Last week, while reading Francesco Filippi’s Mussolini ha fatto anche cose buone: le idiozie che continuano a circolare sul fascismo (Mussolini also did some good things: the idiocies that keep going around about fascism), I came across a reference to the Réflexions d’un historien sur les fausses nouvelles de la guerre, by French historian Marc Bloch, a name earlier mentioned on this blog with regard to his landmark book Apologie pour l’histoire: ou métier d’historien (written in 1941, first published in French in 1949; English translation as The historian’s craft, Manchester University Press, 1954).
Photo from the website of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Published in 1921 in the Revue de synthèse historique, Bloch’s article (translated as Reflections of a Historian on the False News of the War in the Michigan War Studies Review) gave the French historian an opportunity to go back to his own First World War experiences also through the lens of some works, then recently published, which had addressed the issue of false news at times of war (Lucien Graux, one of the authors discussed by Bloch, will – like the historian himself – be murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War: both men had become members of the French Resistance, and Bloch was also of Jewish descent).
The whole article makes for great reading, and among the many exemplary passages are those discussing Germans’ fears and (as a consequence) false reporting on Belgian snipers, or Bloch’s own memories of a German POW whose city of residence got deformed – by the multiple accounts of the soldier’s capture by the French – from the original Hanseatic town of Bremen into the frontline French village of Braisne, therefore transforming an ordinary private into a spy (with fifth column’s rumours always convenient to the military propaganda machine).
What mostly captured my attention, though, are two more general – one would almost say, methodological – observations (see quotes below) made by Bloch in his article, and grounded in his own research about false news (or legends) in the European Middle Ages, such as those described in his book (1924) Les rois thaumaturges: Étude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué a la puissance royale particulièrement en France et en Angleterre (English translation The royal touch: Sacred monarchy and scrofula in England and France, Routledge, 1973).
«False news is probably born of imprecise individual observations or imperfect eyewitness accounts, but the original accident is not everything: by itself, it really explains nothing. The error propagates itself, grows, and ultimately survives only on one condition—that it finds a favorable cultural broth in the society where it is spreading. Through it, people unconsciously express all their prejudices, hatreds, fears, all their strong emotions. Only great collective states of mind — I will have occasion to return to this later — have the power to transform a misperception into a legend»
«Finally, add to these minds susceptible to unconscious recall a mass of old literary motifs, the ones that the basically impoverished human imagination has always nourished from the dawn of time — stories of acts of treason, of poisonings, of mutilations, of women gouging out the eyes of wounded warriors — of which bards and troubadours used to sing and which serials and movies popularize today. Such are the emotional states and the intellectual representations that prepare the way for the formation of legend. Such is the traditional material that provides the legend its elements» (pp. 3, 7-8 of the English tranlsation).
Bolds in the quotes are mine and aimed at the inspirational – or rather, distressing – similarities between the time of First World War and now. Then, as now, false news need(ed) a “favorable cultural broth” to appeal people’s “prejudices, hatreds, fears and strong emotions”. While present-day social media – far beyond the role played by traditional mass media – have helped making of each and every individual with an internet connection a potential “troubadour”, a creator or (distorted) amplifier of those motifs «that the basically impoverished human imagination has always nourished from the dawn of time».
Marc Bloch’s photo from the Smithsonian Magazine‘s article History heroes: Marc Bloch.