Tracing the Origins of Fake News — Back to 19th-Century Germany

Tracing the Origins of Fake News — Back to 19th-Century Germany

Theodor Fontane

SourceUllstein Bild / Getty

Why you should care

Because what’s old becomes new again.

Fake News. Long before Kellyanne Conway regaled us with her take on “alternative facts” and then-president-elect Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN, there was another word for a mass media market dominated by hyperbole and falsities: unechte korrespondenz.

The German phrase, meaning a “fake foreign correspondent’s letter,” would become a well-known trick of the mid-19th-century publishing trade, which, like today, had just undergone a seismic shift. The art was perfected by a pharmacist turned author, who would one day become known as the Charles Dickens of Prussia.

While lies have existed since a certain apple was eaten from a certain tree, the seeds for widely circulated fake news were first planted in the early 1800s. The advent of a mechanized printing press had suddenly lowered the cost of entry for all would-be news conveyors, while the telegraph, arriving midcentury, would greatly expand their reach. For the first time, routinely printing information was lucrative, but with added circulation came additional competitors. In turn, publishers were desperate to both create content and differentiate it for readers. “That is the moment where you can see where fake news becomes possible on a grand scale,” says Petra S. McGillen, a Dartmouth College professor specializing in German literature.

[Fontane] would opine on the biggest British events of the century — including the Great Fire of London — from his Prussian perch.

It was into that environment that Theodor Fontane, a former apothecary in the mold of his father, returned to Berlin, in 1860. For several years Fontane had served as a press agent in London for a Prussian intelligence agency, a government post that essentially had him creating stories with a nationalist bent to counteract the influence of Max Schlesinger, an Austrian immigrant whose own bureau fed the pages of most German newspapers. Fontane “wasn’t really successful in that role,” notes McGillen, mainly because Schlesinger, she says, was “very, very good.” Once an aspiring author, Fontane had published a novella in his 20s, Geschwisterliebe (Sibling Love), which his biographer would later dismiss with “the mawkishness of the tale … is equaled by the lameness of its plot and the inertness of the style.” Now middle-aged, Fontane was desperate to pay the bills for his budding family — a wife and two sons — so he joined the ultraconservative newspaper Kreuzzeitung as its newest London correspondent.

Fontane

Meet the fake news journalist turned canonical author.

Source Ullstein Bild / Getty

During that time, Fontane never actually set foot in England. Over the next decade, he would opine on the biggest British events of the century — including the Great Fire of London — from his Prussian perch. His approach involved waiting for the mainstream media to report on the major facts (street names, crowd sizes, etc.) and then piecing them together to form his account, often sensationalized with a firsthand narrative. “I went to the scene today, and it’s a terrible sight. One sees the burned buildings like a city in a crater,” Fontane wrote in one article, translated by McGillen: “Fires live on eerily in the deep, and at any moment a new flame can burst forth out of every mound of ash.”

In his post as London correspondent, Fontane was finally able to spin the fantastic narratives he had been denied in his early life as a would-be writer. “Through his autobiographical writings, he talked about it rather openly,” says McGillen, and “he even justifies it … his argument is that news is always, essentially, reproduction. It doesn’t matter whether you are on-site — ‘’Fifteen kilometers or a hundred and fifty miles make no difference,’ he wrote. ’It’s just like with anecdotes about Frederick the Great: The fake anecdotes are just as good as the real ones, and sometimes a little bit better.’” Of course, by “better,” he meant better-suited to telling the story in an insightful way.

Fontane’s argument was basically one of poetic license, although, McGillen says, “he would have been appalled to be called a liar or a fake news producer.”

It was during his time as a fake journalist that Fontane honed the skills that would make him one of Germany’s most celebrated authors. As Dickens did for London, Fontane later wrote novels known for their quintessential depictions of Berlin culture and life in Germany.

But not every fake news journalist would fare so well. In his reflections, Fontane points to the follies of a colleague who often referenced a French marquis in his writing — a marquis whom nobody else had ever met. As word of his deception spread, the outed writer tried to save his skin by writing a final column in which he encountered the marquis, only to have the nobleman die at the end. “He turns the whole thing into a news event,” McGillen says, “but his readers certainly knew at this point” that it was all a lie.

Then again, Fontane wrote about the account in his autobiography. “So,” says McGillen, “it might be fake. But it’s a good story.”

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