A crucified child and a mobile crematorium. Could any two images more powerfully signify atrocity? Both have surfaced during recent Russian incursions into Ukraine. Both have been debunked as fake news. Yet, those same fakes can be traced to another watershed conflict in Europe more than a century ago: World War I. Their persistence suggests how people seek meaning during periods of wrenching global upheaval. We want symbols, images, simplicity, and faith, not complex historical and political realities.
As a teacher of history and current events, I’ve got a stake in separating truth from myth. For some time now, it has seemed that I’m losing a pedagogical war for truth. My students’ default for accessing news and understanding the world is social media. They prefer images to written analyses of historical and contemporary issues, TikTok over The New York Times.
While I was debunking one of those images momentarily popular with them—a spurious video purporting to show a Ukrainian ace fighter pilot, “the ghost of Kyiv,” in combat—it occurred to me that Ukraine offered an opportunity for deeper study of the iconography of catastrophe and misinformation.
Nearly a half-century ago, literary scholar Paul Fussell wrote The Great War and Modern Memory, a penetrating analysis of the legacy of World War I. Looking back more than another half-century, Fussell showed how participants in the First World War quickly lost the veneer of rationalism that was prized by “Western civilization.” Trench warfare on the Western front prompted soldiers and civilians to embrace superstition, religion, and myth to explain this bizarre new reality.
One of those early 20th-century myths involved a captured Canadian soldier allegedly crucified by the Germans. Most versions of this story had bloodthirsty “Huns” using bayonets to affix an innocent POW to a cross in full view of his comrades across the trench line.
The story’s origins are hazy, but it was quickly exploited for propaganda. In Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun, the protagonist remarks on an account of it in the Los Angeles newspapers: “That made the Germans nothing better than animals, and naturally you got interested and wanted Germany to get the tar kicked out of her.”
A century later, Russian propagandists riffed on the imagery by inventing a 3-year-old Russian child allegedly crucified by Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. The hoax was part of a misinformation campaign aimed to justify Russia’s 2014 incursion into eastern Ukraine and “prove” that Ukraine was dominated by “Nazis.” An account of the crucifixion was broadcast on Russia’s Channel One despite flimsy evidence surrounding the “eyewitness” testimony on which it was based. The BBC and many other news outlets soon debunked it.
Combining innocence, suffering, redemption, and salvation, crucifixion as propaganda evokes passion and faith while enlisting those emotions into the war effort.
Perhaps the most potent symbol for state-inflicted cruelty is the crematorium. Late last month, The New York Post ran a headline charging: “Russia has mobile crematoriums that ‘evaporate dead soldiers.’” The story asserted that the crematoria might be deployed in Ukraine to incinerate the bodies of soldiers killed in action and cover up evidence of mass casualties. It cited “U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace” as the source for the allegation and included video images from 2013 as “proof.” But there isn’t any evidence that such crematoria are in Ukraine. Fact checkers are unable to verify their existence in the conflict.
The genesis for this was “reducer” or “destructor” machines supposedly deployed behind trench lines in World War I to incinerate corpses, hide evidence of military executions, or render the fat from bodies to make munitions. Fussell’s research uncovered versions of this myth attributing “destructors” both to the British and the Germans. The WWI crematorium archetype was so creative that it predated the Nazi regime with which it is usually associated.
We are seeing a revival of false images fabricated more than a century ago as explanatory crutches for a generation caught up in unthinkable circumstances.
The crematorium trope has recently been deployed in another crisis. Just weeks before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, a Chinese billionaire with links to the Trump administration posted a false claim and video on Facebook charging that Chinese COVID-19 victims were “being cremated alive” by their government in Wuhan. PolitiFact exposed the misinformation on Feb. 26, 2020.
We are seeing a revival of false images fabricated more than a century ago as explanatory crutches for a generation caught up in unthinkable circumstances. At both moments, the images were co-opted as propaganda tools. In both cases, they contributed to what Fussell called “an approximation of the popular psychological atmosphere of the Middle Ages,” pervaded by faith, myth, and rumor.
During WWI, French officer and historian Marc Bloch said, “The prevailing opinion in the trenches was that anything might be true, except what was printed.” Today’s efforts by some politicians to denigrate serious media as “fake news” coupled with an enduring fascination with images over the written word has caused a similar skepticism for print journalism.
None of this is good for truth or democracy, which requires a certain factual civic consensus in order to work.
Neither is it good for truth in my classroom, which I’ve concluded will not emerge triumphant merely as a result of creative teaching on my part. It’s not primarily about pedagogy. Rather, I’m up against an epistemology—the methods and tools my students use to understand the world and their place in it.
One of them, confronted with evidence that the “ghost of Kyiv” video he shared derived from computer-generated imagery, retorted, “Yeah, but it’s so cool to believe it happened.” The myth of an ace pilot beats the reality of a fabricated video, almost always.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as My Students Are Falling For Wartime Propaganda