A trail, rather than a train, of thought today led me from trivia to the consideration of perception and history. Perception changes history. Goebbels voiced the opinion that a lie, repeated often enough, would become accepted fact, but I doubt if he invented that concept. It is so, even if the lie is unintentional, or in a good cause.
Once a lie takes hold, it is hard to shift. Take, as a trivial example, what people ‘know’ about a children’s television puppet show from the 1950s, Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. Ask anyone what they know about them, and this is what you’ll hear.
“They used to say ‘flobberlob’, didn’t they?”
The fact is that they didn’t. As a very young child I used to sit on a little footstool in front of our family’s television, its small screen as thick as bottle-glass, and watch this programme. Bill and Ben who lived at the bottom of a garden, where a house with a smiley face kept a knowing eye upon them and their friend the Little Weed, would get up to petty adventures, and when one of them did something silly, or naughty, or brave, the narrator with her beautiful BBC English, would sing a little song to encourage us to guess which one of them it was. The Flowerpot Men’s voices were strange, contracting both vowels and consonants into a handful of sounds, but they spoke English, and I could understand them perfectly.
‘Flobberlob’ is a nonsense word, without an English equivalent, and neither Bill nor Ben used nonsense words. Someone listening with only half an ear might have heard them say “Flobberpop” (“flowerpot”) or “Ooh loblob” (“Oh lovely”), but never, ever did they say “flobberlob.” Nevertheless, this minor, barely significant little lie took hold, and has remained in the British cultural consciousness ever since.
From the 1950s, my trail of thought went to 1969, and the youth phenomenon of the Skinheads, and again to my direct experiences of the time. Just as the nonsense over the children’s television show, a handful of lies have their origin in inattention or mis-hearing. Preparing an article for the Observer Colour Magazine, featuring a ‘stag group’ of street kids from Deptford known as ‘the Smithies’, the journalist heard a word which he interpreted as “caff” (a vernacular form of ‘café’) but which was probably “gaff” (house or premises, in London slang). The article uses “caff.” Another journalist reported that amongst the other names that London Skinheads called themselves was “Spy Kids.” As a result, a handful of copy-cat groups elsewhere in the UK start to refer to themselves as “Spy Kids.” What the journalist had actually heard was the phrase “Spike Heads” in a London accent. But the lie persisted.
Why should I care? Well, apart from the fact that I have collated and edited a book about that youth phenomenon of 1969, to be published in 2019, there is the general principle that if we get trivial things wrong about the past, how many of these pile up to make the study and interpretation of history as a whole inaccurate? If we do not document, as best we can, the truth, then what is handed down to us is the lie. Our perception is coloured by the lie, and that changes history. Lies are dangerous things; we know this only too well in 2018, as we live at a time when established facts are denounced as “Fake News” and fictions are beatified as “alternative facts.”
As a consequence of my academic interest in the published writing of W.G. Sebald, I have been concerned in the recovery of the lost societal and cultural strata of Europe, in the first half of the 20c. I am not alone in speculating that the rise of right-wing, racialist, and hard-ethnist groups, amongst the generations in Central and Eastern Europe too young to have any memory of the continent’s not-too-distant history, is partly due to their having grown up in countries largely stripped of diversity. Notably the presence of Jews at every level, integrated or separated, indistinguishable or overt, is something outside their experience. Thus those writers, artists, chroniclers of pre-WW2 Europe are so valuable to us – they nail the lie of a mono-ethnic Europe.
Sebald relied not only on text but also on image. Contradictorily, very few of the images he used in his books were definite or definitive. Most bore only loose relevance to the text, and raised more questions than answers. Looking back at the earlier 20c, at the Holocaust, and at the post-war, deliberate forgetfulness, the vagueness of the images seems to make some sort of sense – we are being introduced to something by being shown how hard it is to recapture, how easily meaning, relevance, and truth slip through our fingers. More concrete evidence in images was captured, at the time, by photographer Roman Vishniac. Although Vishniac was prolific and had a long career, he is mostly remembered for documenting immediately pre-Holocaust Jewish society in Central Europe. Sometimes this documentation is oblique, as in a set of photographs taken on a Berlin street in 1935. Ostensibly it is simply a study of passers-by. The fact that in the background of all the shots a swastika flag flies over the doorway of a shop is almost incidental; but it shows how Nazism became part of normality.
The series of pictures is class-diverse. In one shot the passers-by are smartly dressed and bourgeois, in another they are working class. There are male and female figures, there are adults, children, and babies. But behind all the foregrounds the subtle reminder of the Hakenkreuz is visible. Vishniac’s style in these photographs is apparently straightforward and documentary, redolent of location and era in the way that Robert Doisneau, in a different way and to different effect, captured Paris. There is a sense of vérité.
However, it is wrong to take even Vishniac for granted. The overall value of his work has only really been appreciated since his archive of photographs has been opened up. Alana Newhouse, writing in 2010 for the New York Times, reported the work of Maya Benton in uncovering the misleading nature of what had been considered Vishniac’s heritage up to then. It is an article well worth reading, and I recommend it to anyone who follows this web page. The images released under Vishniac’s name, presented a very narrow perception of pre-war European Jewry – devout and shtetl-bound – which, perhaps, was necessary to counter Nazi anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery, to give Jews, both in the further diaspora and amongst the contemporaneous refugees, a sense of their own human preciousness, and to evoke sympathy amongst Gentile viewers outside mainland Europe. But the narrowness of the selection of images is not the only problem, as Alana Newhouse points out. In the 1983 book of Vishniac photographs, A Vanished World, there occurs what is very likely to have been a deliberate mis-captioning of a pair of images, presented together. The caption and another commentary read thus:
“The father is hiding from the Endecy (members of the National Democratic Party). His son signals him that they are approaching. Warsaw, 1938 […] “The pogromshchiki” — a lynch mob — “are coming. But the iron door was no protection.”
The photographs, however, were taken in Warsaw and in Łodz. The juxtaposition and the caption promote a lie. Perhaps I am hard-hearted to have used the word ‘lie’ throughout this piece, but I have done so deliberately. Desperate times and desperate situations do endanger the truth, often causing it to be put in a drawer for the duration. As Senator Hiram Johnson said, “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.” The greater problem comes when, for one reason or another, vested interest keeps the truth arcane when the desperate time is past. Was there any reason, in 1983, to maintain a particular perception about Warsaw in 1938? Who can say. The value of whole truth to a research student, even if it contradicts the convenience of our cognitive biases, is inestimable, as is the new preciousness that the Vishniac archive now affords. The microcosm of the shtetl did vanish, but so did the integrated Jewish culture of the shtot – or rather the Stadt – and probably in greater numbers. Not only the rural poor and religiously devout were swallowed up by the horrors of the Holocaust, but the urbane, the bourgeois, the intellectual Jews from every class.
No matter what our field of research, a student will find things that discomfort accepted wisdom, things that make an accepted lie totter. It is a hard furrow to plough, especially when that ‘accepted wisdom’ is one we have ourselves subscribed to, but it is one that must be ploughed.
 Anti-Semitism is not necessarily as prominent in many 21c rightist political movements as one might expect. Some demagogues, such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. ‘Tommy Robinson’ and other aliases) profess themselves to be ‘Zionist’ or ‘pro-Zionist’. However, depending on the individual or group concerned, this may be due to a covert desire to support geographical separation of Jews and non-Jews, or to a hatred of Muslims and, by association, approval of the state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Political allegiances among right-wing groups are far from simplistic, predictable, or stable. Outside of the United States, rightist populism may even bring with it left-seeming social policies.
 Newhouse, Alana. “A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac.” New York Times online, 1stApril 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/magazine/04shtetl-t.html.
 The Johnson quote is not substantiated, however – perhaps this is another example of how perception affects history – and a variation of the sentiment is also attributed to Arthur Ponsonby and others including Dr. Samuel Johnson and Aeschylus. http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-21510,00.html