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.
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.
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.
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.