Saturday 11 March 2017 11.00 GMT
An international collection of propaganda posters from before and during the second world war. Composite: UIG/VGC via Getty Images
Truth was the first casualty of the Great Depression. Reflecting the anguish of the time, propaganda was manufactured on an unprecedented scale. As economic disaster threatened to trigger shooting wars so, as George Orwell said, useful lies were preferred to harmful truths. He went further, declaring that history stopped in 1936; after that there was only propaganda.
This was a characteristic exaggeration but it points to the universality of state deception. The very term Depression aimed to mislead: President Hoover employed it as a euphemism for the standard American word for financial crisis, “Panic”. Hence the poet WH Auden’s verdict that this was a “low dishonest decade”, a conclusion he reached in a New York dive on 1 September 1939 while attempting to “undo the folded lie … the lie of Authority.” It was the end of a decade in which, as Auden wrote elsewhere: “We have seen a myriad faces / ecstatic from one lie.”
Of course, to lie is human, and official mendacity had been practised throughout the ages. But it was developed intensively during the first world war, notably under the direction of Lord Northcliffe, founder of the popular press in Britain and portrayed in Germany as “the father of lies”. Particularly effective were his attacks on the Kaiser, who was portrayed (in a leaflet dropped behind German lines) as marching with his six sons, all in full military regalia, past a host of outstretched skeletal arms, the caption reading: “One family which has not lost a single member.
The world was especially confused by the show trials choreographed by Stalin during the Great Purge. The crimes to which the defendants confessed were so fantastic that their guilt seemed inconceivable. Yet, as the economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The speeches of the prisoners made me feel they somehow believe their confessions to be true”. He was baffled, as was Thomas Mann, who called the trials “ugly riddles”.
A number of well-informed observers took the charges at face value, while others dismissed the entire proceedings as a cruel piece of agitprop. In a typically revolting image, the French novelist Céline said the Soviets had dressed up a turd and tried to present it as a caramel. Many foreigners, lacerated by more immediate troubles, took the clash of opinion as a licence to withhold judgment. They found it impossible to determine the truth in a world dominated by what Pasternak called “the inhuman power of the lie”.