Lies are back in power

One of the key lessons of the history of fascism is that racist lies led to extreme political violence. Today lies are back in power. This is now more than ever a key lesson of the history of fascism. If we want to understand our troublesome present, we need to pay attention to the history of fascist ideologues and to how and why their rhetoric led to the Holocaust, war, and destruction. We need history to remind us how so much violence and racism happened in such a short period. How did the Nazis and other fascists come to power and murder millions of people? They did so by spreading ideological lies. Fascist political power was significantly derived from the cooptation of truth and the widespread promulgation of lies.

Today we’re seeing an emergent wave of new right-wing populist leaders throughout the world. And much like fascist leaders of the past, a great deal of their political power is derived from questioning reality; endorsing myth, rage, and paranoia; and promoting lies.

In my new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies, I offer a historical analysis of fascists’ use of political lies and their understanding of the truth. This has become a highly relevant question in the present moment, an era that is sometimes described as post-fascist and sometimes as post-truth. The book presents a historical framework for thinking through the history of lying in fascist politics in order to help us think through the use of political lies in the present.

Lying is, of course, as old as politics. Propaganda, hypocrisy, and mendacity are ubiquitous in the history of political power struggles. Hiding the truth in the name of a greater good is a hallmark of most, if not all, histories of politics. Liberals and communists and monarchs, democrats, and tyrants have also lied repeatedly. To be sure, fascists were not the only ones lying in their time, nor are their descendants the only ones lying in ours.

Indeed, the German Jewish philosopher Max Horkheimer once observed that the submission of truth to power is at the heart of modernity. But the same argument can be made for ancient times. In more recent history, studying fascist liars should not mean letting liberals, conservatives, and communists off the hook. Indeed, lies and an elastic understanding of the truth are a hallmark of many political movements. But the point I want to make clear in this book is that fascist and now populist liars play in a league of their own.

Fascist lying in politics is not typical at all. This difference is not a matter of degree, even if the degree is significant. Lying is a feature of fascism in a way that is not true of those other political traditions. Lying is incidental to, say, liberalism, in a way that it is not to fascism. And, in fact, when it comes to fascist deceptions, they share few things with other forms of politics in history. They are situated beyond the more traditional forms of political duplicity. Fascists consider their lies to be at the service of simple absolute truths, which are in fact bigger lies. Thus, their lying in politics warrants a history of its own.

This essay was excerpted from Federico Finchelstein, A Brief History of Fascist Lies (University of California Press, 2020). All rights reserved.