Daniela Sheinin: How do past voices resonate in the present moment? And how do we make sense of those voices? What were they trying to say? And whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect.
“Find a crack. The big lie. A kernel of truth. Conceal your hand. The useful idiot. Deny everything. The long game.”
These are the “7 Commandments of Fake News,” quoted from a New York Times opinion video series called, “Operation Infektion. Russian Disinformation: From Cold War to Kanye.” Fake news is presented as a decades-long objective beginning with the KGB, the Soviet Union’s security agency from the 1950s until its fall in 1991. But they didn’t call it fake news at the time. This was disinformation. Deception. A hoax. Lies.
If you’ve seen the news recently, you know that now the popular term is fake news. The idea that the media are lying, generating distrust in the very notion of journalistic ethics and integrity. Some say this is Russia’s doing. Others, a smear campaign by media corporations against the US president. As readers, listeners and viewers, how do we manage the constant onslaught of news stories and their deniers? Our own growing cynicism that something is amiss? Who’s to blame? And what if, it really is a lie? What if amidst of all the he-said/she-said, information of vital importance is becoming obscured–with deadly results.
Welcome to Episode 3 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I’m your host, Daniela Sheinin. This episode features recent PhD, Dr. Johanna Folland, a postdoctoral fellow at the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies. She’ll tell us how an idea—one about a global health epidemic—can spread on a global scale, from East Germany and the Soviet Union, to France and Poland, to the African continent and the United States, gaining public traction and eventually influencing policy.
Johanna Folland: This is a story about a couple of retired biology professors, in East Germany in the 1980s, who—depending on who you ask—may or may not have been responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives to HIV/AIDS.
It’s kind of a complicated story, about the politics of the global AIDS epidemic and the politics of the Cold War—and that brief period in the 80s when the two overlapped in a big way. There’s also Soviet conspiracies and secret agents and Cold War intrigue of all kinds, if you’re into that sort of thing.
But let me start at the beginning. Which, for me, was about five years ago.
I was doing research in the German federal archives in Berlin and I stumbled across a description of this scientist couple. Their names were Jakob and Lilli Segal. They had taught for decades at Humboldt University in East Berlin, and then in the 70s they quietly retired.
But around 1985, with the AIDS crisis in full swing, they showed up again, out of the blue, and started making some unconventional claims about the origins of HIV. Conspiracy theory stuff. Pretty run-of-the-mill though. AIDS was invented by the Pentagon, that kind of thing. I mean, they were pretty specific about it. Jakob Segal had this whole theory about how the CIA had created HIV in a lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The real driving force behind the Fort Detrick theory was probably political. In the very beginning, people thought of AIDS as an American problem, but by the mid-eighties, it was becoming clear that the epidemic was also decimating the African continent, and that AIDS was probably caused by a virus of African origin.
At that time, a lot of people perceived the discovery that HIV came from Africa as racist scapegoating: a shifting of blame from rich countries onto poor countries. The Segals weren’t the only ones who felt that way, although they took the sentiment a little further than most did. They promoted their Fort Detrick theory of HIV pretty assertively, and got some attention, including in Africa, but mostly from the West German Left. And they kept promoting it long after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell apart.
But the attention and the whole Fort Detrick story mostly died down. If you’re walking through a public park in some parts of Germany today, you might occasionally get handed a pamphlet about it by some kids who want to tell you about Marxism-Leninism. But that’s mostly it.
When I first read about this story five years ago, I filed it away as a curiosity. There was a small historiography attached to it. Not much though, really just a debate between a couple of people who thought the Segals were part of this big KGB conspiracy to spread disinformation about AIDS, and a couple of other people who thought they were acting on their own. I found the latter more convincing, partly because the evidence for a sprawling global conspiracy is pretty circumstantial, and partly because virtually all the scholars who looked at this case and saw the KGB’s fingerprints all over it were historians affiliated with Western governments and intelligence agencies. I thought, okay, maybe… maybe they’re just still fighting the Cold War. And I didn’t think much more about it.
But that was 2014. Then … all this happened.
Audio (News montage): Hillary Clinton has called Donald Trump to concede the race … stunning announcement from the white house this evening … James Comey has been fired… There was absolutely no collusion … Everybody knows … new report prepared for the Senate intelligence committee shows Russia was using every major social media platform to help elect president Trump.
Johanna Folland: So now it’s 2019 and as you know, conspiracies involving Russia are on everybody’s mind, which is why suddenly this whole weird little story from 30-some years ago is all over the place.
Audio (News montage): Russian born biophysicist Jakob Segal … This is Dr. Jakob Segal … Dr Jakob Segal and his wife Lilli were the useful idiot professors who wrote the scientific report that the articles then cited…
Johanna Folland: Not only are Jakob and Lilli Segal suddenly trending, but all that uncertainty about whether they were part of a big KGB conspiracy… all that uncertainty is pretty much gone. What started as a shaky conclusion is now an absolute fact. And the Fort Detrick theory has become…
Audio (Documentary narrator): …one of the greatest cons ever carried out on the global scale.
Johanna Folland: Okay, so what really happened?
Fortunately my department here at Michigan is really big, so there were a lot of people around to help me unravel this thing.
I had a lot of questions. First of all, it’s funny how everyone who tells this story seems to talk as though the Soviets were somehow the only bad actors in the Cold War. Like disinformation was just a Soviet thing. We obviously know that’s not true. Disinformation played a major role in US-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala and Chile.
But I wanted more context. So I went and asked my colleague, David Spreen, about this.
Like me, David is a historian of divided Germany and the Cold War, although his focus is on networks of far-Left activists, which means that espionage and surveillance play a pretty big role in his work. I told him the whole story and asked about how common this sort of thing was. He was … characteristically sarcastic.
David Spreen: So the KGB, they use disinformation in the quote war is what you’re saying? [Yeah.] Ah, that’s shocking. I mean, you know, it was the Cold War, like, people were doing this kind of stuff on both sides all the time. So here’s my favorite story. In the early 1960s the West German domestic intelligence service was trying to figure out ways to sabotage the socialist regime in East Germany. Right? At that time the Soviet union and China increasingly didn’t get along. So the West saw an opportunity there.
What they ended up doing was, they ordered material from Beijing and they reprinted it in this sort of house printing press in Cologne and then they put it in envelopes and sent it to a list of recipients in East Germany, among them, some members of the central committee. So the idea was to create this illusion of pro-Chinese opposition in East Germany. It didn’t really work, because the Stasi knew about this all along. They actually had an informant in this whole operation who, you know, got the instructions from the West and then neatly wrote them up and sent them to East Germany. So, you know, there’s that.
Johanna Folland: Okay, so, disinformation, not good obviously, but par for the course.
But there was another thing about all this that was even weirder. Whenever people talk about the stakes of this thing, about why it’s so important to investigate and condemn Soviet AIDS, disinformation, there’s one thing people keep saying over and over. They keep saying that “all around the world, people still believe this disinformation even today.”
Again, it’s definitely true that there’s a lot of so-called “alternative knowledge” out there about AIDS, and that it’s harmful. But how do we pinpoint the source of any given belief or idea? Theories about HIV AIDS being a government conspiracy sprang up over and over again all the time and all over the place before the Segals ever showed up on the scene.
And yet everywhere, I see this conviction that if anybody out there thinks the US government had a hand in the AIDS crisis, it must have been the Soviet Bloc that told them to believe that.
It gets kind of extreme. There’s this NPR piece from All Things Considered in 2018…
Audio (Journalist): …the rumor was partially based on a report written in 1986 by Russian born biophysicists Jacob seagull.
Johanna Folland: They got the year right, 1986.
Audio (Journalist): …even US newspapers picked up the story.
Johanna Folland: It’s right here, right after that line…
Audio (Journalist): …even US newspapers picked up the story…
Johanna Folland: …that the story cites and links to its evidence.Three newspaper articles. You have to click through to see their dates, though. And when you do you see that they do all speak to conspiracy beliefs, but two of them were written in 1983 and 1985, before the Segals ever said anything publicly about AIDS. Those articles don’t cite the Segal theory because there wasn’t one. Pretty strange oversight.
But I think the key to all this is that these claims about the efficacy of Soviet disinformation, they’re usually pretty specifically about communities of color being misled by Soviet propaganda both in Africa and in the US. The whole thing seemed problematic, so I went and talked to another colleague. His name is also David—David Hutchinson.
He works on African Americans’ responses to HIV/AIDS in the American South.
David Hutchinson: If you really think about the history of say, African Americans, and their relationship with medical authorities on the whole 400-year history of medical experimentation on black bodies … Essentially what I’m saying is that it doesn’t take a Soviet disinformation campaign to have people who have been abused, mistreated by medical authorities, by the institutions of medicine and science and technology, to distrust that institution when your entire experience in this nation has kind of led you to that point.
Johanna Folland: That brings me back to Lilli. Remember Lili? This is a podcast about Lilli.
What I’d seen so far was that with so much at stake, the search for the truth about AIDS conspiracy theories seems to lead pretty easily into righteous indignation and ridicule. Let me give you an example.
Audio: (Documentary narrator): The KGB let the story go quiet for a couple of years.
Johanna Folland: This is from a New York Times documentary video series from 2018 called Operation Infektion. Operation Infektion is what some people think was the code name for the AIDS conspiracy. Although it turns out that was probably just this one ex-Stasi guy’s recollection way after the fact of some Stasi water cooler talk, basically.
Actually a lot of former Soviet block intelligence people wrote really sensationalistic memoirs in the 90s, but you can’t really fact check that stuff. Anyway, here’s the part I was talking about.
Audio (Documentary narrator): …and no joke. This is the dude they found. This is Dr. Jakob Segal. Remember I said the report had two authors? Well, here comes the coauthor now. It’s his wife, Lilli. Believe it or not, these two wrote that report that claims to have evidence AIDS was created in a U S government lab.
Johanna Folland: Do you hear that tone? The implication seems to be that this is how we know the Segal theory of HIV is ridiculous. It’s just some old guy who wrote a paper with his wife. And let me just say real quick that we know the Segal theory of HIV is wrong because of science, but setting that aside for a minute, what’s weird about this New York Times video is that Lilli Segal is onscreen for a moment, but she doesn’t talk. She’s elderly and she shakes a little, but she mostly watches her husband affectionately and nods.
The thing is that actually took some really creative editing.
If you watch the original footage—it’s on YouTube—both of them are sitting there in a very “80s” little study with orange furniture and books everywhere, and they’re both adamant. It’s Lilli, actually, who talks about the role of racism in AIDS science.
It’s ridiculous, she says, all these claims that HIV comes from people in Africa drinking monkey blood to lose their virility or African children using dead monkeys is toys. And it’s worth pausing here to note that what she’s talking about, victim blaming, was indeed a huge part of the AIDS crisis from the beginning, with rumors flying around the West that AIDS was the result of gay immorality or Haitian voodoo rituals or African sexuality.
There’s a sense in which she’s not wrong.
And this is the point when I did something that admittedly I should have done months earlier. I googled “Lilli Segal” by herself, not “Jakob and Lilli Segal,” just Lilli, and for the first time what came up on my screen had nothing to do with AIDS.
What came up was an old black-and-white photograph of a young woman with dark hair. She’s holding a little piece of cardboard with some writing on it, a name and a date and a serial number. She’s also got this huge grin on her face, which is probably why it took me a second to realize that it’s a mugshot, dated 1943.
Both Lilli and Jakob Segal were Jewish and grew up in Germany in the twenties and thirties. On the day of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. In 1933, Lily’s father committed suicide and she went to France. That’s where she and Jakob Segal met.
And when the war began and the Nazis invaded, they became active in the resistance through the French communist party. In 1943, Lilli was caught and arrested. Eventually, she was deported to Auschwitz on a train called Convoy 77.
It turns out there’s this whole research network of people, in Europe, mostly, who’re trying to assemble photos and biographies of everybody on that convoy. They’re the ones who found Lilli’s mugshot. So I got in touch with them. That’s how I met Serge.
Serge Jacubert: My name is Serge Jacubert. I’m 67 years old and active in the association of Convoi 77 since, uh, about three years now.
Johanna Folland: We talked about the photograph and about the Convoy 77 association’s work in the archives of the prefecture of police in Paris, which was charged with tracking down the so-called “terrorists” of the resistance.
Serge Jacubert: And it was not very difficult for them, once they had caught Lilli Segal, to find out that she was a communist, a registered communist, that she was Jewish, that she was born in Germany. They could find the many details about her, it was very easy.
Johanna Folland: What’s incredible is that Lilli and a friend actually escaped from Auschwitz and made their way to Switzerland. She wrote about it in her memoir, and the story is corroborated by someone else who was in the camp with her: Serge’s mother.
Serge Jacubert: When my mother died, I found a book in German with some the hand writing on it and I imagined that Lilli and my mother met after the war and that Lilli Segal had an opportunity to hand over the book that she had written in German to my mother.
Johanna Folland: After the war, the Segals moved to East Germany and both started working as biologists at Humboldt university in the 50s. Like so many “old guard” communists who had experienced the war and the Holocaust, Lilli remained a true believer in the socialist project. Serge put me in touch with her niece, Margo.
Margo Kaufman: Deep down she knew that a lot of things were wrong in East Germany and she kinda covered up for them, always looking at the good things. You know, they have nursery schools and they have food banks and that, you know, all the, all the positive things. For example, we went through the North sea and they had very, very high towers, which were actually there because they didn’t want people to take boats and leave. And she kept saying, oh no, no, it’s just the lifeguard. My husband would tease her, oh yeah, lifeguards, by the time he gets done from, you know, up there, he’ll never save anybody. She was kind of like a little naive about things like that. But it was mainly because she was, she wanted to believe that things were, you know, things were going to be better after … after Germany, all that.
She never complained about it and she even, you know, saw positive things.
The only time she really felt bad was she saw a Charlie Chaplin film and, when he was eating his shoelaces, because he was so hungry, and she said the whole audience, you know, burst into into laughter and she burst into tears – how hungry she had been.
Johanna Folland: So I’ve been telling you about Lily’s history, and I’ve been calling her by her first name. So you can probably tell that in spite of all the conspiracy stuff, I kinda like her. And I hope you do too. But that’s not really the point. I’m not telling you this story because I want you to like somebody.
Let’s talk about evidence for a minute.
At the end of the day, all we know is that within Soviet Bloc intelligence networks, there was at least a little bit of chatter for a couple of years about encouraging pre-existing rumors about HIV being an American bioweapon. Nothing concrete, mostly unspecific plans or efforts to take credit for things that were already happening.
Only a couple of documents attesting to this have turned up in many years of searching plus a little bit of disputed hearsay. I guess the one exception is that a former KGB officers sort of bragged in 1992 that the KGB had planted two articles about AIDS in a Soviet newspaper and I’ll buy that. But that’s it. There is no direct evidence of a massive successful campaign. Conspiracy theories about AIDS did proliferate, but that’s all we know.
When pressed on this point, scholarly proponents of the KGB-Stasi AIDS conspiracy theory, will say “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” And they’re right,
But of course that’s also what the proponents of the Fort Detrick theory say, and they’re right too. Technically, I can’t prove to you that the US government didn’t invent HIV.
But I know that’s not what happens, not just because of common sense and because of the mountains of genetic evidence indicating that the virus originated in central Africa in the early twentieth century, but also because the provenance of that belief is often so painfully clear. It’s a belief that’s emerged countless times among people facing extraordinary pain and grief with little or no information or help. People for whom apathy and malice might as well be the same thing. Lilli Segal promoted that belief, but knowing that she was once literally at the mercy of Dr. Joseph Mengele, that’s maybe not so surprising.
The belief that misinformation about HIV/AIDS is largely or entirely the result of a communist plot is also not surprising. I mean, I see the appeal – that would let the West off the hook for a lot. What’s more surprising to me is the anger that proponents of this belief so often express.
Audio (Documentary interviewee #1): This science gobbledygook and you know, you read this stuff and who can understand it.
Audio (Documentary interviewee #2): I was so angry that they accused the States of creating the age virus because I knew how effective that was going to be as a tool against us and it angered me deeply.
Johanna Folland: Those were some former State Department officials who were interviewed for that New York Times documentary. I guess their attitudes are understandable too. I mean, misinformation kills. In South Africa in the early 2000s, the government embraced a common alternative theory about AIDS: Peter Duesberg’s theory, which says that AIDS comes from drugs and lifestyle choices and not from a virus. AIDS Misinformation in that case kept people from getting access to antiretrovirals and is estimated to have killed maybe 300,000 people.
But Peter Duesberg is a German American biologist, not a Soviet agent.
And Peter Duesberg is still going strong. He’s got this website that looks like it was made in 1995… don’t go to it though. We don’t want to give him traffic. My point is that he doesn’t seem to stoke the same kind of indignation.
I guess for 1980s-era US State Department officials, this was personal.
At the end of the day though, being outraged about Soviet lies isn’t the same as caring about people with AIDS. Just like in today’s politics, being outraged about Russian meddling on Facebook isn’t the same as thinking seriously about the conditions of social and racial inequality in America that were so easy for them to exploit in the first place.
Lots of people around the world are still dying of AIDS, close to a million a year. Actually, Russia is a hot spot. It’s one of the few places in the world where the AIDS epidemic is getting worse, and I’ve seen people report on this and bring up the Soviet AIDS conspiracy thing as if to say, well, that’s what you get in when it’s clear that rampant homophobia, Putin’s negligence and authoritarianism, the Orthodox Church, and decades of economic misery are all to blame.
In the end, even if all the believers were right, even if the Soviets were massively successful in spreading the idea that the US government created AIDS, honestly, who cares? It would still pale in comparison to the effects of the years the US spent policing a global intellectual property rights regime that kept AIDS drug prices prohibitively high for most of the world. The US has been the only superpower game in town for most of the AIDS crisis. We probably can’t blame the commies for this one.
Daniela Sheinin: Thank you so much for joining us and a special thank you to our segment producers for the episode, Dr. Johanna Folland. Our Editorial Board is Professor Melanie Tanielian and Matt Villeneuve, and our Production Team is Executive Producer Gregory Parker, and I’m your Season Producer, Daniela Sheinin. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode for more stories on how the past reverberates in present. This is Reverb Effect.