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The propagation of false news in wartime.

March 20, 2009, 12:01 am

In 1921 Marc Bloch published a review essay in the Revue de synthèse historique on the propagation of false news in wartime. As far as I know it’s not been published in English, though I think bits of it turn up in the Historian’s Craft, it’s reprinted in Ecrits de guerre, and it’s available as a (very short) book in French. As Carole Fink points out, here Bloch is doing some important spade-work into the critical analysis of myths to reveal what they say about the culture that produces them. Bloch is not interested in propaganda or lies, which he regards as trivial and obvious, but rather in the error that is propagated as fact.

Bloch begins by talking about recent work in the psychology of eyewitness testimony. When can you believe a sincere eyewitness—someone who thinks he is telling the truth?

As any cop will tell you (that’s me talking, not Bloch) the answer is, not very often. Bloch laments, or at least faux-laments, the blow this deals to histories that depend on picturesque detail. The more we learn about eyewitnesses, the less reliable we find they are.

How can we now take seriously the descriptive pieces of history—the colored costumes, the gestures, the ceremonies, the incidents of war, all these odds and ends the romantics love so much—when all around us not a single witness is able to retain correctly the scenes we devour so greedily when we find them in the romantic chronicles? Here the psychologists give us a lesson in skepticism: but it should be added that this skepticism barely scrapes the outer surface of things: legal, or economic, or religious history is untouched; it could be that what is deeper in history is also surer.

Bloch notes with satisfaction how much more accurate history can now be; we can polish out the errors. But not just that: “The error is not only an influence he tries to expunge in making his measurements precise: it is also an object of study in itself, part of understanding the course of human events.” People act on error, sometimes with great effect. So we want to know where false news accounts come from, how and why they flourish—“There is no more pressing question for any student of history.”

And here, Bloch says, the psychological studies don’t really help us. They only look at the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in an isolated incident; they don’t give the erroneous testimony time to find its way forward in the wild. And this is what we want to know: how does that happen?

An error is not propagated, does not develop, and does not live except under one condition: if it finds a society where it can spread in the medium of a congenial culture. Through this error, men can unconsciously find expression for their hatreds, their fears, and all their strong emotions. And only—I will have occasion to return to this further—only a great shared experience of hte heart has the capacity to turn a misperception into a legend.

And as far as those great shared experiences go—well, “fate has brought us in recent years a kind of vast natural experiment. We can by rights regard as such the European war: an immense experiment in social psychology of unprecedented richness.”

Bloch expresses his discontent with Lucien Graux’s collection of false news from the war—there is not here, he says, nearly enough attention to the front, which is where some beautiful stories crop up and flourish; there is not attention to the life of the trenches, and how information propagates there; there is no sense of the medium through which rumor moves: “the supply trucks, the liaison officers, the post orderlies—the whole little world that wandered the roads, the by-ways, and the bowels of the war—the living bond between the front and the rear…”

He appreciates slightly more the work of Albert Dauzat, who treats false news as an intentional creation of someone on the make. And Bloch has a bit more time for the work of Charles Oman, who goes into some detail as to why the legend of the Russian reinforcements spread so rapidly through the front, how it drew strength from the minds of the men at the front and the popular idea of what Russia was like. Bloch says Oman seems not to realize that the rumor spread simultaneously through France as through England, and hazards a guess that it had multiple origins, but these disparate origins funneled toward the same idea: the Russians were, helpfully, coming.

But Bloch really wants to dig into Fernand van Langenhove’s work on how German soldiers came to fear Belgian saboteurs and thus to commit violence against Belgian civilians. Written by a Belgian, in 1917, it is nevertheless written with “probity and calm” and “profound good faith.” Consulting German sources, Langenhove tries to find out why the German soldiers would have been predisposed to view Belgian civilians as such a threat.

Bloch tries to generalize from the experiences Langenhove records to create an abstract account of how false news arises and spreads and gets acted upon.

First there is the collective shock of the war on the psyches of soldiers:

The German soldier, with the war hardly started, enters Belgium; he has suddenly been removed from his fields, his workshop, his family, thrust into the regulated life of the barracks: this sudden expatriation, this abrupt tearing of the basic social bonds gives birth to a great moral disorder. The marches, the bad lodgings, the nights without sleep exhaust the bodies that had no time to adjust to these hard trials. Novice warriors, the invaders are haunted by terrors that grow stronger as they remain necessarily rather vague: “the nerves are oppressed, the imaginations overexcited, the sense of reality shaken.”

Expecting to be greeted—well, not perhaps as liberators, but not prepared for the Belgian resistance, the German soldier is further disrupted: “the hostility of the Belgian population deeply astonish[es] the average German…. his surprise changes easily to indignation; he believes the people who dare to stand up to the chosen nation capable of anything”. Plus he has racketing around in his head legends of the 1870 war, and legends deeper even than that: “stories of treason, poisoning,
mutilation; of women tearing out the eyes of wounded warriors, that formerly troubadours sang and which today populate the cinema and the pulp serial.”

The minds of the soldiers are prepared to believe the worst: to construe error as threat. They see the holes in Belgian housefronts—left by builders to permit repairmen to climb the walls—as sniper-slits. Mislaid munitions are presumed purloined, and prepared to be fired through such slits. The Germans are on edge, and ready to believe evil of the Belgian civilians.

What’s more, once they do, and once they act on it with horrible effect, taking out their fears on the innocent, their suspicions become confirmed as fact.

And (this is a point that seems to have escaped M. van Langenhove) the moment an error becomes the cause of bloodshed it is irrevocably established as truth. Men possessed by blind and brutal anger have burned and killed in the name of a myth; they have from now on to keep a perfectly firm faith in the existence of ‘atrocities,’ which alone can lend the sanction of justice to their fury. We can suppose the majority of them would have refrained from these dreadful acts had they recognized the profound nonsense that underlay their panicky fears — but they never recognized any such thing…. A legend that inspires profoundly cruel actions becomes well-nigh indestructible.

War is thus particularly good at cementing falsehood, even when we discount propaganda and lies.

Bloch recounts some of his own experiences in the war, then sums up:

A false news item is always born from collective representations that predate its birth; it only seems fortuitous, or (more precisely) the only fortuitous thing in it is the initial incident, which can be absolutely any old thing that starts imaginations going — but this setting in motion only works because imaginations are already prepared and secretly percolating. An event, a misperception that did not tend in the direction all minds were already leaning could at most form the origin of an individual error, but not a popular, widespread bit of false news. If I may make my own use of a term to which sociologists give a definition too metaphysical for me, but which is convenient and after all rich in meaning, the false news is the mirror where “the collective conscience” contemplates its own features.

Passion, fatigue, uncertainty born of chaos and one’s awareness of censorship—all characterize wartime and all create perfect conditions for the propagation of myth. (“As a comic said rather well, ‘The prevailing opinion in the trenches was that anything could be true except what they printed.’”)

Bloch concludes by sketching again the structure of the supply lines, the area just behind the front, as a kind of agora where people gathered like medieval “friars” and “hawkers … during fairs and religious festivals.” Here the news churns and gets selected for propagation. He urges further study, closing thus:

The war, as I mentioned above, was an immense
experiment in social psychology. To minimize its horrors while showing pleasure in its experimental interest would show monumental bad taste. But, as it took place, it is best to make use of its lessons for science. We must hasten to profit from such a circumstance, which we may hope will prove to have been unique.

As I’m sure our readers know, not only did Bloch hope in vain, he was killed by the Nazis in 1944 for his participation in the French resistance.

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