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”?That’s exactly the point we’re hoping to get across in this blog and it’s satisfying to see it used in ways that make the point to a broader audience.
There is one point at which Moynihan is a tad unclear. He writes in his penultimate paragraph:
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.I initially misread the first sentence as suggesting that the Nazis were not major users of falsehood, which seemed odd in the context of the essay — I think the quotation marks around “technique” threw me off. Mr. Moynihan dropped me a note explaining that his point was the the technique was hardly unique to the Nazis. That makes excellent sense, and is much more consistent with the flow of the essay than my original reading.
It’s also probably worth noting that leading Nazis believed their own propaganda. Much of what the Nazis said about Jews was false, but the only credible explanation for the enormous effort Hitler put into killing Europe’s Jews is that he really did believe that they were Germany’s great enemy in the world.
A central claim of Nazi propaganda was was that “world Jewry” intended to wipe out Germany both as a nation and as a people. This was a false claim (or else the alleged powerful forces of “World Jewry” were remarkably weak, since within ten years of total defeat West Germany was in the midst of the “economic miracle” that continues today). However, the common definition of “lie” assumes intent to deceive. A first-grader who writes on a test that “2 + 2 = 5” is wrong, but not a liar. I don’t mean to suggest that the falsehoods in Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda were equivalent to a first-grader’s addition error — there is moral culpability in spreading false information. One might argue, however, that although Nazi propaganda was often false, its makers did not always think that they were lying. In that sense, perhaps some Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda is less an example of the “big lie” than of the human tendency to see what one wants to see.