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C. Fraser Smith: Remembering, being vigilant about big lie

CHICAGO — At the grand Field Museum, visitors may walk through a maze of brightly colored posters and photographs with lengthy captions. Set purposely at somewhat disorienting angles, the cartoon-style art introduces “The State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.”

First offered last fall at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the affecting show is making a nationwide tour.

None of us should ever forget. Nor should we underestimate the cunning of those who would deceive and control us.

History shows the big lie can serve evildoers by blinding otherwise right-thinking people to underlying schemes. Lying would be the least of the crimes committed under Adolf Hitler, but it was one of the starting points in his campaign to rule Germany and the world.

He had help. The Great Depression, bank failures, unemployment and a humiliating peace after World War I drew many to his side.

“State of Deception” shows once again how Hitler’s propaganda machine took control of a nation. A panoply of falsehood hovered over public discourse. In the 1920s and 1930s, lying became a major weapon in the arsenal of the Nazi Party.

In 1928, the show recounts, the party was a minor player in German politics. By 1932, it was the largest party in the country. Hitler became the personification of a “new Germany.” The nation was polarized, the political right versus the left. The parties could not work together. Government was failing.

At the same time, the Nazi Party took control of many newspapers.

Propaganda had a free rein. Media — posters, powerful slogans, martial music — short-circuited judgment.

All of this led to World War II and the extermination of 6 million Jews.

It’s a cautionary tale. Nations, including this one, must inform themselves and stand up to those who deal in fear, hate and lies.

Surely, nothing approaching the Third Reich is on the horizon of this country in 2014. But the power of half-truths, selective use of facts and outright lying is not totally beyond our experience. The presidential campaigns of 2012 offer a sobering look at the level of political discourse.

The last presidential campaign seemed at times to display lying as a strategy. When the truth was applied to various assertions on the campaign trail, the untruth had done its mischief. A lie, they say, gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.

Playing fast and loose with the truth illustrated the potential for calamity. Loose lips could sink … the whole country.

As if some level of untruth were acceptable, though, offenders were graded on a scale that seemed to range from fib to “pants on fire.” Some of the monitors refrained from calling these false statements lies. The benefit of the doubt was accorded even the most egregious examples of misstatement.

Without presuming to know what motivated those with their clothing aflame, we should all be shocked and dismayed. “Pants on fire,” indeed. The conduct was deplorable. If the candidate was not capable of avoiding misstatements, he or she was not worthy of anyone’s vote. And yet many offenders had considerable support.

Hence the importance of this exhibit. The voter may or may not see what’s happening. Something like the Great Recession — desperation caused by financial crisis and unemployment — may provide cover for the unscrupulous.

Concerns of this sort motivated the Holocaust Museum to send this show on the road. Joanna Wasserman, the education initiatives manager at the Holocaust Museum and a Baltimorean, wants the exhibition to help people to see in more detail how these campaigns work.

“We want people to think critically about the world around them,” Wasserman said.

Another Holocaust museum official said the propaganda initiative is relevant and needed to help people recognize language of inclusion and exclusion between groups that can have very negative consequences.

No further evidence is needed.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]