A Brief History of Fascist Lies

Image: Marco Buti


Read the “Introduction” of the newly released book

 “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not what is happening.” (Donald Trump, 2018).

“Since then, a struggle between the truth and the lie has been going on. As always, in this struggle, the truth will emerge victorious.” (Adolf Hitler, 1941).

“You must believe me because I am used – this is the system of my life – to tell the truth always and everywhere.” (Benito Mussolini, 1924).


One of the main 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, an important lesson from the history of fascism. If we are to understand our troubling present, we need to pay attention to the history of fascist ideologues and to how and why these men's 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 of time. How did the Nazis and other fascists come to power and murder millions of people? They did this by spreading ideological lies. Fascist political power derived significantly from the co-option of truth and the widespread propagation of lies.

We are currently witnessing an emerging wave of right-wing populist leaders around the world. And, much like the fascist leaders of the past, a large part of their political power is built on questioning reality; endorsing myth, hate, and paranoia; and promoting lies.

This book presents a historical analysis of the fascists' use of political lies and the way they understood the truth. This issue has become extremely important in the present moment, an era sometimes described as post-fascist and at other times as post-truth. The proposal is to present a historical clipping that invites a deep reflection on the history of lies in fascist politics in order to help us think about the use of political lies in our times.

Lying is certainly as old as politics. Propaganda, hypocrisy, and falsehood are omnipresent in the history of political power struggles. Hiding the truth in the name of the greater good is a hallmark of most – if not all – of political history. Liberals, communists, monarchs, democrats and tyrants have also lied repeatedly. Let it be clear: fascists were not the only ones who lied in their time, nor are their descendants the only ones lying today. Indeed, the German and Jewish philosopher Max Horkheimer once observed that the submission of truth to power lies at the heart of modernity. But the same argument can be used for past ages. In more recent history, studying fascist liars should not mean leaving liberals, conservatives and communists out of the picture. In fact, lies, as well as an elastic grasp of the truth, are hallmarks of many political movements. But the point I want to make in this book is that the fascists and now the populist liars are on the same team.

The fascist lie is not typical at all. This difference is not a matter of gradation, even though the gradation is significant. Lying is characteristic of fascism in a way that it is not in other political traditions. Lying is incidental to, say, liberalism in a way that it is not in fascism. And indeed, when it comes to fascist deceptions, they share little with other forms of politics in history. They are situated beyond more traditional forms of political duplicity. Fascists consider their lies to be in the service of simple and absolute truths, which are in fact even greater lies. Thus, their lies in politics warrant a separate story.


This book addresses the fascist position on truth, which lays the groundwork for what has become a fascist history of lies. That story still resonates in our times whenever fascist terrorists, from Oslo to Pittsburgh and Christchurch to Poway, decide, after turning lies into reality, to put them into practice with lethal violence.

As I finish this book, a fascist massacred twenty people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in the most horrific anti-Hispanic bombing in US history. This terrorist fascist evoked a “truth” that has nothing to do with real history or reality. Indeed, he evoked “the inconvenient truth” in the title of his short manifesto. The killer claimed that his attack was a preemptive action against the Hispanic invaders and that "they are the instigators, not me." His main concern was children born in the United States to Hispanic immigrant parents, whom he clearly did not regard as true Americans. In doing so, he promoted a vile and racist metric that he, and others, believe should be the gold standard for determining US citizenship or legal status. This measurement method is based on things that never happened: immigrants do not cross the US border with the intention of conquering or contaminating. But this is not what the racist ideology of white supremacy claims.

Fascist racism itself is based on the lie that humans are hierarchically divided into superior races and inferior races. It is based on a purely paranoid fantasy that the weaker races aim to dominate the stronger, which is why the white races need to defend themselves preemptively. These lies drive the killer to kill. There is nothing new in the terrorists' merging of lies with death, or the projection of their racist and totalitarian views onto the intentions of their victims. Fascists had killed many times before, in the name of lies masquerading as truth. But, in contrast to previous stories of fascism, this time fascists share common goals with the populists in power. In other words, your racist views are shared with White House leadership.

Fascism begins to act from below, but is legitimized from above. When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro openly disparages Brazilians of African descent or when American President Donald J. Trump treats Mexicans as rapists who are “invading” America in “caravans,” they are legitimizing fascist reasoning for some of their followers. politicians. Fascist lies, in turn, proliferate in public discourse. like the New York Times explained, after the El Paso massacre, “At campaign rallies before the midterm elections last year, President Trump repeatedly warned that America was under attack by immigrants on their way to the border. 'Look at the marchers, this is an invasion!' he declared during the campaign. Nine months later, a 21-year-old white man is accused of opening fire at an El Paso Walmart, killing twenty people and injuring a dozen, after writing a manifesto protesting immigration and announcing that his attack was a reaction to the Hispanic invasion of the Texas”.

The same lies that motivated the El Paso killer are at the heart of Trumpism and the so-called effort to make America Great Again. Lying about things that are part of the permanent record has become part of the American president's daily routine. Time and time again, Trump has used specific propaganda techniques, lying recklessly, substituting paranoia and resentment for rational debate, and casting doubt on reality itself. Trump's attacks on the mainstream media and the well-documented instances where he claims he didn't say something that is actually in the public record relate to the history of fascist lies analyzed in this book.

Furthermore, Trump's agenda turns ideological assumptions, often based on paranoia and fictions about those who are different or feel and behave differently, into real policies that include the adoption of racist measures specifically targeting Muslims and Latino immigrants. , as well as disdain for black communities, neighborhoods, journalists, and politicians. At the same time, he defended white nationalist protesters who participated in the march in Charlottesville, where an opponent of the protesters was murdered. As Ishaan Tharoor explained in Washington Post, “He stoked white nationalist grudges at his base while demonizing, belittling or attacking immigrants and minorities. A few weeks ago, the president launched diatribes against the female minority of parliamentarians and treated the cities of the interior of the nation as zones of 'infestation'. Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections and now, as his re-election campaign is in full swing, he stoked fear and hatred over the 'invasion' of migrants on the US-Mexico border, warning of a danger vital invading the country”.

How is it possible for the White House to promote and provoke acts perpetrated by fascist terrorists? As I explained in my last book, From fascism to populism in history, we are witnessing a new chapter in the history of fascism and populism, two different political ideologies that now share a goal: fomenting xenophobia without preventing political violence. Fascist assassins and populist politicians share common goals.

Unlike fascism, populism is an authoritarian interpretation of democracy that reshaped the legacy of fascism after 1945 to combine it with distinct democratic procedures. After the defeat of fascism, populism emerged as a form of post-fascism, which reformulates fascism for democratic times. Another way of saying it would be: populism is fascism adapted to democracy.

In the United States, it is not surprising that people whose ideologies align with Trump's can engage in political violence, from harassing immigrants in the streets to dropping bombs on individuals Trump often labels "enemies of the people." While these forms of political violence are not directly directed by the US government or its leadership, Trump has an ethical and moral responsibility for encouraging a climate of violence.

This climate of violence is fostered in the name of racist lies, which are repackaged as the truth. Such a situation bears a great deal of resemblance to the fascist lie in history. Indeed, there are strong historical ties between German and American fascism. The Nazi party admired America's racist and segregationist policies during the early XNUMXth century, modeling its Nuremberg Laws on Jim Crow legislation, which formally legalized public racial segregation. Hitler himself loved the German writer Karl May's stories about the Aryan conquest of the American West. Today, Hitler's ideology reverberates in the conviction of American neo-Nazis that they are the heirs of the Aryan legacy and responsible for its defense against invasion.

Thanks to history, today we know the terrible consequences of fascist lies. We know what happened when they were turned into reality. It was not just people who supported Hitler's racist policies who carried German fascism to victory, but also people who simply didn't care that a defining element of National Socialism was racism. The main difference between then and now is that today there is a great deal of condemnation of the president's racist lies and the impact they have on broader sectors of American society. In contrast to the dictatorial times of Hitler and Mussolini, when the free press was eliminated, independent media continue to function in the United States today. Your work is essential for democracy. Accusing the media of lying, of being unreliable, is based on the idea, analyzed in this book, that only the leader can be the source of truth. At a time when the American president demonizes journalists, going so far as to call them “enemies of the people”, the independent press continues to reveal the lies and corroborate the facts.

The American case is not the only one. In Brazil, Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”, has similarly demonized journalists, glorified the country's dictatorial policies and endorsed despicable lies about the environment. Against the fact of climate change, both Trump and Bolsonaro have supported counterfeits that are directly linked to one of the greatest current crimes on the planet: the rapid destruction of the Amazon. As with fascist lies about "blood and soil", populist hoaxes are linked to violence, not only against people, but also against the Earth. As reported by The Guardian, the Amazon rainforest “is being burned and cut down at the most alarming rate in recent memory […] at a rate of deforestation equivalent to the surface area of ​​the island of Manhattan per day”. Bolsonaro denied the facts about the exponential increase in deforestation in his government and accused his own environment agency of releasing “false numbers”. As reported by New York Times, "an accusation without foundation".

As the history of fascism demonstrates, questioning these lies is of fundamental importance for the survival of democracy. The fact that Trump is raising suspicions about the electoral system without providing real evidence should be taken seriously. For example, he claims that millions of undocumented people in California voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016, and that this type of fraud occurred in other US states – claims that he himself has been unable to prove. These and other recurring examples of Trumpist lies represent a serious attack on democracy. They do this in ways that undermine trust in democratic institutions, just as the fascists did. However, an essential difference, so far, is that the populists only want to reduce the power of representative democracy, whereas the fascists wanted to end it. Today, we know that democracy needs to be relentlessly defended, because democratic institutions and traditions are not as strong as many believe them to be. Indeed, lies can destroy democracy.

The purpose of this book is to understand why XNUMXth-century fascists took simple, hateful lies as the truth, and why others believed them. Historically, lies have been the starting point of undemocratic policies, a fact that has had disastrous consequences for the victims of fascism. This reason is enough to show that the history of lies cannot be excluded from historians' investigations of modern political violence, racism, and genocide.

Prominent fascist leaders of the XNUMXth century – from Mussolini to Hitler – considered lies to be truths embodied by them. This was central to their notions of power, popular sovereignty, and history. An alternate universe, in which truth and falsehood cannot be distinguished, is based on the logic of myth. In fascism, mythical truth replaced factual truth.

These days, lies again seem to increasingly replace empirical truth. As the facts are presented as fake news, and ideas originating from fact-deniers become government policy, we must remember that the current debate over “post-truth” has both a political and an intellectual strain: the history of fascist lies.

* Federico Finchelstein is professor of history at the New School of Social Research (New York). Author, among other books, of From fascism to populism in history (Issues 70).


Federico Finchelstein. A Brief History of Fascist Lies. Translation: Mauro Pinheiro. São Paulo, Vestigio, 2020.

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