Greatest Hoaxes in History

History shows that humanity is gullible. In many eras of history, millions of people have fallen for hoaxes.

Some hoaxes have been elaborate. Others were the creation of wishful thinking.

However, history shows that even the smartest and most sophisticated people can fall for hoaxes. Hence, examining hoaxes can show us how to detect and avoid hoaxes in the future.

The Greatest Hoaxes in History Include:

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics  

The most successful hoax of all time was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). To explain, tens of millions of people around the world fell for the fantasy that the Russian people had built utopia in the USSR.

In reality, the USSR was a brutal totalitarian dictatorship that made life miserable for ordinary people. Most of the accomplishments of Communism were blatant lies or frauds.

Indeed, some historians think even the Russian Revolution itself was a hoax. To explain, in November 1917 (October in the Julian Calendar) a group of people seized Russia’s seat of government in the Winter Palace and overthrew the Russian Republic.

There are two versions of this seizure. The official Soviet version was that the poor people of Saint Petersburg rose and overthrew the Republic. However, many historians think Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin hired a force of mercenaries who occupied the Duma (Russian Parliament) which met in the Winter Palace. Lenin then proclaimed a revolution and the USSR.

The USSR hoax succeeded because Lenin and his star pupil, Joseph Stalin, were masters of propaganda and media manipulation. For example, Lenin and Stalin told visiting journalists and intellectuals what they wanted to hear. In addition, Lenin and Stalin showed visiting journalists and intellectuals what they wanted to see.

For example, bustling factories, happy peasants, prosperous Russians, experiments in daycare, etc. The visitors’ wishful thinking did the rest. Even when ample evidence of Soviet atrocities and incompetence became clear, many intellectuals bought the official line that the truth was a capitalist lie.

Moreover, the Soviets had some impressive accomplishments. Building many factories, winning World War II, creating jets and atomic bombs, and putting the first satellite and man into space.

Bizarrely, Soviet accomplishments became part of the hoax. Accomplishments such as Yuri Gregorian’s space flight distracted observers from Soviet failures.

One reason Soviet progress looked so great was that Soviet propagandists publicized only the successes and ignored the failures. For example, they sent out press releases about Cosmonauts in space, while the ignoring the failure of Russia’s Mars missions. It is easy to portray something as successful when you only publicize success.

Since few journalists had access to the USSR, hiding the truth was easy. Similarly, the Soviets pulled their hoax at the right time. To explain, other countries were reeling from the economic chaos of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s at the height of the Soviet propaganda campaign.

Americans, Germans, and Brits who saw breadlines outside the window were more prone to believe Soviet propaganda about a workers’ paradise. The reality, that much of the USSR’s population would have traded American breadlines or the British dole, for the worker’s paradise never occurred to the Stalin fan clubs in London and New York.

The USSR was history’s greatest hoax and Lenin and Stalin were history’s greatest hoaxers. Sadly, millions of people around the world still fall for the Soviet hoax three decades after the USSR’s collapse.

General Patton’s Fake Army

Lenin and Stalin proved fooling intellectuals is easy. However, in World War II, American and British strategists proved it was possible to deceive one of the world’s most sophisticated military establishments.

Impressively, an Allied effort called Operation Fortitude hoaxed the German High Command into believing in a fake army. Operation Fortitude grew out of an enormous challenge American and British strategists faced in 1944.

The challenge was landing enough troops, artillery, and tanks in Western Europe to defeat the German Army. During World War II, many people thought an Allied landing in Europe was impossible because the Germans could concentrate enough troops and firepower to destroy an invasion force on the beaches.

The German forces in France were small because most of the Nazi armies were fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front. Allied strategists designed Operation Fortitude to take advantage of Germany’s limited resources.

The purpose of Operation Fortitude was to fool Adolph Hitler and the German High Command into thinking the Allied landing in Normandy was a feint. Instead, Allied strategists wanted Hitler and his generals to think the real landing could only take place in the French region of Calais. Thus, the German generals would keep most of their forces out of the battle until the Allied Armies were ashore. To that end, Operation Fortitude created a fake army.

The hope was that the Germans would believe there was an enormous army waiting to strike from Southern England once Wehrmacht (German Army) forces moved to Normandy. Incredibly, Operation Fortitude succeeded.

The first step in Operation Fortitude was to create a paper army, the First US Army Group (FUSAG). Just the name First United States Army Group was enough to impress German observers. To fool the Germans, they launched a second initiative called Operation Quicksilver.

To make sure the Germans noticed FUSAG, they appointed the Allies’ most controversial and colorful general its commander. That general was George S. Patton, old Blood and Guts himself. Patton was a colorful character whose antics often attracted press attention.

For example, Patton wore Ivory handled pistols and had a reputation for slapping wounded soldiers. Reporters followed Patton around because he always made news.

To ensure press coverage, Patton deliberately made controversial remarks. For example, neglecting to mention Soviet forces in a speech praising the Allied armies to generate criticism and more media coverage.

Patton’s presence ensured enormous amounts of press coverage for FUSAG. German intelligence paid attention because Patton had a reputation as America’s best field commander. Predictably, Patton roamed East Anglia, generating controversy and press coverage. German strategists considered East Anglia the probable staging area for a Calais invasion.

To complete the illusion, the US Army created a fake order of battle for FUSAG. The order of battle contained many real US, British, and Canadian units to add authenticity.

Allied authorities went to great lengths to make FUSAG seem real. For instance, a German spy in New York, Albert von Loop, transmitted accounts of fake American and Canadian divisions embarking for England. In reality, von Loop was a double agent working for both the FBI and Abwehr (German military intelligence).

To complete the illusion, radio operators in England sent out enormous amounts of radio chatter mimicking units in the field. The hope was German radio operators on the Continent would pick up the fake messages. Operation Quicksilver radio operators had an eight-thick book of fake messages for Germans to listen to.

Another part of the illusion involved fake insignia which were sewn on the uniforms of American soldiers in England. The soldiers wandered all over the country, adding another touch of reality for observant German spies.

Additionally, the British built fake army camps, complete with tents, hospitals, mess halls, and even sewer plants in Southern England. Fake vehicles, including tanks, trucks, and jeeps, covered Southern England. The most famous fakes were inflatable rubber tanks.

To add to the illusion, genuine vehicles drove around. Set builders and prop men from the British movie industry built dozens of fake landing craft that were stationed in East Anglia’s harbors. In Dover, England, set builders constructed a fake oil dock. Even King George VI did his part by “inspecting” the phony oil dock with plenty of reporters on hand to publicize the installation.

The hope was to fool German aerial renaissance units whose planes flew over East Anglia. The ruse worked. The German High Command believed an army of one million men was massing in East Anglia to invade Calais. In reality, the American, Canadian, and British armies in England were far smaller and massing to invade Normandy.

One reason Operation Quicksilver worked was that German espionage was terrible. All the German spies in Britain and America were double agents working for Allied Intelligence. In addition, to von Loop, the British controlled double agents Garbo, Brutus, and Tricycle who sent regular reports about FUSAG to Berlin. The reports were so detailed, Hitler himself read and believed them.

Astonishingly, an important German General, former Afrika Korps Commander Hans Cramer, played an important role in Operation Quicksilver’s deception. British forces had captured Cramer in North Africa and sent him to England. Allied diplomats arranged for Cramer, who was ill, to be repatriated to Germany through a neutral country.

Before he left England, American officers invited Cramer to dine with Patton at “FUSAG Headquarters.” During the dinner, alcohol flowed freely and Patton and other officers dropped tidbits of information about FUSAG and the Calais invasion. When Cramer got home, he briefed the German High Command on what he had overheard.  

Operation Quicksilver continued after the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944. For example, on 8 June 1944, Brutus radioed German intelligence that “Army Group Patton” was preparing to leave East Anglia for Calais. Brutus also claimed that five airborne divisions and ten infantry divisions were about to land in Calais.

Consequently, Hitler kept the bulk of the German armored forces in Calais, waiting for Army Group Patton. Without the Panzers’ firepower, Allied invaders outgunned and overwhelmed the German defenders in Normandy.

The FUSAG deception continued until Patton himself went to Normandy and took command of the very real Third US Army. By then, Operation was unnecessary because the Russians and the Western Allies were on the offensive and Hitler had no forces to spare or deceive.

Operation Fortitude/Operation Quicksilver worked because it played to the Germans’ prejudices. The Germans believed that only the best Allied General could beat them with overwhelming forces. Hence, the Allies manufactured that overwhelming force.

In addition, the Allies took advantage of Germany’s amateurish espionage efforts. Instead of executing or imprisoning German agents, they fed captured spies fake intelligence. Hence, Allied strategists created a fake reality that confirmed to German officers’ expectations.

Not every German was fooled, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the German field commander in France, thought the Normandy landing was the Allies’ primary effort. However, Quicksilver fooled the people who mattered, Hitler and the High Command.

So yes, hoaxes can change the course of history. History teaches that an elaborate hoax can fool even the smartest and most sophisticated people.