How did you become a statistician?

Churchill: "I only believe the statistics that I falsified myself ..."

Werner Barke

Numbers and statistics help to put facts to the test. Numbers and statistics, however, are in turn exposed to tests, skepticism and doubts. In this time of economic and social upheaval, this is shown by multiple public objections to numerical findings. Among the numerous compilers of statistics, the official statistics of the federal government, the federal states and the municipalities occupy a special position, as they are subject to the legal requirement to work neutrally, objectively and with scientific independence and to submit corresponding publications. This usually protects official statistics from unjustified criticism. Nevertheless, official statistics are repeatedly drawn into the wake of the general skepticism towards statistics, which is expressed primarily in the "quote": "I don't believe any statistics that I have not falsified myself." by former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. But shouldn't we speak of a "rumor" rather than a "quote"? In the interest of the reputation of the data providers, whose information only enables statistics, the State Statistical Office began investigating this question a few years ago. After quite extensive research, which aroused the friendly interest of scientists and, recently, well-known publishers, it can be said today more than ever: nothing speaks for the correctness of the "quote" and everything speaks against it.

So far, as a long-term survey has shown, each of the users of the quotation known to the statistical offices could at best name a second-hand source or none. It would make sense to name the stately row of editorial offices, ministers and top politicians and even information services who are pirouetting the Churchill word on thin ice, but: How much would the matter progress if one knew these names? An outstanding example of quotation practice, however, is listed here: The Great Falcon Book of Modern Quotations. Among other things, it offers readers under “Statistics”: “I do not trust any statistics that I have not falsified myself.” Winston Churchill (1874-1965), British statesman and writer, 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. The editors' rather insightful response to the question about the source was:

We can only give a very imprecise answer to your question regarding the source of the Churchill quotation on statistics. When collecting material for the quotation book, the editor evaluated countless newspapers and magazines as well as other publicly accessible periodicals without, however, precisely documenting the source of each quotation. Our inquiry showed that the text in question could come from the »Süddeutsche Zeitung«, which for years printed wisdom from well-known (sometimes less well-known) personalities in its weekend supplement.

We regret that we are unable to give you more precise information, FALKEN Verlag GmbH, Editorial Office Advice and Knowledge, Winfried Schindler.

At this time, it should be noted, no one has been able to identify a source for the quote. When asked by the State Statistical Office about the source and the level of awareness of the alleged Churchill quote, the Statistical Office of Great Britain replied:

I have consulted a number of sources and experienced government statisticians and no one I have spoken to has heard of this. You will appreciate that Churchill had a public career of over 60 years and in that time wrote hundreds of books and articels and made thousands of speeches, so it is quite possible that the remark was made at some point.

I W BUSHNELL, Librarian.

And the answer from the editor-in-chief of the major English daily newspaper The Times is enlightening not only for journalists: "... we never heard of this quote ..."

Winston Churchill in the original language, at least in his best-known works, does not provide any evidence that he was skeptical or negative about statistics or that he himself regarded them as a means of misleading. On the contrary: there is ample evidence that figures or "statistics" were a matter of course for Churchill for monitoring developments, for forming opinions, for making decisions, for monitoring success and, last but not least, as an aid to argumentation in political disputes. He clearly had a preference for facts, verifiable information. Sir John Colville, once a close collaborator of Churchill, points this out in his book Downing Street Diaries 1939–1945. Churchill's data-oriented view is reflected particularly impressively in his book “The Second World War”. Of course, the problems associated with dealing with numbers also become clear. Political opponents often design other figures on a different basis, question even the most solid foreign statements, present extracts of knowledge as an overall situation - quite apart from deliberate misinterpretations.

Churchill gained this bitter experience in the early 1930s when, in a pacifist environment, he based his worried thesis of inadequate security efforts in Great Britain on numbers - numbers from his own country as well as from France and Germany. Churchill's calculations were even questioned in the British Parliament. But soon afterwards he was satisfied that the then British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had to admit in public that, in contrast to Churchill, he had been “completely wrong” and “misled” in his estimation of future circumstances.

His speech on the “Battle of the Atlantic” in 1941 is also instructive.1 In it he had already mentioned his appreciation of the statistics before his memorial was published. Finally, Churchill expresses - one looks in vain for his own intent to falsify, but the intention to maintain secrecy becomes clear - concern about the news of the English measures in the submarine war:

Because it is of vital importance that the enemy does not find out how successful these individual movements are, we propose that the monthly publication of the numbers of our ship losses be discontinued soon. We have published the very heavy figures for May and all reports that came in after the fact about the losses in April and March. The numbers for April and May had become unusually high as a result of the heavy fighting in the Mediterranean; it now looks like the result will be better in June, but of course a pack of submarines could break into one of our convoy at any moment and overturn our forecasts. Today, June 25th, five days before the end of the month, one could hope that the number will not go beyond 300,000. But some delayed loss reports could come in again now. After all, June in the middle of summer will certainly make a more favorable number than February or March, the spring months when Hitler boasted that the fury of his attack would descend upon us.

We do not intend to publish any further figures after June. You help the enemy too much if you inform them every month of the success or failure of their ever new forms of attack. He knows our numbers are correct; they are of inestimable value to him; I have no doubt that the German Admiralty would pay £ 100,000 a month for the news material that we put together with such great care and then publish. We don't get anything in exchange for it; the enemy tells us nothing but outrageous lies and exaggerations that have long been discredited.

Churchill: "One is always happy to see how an enemy is caught in error and self-deception."

The mistrust of the opponent's figures expressed in the quote "I only believe the statistics that I have falsified" can be substantiated by several explanations, such as a passage in his speech on September 4, 1940 in the House of Commons "The War Situation" proves. Literally Churchill stated:

Our air fleet is now more numerous and better equipped than when the war broke out or even in July; to the best of our knowledge we have moved closer to the presumed overall German strength than we hoped to be at this stage of the war. I arranged for the German figures on the British aircraft allegedly destroyed during July and August to be added up. I was curious what the total would be. I found that they made the astonishing total of 1921 British aircraft destroyed. This number bears some resemblance to what has been reported about our fleet's losses, with many of its ships sunk repeatedly. The actual number of British casualties that we have reported daily over the past two months is 558. Fortunately, however, our losses to pilots are considerably smaller: I do not know whether Herr Hitler believes that his own figures are correct. Hopefully he does. You are always happy to see an enemy caught in error and self-deception.

Churchill's distrust of Hitler's figures is documented and quotable. But the (decisive) passage about a willingness to forge ("... statistics that I forged myself.") Was missing. It was war. Propaganda on both sides was at work. That part of the quotation often used today about the deliberate falsification of numbers - does it even come from a German pen?

From the multitude of regulations that directly related to the propaganda to be applied against England and Churchill, the one of Monday, October 7, 1940, should be selected:

The Minister (Editor's note: Propaganda Minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels) wishes that the anti-illusion campaign will continue to be carried out in the same way as it was on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning. He stressed that England was faced with a choice of either surrendering or pretending to have good prospects for the future by ruthless lying and bluffing. He reminds us that England was already close to surrendering during the World War and merely bluffed out of the difficult situation. This time Germany has to show the world that it is not even thinking about falling for the English bluff, but only allowing itself to be impressed by realities. The nature of these realities can be seen from the fact that around 23,000 kg of explosive bombs have fallen on Berlin so far, while 7 million kg have been dropped on London. If you look at these numbers, you can get an idea of ​​what is actually behind the English illusion reports. So the German press must continuously seek to paralyze the English campaign of illusions, regardless of whether the press gets bored or not. Of course, it is not intended to give the impression that England is now on the verge of collapse. Every day, however, she is supposed to describe the hopeless situation in England and show how Churchill's bluff policy is revealed in every message coming from England. As long as the minister does not give a counter-order, the press should continue with this campaign.

After an intensified bombing war on both sides, Goebbels stated on Saturday, April 12, 1941:

The English were now making big presentations of their bombing raids on German cities in order to draw up their own audiences. So we would have to refute that - also in the language service. A phrase in today's note, which polemicizes with the English claim "Over three thousand dead in Berlin", is not sufficiently sharply pointed, namely the last sentence there is: "The number of dead has increased to 11." Instead, one would have to make sense According to say: The English claim that their last air raid on Berlin caused 3,000 deaths. In reality it was six at first; the number has now increased to 15. So that means: 15 to 3,000. So you see, German people, how high is the multiplier with which the English increase German losses in general, and then you can calculate how high the divisor is with which the English damage we have done in England to divide. German losses multiply them by 200, similarly they will likely divide their own losses by 200. In this, now once very tangible example, one can see how the English are cheating.

The propaganda instructions target Churchill by name more than 75 times. It would go too far if one wanted to trace in detail the numerical specifications as Goebbels wanted to bring them to the people. It speaks volumes that Goebbels naturally recognizes lies as a weapon; However, he draws the lesson "... that you never use official gadgets, news agencies, etc. to launch lies, but you have to obscure the source of a lie immediately". Even when dealing with politically useful quotations, Goebbels was, as can be shown, not petty with regard to faithfulness to the source.

With the weapon of the word in order to implement the instructions of the Reich Propaganda Minister, the "Völkische Beobachter", the combat sheet of the national-socialist movement, published by Alfred Rosenberg, the Reichsleiter for the supervision of the entire intellectual and ideological training and education, was of course at the forefront of the journalistic front. In 1940/41 the "Völkischer Beobachter" pilloried Winston Churchill almost every day in many headlines and in even more articles as a liar.

  • "Awkwardly Lied, Mister Churchill" (May 11, 1940)
  • "Churchill comforts, brags and whines" (September 13, 1940)
  • "Churchill's Lies Truly Refuted" (September 18, 1940)
  • "Numbers acrobat Churchill" (October 02, 1940)
  • »General Bluff takes the offensive - W.C. to powder the people "(October 03, 1940)
  • "Churchill Must Keep Lying" (October 8, 1940)
  • "Winston Churchill was too stupid" (October 12, 1940)
  • "Churchill Trapped in His Net of Lies" (November 8, 1940)
  • “SO W.C. never lied "(November 18, 1940)
  • "Lying Bombs from Churchill's Mouth" (November 26, 1940)
  • "W.C.'s record of lies unmatched in history" (November 27, 1940)
  • "Churchill's understatement swindle" (November 28, 1940)
  • "WC. lies in two languages ​​"(November 28, 1940)
  • "Every British bomb rewarded fifteen times - official figures refute fraudulent illusions" (December 10, 1940)
  • "Churchill's Speech Full of Contradictions" (December 21, 1940)
  • "Churchill Remains True to His Customs" (January 13, 1941)
  • "The total war of lies as the last English hope" (January 28, 1941)
  • "The London lying tactic completely collapsed" (March 4, 1941)

Churchill was convinced that Hitler's success statistics were unbelievable. On Goebbels ’instructions, the German press was supposed to portray Churchill as a liar who forged numbers himself. To combine these two contradicting statements paradoxically as a point against Churchill in the formulation "I only believe the statistics that I have falsified myself" is only a small step.

It is currently unknown who was the first to bring the two statements together and publish them. Even the intricate ways in which the basic idea that statistics - by or according to Churchill could be misused for falsification - finally found its way into the post-war press, from there into reference works, from there into newspapers and speeches, can still be seen today do not trace. It doesn't have to stay that way, because one day there may be evidence and sources, since the attention of many journalistic observers has meanwhile been drawn to this point.

1 Published in 1947 by Charles Eade at Europa-Verlag Zurich under the title "Secret speeches", after the original English edition under the title "Secret session speeches" by Cassell & Co. Ltd. London had appeared.