Friday, July 7, 2017

What Can Governments Hide From Us? Lessons From WWII

In this post, I examine the historical case of the Russian campaign of the Italian army during WWII to discuss how effective can governments hide important facts from public knowledge. I think that these black-out campaigns can be very effective and it may well be possible that they are being enacted right now. 

Governments are not known to be benevolent organizations. On the contrary, when it is question of ensuring their own survival, they are ruthless. And they are well known to lie to people. The case of the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq is well known but, at least, eventually it became clear that it was a lie: these weapons didn't exist. But it often easier to hide existing things than to create non-existing ones.

The internet is full of claims that governments or some of their institutions are engaged in this kind of lies. They are hiding from us the spreading of poisons in the sky in the form of chemtrails, the building of hidden concentration camps for political opponents, the fact that aliens landed and were captured, the fact that oil is really a renewable resource constantly recreated underground by abiotic processes, that climate scientists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to scare us first and then enslave us. The latest one is about "child slaves on Mars".

These claims are usually described in terms of "conspiracy theories" and most of them are so hopelessly naive and absurd that they raise the legitimate suspicion that they are part of some targeted disinformation campaign. But it seems to be easy to convince people to believe in the weirdest ideas, so maybe these legends are spontaneous evidence of this tendency. Still, it is also true that conspiracies do exist and that governments are often actively engaged in them (I can propose at least one well-documented case). So, we may ask ourselves a very general question: can governments hide important things from us? Let me examine a couple of historical examples.

Perhaps the mother of all government conspiracies was the extermination of the Jews and of other ethnic and social groups during WWII. Did the German know about what was going on, at the time? The question is controversial. On one side, it is argued that the Germans had been exposed to years of aggressive anti-Jews propaganda and that they couldn't miss the fact that the Jews were disappearing from their homes. Besides, so many people were involved with the extermination program that it wasn't just possible that even ordinary citizens wouldn't be able to understand that something monstrous was going on.

On the other side, it is noted that the Germans never could read anything about the extermination in the press, only that the Jews were being "relocated to the East," which would account for their disappearance from German cities. But the main point was that the Germans who understood what was going on couldn't say that publicly. The few who did were arrested and quickly executed. And the message was clear for all the others.

Personally, I can't say much about what the average German could or could not know during WWII. But I can offer an example of a situation that I know much better: that of Italy. The Italian government didn't engage in the mass extermination of the Jews during WWII, but we can find a significant example of "media fog" with the defeat of the Italian forces in Russia, between 1942 and 1943.

Italy engaged some 250,000 men on the Eastern Front, a major effort that ended in disaster when the Italian forces were decisively defeated by the Red Army in a series of campaigns that started in November 1942. By February 1943, the Italian forces on the Eastern Front had ceased to exist. The losses are variously reported, but probably amounted to about half of the expeditionary force. It was probably the greatest defeat suffered by Italy over its history. The disaster was so great that we could consider it as sufficient to charge the commander-in-chief with criminal incompetence and have him hanged upside down. That was, indeed, the destiny of the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, but only two years later, in April 1945, and this specific criminal act didn't seem to have played a role in the event.

So, what did the Italians know about the Russian disaster while it was happening?  For one thing, the news of the defeat in Russa never appeared in the Italian press during the war. It is instructive to follow the news as they were reported in the Italian press. Up to December 1942, there are daily reports about the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia, the "ARMIR". Then, the reports fade out. The last one that I have been able to find on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" dates Dec 22, 1942. Afterward, reports continue coming from Russia, describing battles fought between the Germans and the Soviets, but the Italians have disappeared. It was as if the quarter million men of the army had vanished into thin air.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the Italians couldn't know at least something about what was happening on the Russian front. It would have been easy to understand that something had gone terribly wrong just from what the press did not say, that is from the disappearance of all mentions of the Italian forces in Russia. Besides, there were tens of thousands of veterans who were repatriated after the defeat: many were sick, wounded, frostbitten, or in desperate conditions of psychological shock. They were told by the government to say nothing about what they had seen in Russia, but it is unthinkable that all of them obeyed and, in any case, their presence couldn't be ignored. Yet, the "media fog" that the government had enacted was successful. Italians seemed to be unable to discuss or express their outrage at the disaster, at least as long as the Fascist government remained in control of the country. Only years after the war was over, the disaster in Russia became widely known.

A similar situation existed with the war. In the 1940s, Italy and Germany both faced what we call today an "existential threat" in the form of military annihilation. Yet, their citizens were never told, up to the last moment, that the war was being lost. Also in this case, it was not difficult to understand what was going on from what the newspapers did not say, but it seemed impossible to state it in public or to debate it.

Now, it is always difficult to generalize, but I think that these historical examples can tell us something about how governments can hide truth: simply by not mentioning it. In other words, governments cannot make the truth disappear, but they can "blur" it, marginalizing it and making it appear unimportant.

Today, the entity that we call "The West" is facing existential threats in the form of resource depletion and global warming. Yet, the mainstream media are completely silent about resource depletion and, at least in the US, they seem to be aiming at silencing the discussion on global warming. Not that people cannot know what's going on, there are plenty of blogs and discussion groups where you can learn the truth. But it remains an unofficial, marginal truth that plays no role in the general discussion. The main discussion remains dominated by concepts such as "making the country great again" and "restart growth," probably as impossible as it was for Italy to defeat the Soviet Union and the USA together, during WWII.


Below you can see the last piece of news on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" that mentions the "ARMIR", the Italian expeditionary force in Russia. It is dated 22 December 1942 and it only states that the defensive measures taken to contain the Soviet attacks are being successful. I was unable to find further mentions of the ARMIR in later issues that appeared during the war. By February 1943, the Italian forces in Russia had ceased to exist.


  1. My grandfather was in ARMIR. He wrote a diary meanwhile. He was injured at an arm, exactly on 21 december 42, probably during the very defensive battle cited in the newspaper, he was cured by ukrainian women and he was able to get home, supplicating to be admitted in a trasport by another company. When he reached Italy he weighed just sixty pounds. The diary was very simple written (aveva fatto solo la quinta elementare) but I am sure he showed it to his family. At september, 8, he was still in convalescence, then he diserted. Just a confermation of the nactional facts at the scale of my family. Thanks for remembering this things, I think he, the other who could return, and all those who dyed deserve it. And we all deserve to think about propaganda.

  2. There is also an issue in Europe the western part at least for taking more foreign illigal immigrants, and their crimes and rapes are underreported. This will end badly.

  3. A sad story I had not heard before, Ugo. Thank you, and thanks to Sergio for his family story.

    Direct lies by government have been recurrent during my lifetime, and often enough perpetrated in the full light of democratic discussion. One such British event of note in Parliament was ‘Suez’ in 1956. The Prime Minister afterwards suffered a mental and general health breakdown - perhaps a severe case of cognitive dissonance. Other, tougher characters have survived by being continuing believers in their own stories: for example Margaret Thatcher and more recently Tony Blair. I quote Sir John Chilcot Just the other day; “Tony Blair was not straight with the nation”. I only mention these ‘high points’. Cynical ‘political lies’ continue of course all the time and are not just ‘differences of opinion’.


  4. Mussolini's Fascism got a bad reputation because it was imperialist and unsuccessful. But Fascism can be positive as well. Ezra Pound recognized the positive aspects. The bunch is stronger than the single as old Romans knew too well. Confucius said (2500 years ago) that "even small people can not be defeated, if united". What's that if not Fascism. We should stick to the original meaning not to distorted modern industrial form of Fascism.

    If we do not become Eco-Fascists for the right cause, which is survival and respect for the natural limits, and if we are not ready to fight for it (which is "combatimento" part) we are doomed.

  5. Dear Ugo,
    as you probably know better tan I do, it is not so straightforward as you tell in your post. I agree that climate change, resources depletion, and the rest of threats we are facing, are under-represented in the mass media. But in countries like the UK you find from time to time news in very important newspapers, there is an all party parliament commission on The Limits to Growth; or in France, Le Monde has a blog covering oil and energy issues.
    As Antonio Turiel says, those problems are public but not publicized, and my guess is that it is because our politicians, and broadly speaking, our system, is completely unable to face and react in any feasible way according to our current rules; thus the system does not focus on them because it lacks a logical answer under its own premises.

  6. There are three important differences:
    1) A military defeat which changes the course of war can take place in a relatively short time: the Italian defeat, for instance, took four months, during which it is difficult to evaluate the real extent of the catastrophe and easy to hide it. Global warming and resource depletion are gradual processes, which will produce their effects day by day: some areas will become increasingly arid, somewhere else rainfall will increase, oil, gas and metals will become more expensive etc.
    2) Global warming can be a tragedy in some parts of the world, but can be beneficial elsewhere: for instance, northern areas of Russia and Canada may defrost and become arable and shorter commercial lanes can be developed should the Arctic ice melt.
    3) When it comes to resource depletion, it is difficult to predict the future situation and the past catastrophic prediction proved false: in the beginning of XIX century, some said that the Industrial Revolution would be only a short transient period and the world would have returned to a pre-industrial economy in a few decades, since coal was about to finish. In the meanwhile, oil and gas technology has been developed, as well as nuclear energy, and still, almost one third of world electricity production comes from coal, which is still abundant.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017