As the tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland began, the first sign of the Nazi’s cruelty is plain to see. The sign, as featured above, is perhaps one of the cruellest in history.
“Arbeit macht frei” means “Work sets you free.”
That is what the thousands of prisoners saw as they entered, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. They were leaving their freedom behind; most would never claim it back. They swapped names for numbers and their clothes for striped pyjamas.
At university, I studied Holocaust Literature. For months, we went over some horrifying books from survivors as well as disturbing videos. Still, nothing could prepare me for that sign. How can humankind be so cruel?
Even in today’s society, it’s a lie. Work will not set you free. Of course, we all need to do it to exist. But we needn’t sacrifice ourselves to it.
The thing is, lies are everywhere, and they usually aren’t adorning the entrance to a concentration camp. They surround us and have moulded our society. Here are a few more of the most significant lies in history.
The pictured sign is the tip of the iceberg. Back in the 1930s, a man called Joseph Goebbels had complete authority over the German media. Government-made radios were so cheap; nearly every household had one. On the one channel that came with it, Goebbels spouted out whatever he needed to galvanize support for the Nazi party.
Radio wardens enforced people were listening to the broadcasts. By 1939, the party controlled 69% of the newspapers, with editors told to join or be dismissed. Furthermore, newspapers could only print stories favourable to and approved by the Nazis.
Goebbels used this to insight anti-Semitism, blaming Germany’s problems on the Jews. Over time, people were brainwashed into worshipping and idolizing Hitler.
By scapegoating the Jews, Hitler was able to test “the big lie.” Hitler believed that if a lie is big enough, people will believe it if you repeat it frequently. Moreover, everyone tells small lies, but few have the guts to tell colossal lies. So people will believe it.
Now, you probably know all of this. So why am I writing? The topic is relatively unfathomable, even to this day. When studying at university, one of the questions we were repeatedly told to come back to was “how can you understand it?”
In truth, you can’t. We just need to remember.
It’s a sombre topic, I know. With the accessibility of modern technology, such a regime is unlikely to happy again, in the West at least.
It goes to show that if someone says the right things often enough, then you may believe them. The world is filled with “yes men.” Hitler’s inner circle was. More often than not, people need to be put in place. If no one ever said “no” to anything, society would’ve ground to a halt a long time ago.
The German people suffered greatly after the Great Depression, and Hitler pounced. He blamed the Jews and gave his public a minority to rally against.
We all know what happened next.
The Trojan Horse
The Trojan Paris absconded with Helen, the wife of the Spartan king. War then subsequently erupted. It waged for ten years until the Trojans finally thought they had won. It turns out; the Greeks had another idea.
The Greeks built a giant wooden horse with a hollow belly, cramming all of their men inside. They then convinced their enemy that it was a peace offering, which the Trojans gladly accepted.
That night, the Greeks slipped out via a trap door, slaughtering the Trojans and winning the war.
Of course, we don’t know for sure if it’s true. One theory suggests it was merely a battering ram in the shape of a horse, for example. Nevertheless, it has won a place in the Western imagination.
We like to build stories in our head. The idea of a secret wooden horse invasion is unbelievable and is something we would like to believe. In more practical terms, it teaches soldiers not to accept gifts from the enemy. For you and I, it’s different.
Sometimes, it’s fun to let your mind wander. If it’s true, then the Greeks sure did. One of history’s most significant lies is one of history’s most creative victories.
Every day, I am trying to finetune my mind to be more creative. Perhaps one day I’ll find my Trojan horse.
The Piltdown Man
Now for a lesser-known lie.
When Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species,’ scientists around the world sought to find fossils of human ancestors. By 1910, a man called Charles Dawson claimed to have found them.
He found pieces of a skull and jaw with molars located in the Piltdown quarry in Sussex, England. Naturally, the discovery garnered the attention of the world. As the years wore on, however, the lie began to unravel.
Four decades later, tests revealed that the skull was only 600 years old and the jaw was from an orangutan, not a human ancestor. Someone had manipulated the findings, going to such detail as to file the teeth down.
The culprit is widely believed to be Martin A. C. Hinton, a museum volunteer at the time.
Too often, when we enter the unknown, we latch on to the first bit of information we can find. While technology was limited back in 1910, the point still stands.
Just before I began my degree, lots of people told me “your A-Levels (the qualification you do at school just before university in the UK) are much harder.” I had no idea what to expect, so I believed them. It turns out, I was wrong. So wrong. I left the first lecture, bamboozled.
In the race to be first, we often forget what is most important — to be right. If you don’t know something, ask. Research. It’ll make you more aware and intelligent at the same time.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
You probably know how this played out. The Soviet Union continuously lied about the nature of their activities in Cuba, until a US spy-plane captured photos of missiles capable of containing nuclear warheads.
President John. F Kennedy then announced the news to the world in 1962. He then installed a ‘naval quarantine’ around the area, before the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev finally agreed to take the missiles back to Russia.
Out of history’s most perilous near misses produced one of the greatest decisions.
Kennedy’s advisors gave him one option — destroy the missile sights with the full might of America’s army, before invading Cuba. Fight fire with fire. He held back. As Ryan Holiday writes in Stillness Is Key:
“Kennedy wanted everyone to slow down so that they could really think about the problem in front of them.”
Lies make people angry. In situations as large as the Missile Crisis, anger can lead to millions of deaths. Sometimes, it pays to slow down, find some stillness and go over your options. You may save yourself a painful memory or prevent a nuclear holocaust. It’s all relative.
Breaking the Japanese Code in WW2
During the Second World War, American intelligence experts suspected “AF” to be Japanese code for the island of Midway. The experts sent this information to their superiors but were quickly rebuffed. They needed evidence.
So, a fake transmission went out, claiming Midway’s water supply had been disrupted. The Japanese intercepted it and relayed the information back to their high command. “AF is short of water.”
This confirmed US intelligence service’s theory and their famous victory at the Battle of Midway turned the tide in the Pacific War. But what can we learn from this?
Lies, on the face of it, are wrong. But, as with the Trojan horse, they can often work in your favour.
In season 7 of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow pledges his allegiance to Daenerys, causing Cersei Lannister to abandon the potential armistice. He was criticized for being “too honest.”
Sometimes, a little white lie doesn’t hurt. I’ve often lied and told people I don’t know I need to be somewhere to get out of the small talk. Lies don’t have to be all-evil.
Notice a common theme? Some of the greatest lies in history are war-related. People lie to win. It happens whether you’re telling your partner they look good in their new jeans or you’re the President of the United States covering up a scandal. Life is filled with them. Sure, some are damning. Some are haunting. But life isn’t an honest journey.
As Kevin Spacey says in The Usual Suspects:
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that — poof — he’s gone!”