It was Adolf Hitler who, in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, first conceived the idea of the Big Lie, one so colossal that no one would believe its author “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”.
Actually, it’s one of those pub quiz questions: Hitler first coined it, but it was his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who extended the theory and made it famous as the Nazis conducted the Holocaust, commemorated worldwide this week.
The mass murder of six million Jews, requiring the creation of death factories to achieve it, was something so immensely inhuman that no one could believe it. Early reaction to suggestions that extermination was happening on such a scale did the Allies little credit: some quickly denounced the reports as Jewish scaremongering.
The recent BBC dramatisation of the 1962 trial and conviction of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Hitler’s Final Solution (The Eichmann Show), showed how Holocaust survivors needed to see their testimony viewed on global television: the truth was so shocking, even their fellow citizens in newly-created Israel hadn’t fully believed it.
Lies underpin propaganda. As an enquiry gets under way into the 2006 assassination in London of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, the guilt of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin might at last be established. Putin denies it. He would do.
Ever since his invasion and annexation of sections of Ukraine, he’s been spinning stories and fabrications. The latest, laughable here but potent for him at home, suggests NATO forces are fighting alongside the Ukrainian army.
The rhetoric is powerful. The old Western enemy is accused of using the conflict as an excuse to attack Russia: he postures as protector of the Motherland and Crimea’s Russian-speaking inhabitants.
Big Lies feed on paranoia.
We see them close to home. Most of Ukip’s alleged facts and figures about immigration are false, yet their constant repetition builds credence among the ill-informed.
A fascinating pair of maps has been circulating on Twitter recently. One shows the areas of strongest support for Ukip: the other indicates areas of relative density of immigration in the UK. The contrast is stark: Ukip support is strongest where there is least immigration. Of course it is! Hitler wasn’t the first, and Ukip won’t be the last, to build support on fear, not reality. Find a threat, identify a foe (the enemy within, the enemy at your gate, whatever) demonise it, and rally people behind you: just don’t let any inconvenient truths get in the way.
Ukip party secretary Matthew Richardson, brought in to put an end to Ukip media gaffes, said: “People talk about Ukip being bigots: but there are hundreds of thousands of bigots in the United Kingdom, and they deserve representation.” At least he was honest, I guess.
Barefaced lies are intrinsic to political wrangling. At the centre of Labour’s election campaign is an insistence that the Tories are “systematically dismantling” the NHS.
That claim’s transparently untrue: nonetheless neither this government nor its predecessor can take pride in the mess they’ve made of that vital yet hugely expensive central service. Sadly, such tit-for-tat arguments form the bread-and-butter of modern politics.
The vilification of minorities, the would-be isolation of this country from Europe, suspicion and hatred of those outside: those are based on really Big Lies, and dangerous ones.
Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us how unwilling we are to take note of history. The term “ethnic cleansing” wasn’t used in Hitler’s day. The tactic was, though, and has been employed regularly over the past few decades: in the former Yugoslavia; in Islamic State’s murder of those of other faiths, denominations or races in territories they’ve captured; in Boko Haram’s massacres across Africa.
Humanity really doesn’t learn.
There’s no better time than now: even in mundane domestic politics, we should renounce Big Lies (and small ones, too), and demand that politicians speak and seek truth.
But where is the will to do so?
- Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal. @bernardtrafford