Fake News in Nazi Germany: Hitler Built a Model Town to Hide That He Was Killing Millions of Jews

Theresienstadt is a baroque fortress dating back to the late 18th century. During World War II, the Gestapo used it as a concentration camp. Getty Images

The term "fake news," first used to describe news stories that contained deliberately false information, is today thrown around as a way to discredit any news coverage people don't like. Fake news has been around for hundreds of years, but the term picked up steam over the past year in a heated political climate where people cast doubt on any story that doesn't agree with them.

But the Theresienstadt camp—a hybrid Jewish ghetto–Nazi labor camp in what is today the Czech Republic—was the ultimate fake news story of 1944 and shows just how much the term has changed. Because while many of the stories accused of being "fake news" in 2017 are based on facts, Nazi propaganda was deliberate deception and pure theater.

For three and a half years, from 1941 until 1945, tens of thousands of Jews were imprisoned at Theresienstadt, many later shipped off to extermination camps in Poland, or to other labor camps in Belarus or the Baltic States.

When the International Red Cross was invited to inspect the camp in the summer of 1944, the Nazis were determined to hide from the world the fact that they were killing Jews en masse. The camp's directors forced inmates to build fake homes, shops and gardens that would fool the delegation into thinking the camp was actually a thriving town. In fact, it was a Potemkin village designed for genocide.

"In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a 'spa town' where elderly German Jews could 'retire' in safety. The deportations to Theresienstadt were, however, part of the Nazi strategy of deception," notes the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Holocaust Encyclopedia. "The ghetto was in reality a collection center for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe."

Theresienstadt is a baroque fortress dating back to the late 18th century. During World War II, it was used by Gestapo as a concentration camp. Getty Images

Around 200 inmates were chosen and presented during the inspection by the Red Cross. They were placed in special temporary housing to make it appear as if they lived comfortably, and were instructed not to speak one-on-one with the members of the delegation even if they were asked questions directly.

Members of the delegation, which included prominent doctors and Red Cross officials, were toured around the camp, where inmates told them how happy they were to be there. In fact, many inmates had been deported to their death before the delegation's visit, an attempt to clean the camp of evidence that people were being mistreated. The ruse seemed to have worked, as members of the delegation expressed satisfaction that nothing especially egregious had taken place there.

The majority of the camp's residents were Austrian, Czech and German Jews who lived in squalid conditions and often died quickly from infectious diseases. There were around 60,000 people living in the camp at any given time, but the fortress itself had been designed hundreds of years earlier to house just 7,000. Around 33,000 people are believed to have died there.

A soldier carries a wreath to the cemetary at Theresiendstadt, a Gestapo prison and Jews ghetto during World War II. Around 33, 000 died in the ghetto. Getty Images

Despite the hardship, Theresienstadt allegedly had a vibrant artistic and intellectual community maintained by the numerous artists, academics, writers, musicians and actors who were deported there.

The camp was eventually liberated by Soviet troops as the war ended in 1945.