We must not only fight “Fake News”: we must fight Fake History too.

fake-history

A deeply ironic thing happened to me yesterday on this blog. Minutes after posting the link on Twitter to this article from October 2015, “The malleable past: how easy is it to ‘fake’ history?”, someone posted a comment insisting that the Nanking Massacre–the horrifying mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians by invading Japanese forces in December 1937–was indeed fake. In that article I’d used the Nanking Massacre as an example of a historical event that, despite the misguided beliefs of some, was not and could not be “faked.” This commenter completely missed the point of the article, which was to explain what history is, how it’s studied and the intellectually sound methods that we use to understand and evaluate the past. None of that mattered to this person, whose sole blinkered goal was to assert doggedly, against the crushing weight of the historical record, that something was fishy about the Nanking Massacre. You could say I “facepalm’d.”

At this writing (January 2017) in the United States we’re about to enter the crucible of the results of our deeply traumatizing national elections, in which a phenomena that has been termed in some circles “fake news” played a significant role. Fake news is what it sounds like: falsehoods, usually proffered online and through social media, that are intended to serve a particular interest or ideology and which have the tendency to be believed as truth, without inquiry, by people predisposed toward those interests. While I’m glad the concept of “fake news” has at least been recognized by our media culture–Facebook recently instituted a protocol to ferret out false stories–I posit that guarding against fake news is only half, and maybe not even half, of the job at hand. Fake history, the evil twin and older brother of fake news, is even more pernicious and damaging, and often harder to guard against. But guarding against it we must. This is why the profession of history–real history, done by real historians with real historical methods–is vitally important, perhaps now more than ever.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Certain events in history are proven fact. The 1937-38 Nanking Massacre–and its commission by Japanese forces–is one of them, thanks in part to physical evidence like these skeletons of some of the many victims.

If you run a history blog, you’re guaranteed to encounter, somewhere and sometime, believers of fake history. The Nanking example is only one. Another example of fake history that I’ve tried to push back against is the ridiculous belief, popular in conservative circles in the U.S., that Adolf Hitler was a socialist or some other sort of leftist. In fact Hitler and the Nazi regime are a magnet for fake history beliefs, such as the false impression, promoted by gonzo documentaries on the so-called “History Channel,” that the Nazis were heavily into the occult or black magic. Usually when there’s some kind of moral judgment lurking behind a historical event, like the responsibility for the Nanking Massacre or Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 genocide against the Armenians, fake history will crop up and try to shift (or eliminate) the moral culpability.

The phenomena of fake history isn’t limited to events whose factual natures are expressly disputed. Real history can be distorted or misused in other ways too. A prime example is the Crusades. A few times a year someone, usually on a Facebook group or other social media circuit of amateur historians, will discover this article I wrote in July 2014 about the bloody sack of Jerusalem by Western knights during the First Crusade. It inevitably ignites controversy, not because of the real history, but because people think it’s “slanted” by not including mention of event X or Y that supposedly shows a different picture of moral culpability–almost always that what Muslims did in the Middle Ages was “worse” or that “they started it.” Indeed, Crusades history often devolves into a sort of gruesome parlor game in which the magnitude of historical atrocities are measured against each other, as if this is the point of studying the Crusades. One angry person on a Facebook group, after reading this article, denounced me for not mentioning some obscure medieval massacre that occurred 300 years before the First Crusade even took place! This sort of sneaky back-door fake history is usually motivated by anti-Islamic sentiment, another ideology that’s (unfortunately) quite prevalent in the West today. I don’t do articles about the Crusades anymore.

german-armistice-1918

The German armistice of November 1918, signed in this railroad car in Compiègne, France, later became the subject of one of the most nefarious instances of “fake history.”

The problem with fake history is that it often leads to unjustified–even monstrous–counter-reactions. Long before Twitter and Breitbart News–indeed in an era of newspapers and hand-printed leaflets–the Nazi Party in the late 1920s and early 1930s told a false story about how Imperial Germany lost World War I in November 1918. In the Nazis’ version, treacherous liberal politicians and cowardly generals made a panicky and premature move for an armistice, thus robbing Germany of a chance to win the war and sentencing the country to submit to the tyrannical Treaty of Versailles. This fake history has been called the “stab in the back.” In reality German leaders crunched the numbers, realized the war was unwinnable and decided to pull the plug before more senseless killing continued. The impact of the “stab in the back” myth was incalculable. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, it was used to justify further German aggressions that led to World War II and the attempted extermination of the Jews. My friend Padre Steve, who is very familiar with the (real) history of Weimar and Nazi Germany, has written repeatedly about the pernicious effects of this fake history. He’s also constantly warning that it can happen again at any time–and is happening to us in the United States right now.

Not all believers of fake history are themselves bad. Indeed one horrible thing about fake history is how easily it can become internalized and accepted as fact by ordinary people. Example: on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone and not as part of a conspiracy, assassinated President John F. Kennedy. That there was no conspiracy is a matter of provable, historical fact, demonstrated most cogently by the late historian and lawyer Vincent Bugliosi. Yet because of the cottage industry in assassination literature and irresponsible media portrayals like Oliver Stone’s fact-free 1991 film JFK, something like 75% of Americans accept, as settled and not really open to serious question, that there was a conspiracy in the murder of JFK. Once fake history takes hold, it’s extremely difficult to shake.

zapruder film

This event in our fairly recent history has also been subject to misuse, misperception and misinterpretation. It is a prime example of how fake history supplants fact.

The problem of fake history, and fake information in general, can lead down an ideological and cognitive rabbit hole. A passionate believer in an item of fake history, like some alternative explanation of the Nanking Massacre, might, when confronted with evidence that contradicts his false belief, retreat into an epistemological surrender: “Well, how can we really know what happened in the past? How can we know a fact is true?” I tear my hair out in utter frustration at this sort of question, at least when it’s asked, as it usually is, without a genuine commitment to understanding how perception and the methods of history really work. To ask “How do we know a fact is true?” disingenuously itself suggests that there can be no answer to it, at least no answer that the person asking the question is willing to accept. What this question, when insincerely asked, is really intended to do is to act as a permission slip for someone to pick and choose which facts they’ll decide to believe, not based on the veracity of the asserted fact or the evidence to support it, but on some other criteria, usually what ideological belief it serves. People who do this often innocently believe they’re “skeptics” or that they’re employing critical thinking when in fact they’re doing the opposite. This is why understanding history, and how historical knowledge works, is so vitally important.

We can know what happened in the past. We are able to determine, usually with pretty impressive specificity, whether an assertion is a true fact or a false belief. Not all facts are equally clear or easily ascertainable; obviously that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that no facts are ascertainable and that everything that’s said to have happened in the past is equally untrustworthy and questionable. “The victors write the history,” but that doesn’t mean they get to make up whatever they like and have it stick in the same way that historically verifiable facts do. Historians are specially trained to navigate these turbulent waters. This is why we need them–and why their skill, expertise and professional passion is more important to our society now than it possibly has ever been in our lifetimes.

The header image is a composite made by me from public domain images. The modern photo of Nanking massacre victims being unearthed is by Flickr user R0016619 and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The still from the Zapruder film may be owned by Time-Life, but if it is, fair use is claimed. Other images are public domain.
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10 Comments on We must not only fight “Fake News”: we must fight Fake History too.

  1. For the group of “I-know-it’s-true-I-read-it-on-the-internet” people, some try very hard to erase the old proven fact with internet acceptance.

  2. Jeff Bloomfield // January 11, 2017 at 7:08 am // Reply

    I’m interested in an area of social history concerning a set of homicides committed in London in 1888, officially called “the Whitechapel Murders” but unofficially “The Jack-the-Ripper Murders”. In recent months, since the summer of 2015, the website (“Casebook: Jack the Ripper”) has had a visitor who joined who has flooded the website with his repeated claims of coming to a solution, except for one finalizing piece of evidence. He set a time limit originally of a year before he’d reveal his candidate, but he has kept putting it off. Instead he has put on a series of threads throughout the website, in which he has demonstrated total lack of any understanding of historical method (except to constantly be vague about original sources (which he does not appear to understand)) and he keeps creating and dropping “ideas” that actually have no merit. Now this field is (like the cottage industry on JFK’s assassination, or the cottage industry on the so-called “History Channels” on the occult and the Nazis loaded with odd and questionable solutions or suspects. One can see this on the threads of the website. But must people on the website maintain a level head in discussing these matters, and don’t become (for want of a better term) “dogmatically vague” defending his or her position as this fellow does. He has claimed to be an expert historian (but won’t show proof of it – i.e., what did he write?), or a sociologist (same claim – same lack of proof), or of a truly modern scientific mental ability (again, the proof?), added to a kind of vain and haughty attitude that has created a legion on enemies on the thread. He might be a troll, but if so he certainly just won’t hit-and-run like most trolls do. His misinformation is regarding totally misreading what actually exists in the record, and making odd claims for individual features he thinks have great relevance. So yes, I certainly see in this character an example of what is currently plaguing all of us from the “twittering” of the “victor” of this last election regarding his opponents and critics, to the mass idolatry of his followers in believing only him, and the similar garbage of his most extreme opponents. We are certainly entering gloomy times.

    • Couldn’t agree more. What an unfortunate character that person on your Whitechapel board is. Unfortunately the least competent people tend to be the most self-assured and convinced their ridiculous opinions have merit.

  3. One of the many things I enjoy about your blog is your credibility and assurance that the information you source and provide is true. History is often decided by those in power, taking the time to dig beyond the surface level to the broader truth is paramount in historical analysis and storytelling.

  4. Nice post, Sean! Thank you for writing.

  5. You can’t change history, but what you can do is drown out what happened in a sea of fictional ‘noise’ accounts of what happened, and the internet is really good at this. It’s cheap to put up multiple plausible sites that cite each other as authorities. (sock puppetry)

  6. I agree with your warning about fake history and I am often outraged at my fellow American’s fake view of American history. The one thing I disagree upon its the JFK Assassination. I’ve seen many documentaries with eyewitness accounts and original photos/videos that poke holes in the original. I think the official narrative is fake history because of the many inconsistencies to established facts. If you have any good sources outside of the government who lied about it, I’m game to learn more, especially other perspectives.

    • Thanks. Fake history is a scourge, that’s for sure, and it’s only going to get worse in an era of anti-intellectualism and public dis-investment in educational resources, especially higher education.

      JFK assassination: Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. There was no conspiracy. That is proven as a matter of historical fact. If you want good sources, I suggest this one, the single most comprehensive book ever written on the event, Bugliosi’s “Reclaiming History”: https://www.amazon.com/Reclaiming-History-Assassination-President-Kennedy/dp/0393045250/ It’s 1700 pages. You need to read every single one of those 1700 pages. When you do, you’ll realize that not only is Oswald, and Oswald alone (without alleged conspirators) guilty of the murder of JFK beyond a reasonable doubt, but he is guilty beyond all doubt. I’m trained not only as a historian but as a lawyer. And I can say this with absolute conviction: Oswald assassinated Kennedy, alone, without the assistance or involvement of anyone else, not only beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond all doubt. It is historical fact. It’s proven.

      I know as you read these words you don’t believe them, and that you never will under any circumstances. You’ll think, “How can he possibly be so sure?” This is what’s so pernicious about fake history–and the theories about conspiracy in the JFK assassination are fake history, in the most ugly, perverted and pernicious sense. This is indeed what’s so tragic about fake history: that you have absolutely zero possibility of ever convincing anyone that fake history isn’t true. The true historical fact of the JFK assassination rests upon three pillars: evidence (which is overwhelming in the case of Oswald’s guilt), logic, and real-world common sense. The conclusion of Oswald’s sole guilt evinces all three of these facets: there is overwhelming evidence to indicate his guilt, both direct and circumstantial; there is the irrefutable logic of his sole guilt; and the conclusion of his sole guilt comports with what we know about how things work in the real world (common sense). The conspiracy theories, on the other hand, lack all of these components. Not a single one of them is supported by a single shred of evidence–not one. Not one. Furthermore, all of the “alternative explanations” are totally illogical, suffer from the lack of internal consistency common to fake history, and none of them pass the common sense test. Bugliosi’s book sets out in literally overwhelming detail how and why this is true. I know that believers in the delusion of JFK conspiracy theories will never be persuaded otherwise under any circumstances, ever. The real history, verified by historically sound and logically consistent methods, indicates beyond all doubt that Oswald acted alone. My despair is that the false and corrosive poison of fake history makes it such that very few people will ever accept this conclusion, because the narrative power of fake history is too strong to resist. That’s precisely the lament that led me to write this article.

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. Josh – you’ll find interesting that I attended the JFK Museum in Dallas last year, and the employee who provided our private tour perpetuated the myth of the second shooter theory.

    My lone concern in our attack on fake history is that in our pursuit of the truth that we squash historical debate. Take the 1st crusade for example- there are several respected historians such as Jonathan Riley Smith, Rodney Stark and Thomas Madden who question Runciman’s perspective of the Crusades as a colonial adventure. When I consume history, I want sources from both the left and right and only then draw conclusions being careful of personal bias.

  8. While I agree that bias and malice are colouring too much of many discourses, in a manner of speaking “fake history” has been with us for longer than the weeks since the term was coined. It has been emanating from “interpretation”. Here’s an example…
    Reading in an old archaeological journal from 94 years ago (as you do), about the discovery of a complete Neolithic bowl fished out of the River Thames, it gave a fascinating insight into the ways that historians and archaeologists now impose their world view. Without knowing that they do it, archaeologists of today will jump to the conclusion that any and each object found in a river or a lake has “votive significance”. From that they conclude a thousand misapprehensions about the sacredness of water, the sacrifice of valuable objects to placate some god or goddess; in short, the world view of peoples of whom they know nothing and will never know anything. Maybe the desire to give a patronising back story to something washed up on a riverbank says more about the absence of belief in anything now, rather than the beliefs of then. Imagine if an archaeologist a thousand years hence should come across a collection of those tiny bronze casts of baby’s feet, so fashionable on mantelshelves in the fifties and sixties. These simple remembrances of parental joy would be construed as foot worship or ancestor veneration at the very least.
    Back in 1921, a surer era when the first war was behind the living and the twenties decade was ‘roaring’, self-confidence was a watchword, the article writer’s interpretation of bowls found in rivers was somewhat simpler:- “Can they have floated away from settlements during floodtime?”

7 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The Danger of Fake History: An Article by Sean Munger | Padre Steve's World...Musings of a Progressive Realist in Wonderland
  2. We must not only fight “Fake News”: we must fight Fake History too. – www.seanmunger.com | First Night History
  3. Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. – SeanMunger.com
  4. WHY STUDY HISTORY? REFLECTING ON THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PAST | SERENDIPITY
  5. Lies my Teacher Told Me – palaiologinos
  6. The Crusades are over: stop trying to weaponize history. – SeanMunger.com
  7. Rain of error: a blogger’s endless war against ridiculous comments. – SeanMunger.com

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