June 20, 2021 (SFChronicle.com)
Last month, a small uproar erupted on Twitter over the discovery that the New York Times once published a puff piece on Adolf Hitler summering in his mountain retreat “in the clouds.” Written shortly before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the piece features casual pop-ins from Hermann Göring, already at work on the Final Solution, in between snack breaks for “gooseberry pie” and “well-done pudding.”
The online debate over the piece focused on the enduring media blind spots to the dangers of fascism — and the lingering inability to let go of the “both sides” journalism practice of uncritically giving cynical propagandists a mouthpiece, in the supposed interest of fairness.
The discussion inspired me to take my own trip through various newspaper archives. And I found something seemingly far worse than a puff piece.
Eight decades ago, on the same day Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Times published an essay by Hitler himself. Titled “The art of propaganda,” the piece is excerpted from Hitler’s autobiography, “Mein Kampf.”
Of all the things I can recommend doing on a Sunday afternoon, reading the musings of a man who wiped out several branches of your family tree ranks toward the bottom. But I couldn’t help myself.
I was expecting subtle or not-so-subtle anti-Semitism — an amplification of genocidal deception — published by the Times under the banner of free speech idealism and the naive American assumption that truth and reason inevitably wins in the so-called “marketplace of ideas.”
What I found instead was the clearest distillation I have read of what American democracy is up against in the wake of the Capitol riots and GOP efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters.
Reading Hitler made it obvious how widely the techniques of fascism are currently being deployed. And not just over the Big Lie that Trump won the election.
Notably, rather than handing Hitler a megaphone to spread deception, the Times’ piece begins with a contextualizing note — something rare in the newspaper business these days, but a solution film companies are rediscovering as they find ways to preserve racially problematic films like “Gone With the Wind.”
It reads in part:
“Germany is now waging a psychological war against this country as well as a military war in other parts of the world. That psychological war is based in the principles of the propaganda laid down by Adolf Hitler in his autobiography.”
With that caution established (something the press should do more of when covering the utterances of certain well-documented liars) what follows isn’t propaganda itself, but an unvarnished strategy document for how to use lies to gain and maintain power.
“All effective propaganda should be limited to a very few points which, in turn, should be used as slogans until even the very last man is able to imagine what is meant by such words.”
“As soon as one sacrifices this basic principle and tries to become versatile, the effect will be frittered away.”
Hitler might as well be laying a road map for the recent Republican attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT).
A number of conservative states have “banned” the teaching of the concept in public schools in recent weeks, backed by unrelenting rhetorical attacks on the theory from conservative media outlets.
Of course, actually banning the teaching of CRT would almost certainly be unconstitutional. Instead, Republicans have created a CRT strawman, and are using that strawman to discredit an important tool for historical understanding.
Texas, for instance, doesn’t actually ban CRT, but the teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”
CRT does nothing of the sort. It is an analytical tool for determining how the racialized policies and laws of the past continue to impact life in the present.
But by manipulating the actual meaning of CRT, these bans have falsely branded the theory as a tool of anti-white racism.
This is a lie. And an obvious one at that. But lies told forcefully and consistently enough often supplant the truth.
Hitler anticipates those who recoil at the use of techniques like these. And he relishes it.
“As soon as one’s own propaganda admits even a glimpse of right on the other side, the ground for doubting one’s own cause is laid. The masses are not in a position to distinguish where the wrong of the enemy ends and their own begins. In this case they become uncertain and mistrusting, especially if their opponents do not produce the same nonsense but, instead, burden their enemy with all and the whole guilt.”
Hitler’s understanding of human manipulation isn’t gospel, of course. But it’s very clear his techniques are being widely employed. And that they’re working.
Millions of people think COVID is a fraud and vaccines are the danger. That being asked to wear a mask is tyranny.
“By propaganda even heaven can be palmed off on a people as hell and the most wretched life as Paradise.”
And Hitler didn’t even have a Twitter account.
One of society’s great protections against propaganda is the news media. But trust in the news media has never been lower. And it’s hard not to think the earnest but flawed pursuit of “both sides” fairness has played some role in undermining its credibility in the face of a propaganda onslaught.
Companies like Fox News and OANN, meanwhile, are willingly spreading and profiting from disinformation, which then takes on a life of its own online.
So what to do about it?
Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s approach is an example of what not to do. Sentimental notions of bipartisanship are a propagandist’s dream.
There is no compromise with the Big Lie.
Hope exists, of course, in the 81 million-person wall who voted for Biden. The wall here held, unlike in Germany.
The efforts to chip that wall away are unrelenting. It has to hold. Learning the tactics of the forces marshaled against it may be best fortification each of us can offer right now.
Matthew Fleischer is The Chronicle’s editorial page editor. He came to the paper from the L.A. Times, where he spent six years as senior digital editor of the Opinion team – writing, editing and collaboratively planning stories to resonate with an online audience.
Prior to joining The Times, Matthew was a staff writer for LA Weekly and an investigative reporter for the watchdog site Witness L.A., where his work helped expose the abuse and corruption in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that led to the convictions of Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka for obstruction of justice.
His work has been honored by the Overseas Press Club Foundation and Investigative Reporters and Editors. When he’s not writing or editing, he’s wandering, usually by foot.