April 7, 2017
Repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.
I think this quote is appropriate, given recent events and some I just learned about. This quote came to me as I was doing some research (and, of course, thinking about politics). But I will do my best to spare you from political talk in this post — at least in terms of governments.
When did I first hear this post? I can’t quite remember which program, but it was definitely a news magazine in the style of Dateline. (Heck, it might have been Dateline …)
Anyway, I remember hearing a mother speak about a lie that hurt her family and others. It might have had something to do with a school or a court case. The woman said this line or something similar.
While part of me knew what the lady said held some truth to it, I kinda bristled because the truth is the truth. Right? But oftentimes, it’s not that simple.
Who First Said ‘Repeat a Lie Often Enough and It Becomes the Truth’?
This quote is often misattributed to two sources: Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Goebbels.
From my research, this famous saying may have originated from the latter half of the 19th century.
Normally, I don’t like to use information from forums, but the forum I visited had a few fairly good leads.
I first went to the Stack Exchange’s [Science] Skeptics forum (I know, I know). There, a user by the name of Oleg V. Volkov asked if the famous saying, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth” originated with Vladimir Lenin. There was one answer to this post and another user cited three books.
The Crown of a Life
Another user called DavePhD answered the question by pointing to The Crown of a Life (1869) by Isa Blagden.
The following text was transcribed from the book (via Google Books):
“There” is one thing, he said, “and I can take an oath on it if you like, not one farthing of that money will minister to me personally—it goes into the funds of our cause. There is a newspaper to be established in Germany—writers to be sought for and paid—and an establishment to be maintained, and it is on that business I am going abroad; despots gag the press, we more wisely make it out weapon. If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it. We, who are of neither extreme in politics, neither pure red not pure black …”
Great China Danger
DavePhD also said he could only find references to Lenin dating back 15 years prior (to 2016, when the question on Skeptics was asked). The misattribution may have originated from a statement like one made in Great China Danger (1966):
Actually, Peking has operated, as Moscow has since the days of Lenin, on a number of principles which taken together can be called the technique of the “great lie.” Among these are: 1) make it big enough and people will believe part of it; (2) repeat it often enough and you will convince some people; (3) say it in enough different ways, and you will convince others…
The Duke of Havana
DavePhD also pointed to a quote from Lenin Rivero from the book The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream (2000). Here is a selected passage describing the fake story about how Hernandez reached the States [from Cuba]:
“There’s a saying in Cuba: A lie repeated many times becomes the truth,” said Lenin Rivero.
Lenin Rivero was a baseball player who defected to the United States in 1998. He was named after Vladimir Lenin. That might be one reason the Bolshevik leader was incorrectly attributed with this quote.
The book was about Cuban baseball player Orlando “El Duque” Hernández. The passage in context explains the fake story connected to Hernández’s escape from Cuba:
For those seeking an explanation for why El Duque’s escape later became such a mystery, this is where it all began. “There’s a saying in Cuba: A lie repeated many times becomes the truth,” said Lenin Rivero. “That is so true. That’s what happened with us. We made up this story, stuck to it, and eventually it became true for us and the whole world.”
“Orlando practically made up the whole version, said Lenin. “He said, ‘We’re going to say that Juan Carlos was the patron of the boat.’ He told me that I was going to say that I organized the trip. He stood there and told each of us exactly what we were going to say. He had a lot of it laid out in his mind. We all added a few details here and there.”
In the lie’s original form, the fictitious vessel was a twenty-foot sailboat that Juan Carlos had built in Caibarién. The story went that the boat began to take on water after leaving Cuba. Nine hours later it staggered into Anguilla Cay, then sank. That would explain the absence of the boat if anyone bothered to ask. The group sat on the beach, embroidering the great lie. “Everybody agreed on it,” said Juan Carlos. “It was El Duque’s story but we all added our own little embellishments as we went along.” It seemed like a harmless enough stretch, a necessary fib to protect the people who had helped get them out of Cuba. Within a year, though, a story that had begun as a thread would emerge from the media rinse cycle in the form of an Armani suit.
How Did Goebbels Get Credited with This Famous Saying?
The following quote, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself,” is also misattributed to Joseph Goebbels. But he said something with the similar idea.
Paul Joseph Goebbels was Hilter’s propaganda minister in Nazi Germany. Goebbels was virulently anti-Semitic and he was known for his oratory skills. One of his famous quotes includes one found in a January 12, 1941 article in Die Zeit ohne Beispiel (“Joseph Goebbels”). The following passage comes from the article entitled “Aus Churchills Lügenfabrik” (From Churchill’s Lie Factory):
That is of course rather painful for those involved. One should not as a rule reveal one’s secrets, since one does not know if and when one may need them again. The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, it should be a big lie, and one should stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.
Goebbels had taking the “Big Lie” angle from his leader, Hitler, who first coined the term in Mein Kampf. In the book, Hitler laid out the reasons why he was targeting the Jews in Germany for extermination. While he said the “Big Lie” was a propaganda technique used by Jews, it was actually outlining the Nazis’ own propaganda technique.
Hitler accused the Jews of using the “Big Lie” to blame Germany’s World War I loss on German general Erich Ludendorff.
According to Jeffrey Herf, the Nazis also accused the Jews of starting World War I and controlling Great Britain, Russia, and the United States. The Big Lie was thus used to promote a narrative which stated that Jews tried to exterminate Germans (“Big Lie”).
How Is the Saying Proven Right?
Psychologist Tom Stafford wrote a piece for the BBC in which he talked about the “illusion of truth,” one method by which propagandists can get people to believe in lies. Stafford explains a “typical experiment” that tests this theory. It involves telling participants true and untrue things in one session and repeating it an hour or weeks later. Participants are more likely to believe what they’ve been told the second time.
Why is that? Repetition is but a shortcut people use in order to quickly process information and evaluate it. However, if someone has absolute knowledge that something is a fact of fiction, repetition will not necessarily work to make that person believe the falsehood.
There are other parts to it, too. In what we might call “gaslighting,” the person reinforcing the lies has to do it forcefully.
This Sounds Familiar …
The following passage appears in a report entitled A psychological analysis of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend, prepared for the United States Office of Strategic Services:
His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.
The report was written by Walter C. Langer. Collaborators were Henry Murray, Ernst Kris and Bertram Lewin.
The following quote comes from Analysis of the Personality of Adolph Hitler: With Predictions of His Future Behaviour and Suggestions for Dealing with Him Now and After Germany’s Surrender by Henry A. Murray (October 1943):
Never to admit a fault or wrong; never to accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time; blame that enemy for everything that goes wrong; take advantage of every opportunity to raise a political whirlwind.
Do you know of someone who does this today?
Where Else Might This Saying Apply?
I recently was told about the 50-year campaign against baseball Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb. According to those who knew him, Cobb was a hothead, but he wasn’t alone and by many accounts, he wasn’t a racist. In fact, Cobb was one of the biggest proponents of integration in Major League Baseball and education for black Americans. However, he was portrayed as a flaming racist and cheater by the ghostwriter of his autobiography.
Al Stump filled Cobb’s autobiography with so many falsehoods, Cobb was getting ready to sue to stop its release before his own death.
Some of the Lies
Among the lies in the book was a story about how Cobb stabbed a black man in a bar. That never happened, but there were a couple of incidents where at a hotel where Cobb assaulted a security guard and a bellhop.
This is no excuse, but in that era, fights were common in public, including at baseball games. From the NY Post:
On another occasion, Cobb climbed into the stands to argue with a black fan (what was said is not recorded) and he once, notoriously, beat up a (white) heckler (who was missing seven fingers due to lax safety standards at his employer, the New York Times).
That wasn’t as unusual as it sounds, either: Pitcher Rube Waddell also went into the stands to beat up a fan; Babe Ruth in 1922 chased a fan through the seats and, when he couldn’t find him, challenged anybody nearby to a fight; and even the sainted Christy Mathewson, in 1905, popped a lemonade boy in the mouth, splitting his lip. Later, Cobb got in a fight with a grocer over an alleged insult to his wife, but the grocer was white, too — and in his biography, Alexander again got it wrong, mistakenly reporting the man was black.
Cobb was also said to have sharpened his cleats so he could harm defensive players when he wanted to steal bases. But he lobbied to have cleats dulled just enough to allow players to have traction on the baseball diamond.
Al Stump Was So Bad …
He got fired from numerous publications, including TV Guide and the Saturday Evening Post.
“One by one he alienated the kinds of magazines that had fact-checking departments,” said a writer of that era who knew him. “That’s because he produced fiction.”
Unfortunately, Stump’s lies persisted for decades, even making it to the biopic film (1994’s “Cobb”) starring Tommy Lee Jones. One scene involving an attempted rape was entirely fabricated by Stump and “Cobb” director Ron Shelton.
Ron Shelton also repeated a lie about Cobb having killed at least three people when asked where he got that information, Shelton said, “It’s well known.”
Wow. It goes to show, when you repeat a lie enough times, it does become the “truth.”
Blagden, Isa. The Crown of a Life, by the author of ‘Agnes Tremorne.’ Hurst and Blackett. London; 1869. Print. Page 154-155.
Fainaru, Steve and Sanchez, Ray. The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream. Random House Publishing Group. New York; 2000. Print.
Smith, Kyle. “How Ty Cobb was framed as a racist.” New York Post. 31 May 2015. Web. <http://nypost.com/2015/05/31/how-ty-cobb-was-framed-as-a-racist/>.
Various. “Did Lenin say ‘a lie told often enough becomes the truth’?” Skeptics. Stack Exchange. 16 May 2016. Answered 17 May 2016. Web. Retrieved 7 Apr 2017. <http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/32926/did-lenin-say-a-lie-told-often-enough-becomes-the-truth>.
Various. “Joseph Goebbels.” Wikiquote. Last Modified 4 Apr 2017. Web. Retrieved 7 Apr 2017. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Joseph_Goebbels>.
Various. “Big lie.” Wikipedia. Last Modified 31 Mar 2017. Web. Retrieved 7 Apr 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_lie>.