The Consequences of a Lie

1 July 2010


François-Marie Arouet, 21 November 1694 to 30 May 1778, better known by the pen name Voltaire.

Voltaire famously said that we commit atrocities because we believe absurdities. He repeated this on several occasions to try to make the point stick. And when we hear this memorable quote from Voltaire we should recall that he lived before the age of atrocity made systematic and transformed into a weapon of war, as happened in the horrific twentieth century.

Voltaire was more right than he knew. Or, rather, I should say that he probably could not have guessed how projectable into the future his dictum would be. The form that believed absurdities largely take today, and which emerged in the aforementioned systematization of atrocity during the twentieth century, is what is now called the Big Lie (Große Lüge). It was Adolf Hitler himself who explicitly formulated the doctrine of the big lie:

…in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because 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.

Hitler’s infamous propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was faithful to his master’s vision (though a little less sophisticated in his understanding of mass man than Hitler himself), both elaborating the doctrine of the big lie and, perhaps more importantly, putting it into practice in a systematic fashion.

Liars Extraordinaire: Joseph Goebbels, Leni Reifenstahl, and Adolf Hitler.

Today when we think of atrocities and dictators propagating a big lie we tend to think of steaming third world jungles or states as spectacularly dysfunctional as North Korea or Burma, but we find both of these elements of the horrors of life during the era of industrialized nation-states disturbingly exemplified early in the twentieth century in Germany. While the First World War saw atrocities committed and lies told by many parties to the conflict, the Germans were particularly brutal in their reprisals against civilians in Belgium and their ability to control information on the home front was frighteningly effective.

The efficacy of German propaganda on the home front during the First World War was not without consequences. Not just at the end of the war, when German troops still fought on French soil as the Armistice was declared, but throughout the entire war the German public was not told of German defeats on the battlefield. Apparently, much of the German public believed this, perhaps wanted to believe this. When Germany lost the First Battle of the Marne, the German public didn’t hear about it (at least, they didn’t hear that it was a defeat and a retreat), although von Moltke was replaced along with many other German generals.

The belief of the German public that the German army remained undefeated in the field throughout the First World War is usually credited as playing a crucial role in what is today called the “stab-in-the-back legend.” If German troops had not been been defeated in the field, and still stood on French soil as the war ended, how did Germany lose the war? The answer provided by the stab-in-the-back legend was that Germany was betrayed on the home front by Jews, communists, socialists, and other undesirable elements of society. The popular success of the stab-in-the-back legend had much to do with Hitler’s rise to power, and therefore much to do with the definitive horror of the twentieth century, the Second World War.

Illustration of the 'Stab-in-the-Back' legend (German: Dolchstoßlegende) from an Austrian postcard, 1919 (Wikimedia Commons).

All of this is as much to say that lies have consequences, and sometimes lies can even have consequences all out of proportion to the lie itself and its intended consequences. I found myself thinking about this today in relation to what I wrote a couple of days ago in Google in China, Again. There I wrote that tyranny cannot last, and while we have no guarantee that the tyranny of the CPC will be replaced by anything better, we can know at least that it is not sustainable for the long term. What I failed to note at that time is the possibility of consequences following from the CPC’s depriving the Chinese people of knowledge of the world unmediated by government ideology and propaganda.

The seventy year tenure of the USSR, besides whatever crimes were committed by the regime, was also a seventy year blackout of information, and, worse, it represented accurate information replaced by flagrantly false propaganda. We have yet to see what the consequences will be of three generations of Russians deprived of knowledge. Similarly with the rule of the communists in China: the blackout of information about the outside world has lasted for generations, and the memory of what objective knowledge is like, unmediated by the whims of the state, fades with time.

It is not a coincidence that three of the most brutal tyrants of the twentieth century — Stalin, Hitler, and Mao — all emerge from regimes that compromised the knowledge of their subject peoples more than most political regimes. Indeed, one of the distinctive features of twentieth century tyranny was the harnessing of mass media and telecommunications — that is to say, taking advantage of the resources of industrialized society to shape and mobilize mass man — to construct a mendacious political reality on the basis of a big lie. Entire societies became expressions of a political lie, and these lies had profound consequences, and continue to have consequences throughout the world today.

It is impossible to predict the consequences of China’s lying, indoctrination, and propagandizing of its enormous population. Even when the CPC has joined other tyrannies in the dustbin of history, its legacy will live on in unpredictable ways. Mao said that you get power from the barrel of a gun, but passionately held beliefs are far more powerful than a gun, and can last longer.

The classic Socratic ethic holds that knowledge is virtue. The sinister mirror image of Socratic virtue is that the negation of knowledge is the negation of virtue. Is ignorance or misinformation (i.e., propaganda) the negation of knowledge? And is vice or amoral neutrality the negation of virtue? We can immediately see that there are four possible formulations of the negation of the Socratic thesis, but I would suggest that the Big Lie propagated among mass man by the mass media is both the negation of knowledge and the negation of virtue.

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