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The Big Lie Quote

The following quote is widely attributed to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda.

    “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

But did he really say this? Randall Bytwerk, a university professor whose field of study is German propganda, doesn’t think so. He looked for it in the original sources, and couldn’t find it.

The quote came to my attention today because of this article by David Malone, author of a book called The Debt Generation about the financial crisis. In his article, Malone deconstructs a recent use of the quote by Michael Howard, the former leader of the Conservative Party in Britain. In a speech, Howard cites the first two lines of the quote to justify an occasional lie by the government to maintain economic or social stability. What prevents the government from abusing its power, Howard claims, can be found in the second line of the quote: a lie works “only for such time as the State can shield the people” from its consequences. Innocent, short-term lies may be thus acceptable, even necessary, so long as they are in the public interest.

Malone refutes Howard by bringing in the third line of the quote, which Howard ignores in his speech. To shield the people indefinitely from the consequences of a lie, the quote says, the State must “use all its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie.” This means there is no check on State power, as Howard claims, because the State will never be held accountable for the consequences of its lies. Indeed, Malone says, in modern times the State no longer needs to repress dissent at all, but simply “drown it out. Media outlets…owned by a few powerful and like-minded friends” define public opinion today, and dissenting voices are never heard.

The meta-level to all this is that we’re arguing about a quote which, itself, is very likely fabricated. The power of the quote comes from the idea that it’s Goebbels who said it — but Bytwerk, in his research, failed to find an original German source. So if Goebbels isn’t the author of the quote, then who is? And how does that change our sense of the quote’s meaning, or its value in any debate?

My own interest in the quote, and the reason I researched it further, comes from a fascination with its final phrase: “Truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” This phrase isn’t emphasized by Malone, and it is ignored entirely by Howard. But what sort of vision of the State did the Nazis have, I wondered, if they saw truth as its greatest enemy? It must have been a deeply nihilistic vision, because Goebbels seems to be arguing (if, indeed, he really said it) that lies are vital to the functioning of the State — that lying, and thus repression, are the very nature of State power. This certainly fits with what we think of the Nazis, but it’s troubling to those of us who believe that power comes from the people, and is only delegated by the people to the State. I wanted to learn more about the quote’s context — what speech did it come from? what did Goebbels say before and after? — but discovered that, on the Internet at least, there is no context. It’s a free-floating quote, nothing more.

So, the Big Lie Quote is itself a Big Lie? And the Nazis never claimed that truth is the enemy of the State? Yet many people today — perhaps even the majority! — seem convinced that State power can sustain itself only through secrets and lies, which are the subject (and the title) of Malone’s article. Indeed, we’ve gotten new proof that our paranoia is justified, in the form of revelations that our private phone and Internet communications are being sucked into vast databases by the surveillance arm of the U.S. government, to be stored, perhaps forever, on servers buried deep in the Utah mountains. (Does this surprise anyone? I thought it was already an open secret!) The degree of fraud and insider dealing, and the lack of subsequent prosecution, in the 2008 financial crisis — or among defense contractors in the Iraq War — are further grounds for a deep and abiding cynicism in our government. The fact that the election of a supposedly progressive president has only strengthened the security state and pushed its secrets deeper underground is the final, ironic twist. It’s over, Joe! No matter how you squirm, the net will tighten.

So is truth really the enemy of the State, whether Goebbels said so or not? If it is, then the State must have nefarious interests of its own, opposed to those of its people. But can’t we imagine, instead, a State dedicated to spreading truth, because truth helps to serve the people’s interests? I refuse to believe that State power, as such, is incompatible with transparency and truth. To say that is to accept that democracy is always and forever a sham. That can’t be! The trouble is that we’ve too easily come to accept a cynical vision of the “necessities” of power, and we’ve got to stop living in that paranoid, nihilistic world. So how do we get from here, to the world as it should be — a world where everyone can see and debate the truth? What steps should we take? What is the first step?

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