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The age of hyper-terrorism

Jihadis, spectacular mass-casualty attacks and the myth of an apocalyptic new world order.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on 13 February, the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, announced the arrival of an age of unprecedented terror. “We have entered . . . a new era characterised by the lasting presence of ‘hyper-terrorism’ . . . There will be attacks. Large-scale attacks. It’s a certainty. This hyper-terrorism is here to stay. The force of the ideological fascination is formidable, and if we have changed era it is because this hyper-terrorism is in the heart of our societies.”

The attacks on Brussels Airport and on a Metro station during rush hour in the Belgian capital on 22 March show the extreme difficulty of protecting soft targets in open societies. Some will argue that, harbouring a much higher proportion of jihadis than other European countries, Belgium has once again been shown to be a black hole in European security. As it took four months to apprehend Salah Abdeslam, the chief surviving suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks, who was hiding in plain sight in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek, that suggestion may not be unreasonable. But the danger is not confined to any single country, and these atrocities will surely not be the last.

The conditions that produced the co-ordinated assault on Paris and Brussels have not changed. One of the triggers for the attacks has been setbacks for Isis on the ground in Syria. Since Palmyra – until now a symbol of the seemingly unstoppable advance of Isis – has been retaken by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian firepower, there must be a prospect of further mass-casualty operations against European cities. Linking guerrilla-style warfare with spectacular urban terror is one of the group’s trademarks and a feature of the hyper-terrorism that it practises. Occurring only four days after Belgian police finally captured Abdeslam, the Brussels attacks may have been acts of reprisal or defiance. The two suicide bombers whom Belgian law-enforcement officials have named as the perpetrators of the airport attack were already under suspicion for involvement in the November attacks in Paris. Whatever occasioned the most recent actions, Isis has claimed responsibility for all of these atro­cities, and will go on practising its brand of terrorism in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Unlike the IRA, hyper-terrorists are moved not by the prospect of achieving any concrete goals but by apocalyptic myths of a new world. Because this vision is unrealisable, hyper-terrorism will continue in some form for as long as the groups that practise it continue to function as effective forces.

Yet if hyper-terrorism seems sure to be a lasting presence, this is not just because of current conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The roots of violent jihadism lie in aspects of contemporary life that prevailing theories of modernisation – which have guided the West’s disastrous interventions in Muslim-majority countries – ignore or deny. According to these theories, Islamic societies are engaged in a struggle to catch up with the West. The journey may be long and arduous but there is no alternative. To modernise means to replicate the course of development that culminated in the liberal-democratic nation state. Once this process has been repeated in Islamic societies, the jihadist threat will diminish and eventually disappear.

Some such theory informs the faddish discourse of radicalisation, which tells us that people join Isis and similar jihadist groups because they have been brainwashed. Indoctrinated into extremist beliefs, they embark on a career of savagery and terror that they would never otherwise have envisioned. Prised out from their own societies, they then throw away their lives in the service of a suicide cult. But it is a cult that has set itself against the modern world, and all it can do is revel in nihilistic violence.

This is a frightening picture, but it is also decidedly optimistic. If the young men and women who leave the London suburbs and the banlieue of Paris to fight in Syria or Iraq have been indoctrinated, the problem can be solved by re-educating them. Like children who have been abducted by a freakish sect, they can be deprogrammed and reintegrated into the mainstream. In this comforting story, jihadism is a roadblock standing in the way of what Barack Obama has called “the arc of history”. Liberal values show the direction in which all of humankind wants to move. Once the roadblock has been removed, the normal course of progress can resume.

One difficulty with this reassuring story is that it passes over the role of Western policies in creating the conditions from which Isis emerged. Much of the ruling elite of Isis was recruited from the secular Ba’ath Party, in the vacuum the Americans created when they dismantled the state of Iraq shortly after invading the country. Equally, the Western policy of promoting regime change in Syria has had the effect of strengthening Isis (in part by relying on exaggerated or non-existent “moderate forces”). And toppling Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya has created a zone of anarchy from which jihadists can operate freely, and through which hundreds of thousands more desperate migrants may flow into Europe this summer.

But there is a still larger flaw in the ­ruling narrative, in which terrorism will wither away as the Middle East modernises. The belief that underpins Western policies, which holds that the overthrow of despots allows a popular embrace of liberal values, is groundless. Liberal democracy is not the modern norm and everything else a temporary aberration. The modern world has been as fertile in producing tyrannies as democracies, if not more so, and there is no reason why this should cease to be the case in future.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has been followed not by any sort of liberal regime, but by a hypermodern autocracy that has achieved high levels of popular support by promoting Russian nationalism and Orthodoxy through skilful use of the media. Demonstrating a capacity for framing and implementing policies with defined and realisable goals that no Western government has displayed in the Middle East, it is this autocracy that, with a short, sharply focused and easily renewed military intervention, has secured the power to dictate the terms of any possible peace in Syria. Again, post-Mao China is not moving towards becoming a Western-style economy or polity. Market reform, which everyone in the West expected would continue, is being set aside in order to consolidate the power of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. Each of these regimes faces large challenges – Russia the risk of a long period of low oil prices, China the hazards of economic slowdown. But in neither case is there any reason to suppose they will respond with policies of liberalisation: an increase in authoritarian repression (not necessarily unpopular) is far more likely.

Meanwhile, Western institutions – supposedly the endpoint of a global process of development – are also mutating. A type of illiberal democracy is on the march in post-communist Europe, while the European Union is in a state of paralysis and even disintegration. In these circumstances, the belief that liberal values are on “the right side of history” is an expression of blind faith.

The dangers of this faith are illustrated in Western policies towards Saudi ­Arabia – the country that has been at the centre of global jihadism. Liberals rail against Western policies that allowed the Saudi ambassador to join the march in support of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and enabled a Saudi representative to have a key role on the Human Rights Council at the UN. Certainly there is an element of black comedy in a regime that sentences a peaceful blogger to a thousand lashes and that denies elementary freedoms to its female population being touted as an authority on human rights. But this evident absurdity masks a more intractable truth, which liberals deny: there is no realistic prospect of human rights being respected in Saudi Arabia at any time in the foreseeable future. If the House of Saud is toppled, it will be replaced by something worse – a state of anarchy, followed by a regime that would enforce theocracy and promote jihadism more wholeheartedly and ruthlessly than the Saudis have done.


The role of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in promoting Wahhabism – a variant of Sunni fundamentalism that emerged in the desert region of Najd during the 18th century – is not in doubt. Nor are the affinities between the teachings of Wahhabism’s founder, Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), and the most extreme jihadist movements today. ‘Abd al-Wahhab condemned the Islam of his day as decadent and impure. Practices such as Sufism and reverence for saints were idolatrous; anyone involved in them was not a Muslim but an infidel who could lawfully be killed. When the Ibn Saud clan adopted ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching in the 1740s, this was the doctrine it accepted.

The genealogy of jihadist thinking is complex and includes important strands derived from radical Western ideologies such as Leninism and fascism. There are many varieties of jihadism, whose origins and identities are intensely contested, both by scholars and by the very groups. Some have described Isis as Salafist-jihadist – one of a host of groups holding to a fundamentalist version of Islam that were radicalised by the war in Afghanistan and joined conflicts in Iraq, Syria, the Russian Caucasus and elsewhere. Like al-Qaeda before it, Isis is a hybrid expressing many ideas and forces. Even so, there are many points of contact between ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabism and the ideas driving groups such as Isis.

Wahhabism might have remained a marginal current within Islam were it not for two events: the appropriation of ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching as the theological source of state authority when the present Saudi kingdom was founded in the 1930s, and the oil wealth it accumulated in the second half of the 20th century, which has been used to export Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, and to countries beyond it – including Belgium, where Saudi-funded Salafists have been active in many mosques.

The commitment to Wahhabism is essential in legitimating the Saudi state. It is also pivotal in the Saudi conflict with Shia Iran. Adhering to rival versions of Islam, the two states are locked in an escalating struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. But Western geopolitical strategies have played a part in enabling the Saudi state to serve as a channel for jihadism. When in February 1945 the then Saudi monarch, Abdul Aziz, met Franklin D Roosevelt on an American warship in the course of the president’s return from the Yalta Conference, the Saudi state became an integral part of the postwar Western power structure.

As an ally of the West, the kingdom has secured the flow of oil in exchange for a guarantee of its own security – a mutually advantageous arrangement, but one that has had some unfortunate consequences. By turning a blind eye to ways in which funds flowing from Saudi Arabia have promoted the beliefs that fuel jihadist movements (and also failing to admit the role of Pakistan, another supposed ally, in backing the Taliban in Afghanistan), Western governments ensured that the “war on terror” that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks would be a gruesome fiasco. (Fifteen of the 19 militants who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Saudi.)

The Saudi case is instructive for several reasons. For one thing, it demonstrates the continuing potency of religion in politics and war. Endemic conflict in the Middle East has many different sources, including inheritances from European colonialism, the follies of recent Western policies and geopolitical rivalries between the major regional powers. Even so, these conflicts are also wars of religion.

According to prevailing theories, when societies modernise they become more secular; over time, religious faith becomes a private matter. But this is to generalise from a highly specific history. Originating in the European wars of religion, secularisation is a late offshoot of Judaism and Christianity. (Nothing like the separation of church and state existed in ancient Greece or Rome, which lacked the idea of “religion” as a distinct sphere of life.) While Islam has produced regimes of pluralism and toleration, such as the one that existed in the Ottoman empire when Europe was still blighted by religious wars and persecution, there is no reason for thinking that Muslim cultures are going to embrace secularisation or liberal values, even over the long run. Attempting to export these practices and values to countries with very different histories has predictably counterproductive results.


The Saudi case is also instructive in demonstrating the vanity of liberal hopes of reform. The kingdom can no more be reconstituted on a liberal model than could Iraq, Libya or Syria. In every case, the regime and the state are closely intertwined: if you overthrow one, you destroy the other. In the Saudi case, the House of Saud is the Saudi state – the product of a strategic bargain between the ruling dynasty and Wahhabism. The predictable result of any attempt at reform would be to threaten this pact. At that point, Isis or some successor Salafist-jihadist group would step in as the embodiment of true Wahhabism. The monster the Saudis have fed would then ­devour them.

This is a danger of which the new Saudi king, Salman, seems all too aware, and may account for Saudi Arabia’s untypically direct involvement in Yemen and threats to put boots on the ground in Syria. There is a mood of mounting panic beneath these and other Saudi policies. Levering down the oil price through oversupply may be a tool in the Saudis’ attempt to maintain market share by bankrupting the US shale industry. But it is also a response to the re-emergence of Iran as an energy superpower. Burning rapidly through the surplus wealth that has helped the Saudis to buy off fundamentalist forces, it is a risky tactic. As the former diplomat John Jenkins wrote in this magazine last year, the Saudis feel besieged on all sides. In these circumstances, the kingdom’s ruling dynasty is not going to compound the dangers it faces by implementing liberal reforms that could undermine the basis of its very existence.

When they insist that the future for the Middle East lies in moving towards liberal democracy, progressive thinkers demonstrate a refusal to learn from history – and not only that of the Middle East. Where some sort of democracy can be found in the region – as in Iran and the rump state of Iraq – it is of an illiberal variety that promotes sectarianism. The regimes of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Carlos Menem in Argentina were democratic inasmuch as they recognised the will of the people as expressed in elections to be the ultimate source of political authority; but they also recognised few limitations on the powers of government. Illiberal democracy is a recurring feature of modern political life which is now under­going a resurgence.

Nineteenth-century liberals recognised that democracy comes in various forms, and dreaded the version advocated by Rousseau, in which an inspired lawgiver interprets and implements the will of the people. Nowadays such fears are dismissed as elitist. But the old-fashioned liberals grasped a vital truth: popular government has no necessary connection with the freedom of individuals or minorities. Of course, liberals today will say this can be remedied by installing the rule of constitutional rights. Such systems are fragile, however, and count for nothing when large sections of society are indifferent or actively hostile to liberal values. Where this is the case, democracy means not much more than the tyranny of the majority.

In Europe the dissociation of democracy from liberalism is a rising trend. Until recently it was possible to view Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary – even though he has described it as an illiberal democracy akin to those of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey – as a one-off affair. Since the election of the Law and Justice party in Poland last October, that is no longer possible. Orbán has used various devices – including announcing a referendum, which he will undoubtedly win, authorising him to reject EU migrant quotas – to transform the Hungarian political system into a type of democratic authoritarianism.

The new Polish regime has gone further, altering beyond recognition institutions that were put in place in the country after the fall of communism. The political independence of the constitutional court, the judiciary and the civil service has been curtailed and pluralism in the media attacked. Echoes of a dark past can be heard in reports that the government is considering stripping Princeton’s distinguished, Polish-born Holocaust scholar Jan Tomasz Gross of the Order of Merit because he has noted the participation of parts of the Polish population in anti-Semitic mass murders during the years of Nazi occupation.

Linking illiberal democracy in Europe with developments in the Middle East, Turkey, under the leadership of Erdogan, has swung towards popular authoritarianism, clamping down on freedom in the media and expanding his powers as president to enable greater control of the machinery of state. Brussels condemns these developments but is powerless to do anything about them. Indeed, the deal to block migrant flows that Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is promoting with Turkey would strengthen Erdogan’s power – without in any way changing Turkey from a semi-failed state that treats the Kurds as a greater threat than Isis. Whatever pretensions the EU may have had as a guarantor of liberal values have been shown to be practically worthless.

The shift to illiberal democracy in Europe (and in the United States, through the rise of Donald Trump) has a number of causes, but the migrant crisis is the most powerful one. Merkel’s declaration that migrants were welcome was at first lauded by liberals throughout the world, while the refusal by post-communist countries to accept EU migrant quotas provoked indignation in Brussels. Yet the progressive states of Scandinavia are little different: Sweden is apparently ready now to reject large numbers of asylum applications and deport many of those who have already arrived. There is a logic to these responses that liberals are unwilling to understand. Open borders, liberal democracy and highly developed welfare states are not simultaneously sustainable. Except where it adjoined the Romanov and Ottoman empires, pre-1914 Europe could be largely borderless because democracy was limited and the welfare state only just beginning. In Britain, controls on immigration were put in place with the Aliens Act 1905. But in continental Europe the chief drivers of immigration control were the First World War and the ensuing rise of self-determining nation states from the ruins of collapsed empires.

Today, large-scale immigration comes up against resistance from majorities that see migrants as threats to welfare provision (and their wage levels). Lacking democratic legitimacy, having no effective control over its perimeter borders and responsible for savage rollbacks in welfare as part of its austerity policies, the EU is finding that this is a trilemma it is incapable of resolving. As a result, the task has fallen to national governments, which have responded by closing borders or introducing emergency controls. It will not be surprising if Germany – following Merkel’s noble-sounding but ill-judged declaration, which empowered the far right in regional elections in March – soon follows suit.

The advance of illiberal democracy in post-communist Europe is part of a larger shift. A continent-wide process of “Orbán­isation” is under way, in which power is leaking away from the EU. Schengen has in effect collapsed, and given that reinstating it would increase flows of migrants to a degree that cannot be democratically legitimated, it will surely not return. However, closing Europe’s borders now will not prevent further terrorist attacks. Thousands of jihadist militants, battle-hardened in Iraq and Syria, may already have slipped into European countries. European institutions lack the capacities that are needed to monitor these flows and take effective action. Given the disintegrative forces that are at work in the European Union, this is not a fully soluble problem.


Europe is ill-prepared to deal with hyper-terrorism, but the phenomenon is hardly unprecedented. Modern history abounds with violence fuelled by apocalyptic myths, not always explicitly religious in nature. When in his 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad depicted the hyper-terrorist of his day, he presented the reader with the Professor, a cere­bral fanatic who announces “doctorally” that the only way humankind can be roused from ignorance and lethargy is through acts of sheer terror. “Madness and despair!” he cries. “Give me that for a lever, and I’ll move the world.” Dedicated to reason and science, the Professor has concluded that both reform and the seizure of power in a conventional revolution are futile. Yet a new world is within reach if terror is applied methodically, and with a ruthless ferocity that seems insane.

Conrad’s Professor and his fellow revolutionists were representative of their time. Especially in Russia, where the casualties (mostly tsarist officials) numbered in the many thousands, the early years of the 20th century were marked by a type of spectacular violence that has striking affinities with the hyper-terrorism of today. Granted, there are important differences. The anarchists did not target the civilian population as Isis does. The myths that possessed anarchists in their campaigns of assassination were not religious; they were secular myths of social transformation. Most importantly, early-20th-century anarchism never acquired a mass base. Violent jihadist movements cannot claim the support of a majority of Muslims anywhere in the world. In the regions it has conquered so far in Iraq and Syria as well as Libya, Isis rules by instilling fear. But no other jihadist organisation so successfully combines ultra-violent fundamentalism with hypermodern propaganda methods and the business structures of a global criminal cartel. It is not unrealistic to think that, in some contexts – a destabilised Saudi Arabia, for instance – a group like Isis could attract significant popular support.

Although liberal thinkers believe that terror declines as societies modernise, the reality is that terror and modernisation have more often gone hand in hand. The aim of the Jacobin terror in revolutionary France was the creation of a modern state. If the violent suppression of the peasant revolt in the Vendée is included, the casualties ran into the hundreds of thousands.

Lenin avowedly followed the Jacobin example when he used the Cheka to create a modern state in Russia. One of the factors that distinguished Nazism and fascism from conventional tyrannies was the belief that a new society could be fashioned by the  systematic use of terror. Violent jihadism has more in common with these modern totalitarian movements than is commonly supposed.

The terrorist threat in Europe today seems unique only because these precedents have been largely forgotten by many people. Calling jihadist violence nihilistic is a symptom of this amnesia. At present, “nihilism” is a vacuous concept whose function is to block out from awareness any evil that cannot be fitted into the ruling progressive narrative. The effect is to underestimate the gravity of the danger. The next wave of hyper-terrorism will not be diverted by education campaigns or by mind-changing therapies. Uncovering members of jihadist networks and those who sponsor and recruit them is a vital task – one that may have been significantly advanced by the reported leak to German intelligence and Western media of Isis documents giving away the identities of more than 20,000 recruits. But the greater danger is of whole societies descending into deeper and more intractable conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, possible upheaval in Saudi Arabia, and other large-scale convulsions that cannot be foreseen. In these conditions, if Isis weakens in coming years it will not be long before new jihadist groups take its place.

Hyper-terrorism today is the product of an interaction of tangled geopolitical conflicts with the resurgence of apocalyptic religion. Dealing with the threat requires an understanding of this combustible mix. The narrative of modernisation that imagines terrorism can be countered by exporting Western institutions impedes any clear perception of the scale of the threat. The ongoing attacks that are now certain continue a history of violence that has shaped the modern world. If hyper-terrorism is here to stay, one reason is that it never went away.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail