I have been re-reading William Shirer’s The Berlin Diary as of late, and his series on the transformation of the German state under the National Socialists is striking for many reasons, not least of which was the importance of propaganda — “fake news” — not just to the maintenance of power but to the prosecution of the early part of the Second World War.
Notable to myself is Shirer’s depiction of “fake news” during the May 1940 collapse of France:
The Nazis locked up in the Kaiserhof yesterday all the Dutch journalists who were not Nazis, including Harry Masdyck, who did not quite believe it would come when it did. A Dutch woman reporter for the Nazi Dutch paper has been sitting at the Rundfunk since dawn yesterday broadcasting false news to the Dutch people in their own language. A sort of Lady Haw-Haw.
Of course, what is perhaps shocking in reading Shirer’s accounts of the May 1940 blitzkrieg is that he scarcely believes the “propaganda” being fed to him. How could Brussels have fallen so quickly? How could the Germans have opened up a 100 mile front along the Maginot Line? How could the Dutch have collapsed so quickly? At one point, Shirer wonders whether the Germans themselves are carrying radios to relay this information back to Berlin.
As history has taught us now, the Germans did indeed have radios with their panzer units — part of the reason why the Wehrmacht was able to overrun the French Army and corner the British Expeditionary Forces at Dunkirk.
Yet the emphasis on “fake news” was used by the Germans as a means of propaganda, both to impose a narrative and weaken the resolve of the opposition — namely the French and British people, as outlined in Edward Taylor’s The Strategy of Terror.
Of course, this almost worked. The French capitulated, Lord Fairfax very nearly came to terms with the Nazi regime… until Winston Churchill firmed the resolve of the British Empire and chose to fight on equal terms with the Nazis. The rest, they say, is history.
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) has interesting parallels to today. Two sides, both armed with very different ideas of a free Spain, both arguing two very different sets of “facts” with two very different understandings of the world. Rather than dialogue, the republicans (socialists) crammed through their agenda in the early 1930s, only to see this agenda rebuffed by the Spanish electorate in 1934. A wave of sackings by the nationalist government prompted a narrow victory by the republicans in 1936, whereupon they too engaged in a widespread sacking of those felt to have nationalist sympathies — including the military.
A military coup was effected on July 17th, 1936 — or the inklings of one — in reaction to the civil coup the republicans had forced upon the government. The reaction from the socialists? A gauntlet, thrown down by the head of the Spanish Communist Party entitled “they shall not pass” — or the “No Pasaran!” speech, a speech which only emboldened the nationalists and embarked on a three year civil war, one that the Francoist-led falangists carried.
This battle cry of “no pasaran!” in the face of fascism was not limited to Spain. Later that year, British socialists used it as a battle cry against one Sir Oswald Moseley of the British Union of Fascists to prevent them from marching down Cable Street. If one can imagine 3,000 blackshirts marching down a street blocked by 30,000 socialists, with 6,000 British police officers attempting to maintain order and clear the street.
This certainly puts J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings — first published in 1937 — in a vastly different light… though there is no direct evidence that Tolkien took any inspiration from the Spanish republicans, but rather from the Battle of Verdun where the cry “they shall not pass!” was first popularized before it was borrowed by the Spanish Communists. If there’s scholarship to the contrary, I’d be delighted to read it.
Back to the Battle of Cable Street — here you have two sides, one nationalist and the other socialist, who have no tolerance for the views of their opposition.
From the socialist perspective? They have their facts, and the opposition is unworthy of free speech.
From the nationalist perspective? They have their facts, and the opposition is unworthy of the right to be left alone.
…now give these two camps social media, a 24/7 news cycle, democratized media and a society conditioned to feel first and reflect later.
What should concern folks isn’t the rise of “fake news” if for no other reason than it has been around for 75 years or longer. Goebbels did his work well. Rather, what should concern those who defend freedom is that we are on the cusp of not a free press but a managed press, not a free world but a managed world, not a free democracy but a managed democracy.
Certainly the political left has been dealt a serious blow this 2016 — the worst electoral defeat since 2004 in the United States. Certainly the nouvelle droite is on the rise in Europe.
What I would ask — and where I would caution — is whether the answer is no pasaran! in the face of the Gramscians of the right. Rather, reflect on the response of Winston Churchill in May 1940 when faced with an almost certain defeat in the Battle of France:
What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.
This isn’t at time to meet facts with facts. So-called “facts” smack of a monologue, not a dialogue, one that inevitably leads to further conflict, misunderstanding, and fanaticism.
Churchill’s response was not no pasaran! — not a doubling down — but rather a call for unity — a call to realignment — in the face of a common foe.
Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future. Therefore, I cannot accept the drawing of any distinctions between Members of the present Government. It was formed at a moment of crisis in order to unite all the Parties and all sections of opinion. It has received the almost unanimous support of both Houses of Parliament. Its Members are going to stand together, and, subject to the authority of the House of Commons, we are going to govern the country and fight the war. It is absolutely necessary at a time like this that every Minister who tries each day to do his duty shall be respected; and their subordinates must know that their chiefs are not threatened men, men who are here today and gone tomorrow, but that their directions must be punctually and faithfully obeyed. Without this concentrated power we cannot face what lies before us. I should not think it would be very advantageous for the House to prolong this Debate this afternoon under conditions of public stress. Many facts are not clear that will be clear in a short time. We are to have a secret Session on Thursday, and I should think that would be a better opportunity for the many earnest expressions of opinion which Members will desire to make and for the House to discuss vital matters without having everything read the next morning by our dangerous foes.
The solution to fake news and misinformation will not be “facts” and monologue. Instead, the cure is an incessant dialogue and intensive curation that can reflect facts upon judgment. Without judgment and curation, facts are utterly meaningless — and when weaponized, highly dangerous to civil society.
Consider that when presented with information one cannot believe, to whom do you typically turn? The answer is more often than not to those whom you respect: a father, a mother, a pastor or priest.
The same is true with information, and in a world where power is traded based on those who can sway gullible masses, it is the mark of an independent soul to resist that sway.
Not a contrarian necessarily, but a harder sell than the others. Not a doubling down on “facts” in the face of “fake news” but a more discerning consumer, one who encourages dialogue over monologue and instantly distrusts those who either manufacture or discard conversation in favor of condemnation. Something less excitable and more reflective…
Shirer was on to something when it came to “fake news” and the like, even if he missed the truth amidst the propaganda in May 1940. Rather than emulate the failure and fanaticism of the Spanish communists, we would be better served with the twin virtues of resolve and toleration that Churchill exemplified in the face of a common misinforming foe.