BERLIN—Lügenpresse—lying press—is a word with a very particular pedigree in Germany that’s been adopted by wingnuts on the right in the United States and tossed around as a novel way to say “fake news” or, indeed, “f*** you, reporters.” It rang out in the streets of Charlottesville in August, and it pops up often in the twittersphere.
That it echoes the rhetoric of the Nazis is sadly appropriate to the present, when ideologues try to own the “truth” by branding all others as purveyors of lies. It’s a pattern we’ve seen solidly established even (and especially) in the White House, where an administration that came to office by claiming Barack Obama was born in Kenya, three million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton, and the inauguration of Donald Trump saw the biggest crowd ever, now lectures professional reporters about their “responsibility to tell the truth.”
George Orwell, long before he wrote his nightmare novel of totalitarianism, 1984, noted that a special contribution of the Nazis was to destroy the very notion of commonly accepted facts. “Nazi theory,” Orwell wrote in 1942, “specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘science.’ There is only ‘German science,’ ‘Jewish science,’ etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five—well, two and two are five.”
Some modern-day neo-Nazis like to use the Lügenpresse slur, not in spite of its associations, but because of them. This, even though Nazi propagandists used it mainly against the foreign press. (They used even more abusive terms to vilify the domestic press—before taking control of it.) But the term's ugly history is such that others on the extreme right, even today, even in the United States, are put off by it.
Over the summer, a balding middle-aged American science fiction writer who goes by the pseudonym Vox Day set up a “Wikipedia” of sorts called Infogalactic for the alt-right so that like-minded partisans don’t have to deal with the real Wikipedia. But please don’t think that means Day is a fan of the hashtag Lügenpresse. When I got in touch with Day, who is notoriously touchy about being called a white supremacist, he dismissed Lügenpresse as a word “for Nazi wannabes who read it in Mein Kampf.”
(In point of fact, it wasn't one of Hitler's particular favorites. It doesn't appear in his book, and he only used it once in print, in a 1922 essay. But of course it still benefits, if that is the word, from his aura.)
In the United States, the epithet gained wide notoriety after a neo-Nazi yelled it at a Vice reporter during the Charlottesville protests, but in far-right circles the slur got its launch after a prominent white nationalist, Bradley Dean Griffin, read about it three years ago and advertised it as the German term for the “lying, anti-white media“ on his blog, Occidental Dissent.
And this is where the historical connotations really come home to the present.
Griffin says he picked up the word from a xenophobic street movement, Pegida, in Germany.
“If we had 40,000 angry people marching through the streets in this country [as Pegida did in Germany], we would be making waves, too,” Griffin blogged in 2015. He lamented that the U.S. movement was still stuck “venting on the internet under anonymous pseudonyms.”
Pegida, for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West,“ was born in the fall of 2014 when right-wing activists in Dresden set up a Facebook event for an “evening stroll” through the city center to oppose “Islamization.”
Within a matter of weeks, the strolls had morphed into a spectacle of up to 20,000 protesters. And when journalists from around the country rushed to the scene of action to investigate, they encountered a number of men who would erupt with a barrage of angry words the minute a microphone was raised to their spittle-flecked lips.
Scenes from unedited footage included one man with a Saxon accent who insisted that it was all “totally normal people who rightly want to express their concerns,” before he was interrupted by shaky-looking pensioner who paced back and forth while telling a reporter, “War refugees? I don’t believe it, these are freeloaders!”
Unsurprisingly, the coverage that followed was not flattering. And suddenly, the Pegida strollers refused to say anything more. “You only lie!“ and “I don’t have to tell you!” is what they told reporters. They began to chant “Lügenpresse" while marching at night, holding up bright banners and mobile phones as if at a rock concert.
Ordinary citizens felt a rush as sentiments they thought verboten were being aired in public for the first time, and in such a festive way. And of course, hundreds of neo-Nazis and football hooligans marched along as well. We don’t know which demonstrators started the chant.
Indeed, it is likely that many of the protesters at the Pegida rallies “would not have known the Nazi connotations of the word,” according to the historian Thomas Weber. For some of the protesters, it is more likely they would associated the slogan “Lügenpresse” with the East German government (who used it to villainize the West German media) or even the ‘68 student demonstrators (who used it to express their anger at how the conservative establishment tabloids were writing about them.)
Others, like Austrian Martin Sellner, an "Identitarian" opposed to immigrants, Islam, and anything he sees as threatening to Western culture as he defines it, knows the word's extreme right history perfectly well. Sellner told The Daily Beast that the slogan was “a Dauerbrenner” (a long- running success) at Pegida rallies. To emphasize his point, Sellner switched to English: getting people to shout the phrase over and over again in front of rolling cameras was, apparently, “solid gold.”
The 28-year-old, whose latest stunt was to crowdfund a campaign to stop rescues of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, still makes a big deal about giving speeches to a modest audience at annual Pegida rallies. Support for the movement has declined, not least because of the rise of the far right AfD party, which managed to come in third in last month's elections. Pegida also suffered after pictures of its founder styled as Adolf Hitler went viral. But back in Sellner’s glory days he was able, in his own words, “to spur the rage of the crowd.”
“You would say: the media wrote that skilled workers were coming, and they showed pictures of women and children. But only untrained men are coming! Then the people would spontaneously start chanting: Lügenpresse!”
Sellner says he “assumes” that his identitarians are “in touch with the alt-right” groups in the United States. Which would make sense—claiming ideological proximity to the European New Right and European Identitarianism has allowed some of the so-called alt-right actors in the U.S. to distance themselves from the in-your-face white supremacists who have also adopted the undefined label.
But Pegida seems to have had extra influence. And not just on people like Brad Griffin, who was left to ponder “why can’t we put together a similar movement in the South” if a movement like Pegida could happen in “the most oppressed country in Europe [Germany].” The “fashy” site American Renaissance also wrote about what lessons could be learned from Pegida’s decline.
And then there is the Twitter account of self-described nativist Ricky Vaughn, who was another early user of the Lügenpresse hashtag in the United States. Vaughn (whose initial account was shut down for hate speech and who was last seen tweeting in disguise under @racistberniebros) told me that he was inspired “clearly” by looking back to the 1930s.
Of course. There are some ideas that only the Nazis really knew how to express.
Christopher Dickey, in Paris, also contributed to this article.