Joseph Goebbels, Nazi, Big Lie
Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, amplified Hitler’s lies. The people are different. The techniques stay the same. Photo credit: Georg Pahl / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE DEED)

Some of the political rhetoric in use today bears an uncanny resemblance to the kind of incitement that ultimately led to World War II.

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It’s an old maxim that ignorance of history condemns you to repeat the disastrous errors of the past. This year will mark the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings on D-Day, when some 73,000 American GIs were part of a combined Allied force of 160,000 men landing in Normandy, France, in a desperate gamble to liberate Europe and put an end to World War II. Anyone who was there and is still alive most likely is approaching his hundredth birthday around now. 

The “Greatest Generation” deserves our gratitude, but the history we really need to remember concerns the decades that preceded 1944 and made World War II an inevitability. It was a period that Irish poet William Butler Yeats described in his poem “The Second Coming” as sliding into chaos: “the centre cannot hold.” 

Today, much of the world is again asking itself whether democracy is really the system of government they want. The notion articulated by Abraham Lincoln that there should be a “government by the people and for the people” is under attack, even in the United States. A significant number of people would prefer “government for some of the people, to be decided by the right people.” 

America’s traditional role as a de facto experiment in the ideas of the Enlightenment is under attack. These days, America is beginning to look pretty much like everywhere else, if not measurably worse. 

Before we slide down this slippery slope, it might be worth taking a second look at how similar disputes in the 1920s and 1930s took the entire planet to the brink of total destruction. 

Adolf Hitler is generally blamed for the madness of World War II, but the “Fuehrer” (the Leader), as he liked to call himself, merely nudged German society in a direction it was already predisposed to follow. In the process, Hitler perfected two rhetorical tricks. The first came to be known as the “Big Lie,” a massive falsehood repeated so often that the public came to believe it. 

The second, more banal tactic consisted of using incendiary rhetoric to incite prejudices that were already lurking below the surface in the public unconscious. Hitler inflamed these underlying prejudices to create an alien presence in the public mind. The aliens, Hitler suggested, wanted nothing less than to rape your women, corrupt your children, and spread general mayhem throughout society.

Hitler crafted his Big Lie in Mein Kampf (My Struggle), his litany of complaints against established German society. His argument in the book is that Germany could not have been militarily defeated in World War I. Its surrender had to have been a betrayal by a conspiracy of Marxist Jewish traitors and liberal intellectuals. 

Hitler called his imagined conspiracy the Big Lie. Today most historians agree that the real Big Lie was Hitler’s false interpretation of what had happened. Germany’s defeat in fact resulted from miscalculations, disastrous risk-taking, and general indecision on the part of the last German emperor and king of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Germany found itself stalemated in endless trench warfare, running out of both men and ammunition and facing exhaustion. The end came after America finally tipped the balance in favor of the Allies. There had never been a conspiracy; Germany simply lacked the manpower and resources to overcome the combined Allied Powers. 

Hitler’s denial of Germany’s defeat looks absurd to anyone with even the slightest notion of what really happened; but, instead of facing reality, Hitler doubled down on his interpretation. It didn’t matter whether it made sense; it was what he wanted to believe. In the end, he came to realize that if the lie is big enough and repeated often enough, the truth doesn’t really matter: A public that, in any case, is only half paying attention will believe almost anything as long as you keep repeating it over and over from the right kind of pulpit. 

Given the choice between admitting the shame of defeat or blaming that defeat on someone else, most Germans preferred Hitler’s version. There was no longer any need to express shame over Germany’s decline; the real responsibility belonged to someone else

As Hitler’s Nazi movement progressed, his inner clique perfected its communication tactics. Hitler’s public relations adviser, Joseph Goebbels, is often credited with observing that all that is needed to kill a democracy is a lie that is big enough.

It’s an established principle in psychology that the easiest way to unify and mobilize a group is to threaten them with an outside enemy. The tactic works almost every time, even when, as in most cases, the threat is only imagined. 

For Hitler, if you were Jewish you were the ideal target for a bout of public cathartic vengeance fueled by jealousy and anger. Although Germany had some of the brightest minds in Europe, the average German, the common man in the street, was not that well educated and he was most likely under constant stress from a dismal and volatile economy that promised an even more dismal future. Most were only too ready to buy into the fantasy. 

To mobilize the public behind his vision, Hitler needed to find a minority that was visibly different from the masses. In the end, Hitler felt as ill-disposed to the Roma and Germany’s gay population as he did to Jews — the problem was that neither the Roma nor Germany’s out-of-the-closet gay men were a big or influential enough minority to attract public attention. 

In contrast, Germany’s Jews were an important presence in German society. For the most part, they were highly educated, intellectually gifted, and in some cases lucky enough to be wealthy. These were all qualities that could be used to inspire jealousy in the heart of almost any dissatisfied German who felt abandoned by the state and society as a whole. The fact that many wealthy Jews considered themselves German aristocrats and held important roles in the German establishment was even better. Hitler was determined to destroy the German establishment. They represented his “Deep State.” 

It soon became apparent that quite a few ordinary Germans in the limping Weimar Republic were more than ready to go along with Hitler’s “fiction,” as evidenced by the impressive size of the massive crowds at Hitler’s infamous 1934 Nuremberg rally. The German public had clearly drunk Hitler’s Kool-Aid. 

As Hitler’s Nazi movement progressed, his inner clique perfected its communication tactics. Hitler’s public relations adviser, Joseph Goebbels, is often credited with observing that all that is needed to kill a democracy is a lie that is big enough. There is no proof that Goebbels ever actually said that, but it certainly captures the strategy that he put into practice. 

A psychological profile of Hitler commissioned by the US Army’s OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the predecessor of today’s CIA, notes that the success of the Big Lie depended on the perpetrator constantly doubling down on the original falsehood, even if at times to do so seemed absurd. An equally important tactic was to tell so many lies in rapid succession that the public had no hope of keeping anything straight. 

The OSS study also quotes Hitler’s confidant Kurt Ludecke on the approach. As Ludecke explained it: 

[Hitler’s] primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off. Never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it. 

Other Hitler observers noted in the OSS study that Hitler’s greatest gift may have been his ability to sense the mood of the crowd and to play to their emotions. 

All of that is a lot to take in. Still, looking at the world situation today, and even at some of the recent thinking in the United States, it’s hard not to have a sensation of déjà vu. 

Donald Trump, Phoenix, AZ, 2020

Ex-president Trump speaking at a “Keep America Great” rally at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, February 19, 2020. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

It’s even harder to think of Hitler’s Big Lie and not think of Donald Trump’s doubling down on his insistence that he did not really lose the 2020 election, even though Joe Biden beat him by at least 7 million popular votes and no fewer than 74 electoral votes.

The one thing Trump doesn’t do is to engage in Hitler’s antisemitism. He doesn’t have to. He has undocumented immigrants, Central American refugees, liberal intellectuals, and (ironically) “coastal elites,” not to mention just about anyone with dark skin, to get worked up about. 

Just listen to Trump’s speech last Veterans Day

We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections. 

Or in Cedar Rapids, IA, last October:

These people are very aggressive: They drink, they have drugs, a lot of things happening. 

And in Waco, TX:

With you at my side, we will totally obliterate the deep state, we will banish the warmongers from our government, we will drive out the globalists, and we will cast out the communists and Marxists, we will throw off the corrupt political class, we will beat the Democrats, we will rout the fake news media, we will stand up to the RINOs, and we will defeat Joe Biden and every single Democrat.

The target has changed. The rhetoric hasn’t. Nor has the strategy.

Trump’s language often sounds coarse and uneducated, but he does have a gift that was often attributed to Hitler. That is an uncanny ability to sense the temper of and resonate with a crowd, essentially to be on the same wavelength. Trump may not be able to speak English correctly, but he can sway an enthusiastic mob and convince it to follow his direction. For that, correct English and any hint of nuance would only get it in the way.

We often forget that Hitler was democratically elected to the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, in 1932. He was appointed chancellor of the Weimar Republic in 1933. On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag was burned to the ground. Hitler blamed Communists for what was very likely an act of arson by the Nazis themselves. 

It didn’t really matter who had set the fire. After it, both the Weimar Republic and any pretense at democracy ended in Germany. Politics, the press, and meetings in general were forbidden, and Germany was set on the path to a war that would eventually reduce it and much of Europe to ashes. It took Hitler just 10 years to transform Germany from one of the leading countries in Europe into a pariah. 

The situation in the United States today is obviously very different from the one that Weimar Germany faced in the early 1920s and 1930s. The US is economically much more powerful. The population is better educated, and American institutions are much stronger than their German equivalents were in a country still suffering from reparations imposed after World War I. 

Nevertheless, Trump managed to incite the January 6 attack against the US Capitol, which was clearly an attempt to use violence to overthrow a legitimate election by fomenting insurrection. Unlike the Reichstag fire and Hitler’s seizure of power, the attack on the Capitol and the attempt to nullify the 2020 election failed. 

That said, history is a warning. The world has been here before. Then, Hitler’s hate-filled Nazi followers were defeated. The next time, we might not be so lucky. 


  • William Dowell

    William Dowell is WhoWhatWhy's editor for international coverage. He previously worked for NBC and ABC News in Paris before signing on as a staff correspondent for TIME Magazine based in Cairo, Egypt. He has reported from five continents--most notably the War in Vietnam, The Revolution in Iran, the Civil War in Beirut, Operation Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. He also taught a seminar on the Literature of Journalism at New York University.

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