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Famous quotes: Why are so many fake?

Popular quotes that often appear in speeches, tweets and memes are oftentimes fake. But how did they enter the popular lexicon, and can we find their true origins?

A large bight painting of man sticking his tongue out on a house wall

"Don't believe anything you read on the interne"t: Albert Einstein has become the face of fake quotes

"When the sun of culture is low, even dwarfs cast long shadows." This is one of the most famous quotes attributed to Austrian writer and satirist Karl Kraus.

But literary scholar and quote researcher Gerald Krieghofer says that it wasn't even Kraus who said it: The sentence was actually uttered by Kraus' employee.

Krieghofer has so far collected more than 500 false quotes attributed to famous personalities to verify their origins. He is not alone in his endeavor. Across diverse European languages, internet sites are shining a light on the phenomena via listicles of false quotes, or by poking fun at them.

One popular meme enjoying high circulation on Twitter features the photo of Abraham Lincoln with a warning about quotes on the internet supposedly pronounced by famous people. 

Krieghofer says that Lincoln, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill are some of the personalities who are often misquoted.

In the German-speaking world, this 'honor' goes to writers Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Tucholsky, Karl Kraus or the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck.

However, the world's most frequently misquoted person is Albert Einstein, Krieghofer told DW.

One doesn't have to look long on Twitter to find that Ivanka Trump also misquoted one of the great minds of the 20th century.

A phenomenon of our time

Krieghofer has spent many years researching Karl Kraus for the Austrian Academy of Sciences and has collected over 50 false quotes attributed to Kraus alone. He has since expanded his collection to include well-known personalities from politics, culture, and science.

Their supposed quotes circulate on the net or in the media and are also often used in politicians' speeches. Krieghofer also receives a lot of information from resourceful colleagues. "False quotes have always existed, and people have always been upset about them."

This had also kept German philologist, Georg Büchmann, busy back in the day. He gained fame for his 1864 book "Geflügelte Worte, Der Zitatenschatz des Deutschen Volkes," which loosely translates as "Winged Words, a Treasury of German Quotes."

The book traced the origins of sayings and literary quotes that had become part of common speech. It has since undergone numerous revisions and updates, and it has been translated into various foreign languages.

"What's new these days are photos with quotes on the internet. And I bet you half of them are falsely attributed," Krieghofer said. "Where right becomes wrong, resistance becomes duty" is often falsely attributed to author Bertolt Brecht, he notes.

"It came up in the 70s during the anti-nuclear movement, and at some point was simply attributed to Brecht," said Krieghofer.

"Imagine there is a war, and nobody goes" is another slogan which he says originated in America but is often attributed to Brecht.

A man sits behind a piano with a cigar

"Imagine there's a war and nobody goes" is a quote that is wrongly attributed to Bertolt Brecht, pictured here in 1927

Why do we quote so much?

Krieghofer has found false quotes everywhere: not only in the media, but also in introductions of dissertations or in speeches.

"A lot of them can be found in management guidebooks. Obviously, there is always a need for motivational speeches to appear educated. In my opinion, there are particularly many dubious collections there," he says.

It seems people are drawn to utilizing foreign quotations to suggest a certain worldliness, or to appear well-read. Krieghofer adds that in the German-speaking world, humorous quotes are often attributed to either German journalist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky or American author Mark Twain.

Meanwhile, neo-Nazis or right-wing populists like politician Alexander Gauland of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party 'quote' Bismarck instead. "Any saying that fits into the political concept is simply said to be from Bismarck as it lends more authority," Krieghofer said.

A mustached man in a pointed army hat of Prussian style

Supposed quotes by Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck are often used by right-wing groups and parties

What famous people supposedly said

Then, there is "secondary citation." For example, biographers who quote a famous person they knew, even if the quotes are quite possibly invented.

Beethoven's secretary and first biographer Anton Schindler, for example, claimed the composer said, "Thus, fate knocks at the gate." Apparently Beethoven was referring to the famous opening motif of his Fifth Symphony, which was consequently called the Fate Symphony.

Krieghofer adds that almost every famous person attracts hangers-on who try and capitalize on their fame. This was the case with Franz Kafka and Gustav Janouch, who published the book "Conversations with Kafka" in 1951.

"Many popular Kafka quotations come from this book, but Janouch only came up with them 20 years after Kafka's death," says Krieghofer. Furthermore, Janouch never kept a diary of those conversations, prompting researchers to question their validity.

A grave stone marked with the name: Dr Franz Kafka

The truth is buried: Only Kafka knows what he really said

How to recognize false quotes

By and large, the literary scholar has been praised for his enthusiasm to get quotes and their sources right.

"But I am also a bit hated by neo-Nazis because I take away their beautiful pseudo-quotations," he said. Often insulted on Twitter, Krieghofer is undaunted.

His current favorite misquote is: "Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." Over the last 30 years, it has been falsely credited to the composer Gustav Mahler, with Pope John or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also sharing attribution. 

Krieghofer's research, however, has revealed that the phrase first appeared in the French parliament in 1910. Another small victory in unearthing the true roots of so many false quotes.

This article has been adapted from German by Brenda Haas.


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