10 minute read


World War Ii, Defining Propaganda, Bibliography

Since the twentieth century, propaganda has largely had pejorative associations. The term continues to imply something sinister; synonyms for propaganda frequently include lies, falsehood, deceit, and brainwashing. In recent years unfavorable references have been made to "spin doctors" and the manner in which "propaganda" has devalued democratic politics. The psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson intended their book Age of Propaganda (1992) to inform Americans about the "sophisticated use of propaganda techniques" and how to "counteract" its "effectiveness." A widely held belief is that propaganda is a cancer on the body politic, which manipulates our thoughts and actions and should be avoided at all costs.

If propaganda is to be a useful concept, it first has to be divested of its pejorative connotations. The ancient Greeks regarded persuasion as a form of rhetoric and recognized that logic and reason were necessary to communicate ideas successfully. Throughout history leaders have attempted to influence the way in which the governed viewed the world. Propaganda is not simply what the other side does, while one's own side concentrates on "information" or "publicity." Modern dictatorships have never felt the need to hide from the word in the way democracies have. Accordingly, the Nazis had their Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, the Soviets their Propaganda Committee of the Communist Party, while the British had a Ministry of Information and the Americans an Office of War Information. The Allies in both world wars described the opinion-forming activity by the enemy as propaganda, while claiming that they themselves only disseminated the truth.

The origin of the word propaganda can be traced back to the Reformation, when the spiritual and ecclesiastic unity of Europe was shattered, and the medieval Roman Catholic Church lost its hold on the northern countries. During the ensuing struggle between forces of Protestantism and those of the Counter-Reformation, the church found itself faced with the problem of maintaining and strengthening its hold in the now non-Catholic countries. A commission of cardinals set up by Pope Gregory XIII (1572–1585) was charged with spreading Catholicism and regulating ecclesiastical affairs in heathen lands. A generation later, when the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) had broken out, Gregory XV in 1622 made the commission permanent, as the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith); it was charged with the management of foreign missions and financed by a "ring tax" assessed on each newly appointed cardinal. Finally, in 1627, Urban VII established the Collegium Urbanum or College of Propaganda to serve as a training ground for a new generation of Catholic propagandists and to educate young priests who were to undertake such missions. The first propaganda institute was therefore simply a body charged with improving the dissemination of a group of religious dogmas. The word propaganda soon came to be applied to any organization with the purpose of spreading a doctrine; subsequently it was applied to the doctrine itself, and lastly to the methods employed in undertaking the dissemination.

From the seventeenth to the twentieth century propaganda continued to be "modernized" in accordance with scientific and technological advances. During the English Civil War (1642–1646), propaganda by pamphlet and newsletter became a regular accessory to military action, Oliver Cromwell's army being concerned nearly as much with the spread of religious and political doctrines as with victory in the field. The employment of propaganda increased steadily throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in times of ideological struggle, as in the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary Wars. The Girondists, for example, distributed broadsheets among enemy troops offering them rewards for desertion, and American revolutionary propagandists were among the most eloquent in history, their appeal on behalf of the Rights of Man striking a chord in the minds of the people that resonates to this day. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 there were no great wars of revolution, but the new visual "language" of political cartoons and satirical prints continued to feature prominently in propaganda campaigns. Historically, therefore, propaganda became associated with periods of stress and turmoil, in which violent controversy over doctrine accompanied the use of force.

It was, however, during World War I that the wholesale employment of propaganda as a weapon of modern warfare served to transform its meaning into something more sinister. British World War I propaganda poster seeking to recruit women to the war effort, c. 1915. The first world war represented the advent of propaganda on a massive scale, as the participating countries realized the importance of public opinion and the need to keep morale high. © HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION /CORBIS Toward the end of the nineteenth century the introduction of new forms of communication had created a new phenomenon, the mass audience. The means now existed for governments to mobilize entire industrial societies for warfare by quickly disseminating information (or propaganda) to large groups of people. One of the most significant lessons to be learned from World War I was that public opinion could no longer be ignored as a determining factor in the formulation of government policies. The Great War was the first "total war," in which whole nations, and not just professional armies, were locked in mortal combat. Propaganda was an essential part of this war effort, developing in all the belligerent countries as the war progressed.

The rival alliances anticipated a violent but short war. Instead, the relative parity of the opposing forces resulted in a military stalemate and a protracted war. With civilians required to participate in a "total war" effort, morale came to be recognized as a significant military factor, and propaganda began to emerge as the principal instrument of control over public opinion; both control of the mass media and propaganda were seen as essential in maintaining support for national war aims. The press, leaflets, posters, and the new medium of film were utilized, censored, and coordinated (arguably for the first time) in order to disseminate officially approved themes.

At the start of the war most of the belligerent states had only embryonic propaganda organizations. Such institutions developed piecemeal, with local initiatives later being centralized. In Britain, which is largely credited with disseminating the most successful propaganda, the Ministry of Information (MOI) was established in 1917 under Lord Beaverbrook, with a separate Enemy Propaganda Department under Lord Northcliffe. The basic British approach, known as "the propaganda of facts," was for official propaganda to present events as accurately as possible, but with an interpretation favorable to British war aims. Upon entering the war in 1917, the United States copied the British policy of stressing facts whenever possible, establishing its own Committee on Public Information (CPI), known also as the Creel Committee after its director, George Creel (1876–1953). CPI activities were intended to "sell the war to the American people" and included poster campaigns and war bond drives. By comparison the German effort was controlled largely by the army. Contrary to received opinion, however, the German government had, from an early stage in the conflict, developed a sophisticated notion of propaganda and its reception by different publics and had established a national network of monitoring stations to provide feedback on the "pulse of the people." But, having constructed the means to read the mood of the people, the German authorities failed to act accordingly. Moreover, as a result of the militarization of the society, German propaganda was too closely tied to military success. Austria-Hungary and Russia made little use of organized propaganda, although the Bolsheviks after 1917 regarded it as essential to their revolutionary effort.

All sides supplemented military engagement with propaganda aimed at stimulating national sentiment, maintaining home front morale, winning over neutrals, and spreading disenchantment among the enemy population. The British are credited with having carried out these objectives more successfully U.S. Navy recruitment poster by Howard Chandler Christy, 1918. In the United States the Committee on Public Information was formed in 1917 as the official disseminating agency of propaganda. The committee sought to present the facts surrounding the war in a way that was favorable to the image of the country. © SWIM INK /CORBIS than any other belligerent state. Britain's wartime consensus is generally believed to have held under the exigencies of the conflict—despite major tensions. One explanation for this is the skillful use made by the government of propaganda and censorship. After the war, however, a deep mistrust developed on the part of ordinary citizens who realized that conditions at the front had been deliberately obscured by patriotic slogans and by "atrocity propaganda" that had fabricated obscene stereotypes of the enemy and their dastardly deeds. The population also felt cheated that their sacrifices had not resulted in the promised homes and a land "fit for heroes." Propaganda was now associated with lies and falsehood, and the Ministry of Information was immediately disbanded. A similar reaction took root in the United States. In 1920 George Creel published an account of his achievements as director of the CPI, and in so doing contributed to the public's growing suspicion of propaganda; this created a major obstacle for propagandists attempting to rally American support against Fascism in the late 1930s and 1940s.

Fledgling dictators in Europe, however, viewed war propaganda in a different light. The experience of Britain's propaganda campaign provided the defeated Germans with a fertile source of counterpropaganda aimed against the postwar peace treaties and the ignominy of the Weimar Republic. Writing in Mein Kampf (1925–1927), Adolf Hitler devoted two chapters to propaganda. By maintaining that the German army had not been defeated in battle but had been forced to submit due to disintegration of morale, accelerated by skillful British propaganda, Hitler (like other right-wing politicians and military groups) was providing historical legitimacy for the "stab-inthe-back" theory. Regardless of the actual role played by British propaganda in helping to bring Germany to its knees, it was generally accepted that Britain's wartime experiment was the ideal blueprint for other governments in subsequent propaganda efforts. Convinced of its essential role in any movement set on obtaining power, Hitler saw propaganda as a vehicle of political salesmanship in a mass market. It was no surprise that a Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda was the first to be established when the Nazis assumed power in 1933.

The task of propaganda, Hitler argued, was to bring certain subjects to the attention of the masses. Propaganda should be simple, concentrating on a few essentials, which then had to be repeated many times, with emphasis on such emotional elements as love and hatred. Through the continuity and uniformity of its application, propaganda, Hitler concluded, would lead to results "that are almost beyond our understanding." The Nazis though, unlike the Bolsheviks, did not make a distinction in their terminology between agitation and propaganda. In Soviet Russia, agitation was concerned with influencing the masses through ideas and slogans, while propaganda served to spread the communist ideology of Marxism-Leninism. The distinction dates back to Georgi Plekhanov's famous definition of 1892: "A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas, but presents them to a whole mass of people." The Nazis, on the other hand, did not regard propaganda as merely an instrument for reaching the party elite, but rather as a means to the persuasion and indoctrination of all Germans.

If World War I had demonstrated the power of propaganda, the postwar period witnessed the widespread utilization of lessons drawn from the wartime experience within the overall context of a "communication revolution." In the years between 1870 and 1939 the means of communication were transformed into mass media. In an age in which international affairs became the concern of peoples everywhere, governments could not afford to neglect the increasingly powerful press. But there was now more than just the press to contend with. Governments sought to come to terms with the mass media generally, to control them and to harness them, particularly in time of war, and to ensure that as often as possible they acted in the "national interest." During the 1920s and 1930s the exploitation of the mass media—particularly film and radio—for political purposes became more common. Totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany provide striking examples of media being conscripted for ideological purposes. These developments had grown to such proportions by the mid-1930s that, for example, the Radio broadcast. With the rise in popularity of mass media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new vehicles for the dissemination of propaganda were utilized, especially by the governments of totalitarian states. © H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS / CORBIS British government established (1934) the British Council and inaugurated (1938) British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) foreign language broadcasts in an attempt to combat the perceived challenge to democracy.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War Ii