Otto English is the pen name for Andrew Scott, a journalist that covers history and contemporary politics. His book Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How They Shaped the World takes a look at the numerous fictions of history and how and why they have become known to be historical facts.
In the wake of social media, fake news has become an epidemic in itself. And while it is nothing new, people are more aware than ever of the probability of lies and misinformation within the media. As the world rapidly changes with economic depression, rise in right-wing views, political corruption and lobbying, the war against misinformation has never been more palpable. With Otto English’s Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How They Shaped the World, Otto reminds us that fake news has been with us since history was first recorded and no different than today, it is utilised to control the collective mindset of countries all over the world.
What we are taught in schools comprises what we know of history, but do we know the full picture? Otto English delves into the mistruths constantly expelled into the modern consciousness of Britons in the form of Winston Churchill. One of the most notable figures in British history, Churchill’s image is still idolised to this day due to a litany of stories told about him to shape his legend. Many of the stories, sayings or quotes said to have come from the man were fabrications or plagiarisms in order to define him as someone extraordinary to look up to. With every decade comes a new quote usually plucked from a movie to further institutionalise the man as a god among men. In death, the man has almost been elevated to something of a mythical figure, but this couldn’t have come to fruition if not for Churchill’s innate ability to market himself above the man he was. His six-volume series of books, The Second World War, solidified his legend long before he passed, and biographers and admirers have happily played along since.
As is the case of many successful men in history, the influence of the women in his life were brushed to the side. His story is that of one man who overcame the odds on his own, so the role of Clementine Churchill had to be downplayed to coincide with the narrative Churchill’s admirers continue to push in the eyes of the public. As far as they’re concerned, there was no partnership, just Winston against the evil of the world. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests mid-2020, hundreds of millions all over the world were treated to practical history lessons of key figures tied to slavery as their statues were either pulled down or had their removal called for. The protests surged a retrospective look at these figures and Churchill was no different. Many came aware of the man’s views on suffrage, constantly flip-flopping on his stance of women’s rights, his views on Indians, his views on Africa and of course, closer to home, his part in unleashing the black and tans in Ireland.
Otto also touches upon one of the most bafflingly out of reach theories to rear its head within the conspiracy movement, Flat Earth. Again, the idea to impose order on things we don’t understand, to limit the fear of the unknown is the foundation for most conspiracy theorists and exaggerated ancient history has only fostered it. Such as the narrative of Christopher Columbus, a man who is known to have sailed the earth to prove it was spherical. This is a complete lie as we already knew the earth was round but that didn’t stop those from forcing the narrative we know of today. Otto reveals Columbus wasn’t the great navigator many proclaimed him to be, instead, he was an unhinged capitalist motivated solely by wealth. A far cry from the image we see of him today, one that was repurposed to fit the image of a new world, America. While his voyage was courageous, Columbus did in fact not discover America, much to the disagreement of nationalists.
Otto follows onto nationalism and how it continues to shape countries all for the worst. War has always been a major aspect of British exceptionalism, and this has bled over into football which serves to quench the bloodthirst of many nationalists before the next world war kicks off. But only when they’re on the upside of advantage, as Otto recounts England’s loss to Germany in the 1996 European Championship. Britain, still to this day is obsessed with Germany and their history and this was all to accumulate in a clash of football some 51 years after the end of WW2.
“The idea that people born in a geographical region have some common spirit and a common destiny is nonsense, but it’s compelling nonsense.”
British nationalism has gone through numerous revisions to protect the public from the concept of British failure. As seen in war films and the BBC’s Dad’s Army, British exceptionalism is akin to cultism due to the fixation of World War 2. From there Otto sheds light on the lineage of the royal family, a glaring record many British people would prefer to ignore. As Germany has been made to be the arch-nemesis of Britain, the reality of how the royal family have German blood is not only rejected by nationalists but also utilised as an attack against the family by their detractors. Otto goes on to describe the belief of blue bloods, “the idea that some families are ‘older’ than others is patently ridiculous.” The act of delegitimising the royals for having German blood mirrors the Birther movement in America which saw to have then-president Barack Obama removed from the White House over the false notion that he wasn’t an American citizen. It would serve nationalists well to believe in the existence of “royal DNA” but nevertheless it is a lie required to believe in the existence of ‘blue bloods’.
Otto continues, as Britain has become an amalgamation of different cultures and backgrounds, with it has come various culinary delights. Culture is shaped by language and has an effect on our relationship with food. What consisted of the British diet before was frozen fish, beans, oven chips, and dining out was no different. Otto focuses on how from the 1960s onwards, migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were suddenly introducing new recipes never experienced by the palate of Britons. One of the exotic dishes now available to the British public had unfortunately got lost in translation due to the ignorance of Indian cuisine. Such is the case for the “Birmingham Balti”, a base mix of onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, slat and garam masala cooked in a traditional metal bowl called a “Balti”. Unbeknownst to many, including myself, Otto reveals a Balti is the Bengali and Hindustani term for a bucket used to wash, flush the toilet, or clean your backside. Ignorance holds no bounds.
One of the biggest untruths in history is the belief that all men are created equal as Otto moves onto the miscarriage of justice produced by the illustrated Ladybird books of the late 20th century. Primarily used in schools to teach children to read, these books established the “standard for what Englishness was meant to be.” Only the history of the empire mattered and even then, little light was shed on the brutality that led to its formation. At no point did the illustrations of Britain reflect what citizens experienced in the 70s and 80s, often leaning more towards a fictitious utopian world. This mentality of ‘only our history matters’ has increased tenfold since Brexit. The new world was said to be inhabited by feral savages, later to have their vicious ways unlearnt by the all benevolent white man, who saw the history of slavery repurposed “as voluntary community service.” Otto then delves into the narrative of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves which wasn’t as simple as it’s written in history books. While he did lead the North into the war to liberate slaves, his views on black people shifted with the times along with his political needs. He was a politician, not the Jesus like figure many books, films and television shows portray him to be. The history of black men and women during the civil war was subtly left out of history books as it did not have a place in how white people wanted to recollect the events.
“Human beings need heroes. So, ordinary politicians become outsized gods, brave women escaping slavery become wonder women, and blemishes and human failings of ‘great people’ and the complexity of their stories get ironed out as their deeds get blown out of all proportion.”
No different than the tall tale of a cleaning lady finding the war plans for Churchill, Adolf Hitler created an urban myth onto himself as Otto moves into the catalogue of films, books, and expertise on the man to which he became a brand of evil to sell on history channels.
Otto states that the man is a figure that represents a marketable horror, occupying the same space as Hannibal Lecter. Many find it uncomfortable to explore discussion on Hitler as Otto puts it, to “understand the man risks legitimizing him”, preventing those from realizing Mein Kampf isn’t the bible of evil it’s feared to be. In reality, it serves as the biggest exposure to the insecurity that Hitler manifested within himself after his failure to become an artist came to a head. Mein Kampf is strife with insecurity as Adolf wasn’t as educated as he portrayed himself to be nor as intelligent as his supporters like to assert. He hated modern art, simply because he didn’t understand it and banned art criticism to seclude himself from disapproval. This bled over into the architecture of Nazi Germany which was ugly in nature as it became the case of bringing everything down to Hitler’s level to further his ego.
Otto continues to shed light on the reality Adolf wasn’t as charismatic as many proclaim him to be, with many of his contemporaries at the time looking down on him. He was a bad military leader due to his embracement of confirmation bias leading to the death of many of his men. All that mattered was being in charge. By keeping Mein Kampf hidden makes it scarier rather than an uncovering of the facade that was Adolf Hitler. This is no different than in China today, as Otto segues to President Xi Jinping, a man that influenced a similar effect in Chinese nationalism. The belief there is that Chinas history is older than others and therefore better. The similarities of these men can also be seen in Donald Trump. No different than Mein Kampf, Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal was a complete fabrication to sell a fugazi brand of success. Otto explains, just like Hitler lied that he was a great painter, Trump lied about being a great businessman though Trump, unsurprisingly went a step further and had someone else write it for him.
The myths of Hitler and Churchill persist and guarantee their place in history books forever, even with the truth opposing their legends such as the case for Napoleon where Otto compares the paintings and medallions of the era to Instagram, the music of the time to YouTube and the papers were Napoleon’s Twitter and Facebook. All possible due to powerful men’s need to weaken and divide enemies which was Josef Stalin’s prerogative.
Otto sheds light on the term ‘disinformation’ and how it was first coined in 1923 when Josef Stalin set up the special disinformation office in Moscow. This was for the sole purpose of destabilizing other countries to stir discontent abroad as to diminish his enemies and when the time came, to rewrite the past. Such is the case for countries that are on the upside of advantage, in order to define their identity, they must find their enemy. Otto talks about the impact of 9/11 and how it has shaped the America we see today. Since September 11th, 2001, America has had a renewed purpose and sense of unity.
The quest to find an enemy and utilize them to define an image was exemplified in WW2 when the Japanese were needed to test out how powerful America was with the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. The latter of which could have been avoided due to Japan’s preparation of surrender. This was simply a means of sending a message to the USSR. Americans have come to justify a lot of atrocities since then due to yellow peril, an intolerance of China and Japan. Otto points out this has only increased in the wake of the coronavirus, as Trumps Administration had cultivated a new enemy in foreigners. A lot of the failings of the pandemic was blamed on China who became a scapegoat for all of Trump’s blunders in tackling the virus.
A willingness to buy into a man’s lies is what leads us to a cult of personalities like Hitler and Trump. None of these men live up to the stories and so must be preserved by their supporter’s lies throughout history. We’re currently living in the most peaceful period in history, though fake news threatens the stability of every country it’s disseminated in. Unlike generations before us, we now have the means to acknowledge the truth from fiction as we learn more in the information age. While this has given way to new methods of spreading untruths, we have the ability to document it in a way unlike ever before. To not do so is to allow future generations to fall into the trenches of deliberately disseminated falsehoods designed to undermine history in favour of self-serving goals to maintain and control the power of people. What Otto English covers in this book may already be known to some but the compilation of some of the worlds most notorious lies covered all in one medium provides a bigger picture of how unequipped we were and still are in defending the truth. All we can do to fight this is no better put than Otto himself:
“Human beings can do astonishing things when we rid ourselves of the menace of illusory superiority and embrace knowledge instead.”
You can buy Fake History here: