A Brief History of 'Lügenpresse,' the Nazi-era Predecessor to Trump's 'Fake News'

Used in World War I to attack enemy propaganda, the phrase 'lying press' resurfaced under the Nazis and during the 2014 anti-immigrant movement in Germany is now staple of Trump's rhetoric.

U.S. President Donald Trump smiles a as he holds a "Make America Great Again" rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump smiles a as he holds a "Make America Great Again" rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2017. Reuters

This article was originally published on February 21, 2017 and re-posted after U.S. President Donald Trump told Mike Huckabee in a Saturday, October 7th interview that "fake news" is "one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with."

President Donald Trump’s go-to argument that unwelcome reports are “fake news” spread over the weekend to key figures in the Republican establishment, and as the vitriol ramped up, major media outlets hit back. On Friday, CNN anchor Don Lemon cut off pro-Trump guest Paris Dennard live on air, and not long after Trump tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Come Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus got into a heated debate with Chris Wallace on Fox News, of all venues.

The sense of panic and anger in the mainstream media, the conservative Fox News included, is reasonable. The accusation of “fake news” or “lying press” has an ominous precedent, tracing back to the history of the German phrase “Lügenpresse.” (At a campaign rally in October 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio, the Atlantic’s Rosie Grey even caught two Trump supporters on tape using the original German word. “Lügenpresse! That’s what you are,” one white man shouts, coaching another on how to say the term, and elaborates: “You’re all in bed with the Clintons. You’re all bought and paid for, every one of you.”)

Originally coined by the German author Reinhold Anton in 1914, the term Lügenpresse was used during World War I to refer to “enemy propaganda.” Some 30 years later Hitler and the Nazis appropriated the term to weaken opposition to the regime, primarily “accusing” Jewish, communist, and later the foreign press of disseminating fake news.

The phrase made a comeback in Germany in 2014, when the anti-immigrant PEGIDA movement accused the media of “not telling the truth” about crimes committed by refugees and immigrants, primarily those displaced by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In January 2015, some 25,000 protesters attended a PEGIDA march in Dresden, chanting “Luegenpresse, halt die Fresse" (“shut up, lying press”).

"Luegenpresse" subsequently earned the notorious "Unwort des Jahres" (Non-Word of the Year) dishonor given out annually by a German linguists' panel of experts.

According to Reuters, previous non-words of the year include 2011’s "Doener-Morde" (Doener killings), referring to a string of neo-Nazi killings of people of Turkish origin.

War on the media

Trump had waged war on the press throughout his presidential campaign, featuring multiple high-profile feuds including with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and CNN, which he dubbed the “Clinton News Network.” But critics and many supporters too were dismayed when he didn’t change tune once in office.  In fact, the administration doubled down on much of Trump’s anti-media rhetoric.  

“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile,” Steve Bannon told the New York Times in late January. “The media here is the opposition party.”

Trump’s recent rally in Melbourne, Florida primarily focused on attacking the media, after a particularly tough week which saw the resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

“I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news,” Trump began. “The dishonest media which has published one false story after another with no sources, even though they pretend they have them, they make them up in many cases.”

Priebus, on ‘Fox News Sunday’ with Chris Wallace, repeated this claim, calling media reports “Total garbage. Unsourced stuff, " and suggesting that the media doesn’t choose the right stories to cover. "I think you should be concerned about mainstream news outlets that are acting like Washington daily gossip magazines," continued Priebus, who had been viewed as the Republican establishment’s representative in the Trump administration, a relative voice of reason. "But you don't get to tell us what to do, Reince," Wallace shot back.

CNN anchor Don Lemon too had enough of it over the weekend, telling his guest Paris Dennard, a former George W. Bush official, “Please stop it with that stupid talking point, that it is a fake news story. If you don’t want to participate in the news stories on this network, then don’t come on and participate. But don’t call them fake because you don’t agree with them. Go on.”

When Dennard doubled down, insisting that "this is a fake news story," Lemon cut him off and abruptly ended the segment.

“OK, Paris, thank you very much everyone,” Lemon said. “Thanks everyone, thanks for watching. Have a great weekend. Goodnight, all.”