Play#1 in the Dictator’s Playbook: The Big Lie

If you want to start an autocracy, the first order of business is to make the public believe what you want it to, and the first weapon in your arsenal is the Big Lie.

What is the Big Lie?

The Big Lie is a political tactic invented, or at least coined, by Adolf Hitler in his magnum opus, Mein Kampf.  Actually, calling that incoherent ranting a “great work” is an insult to great works everywhere.  It’s unreadable.  Anyway, the Big Lie has been mentioned in the press a lot, and I think it’s important explain exactly how the Nazis used this tactic to bring down a constitutional republic not so different from our own.  I’ll save you the (giant) headache of trying to read Mein Kampf by summing up the concept here:

Hitler believed that the “broad masses … in the primitive simplicity of their minds [] 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.”  He was right.  Good thing for us the Nazis pumped him full of meth and bull’s testicles till he replaced the Big Lie with Big Mistakes!

From a political perspective, the lasting after-effects of colossal lies was even more important.  As Hitler explains: “Even though the facts which prove [the lie] to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”  Now Hitler was ascribing this behavior to Vienna’s Jews, not recommending it, but he still believed it to be true because he believed that group of people was successfully using the tactic.  Basically what he’s saying is that boldfaced lies have the lasting effect of making people lose faith in the institutions and sources of information they usually rely upon, because most people are decent enough that they cannot imagine anyone wanting to just make stuff up on such a large scale.  Especially someone in power.

How did the Nazis use the Big Lie?

Hitler may have been the guy to come up with the tactic of the Big Lie, but the man who made the Big Lie a Big Success was a guy called Josef Goebbels.  Goebbels was a tiny, bitter man with a clubbed foot and a chip on his shoulder the size of Gibraltar, but he was no dummy.  He was an accomplished enough propagandist that he later convinced the German public to euthanize their physically disabled relatives while being physically disabled, by Nazi standards, himself.  That is a powerful manipulator.

But let’s get back to Goebbels and the Big Lie.  His use of the tactic is the play every authoritarian has used to keep their people controllable.  Goebbels never stated his personal preference for use  of the Big Lie – how could he?  He would have discredited his own propaganda (though he did, as a student of the “whoever smelt it dealt it” school of lying, accuse Churchill of using the Big Lie in the way Goebbels himself so often did).  Essentially he piled colossal lie upon colossal lie and kept repeating them until confused people had no idea what was true in any area of life.

I think it’s important to understand concrete examples of how the Big Lie was used to break down the Weimar Republic, which is the German constitutional government dismantled by the Nazis from 1932-1934.  More often than not, the lie was a justification for an otherwise illegal/unjustifiable act the regime wanted to take.  The most well known examples are the lies told in furtherance of Nazi persecution of the Jews.  Nazis invented a “racial hygiene code,” inventing a non-existent Jewish “race,” and constantly repeated the lie that the Jews were waging a secret war on Germany through Bolshevists and plutocrats, who secretly conspired to undermine the German people.  This Pamphlet, though from a later stage of the Nazi period, is a good example of the Nazi lies about the Jews.  The purpose of these colossal lies was to give the Nazis a defensible reason for waging war on the Jews.

So, if you’re wondering in your own life whether your public officials are trying to play you with the Dictator’s Playbook, ask yourself this: 1) does this statement seem true?; and 2) if not, does it relate to either a controversial policy of the administration, or a screwup by the administration?  If so, you’re probably being duped by a Big Lie.  Oh, and if a statement meets prong 1 of this test and could be a justification for going to war with another major power, it is probably time to investigate visas to New Zealand.  Or buy one of those abandoned silos in Idaho.