Within days of Bergen-Belsen’s April 1945 liberation, the British government knew it had to act. History had to be preserved lest it be disbelieved.
A team of documentary filmmakers led by Sidney Bernstein and advised by Alfred Hitchcock and Soviet filmmaker Sergei Nolbandov was assembled to capture the horrors of what was left behind at a single Nazi death camp — 13,000 yet-to-be-disposed-of corpses and around 60,000 living skeletons.
The “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” later included post-liberation footage of the Auschwitz and Majdanek camps in Poland, but for largely political reasons it never saw the light of day — not to the public. It wasn’t until the 2014 release of “Night Will Fall,” a documentary by Andre Singer on the 1945 effort, that the first raw footage from Bergen-Belsen and other camps was semi-widely viewed.
One can criticize the Brits for holding onto the material for so many years — though other camp footage was available at the time — but no one can question their foresight in immediately capturing those images on celluloid. Something that can be seen can’t easily be denied or misconstrued, they rightly reasoned. But that was in 1945. All bets are off today. Imagine 2045.
Anything digitized can be cynically manipulated, and with each passing day we are reminded that human beings have the frightful capacity to believe almost anything that meets their worldview. Two years ago, I watched genuine World War II documentary footage on YouTube with a voice over narration by a pro-Nazi American attempting to rewrite history. The “documentary” had about three million views and was commented on favorably more than 2,000 times before YouTube yanked it.
This junk actually sticks in people’s heads. A just-released study by University College Cork in Ireland found that fake news reports can create actual false memories in the brains of people who want to believe them. The mind reconfigures what it previously knew to be true to accommodate a desirable narrative, however flimsy it may be, the study reports.
Literature and historical materials are especially susceptible to malfeasance in this world we are creating, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Streitfeld alarmingly spelled out in a New York Times piece this week entitled, “In Amazon’s Bookstore, Orwell Gets a Rewrite.” Streitfeld studiously catalogued edits — outright additions, deletions and passage rewrites — to literary masterpieces being sold on Amazon by fly-by-night publishers. George Orwell’s dystopian treasure “1984” was fittingly among them. A day may come when there is confusion over which version was really Orwell’s or Shakespeare’s or Twain’s. Even handwritten manuscripts could be dismissed as forgeries to gullible audiences.
But why stop there? Might we see revised versions of the Magna Carta or the U.S. Constitution as part of an orchestrated misinformation campaign down the road?
Tag three extra words onto the end of The First Amendment and America could be turned on its head: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances in normal times.”
How about adding the adjective “peaceable” to the Second Amendment and positing that it’s the true original text: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the peaceable people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
There are people who could be made to believe that. I know some of them.
We need to do something.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.