It’s been in your social feed, on your televisions, and in the newspapers a dozen or more times today alone: the term “The Big Lie,” used by an elected official, pundit, or columnist to describe any challenge to the official narrative about the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.
- President Joe Biden has accused President Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sen. Josh Hawley of a “Big Lie” ;
- Rep. Mazie Hirono went on Anderson Cooper to accuse the Republican senators of a “Big Lie“;
- Dominion Voting Systems has alleged a “Big Lie” in their lawsuit against Rudy Giuliani;
- Jake Tapper has used the term repeatedly on Twitter and on air to describe allegations of fraud in the 2020 election.
Bloomberg explained the analogy in September: “Adolf Hitler and Goebbels, his minister of propaganda, espoused a technique known as the ‘Big Lie,’ which involved repeating a colossal falsehood until the public came to believe it was true.”
Historians Timothy Snyder, Fiona Hill, and Ruth Ben-Ghiat have affirmed this usage of the term. Snyder whimsically explained to NPR how a “big lie” works: “The big lie fills in this space which used to be taken up by a lot of little truths, by hundreds and thousands and millions of little truths,” Snyder said. “We’ve let that slip away. And then the big lie comes in and fills in the gap.”
But that’s not what “Big Lie” means, nor where it came from.
If You Circulate A Fake Quote Long Enough…
Many attribute the concept of the “Big Lie” to Joseph Goebbels, who is popularly believed to have said: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
But did Goebbels actually say that?
“We can find only one refereed scholarly article that cites the quotation, and with no reference. A [LexisNexis] Academic search provides three published articles employing the fabrication, two of which are from BusinessWorld, in the Philippines, and one from The Washington Times,” wrote Quentin Schultze and Randall Bytwerk in a 2012 paper published by the Institute of General Semantics.
“None of the three dozen books citing it on Google Books has a publisher with a reputation for editorial diligence.”
Schultze and Bytwerk discovered the earliest usage of the quote from a 2002 article raising questions about the commercial plane flown into the Pentagon. By 2006, Google searches returned 300,000+ results for the quote—and still no primary attribution. The quotation proved handy on both the left and the right, first to critique the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, then to accuse the Obama administration of employing Nazi-like propaganda tactics.
The authors explain the usefulness of the apparently fictitious quote:
Since Goebbels is a reviled figure for all but a few Neo-Nazis, and since the political right and left squabble about whether Nazism (“National Socialism”) was of the right or left in its essence, both can use his alleged statement. It can be employed not merely for argument or elegance, but to make an ad hominem attack that will appeal to a particular vernacular community: “If my opponents are acting in a way consistent with Joseph Goebbels’s advice, they are so evil as to need little refutation.”
But the biggest problem with the fake Goebbels quote isn’t attribution. “Big Lie” belongs to Adolf Hitler—and it means something completely different.
The Anti-Semitic Big Lie Narrative Is From Mein Kampf.
In the tenth chapter of “Mein Kampf,” Hitler wrote:
“But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice.
“All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that 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.”
In the text, Hitler charges the Jews with destabilizing society by promulgating a big lie—the narrative that provided a sinister rationale for the detainment and mass murder of the Jewish people.
In the Hitler/Goebbels “Big Lie” analogy flowing freely from the mouths of Biden, Tapper, and others, the accuser would be analogous to Hitler, and the person being accused of lying would be analogous to the Jews.
In other words, the Hitlerian strategy is to accuse one’s enemies of using a Big Lie to gain and consolidate control. To accuse your opponent of a Big Lie is to borrow a murderous, anti-Semitic slander directly from “Mein Kampf”—and to align oneself with Hitler in the analogy. The “Big Lie” analogy utterly fails as an indictment of fascist behavior.
The Washington Post even noted the error when Republican member of Congress inverted the analogy in 2019—but not when Biden used the Goebbels canard in 2020. This month, Biden repeated the mistaken analogy in reference to Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.
Will Biden, Tapper, Hirono, and others relent from using the term when presented with the facts? If the past is any indicator, probably not.
Survivors of the Holocaust, nonpartisan and across the political spectrum, have denounced the use of Holocaust analogies in current events—but the left has continually invoked Hitler, the Holocaust, and concentration camps nonetheless. They are unable or unwilling to stop. They aren’t even embarrassed.
When NPR misstated the meaning of “Big Lie” in an interview published January 15, Fiona Hill brushed it away: “So I don’t actually think that we should get caught up in the origins of where this term the Big Lie comes from.”