Achtung! Fake News.

Unintended consequences can stem from censorship

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. -Isa Blagden, The Crown of a Life

It’s 21 November 1918, just after the end of the War to End All Wars — World War I — up to that time, the largest and deadliest war in humankind’s history. With the stench of carnage still hanging in the tired air, five American war correspondents, attached to the U.S. Army’s Press Division, are itching for a scoop. They have been reporting on glorious war stories, practicing self-censorship, but they want a juicy interview with the head of the Imperial German Army, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, so they can ask him his opinion about how Germany lost the war.

However, the armistice for WWI has just been signed on 11 November. This means that unauthorized persons cannot cross the front line into German territory ahead of the armies of occupation without military personnel supervision. The possibility of a firing squad punishment is real. This is a serious offense due to possible inadvertent transmission of details about Allied troops to the German high command that could give the Germans reason to ignore the armistice and to restart conflict. Also, as public support for the armistice is key, tight control of the news is needed.

The pull of a great story is too strong for these five war correspondents. Undaunted, they commandeer two army Cadillacs. These Runaway Correspondents, as they will be known, represent powerful newspaper organizations in the United States — and they have gambled that the combined strength of their news organizations will help them get away with this banned sojourn. The story they plan on telling the Press Division is: oops, we lost our way, pursuing war stories, and have ended up in Germany, so, we decided to report on the lack of food there. Of the five, George and Lincoln speak German and translate for the other three, Cal, Fred, and Herbert.

Heading east from Luxembourg, they arrive at the Moselle River. One of their military chauffeurs, thinking this was the front line, says they must turn around. Lincoln takes the lead. Consulting a map, he says they need to continue across the river. I will be responsible if we lose our way, he shrewdly says. The die is cast.

As the Cadillacs travel inside Germany, they bumble into a retreating column of German soldiers. Not good. A German colonel is furious at seeing the Americans here. He pulls out a pistol and threatens their arrest for breaking the armistice. Lincoln takes over and tries to calm the situation by explaining: we are journalists, we are looking into the food supply in Germany to confirm reports of a desperate situation.

Saving the day, a German sailor hops on the running board of one of the Cadillacs and declares loudly, I have an uncle in Cincinnati! This diffuses the tension and the gun-toting colonel remits. The sailor gives the journalists safe conduct credentials.

They move on and admiring local officials give the Runaway Correspondents more safe conduct papers and their own car. The five men return the army Cadillacs, with their worried military chauffeurs, to Luxembourg, along with a letter addressed to the Press Division, saying: we are appreciating the situation in the interior of Germany, and will return soon.

They drive on, but it is not easy. Rubber for tires being non-existent due to wartime shortages, they devise a makeshift tire by wrapping a rope around the wheel. It almost seems as if they could walk faster than the car, with military detritus and crowds of retreating soldiers slowing the pace. They interview starving civilians, share food with soldiers, observe field artillery decorated with greenery in celebration of war’s end, and see mutinying soldiers rising up against the military. The Runaway Correspondents’ positive interactions with the people of Germany melt away their hatred as they see them as fellow humans, not the evil enemy as Germans have been portrayed for the four years of the war. This prompts the five men to take an oath to devote their lives to telling the truth about war, that it is murder and devastation.

The Runaway Correspondents learn that Field Marshal Hindenburg is in Kassel overseeing the German troop demobilization. When they arrive at Kassel, they are greeted by General Wilhelm Groener, whose head is wrapped in a bandage. Lincoln asks: Herr General has not been wounded, I hope? To which Groener replies: the General has not been wounded; he’s just lost a world war and has a headache.

Groener escorts them to Hindenburg’s office. Hindenburg is in his grey-green military uniform, a giant in stature. A grim juggernaut, he responds icily, monosyllabically, to the Runaway Correspondents’ questions. Slowly, he opens up and talks about the rapid withdrawal of troops to the east of the Rhine River. He continues: the terms of the armistice are harsh, but, we are doing our best to meet the terms. With despair marking his face, he says: the unending naval blockade of the Allies is a hardship for Germany — the people are starving.

All of this aside, Lincoln and George repeatedly ask their main, burning question: what was chiefly responsible for Germany’s defeat?

Hindenburg admits: the American infantry, with their numbers and their zest, won the war. We were just about to end the war, as it was a stalemate. With the balance of power as it was, one drop of water poured into either side would upset the balance. The American command had that drop of water, they sent new divisions into battle when I had not even a broken division to plug up the gaps in the front line…he trails off.

Hindenburg bursts into tears.

The interview is over. The Runaway Correspondents race to publish their coveted scoop, hoping for triumphant articles on the first pages of their newspapers. However, not only are the stories blocked by American military censorship, they are also court-martialed by the Press Division for breaking the terms of the armistice. Tensions are high; the French are furious and want the five men shot as a warning against unauthorized visits to Germany.

Lincoln, cunningly working his contacts, submits a letter into evidence at the court martial from Colonel Edward M. House, President Woodrow Wilson’s adviser. Colonel House states that what the Runaway Correspondents did is of great value and interest to the people of the United States. This letter, in addition to their good military records, ends the court martial.

The five men go back to work in December 1918. The dismissal of the court martial of the Runaway Correspondents is predicated on the restriction or complete redaction of humanizing facts from their stories, including Hindenburg’s opinion of who won the war. While they can publish stories, the humanization of the Germans cannot be portrayed. Humanization of the Germans might allow questioning and shock at the harsh terms of the armistice and the impending Treaty of Versailles.

Lessons to Be Learned Today

War correspondents during WWI were on a tight leash. While this protected troop movement and lives, published stories generally advanced a falsely positive narrative and whitewashed the reality of the war, with its agony and devastation. Reports from the war were carefully censored by burying or completely eliminating alarming facts. This propaganda was used to manufacture pro-war public opinions. However, propaganda can have unintended consequences.

Propaganda filled the vacuum in the absence of Hindenburg’s statement about who won the war. Hindenburg’s right-hand man, General Erich Ludendorff, spread a conspiracy theory, which was promulgated by right-wing groups as well. Ludendorff’s conspiracy was that, despite evidence to the contrary, groups such as communists, socialists, international bankers, and, importantly, the Jews — were responsible for Germany’s defeat. This lie accused these condemned groups of “stabbing” the German Army “in the back” by treacherously undermining the German Army on the home front, therefore weakening it.

This “stab in the back” lie is based on the Siegfried legend of Germanic mythology, which plays a huge role in German culture. The great hero, Siegfried (symbolizing the German Army), with superhuman powers, is betrayed, stabbed in the back, and killed by Hagen, a treacherous dwarf (symbolizing the unfairly condemned groups). Ludendorff, knowing that the German public would be familiar with this imagery, craftily exploited this Siegfried legend in order to control the message to the German public. He selfishly did not want blame for losing the war on the army, or indeed, himself. He then influenced Hindenburg into spreading this invidious “stab in the back” lie to the German public, who absorbed it readily, as Hindenburg was a trusted and wildly popular war hero. This lie fueled hatred and allowed the German population to focus their grief on the aforementioned maligned groups instead of facing the truth that Germany had been vanquished. Subsequently, attacks on these maligned groups escalated after the war and well into the 1920’s and 1930’s. The German Army was off the hook for losing the war, and the German population felt vindicated. And bitter.

The censorship of Hindenburg’s opinion that the Americans won the war has a possible unintended consequence that is not readily apparent. The impact of this well-informed opinion could have been immense had it been quickly and widely distributed throughout Germany. It might have eliminated or at least mitigated the “stab in the back” lie, and history might have taken a different tack. This begs a fanciful counterfactual question, was there a moment in time to create different, less horrific circumstances that would have stopped the rise of Nazism and the slaughter of a second world war? Would publishing the story that Germany lost the war due to the American forces have created a different path forward, helping Germans to face the truth, taking the air out of authoritarianism and a dictator?

The story of the Runaway Correspondents has been relegated as an unimportant footnote of history, receiving barely a brushstroke in the painting of WWI and its aftermath. Had these five men not broken the armistice, under pain of death, Hindenburg’s declaration that the Americans won the war might not exist at all. Since it does exist, a lesson should be learned about censorship. Today’s propaganda (e.g., lies, conspiracy theories, “fake news”) censors or deflects attention from the facts at critical times, in a similar fashion to censorship during WWI, in order to mold public opinion. Stemming future, possibly horrible, unintended consequences by uncovering the truth (with a nod that truth can be malleable) should be everyone’s duty.

How can we do this? The search for the truth generally does not involve as much personal danger as faced the Runaway Correspondents, but it does take effort and perception. Techniques about how to recognize propaganda are available online, but the propaganda spreaders expect that consumers of news will not educate themselves, out of laziness or just being too busy.

Importantly, one’s own confirmation bias should be acknowledged when reading news from any source, including those that one deems reputable. Key to this is understanding that a well-crafted lie can have a grain of truth to it. If the truth is not disentangled from the lie, a person will be pulled in like a magnet: if they said this, and I think that is true, then this other bit they said that I’m not sure about must also be true. It is a harder matter to fight propaganda than an outright lie due to this grain of truth. Propaganda is persuasive, seductive, and effective: at use is a double-edged sword of reason and emotion, plunged deep into the heart of the truth.

We have to have our wits about us. The need for an informed and savvy populace, which can route authoritarianism and dictators, is dire.

Margaret Strubel is a history fan, a birdwatcher, and a concerned American living in California.