The 20thCentury Evolution of Propaganda

Translations of this material:

into Russian: Перевод "The 20thCentury Evolution of Propaganda". 22% translated in draft.
Submitted for translation by Annhen 10.01.2012


The 20th century was a period when propaganda was rapidly developed by governments as a tool to influencing the masses both domestically and abroad. The two global conflicts that were such a feature of this century can be seen as major catalysts for advances in media manipulation techniques.

Wartime propaganda shows the collaboration of government and media at its most extreme and emphasizes the passivity of the masses who generally are more likely than ever to accept the media line in time of conflict, only questioning the veracity of information at an alter date.

World War One represented arguably the first conflict in which propaganda was used on a huge scale by governments on either side to a deliberate and wide-ranging attempt to influence public opinion.

In Britain, Asquith's cabinet had decided by the end of 1914 to initiate official propaganda with a view to "putting to the population of neutral countries and of the British dominion, statements and arguments in support of the policy of Great Britain and her allies in the European crisis." (p9 Reeves N (1986) Official British Film Propaganda During The First World War, Croom Helm, London).

Few would argue with this, governments would be expected to state their case in a positive manner, however what distinguished World War One was the use of widespread propaganda that was simply untrue to maintain, or try and maintain, public support for a futile, horrific and seemingly endless war.

Ponsonby (1991, Falsehood in Wartime - Propaganda Lies of the First World War, Institute of Historical Review, California) writes scathingly of some of the blatant falsehoods peddled by British and Allied governments during World War One. Stories of the Kaiser allegedly ordering the torture of three year old Belgian children spread through media sources and did stories of a corpse factory operating in Germany where oils and fats were manufactured from the bodies of dead soldiers. Ponsonby summarised this stating:

"To maintain popular enthusiasm and support for the ever bloodier conflict, British, French and American propaganda tirelessly depicted the German adversaries and vicious criminals" (p8 Ponsonby 1991). The key to propaganda at this level is to ensure that the population believes the enemy to be solely responsible for War. Newspapers such as The Times stuck resolutely to this line in 1914 stating:

"It (the declaration of war) is hardly surprising news, for a long chain of facts goes to show that Germany has deliberately brought on a crisis which now hangs over Europe" (The Times, August 5, 1914) and other media sources followed this line. With hindsight, the horror and absurdity of World War One appear to be as such that there would have been popular opposition to the ongoing slaughter, yet the propaganda of the age was largely able to subdue any critical analysis by the populations of the warring nations. On sides, government propaganda and a collaborating media painted a picture of the conflict that was truly black and white. As Ponsonby concluded:

"people must never be allowed to become despondent and must be persuaded that their government is blameless, their cause is righteous, and that the undisputable wickedness of the enemy had been proved beyond question." (p14 Ponsonby 1991).

British film propaganda was also a key element of feeding the government line to the masses. From 1915 onwards British propagandists fed a constant stream of films to the public and by 1917 had also developed a twice-weekly official newsreel. The scope of films was wide-ranging. The first film distributed, Britain Prepared, was a compilation film, closely followed by a number of other short films that included footage from the Western Front. (p141 Reeves 1986).

Battle and naval films soon followed that whilst portraying some of the death and destruction of the battlefield would end on a positive note - "a touch of happiness that would be sufficient to counteract the impact of what had gone before" (p158 (Reeves 1986). One of the major works produced in 1916 was The Battle of the Somme. One would imagine a realistic picture of this battle to produce little in the way of positive propaganda yet Reeves writes:

"the film as a whole does not present an unremittingly bleak picture of war, and there was much in the first two parts that would have stirred patriotic hearts." (p161 Reeves 1986).

Other films of the period paint a positive picture of life on the home front with civilians working hard to support the war effort, upbeat films featuring the Royal Family and the official newsreel which focussed on British successes on the battlefield and, whilst acknowledging some anti-war feeling later in the conflict, leaving viewers in no doubt as to the strong editorial support for the ongoing war effort.

In retrospect, British propaganda films from World War One managed to shed a generally positive and patriotic light on a horrific and futile conflict. Nonetheless, compared to material in later conflicts, the films made had a degree of openness and did not contain the strict adherence to and promotion of ideology that would be found in much propaganda film making from then on. Across Europe in years to come the propaganda machines of the Soviet government and of the Nazis in Germany would move government-sponsored propaganda onto a whole new level.

Nazi film propaganda was an integral part of Germany's National Socialist ideology. Both Hitler and Goebbels shared a common interest in film and Goebbels in particular believed in the power of cinema to influence people's thoughts and beliefs. In one of his first speeches as Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, Goebbels declared that the German cinema had the mission of conquering the world as the vanguard of the Nazi troops. (p2 Welch D (1983) Propaganda and the German Cinema, Oxford University Press, New York). He understood that totalitarian states need to exert absolute control of all media of mass communication so as to control the opinion of the masses and the careful organization of the pre-war German film industry was a testament to this.

Film can be a particularly useful propaganda tool when assessed against other methods of mass communications. It was important in creating an uncritical audience in that whilst people read newspapers and listened to the radio, they were more aware of a propaganda style content when included in these types of media.

With film on the other hand there was more of an association with relaxation and entertainment, something that made it more of a potent weapon. From a Frankfurt School viewpoint film fitted more easily into the idea of 'culture industry' manipulating the masses.

The range of the Nazi propaganda machine also displayed some of the tenets identified by the Frankfurt School. Adorno and Horkheimer had analysed how mass culture could be organized so as to capture all tastes, arguing that differences in films or magazines were based not so much on subject matter rather than on the classifying, organizing and labelling of consumers:

"The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification. Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type." (p123 Adorno & Horkheimer 1997).

In Germany, the requirement for conformity in a totalitarian state entailed that the film industry had to be organised according to the ideas and principles of the Nazi Party. Therefore the mass communications media - film, press and radio - developed a circular interrelationship with each other in that they supplied each other with themes provided by the State and supported each other in maintaining an effect by a simultaneous and graduated release of information which was circulated, controlled and modulated by the Nazi Party.

Appreciation of films by the masses was a carefully directed by Goebbels and his ministry and the reaction of the public was largely prepared and manipulated in advance by concerted publicity campaigns that preceded all films deemed important to the regime's cause. (p309 Welch 1983).

The film industry utilised slogans based on the idea that propaganda for the masses had to be simple and had to be repeated several times. Often the press would initially introduce the public to films, explaining them in terms of Nazi ideology and linking themes and events in the film to the actual political situation in Germany at the time.

Goebbels craved a uniformity of approach towards any form of culture and was involved in formulating a new range of definitions and language around the arts and particularly film criticism. In 1936 he forbade use of the phrase 'art criticism' in favour of 'observation of art' and critics were ordered to evaluate films merely by means of description and phrase. As Welch summarises:

Objectivity and opinion were therefore eliminated and replaced by a definition of truth as defined by the Nazi regime" (p309 Welch 1983).

Nazi Germany showed that that a successful attempt by the State to control the masses through media entails a thorough overhaul of the machinations of the culture industry. Under Goebbels there was a rapid cleansing of Jews and other politically undesirable elements for the media. Distinguished artists and writers were replaced by those with less talent yet certain to produce the type of film and media demanded by the State. Film propaganda quickly developed recurring themes that mirrored Nazi Party ideology - charismatic leadership, racism, violence and force, and appeals to national unity.

Of course the British government had to make sure that its population was behind the war effort and although it was not espousing a dogmatic ideology such as Nazism, the leadership used a high level of media propaganda to get across its message. In this case however it would be harsh to apply Marxist or critical theory - media manipulation was genuinely to aid the war effort rather than for the gain of a capitalist ownership.

During World War Two, writers would go as far as producing books that were essentially lengthy propaganda monologues. In Smith's «Guilty Germans?» (1942), the writer produces a 100 page attack on the German nation and all of its people, with a scare mongering type of rallying cry to the British population to unify:

"The British people is muddled, divided and undecided in its attitude to this war. This is an extremely serious danger, because the division may easily mean the difference between victory and defeat." (p9 Smith 1942).

The British government was also adept at maintaining a steady stream of propaganda in the media across the United States in an attempt to influence public opinion, overcome isolationism and accelerate the American entry into the war. Cull argues that Churchill and his ministers has made a concerted effort to this effect almost from the moment of the German invasion of Poland (p7 Cull N (1995) Selling War - The British Propaganda Campaign Against American 'Neutrality' in World War II, oxford University Press, New York).

Propaganda tactics in this campaign included broadcast of Churchillian speeches, a constant stream of Blitz stories indicating British fortitude against German attacks on civilians, live radio broadcasts during air raids and extensive coverage of the German destruction of Coventry.. The BBC North American Service paid great emphasis to London carrying on despite the tribulations of ordinary people. One notable interview was with three young boys from the East End who had been buried alive after a bombing raid.

Such tactic from a Western democracy should not be seen as a surprise. By common consent the western nations had an edge over autocracies in appealing to the people, something that had impressed Hitler (p9 Kenez 1985) and they did this through concentrating on four major themes: arousing hatred against the enemy, preserving the friendship of allies, winning the goodwill and cooperation of neutrals and demoralising the enemy. (p10 Kenez 1985).

On the home front, British propaganda also sought to boost the morale of troops. A weekly bulletin distributed amongst the armed forces painted a positive picture of the conflict, even during the darkest periods. An edition from December 1941 advises of adverse conditions in Germany - shortages of clothing and fuel, ration cuts and even a story relating that teachers who use bicycles unnecessarily will be prevented from buying new tyres. (Army Bureau of Current Affairs (1942) Current Affairs 20 December 1941). British allies on the other hand are built up as magnificent warriors:

"The Russian soldier is magnificent fighting material…an extraordinarily sturdy breed of very fine physique." (Army Bureau of Current Affairs, (1941) Current Affairs 11 October 1941). By 1944, these bulletins were firmly focussed on victory, full of articles on life after the war for troops based overseas and very much painting a picture that would keep the masses happy. (Army Bureau of Current Affairs (1944) Current Affairs 12 September 1944).

Once the United States had entered the war, the American media and film industry played a major role in rallying the public behind the war effort. Linking this again to the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School we can see that in the US particularly, with the dominance of Hollywood and the cinema going culture, that film stood at the centre of socialisation for the masses, acting as a mediator for political reality and undoubtedly performing an important role as one of the major institutions within this aggressively capitalist society.

Koppes and Black's Hollywood at War details a film making industry in wartime America that went to war with a vengeance, building blatantly morale building propaganda into its plots, speeches and visual images - "A marine, having just dispatched a horde of treacherous Japanese attackers pauses to utter a paean to democracy. A young mother, newly widowed when her husband was killed din combat chokes back the tears and tells her infant son that he died so he could have a better future" (pvii Koppes C & Black G, (2000) Hollywood Goes To War, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, London) - yet there was more to these patriotic touches than simply trying to boost the war effort.

The US government was heavily involved in this process. It understood the huge power that movies had to mobilise public opinion in favour of war and made a huge effort to influence the content of Hollywood films. War Office officials produced manuals advising the studios how to assist in the war effort, wrote dialogue for key speeches and pressured executives to change scripts or even scrap pictures if projected films did not meet government approval. Such interference somehow seems inappropriate in a democracy, yet there has been little criticism at the time or since for the way that the US government manipulated a key aspect of popular culture for blatant propaganda purposes.

The Hollywood movies of this period generated two myths that have maintained their roots in American popular culture and discourse, ideas that continue to play a role in Hollywood and a government led American media even today. One was the division of the world into slave and free. As Koppes and Black describe:

"They divided a world of total peril into forces of either ultimate evil or righteousness. Having assumed responsibility for freedom everywhere, expectations were raised that with complete victory the Allies would guarantee freedom globally" (p325 Koppes C & Black G, (2000) Hollywood Goes To War, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, London). (Is this really so different from the worldview that the US perpetuates today?). The second myth was that war could regenerate the American people - different races and classes would regain their harmony through a '"sanctified and regenerative act of violence" (p325 Koppes and Black 2000).

Aside form World War II, the US government has long been able to use large sections of the media to maintain an influence over its public, persuading the masses that the US and its allies are consistently right whilst its enemies, whether communist states during the Cold War or the likes of Iraq, Iran and North Korea more recently. Chomsky provides a telling example of US media coverage of Latin America and Eastern Europe during the 1980s writing

"The murder of one priest in Poland in 1984 by policemen who were quickly apprehended, tried and jailed merited far more media coverage than the murder of 100 prominent Latin American religious martyrs, including the Archbishop of San Salvador and four raped American churchwomen,…victims of US backed security forces." (p137 Chomsky N (1989), Necessary Illusions, Pluto Press, London.)