BERLIN — When a video of two Donald Trump supporters shouting “Lügenpresse” (lying press) started to circulate Sunday, viewers from Germany soon noted its explosive nature. The defamatory word was most frequently used in Nazi Germany. Today, it is a common slogan among those branded as representing the “ugly Germany”: members of xenophobic, right-wing groups.
Its use across the Atlantic Ocean at a Trump rally has worried Germans who know about its origins all too well. Both the Nazi regime and the East German government made use of it, turning it into an anti-democracy slogan.
Friendly interaction outside the press pen. "Lugenpresse!" pic.twitter.com/MWUZynJ8jx
— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) October 23, 2016
“Lügenpresse” was branded a taboo word in Germany in 2015 by an academic panel after anti-Islam movements, such as Pegida, started using it more frequently in the presence of journalists. As in the United States, trust in mainstream media is on the decline in Germany.
The verbal attacks against journalists soon turned into physical violence in Germany. At times, media members were unable to cover the Pegida-organized protest marches without private security personnel. Some reporters who risked going in without bodyguards were beaten up. It is without doubt that the word “Lügenpresse” has an extremely ugly meaning in modern-day Germany.
Its history is even worse, though.
The term emerged way before the Nazis took over in Germany. For instance, the German Defense Ministry released a book titled “The Lügenpresse of Our Enemies” in 1918 during World War I. According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, the term was coined by Reinhold Anton in 1914. In books, Anton used the term mainly in a foreign context to refer to “enemy propaganda.” It is unclear whether Anton was a pseudonym.
At that time, the word was used more descriptively. A decade later, it had turned into an explosive and stigmatizing propaganda slogan, used to stir hatred against Jews and communists. Critics of Adolf Hitler's regime were frequently referred to as members of the “Lügenpresse apparatus.”
Until today, the word has an anti-Semitic connotation, and it implies hatred not only against journalists but against everyone who opposes the “will of the people.” That abstract concept emerged during World War II when Hitler sought to propagate the idea that Germans were a "master race" superior to all others, especially Jews and Slavic people.
The consequences of that rhetoric — of which the term “Lügenpresse” was an important component under propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels — were horrifying. Millions of people were killed in concentration camps by the Nazis, including Jews, political opponents and homosexuals.
Although the word disappeared from public discourse for almost half a century in democratic West Germany, it continued to flourish in communist East Germany, where it was used to condemn Western countries, including the United States.