and incorporated Hitler’s theory into his own expanded theories about propaganda.

Hitler, unable to accept the bankruptcy of Germany’s war aims, that its leaders were fallible and even foolish, or the possibility that Germany wasn’t the equal of or better than the victors, looked elsewhere to explain Germany’s defeat in The Great World War (WWI). He found his answer in the Jews and Marxists but reserved his greatest vitriol for the Jews whom, he claimed, were responsible for the creation and circulation of a lie that said German Army officer Erich Ludendorff and his General Staff were responsible for Germany’s defeat. Hitler called this alleged lie (which he felt was truly heinous) the Grosse Lüge (Big Lie) and in his infamous work, Mein Kampf, he raged about his belief in the perpetual perfidy of the Jews and then explained why their Big Lie was so effective:

…in the big lie…the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

Reading this now I’m struck by Hitler’s understanding that even if a lie is called out as such that it “always leaves traces behind it.” Hitler understood lies leave damaging residue. Even if you have to recall it and are called out as a liar, the lie has served its purpose.

The Big Lie and its equally infamous twin the “stabbed in the back” theory were thoroughly embraced by soldiers and civilians unable to accept the bitter truths about why Germany lost the war. The Draconian reparations imposed on Germany by the Versailles Peace Treaties added to Germany’s sense of victimization. Germany’s humiliation was so total, so unexpected and so seemingly sudden that the only way a defeated people who had been led to expect total victory could make sense of what happened was to conceptualize defeat as a vast conspiratorial sell-out. The people extolled their military leaders and the superiority of their Army and the possibility of their legitimate defeat was simply not congruent with those cherished beliefs. Blaming the Jews, the quintessential scapegoats in history, was an emotionally comfortable thought; it played on centuries of social, cultural, and religious prejudices.

Hitler’s brilliant and demonic propagandist, Goebbels, turned the Grosse Lüge into an art form. Goebbels knew how to kick it up a notch and said: 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.

The Big Lie is one thing and propaganda another, although the two often go hand in hand.

The Big Lie is a brazen fabrication that works exactly because it is so enormously preposterous that no one can believe it could actually have been fabricated. The absurdity of the lie serves as the engine that drives it forward; the more absurd, the more the lie is empowered. The Third Reich orchestrated brilliant and disastrous campaigns against Jews, homosexuals, socialists, intellectuals, gypsies, and others, and never balked at throwing out the most preposterous lies as justifications to attack other countries. Big Lies must fall on fertile ground in order to take root and grow – and this can’t be overstated. The belief that the Jews sold out Germany in WWI was a total fabrication; it had no basis in fact but it was a very successful falsehood because it meshed perfectly with existing core beliefs. Big Lies feed on pre-existing belief systems.

Propaganda is more often anchored to reality; it manipulates and exaggerates the reality but it nonetheless is connected to that reality. An example is the reality of a war. The German people certainly knew they were at war but propaganda distorted that reality. It lied about the reasons Germany was at war and to keep the people committed it demonized the opposition, sanctified the German position, and maintained a distorted level of fear about what would happen if the German people quit fighting.

During World War II Goebbels developed nineteen very sophisticated principals about how to wage a successful wartime propaganda campaign against the enemy as well as how to wage it at home in order to control and manipulate the German people.

Items 14, 16 and 18 speak to the basics about any form of fraudulent manipulation:

14. Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans; (a) they must evoke desired responses which the audience previously possesses; (b) they must be capable of being easily learned; (c) they must be utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations; and (d) they must be boomerang-proof.
16. Propaganda to the home front must create an optimum anxiety level.
18. Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.

All countries have used propaganda in wartime and the United States is no exception. Unless you hold that truth telling trumps all other virtues, it would be hard to argue that propaganda is always a very unethical and immoral form of communication or social control. I would want to weigh the reasons for the propaganda against the possible harms and outcomes with or without its use before I condemned outright the merit of its application.

When faced with many of the Big Lies that are so pervasive in American culture it is convenient to blame the Dumbing Down Effect but that is probably the least reason for their tenacious endurance.

My take on why so many Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim or a socialist or not even an American citizen has moved from a cynical belief in an overwhelming and pervasive cultural stupidity to a belief in the underlying human psychology that allows Big Lies to become so enduring. That psychology, as Hitler and Goebbels understood, rests on the fact that all Big Lies and successful propaganda must be compatible with other deep seated beliefs.

I’m fairly certain I understand the character of the people in America who create the Big Lies of our day; their agenda and lack of integrity seem clear. They don’t even bother me anymore (which is not to say I don’t want to expose them and end their war on truth and democracy). What concerns me more is the character of the millions who accept these Big Lies and embrace them as absolute truth.

What these millions of people tell me about the American character in this day and age is very scary indeed.

Next: Is it possible to change deep seated beliefs that are flawed?


  1. It is puzzling (at least to me) how people can believe such lies. I think there are multiple answers.

    1. The Media: Our media has dumbed itself down so much in the last 15 years (with split screens, bullet points, and commentary that passes for news - not to mention a complete disregard for fact checking), that it gives people an excuse to believe the lie ("well I heard this lady on Fox News say Obama is a muslim so it's got to be true."

    2. Older people are using the internet more and more (which is great) but it's like the gullibility factor for some of these people is outrageous... both of my grandmothers believe everything they get in a chain letter like it's written in an encyclopedia somewhere. I think this has spread a lot of lies (and that's why less young people believe Obama is a muslim or the anti-Christ than older generations.

    3. People see Clinton & now Obama as someone who has the potential to REALLY change things - and (if they don't want to go in this direction) this scares them completely. I've never seen Republicans so glum as they were in 2008. And insanity soon followed their depression.

    4. The Internet has made the wackos more brave. It's easier to tell lies (and bully) when you are behind a computer screen. I always think the same way with Rush Limbaugh - If people saw him drooling like a rabid animal when he's screaming racist idiotic ideas into a microphone - they would realize he has about as much credibility as a homeless person who stands at the street corner and tells everyone the world is ending.

  2. I recently spent skads of time researching some stuff relating to WWII, so your connections here just kept making me nod my head. Have you heard of these folks?

    I thought of them when I read this bit above:

    "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."

  3. a lie is a lie whether big or small. We say in our country "escaped lie never reaches truth!"