World War II witnessed the greatest propaganda campaigns in history. Often referred to as the “Fourth Arm” after the army, navy, and air force, propaganda was conducted by all belligerents and was essentially designed to sustain domestic civilian morale during a long war at home while undermining enemy civilian and military confidence in the ability to achieve victory. Although propaganda was becoming a characteristic of peacetime politics in the first half of the twentieth century, it was still seen largely as a weapon of war, especially in democracies.
Dictatorships in the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany more readily embraced its peacetime use as a form of coercion of mass populations instead of the individualistic democratic predisposition toward persuasion and consensus-building. These different ideologies eventually went to war against each other in 1939, in a conflict that began with a cavalry charge in Poland and ended, six years later, with atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It became a war of national survival – total war – in which propaganda was used by all sides as a psychological weapon to supplement, reinforce, or counter the destructive power of military force. Ultimately, however, World War II was won by military power – which prompts the question of what role propaganda actually played in determining the final outcome.
Total War, Total Propaganda
Propaganda was highly organized from the outset, although most sides found it difficult to centralize its various functions. The Nazi Propaganda Ministry had several rival voices from within the “divide and rule” bureaucracy created by Adolf Hitler (Welch 1994). The British set up a Ministry of Information that stumbled its way through the early wartime years (including the “Phony War” or “Bore War”) fighting other Whitehall departments like the Foreign Office and Service Ministries. It eventually settled down after 1941 when Brendan Bracken was appointed minister and a Political Warfare Executive was created to conduct overseas propaganda (Taylor 1999). Once the Americans entered the war in late 1941, sufficient lessons had been learned to separate out domestic and overseas propaganda functions through the Office of War Information and the Office of Special Services. For all sides, fighting the war was the major priority, but who was responsible for publicly chronicling or interpreting its progress – image rather than reality – was also important.
The idea of a home front or of a “nation at arms,” of mobilizing entire populations for sustained conflict, first emerged during the 1914–1918 war. It came into sharper focus in the 1930s with the arrival of the bombing aircraft and its indiscriminate impact on the civilian populations of cities, first witnessed during the Sino–Japanese War (1931–1933 and from 1937 onward) and especially the Spanish Civil War (1936 –1939) through newsreel footage of the bombing of Guernica. The mass bombing of cities between 1939 and 1945 was to substantially narrow the gap between soldier and civilian both physically and psychologically; all were now combatants in a people’s war where the home front became as much the front line as far away battlefields. In such an environment, morale became a critical factor and one that might determine the eventual outcome. That environment was also media-rich compared to wars of the past – traditional print media were now supplemented by the arrival of broadcast radio and sound cinema. Although television was technically available, all belligerents decided largely to suspend its development for the duration and use the facilities for radio or jamming purposes.
Propaganda was also a weapon that could be deployed against the enemy when no other means of attacking them were available, especially in the form of electronic broadcasting. This was true of Britain following its retreat at Dunkirk in 1940. Until Britain could launch a “strategic” bombing offensive against the all-conquering Nazis, the BBC played a major role in sustaining resistance movements, challenging the Nazi version of events as they unfolded and sowing seeds of doubt throughout occupied Europe about the eventual outcome. Radio broadcasts were supplemented by the dropping of millions of leaflets.
At home, the British came to blend self-knowing mockery with propaganda through the popular BBC radio show ITMA (“it’s that man again”), whose host, Tommy Handley, lampooned the Ministry of Information (MoI) as the “Ministry of Aggravation.” George Orwell, who was to satirize the MoI as the “Ministry of Truth” in his postwar novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, was himself an effective wartime broadcaster, along with J. B. Priestley, whose “postscript” broadcasts from the summer of 1940 were credited with the biggest regular listening broadcasts in the world. The BBC decided not to jam German broadcasts to Britain led by William Joyce (“Lord Haw Haw”) on the grounds that only news and not views should be censored, although the views about plucky Londoners “taking it” during the 1940 Blitz espoused by such North American broadcasters as Quentin Reynolds and Edward R. Murrow did much to persuade American listeners which side they should sympathize with (Cull 1995).
Propaganda flourishes most effectively in the wake of victories. Until 1943, despite a decade-long existence for Josef Goebbels’s Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, the Nazi propaganda machine never really shifted into top gear because it had no real need to (Balfour 1979). Hitler, who had devoted two chapters of his Mein Kampf to the subject, had regarded propaganda as an essential instrument of achieving, and sustaining, political power. Nazi propaganda, however, did not export successfully – except among those who wanted to believe it. For the first years of the war, Nazi propaganda flourished in the wake of military success. But after defeat at Stalingrad, Goebbels rallied the nation to “total war” with slogans such as “victory or death.” This theme was partly prompted by the Allied call for “unconditional surrender” made following the Casablanca Conference of 1942 – the first real Anglo-American declaration of war aims following the USA’s entry into the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The British had survived their “finest hour” in the Battle of Britain of 1940 – just. They had even managed to transform the military humiliation of Dunkirk into a patriotic rallying cry – the “Dunkirk Spirit” – that is still evoked by nationalists today. In 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill secured one of his greatest achievements by persuading the American president, Franklin Roosevelt, to deploy the sheer weight of American military power against the Germans and Italians in a “Europe first” strategy rather than go for full-out revenge against the Japanese.
This was a significant development in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and the American film industry was mobilized to reinforce the policy decisions. Hollywood movies brought the distant war beyond the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the only home front that did not have to endure bombing. Hollywood professionals like Frank Capra were likewise enlisted to make “indoctrination films” explaining to recruits from Iowa why they should fight Germans rather than just the Japanese. Capra’s Why We Fight series of seven films became compulsory viewing for all US armed forces personnel. The major theme of these films was that Japan, Germany, and Italy had formed an “axis” that had conspired to turn the “free world” into a “slave world” and, if they were not stopped, the “four freedoms” espoused by Roosevelt (freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear), and adapted in 1941 to the Atlantic Charter with Churchill, would see the triumph of the “man-machine” over the individual.
Movies were so thoroughly infused with wartime propaganda themes that it was difficult for audiences to stand back and say “That is just a propaganda film.” So all-pervading was Propaganda in World War II propaganda that the experience of being propagandized could almost be defined as having lived at the time. Propaganda not only manifested itself in films and radio broadcasts, it also took the form of posters, picture postcards, china plates and ornaments, biscuit tins, cigarette cards, songs, and music. It proved capable of almost infinite applications, as with the British (and later American) “V for victory” campaign.
The effectiveness of much propaganda depended not only upon events at the fighting fronts but also upon media access to them. It took the British more than a year for the military authorities to appreciate the need for war reporters and camera men to be allowed to accompany the troops. Operational security issues and a military predisposition toward censorship overrode any propaganda benefits. For the Nazis, it was the reverse. Their front line propaganda company units were able to capture spectacular images of the German army’s initial successes in Belgium and France, which were duly incorporated into the official newsreels. Once the Americans entered the war, they allowed camera crews to accompany bombing raids over Germany, and William Wyler’s documentary The Memphis Belle (1943) was testimony to the success of such decisions. The American influence on the British became evident with the later wartime release of major documentaries such as Desert Victory (1943) and the Anglo-American collaboration The True Glory (1945).
Almost without exception, propagandists on all sides, including journalists, saw themselves as patriotic members of the war effort (Collier 1989). Propaganda was a pejorative word; it was something that the enemy did “to us” or that “we” did “to them.” The democracies had Ministries or Offices of War Information that told “the truth” whereas the dictatorships engaged in the “big lie.” Although this was itself part of the propaganda war, it does highlight differences of approach toward the manipulation of opinion. Democracies understood that, in a long war of national survival, a “strategy of truth” was required to sustain credibility in a war between “good” and “evil.” Goebbels famously remarked that if you repeated something over and over again – whether it was true or not – people would believe it. One of the tragedies of World War II was that when stories began to emerge from 1943 onward of the death camps built for the “final solution” they were dismissed by many people as being “atrocity propaganda” such as that used to demonize the Germans during World War I.
The war in the Pacific also saw major propaganda campaigns that were strikingly racist in tone. The Japanese saw themselves as the superior race in their drive for a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. “Tokyo Rose” (in fact several female broadcasters) tried to undermine the morale of Allied troops as island after island fell with high American casualties. Hollywood films depicted the “yellow peril” as “buck-toothed” fanatics who would rather commit suicide than be captured. The American troops, especially segregated black soldiers, were depicted by Axis propaganda as decadent, cowardly, and racially inferior. The Nazi depiction of Soviet peasant soldiers as “Untermenschen” (“subhumans”) was only countered by military defeats after Stalingrad. And, of course, Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda in such films as The Eternal Jew (1940) exploited historical stereotypes as a method of inducing support for, or acquiescence in, the final solution. Even in Britain, the popularity of concepts like “Vansittartism” (the doctrine that the German people are innately belligerent) evoked comments that “the only good German is a dead German,” while, at one point, the Americans devised the Morgenthau Plan, which Proxemics would have seen the postwar pastoralization of German society. So deeply rooted were some of these prejudices that they survived long after the war had ended.
Intelligence historians have been able to make a good case that the Enigma machine that cracked the “Ultra secret” probably helped the allies to knock two years off the war. Propaganda historians can make no equivalent claims. If anything, propaganda most likely lengthened the war through instilling hatred of the enemy and bolstering domestic support for the war effort. We need only recall the 14-year-old boys defending the streets of Berlin as the Russians advanced on the city in 1945.
- Balfour, M. (1979). Propaganda in war 1939–45. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Collier, R. (1989). The warcos: The war correspondent in World War II. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
- Cull, N. J. (1995). Selling war: The British propaganda campaign against American “neutrality” in World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Taylor, P. M. (1999). British propaganda in the twentieth century: Selling democracy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Welch, D. (1994). The Third Reich: Politics and propaganda. London: Routledge.