Propaganda Pride and Prejudice

In the town shown in the illustration, how much does it cost to look after the hereditary unfit .…?”

German PropagandaThis question from the Mathematics text book of German school children in 1940 helps us begin to understand how an entire nation can indoctrinate itself with a terrible ideology. The textbook and other images from this blog are from an exhibition in London earlier this year entitled Propaganda Power, and Persuasion.

On entering the exhibition you were met with the poster below from the British Empire Marketing Board in 1928. It depicts an idealised British family on a passage to India passing the Rock of Gibraltar. The fact that there even was an “Empire Marketing Board” speaks volumes, and might make us smile in dis-belief at the patriotic colonial propaganda of that era.

Empire Marketing Board

But what’s the difference between indoctrination of brutal ethnic propaganda and what some might call national pride, education, or advertising? And where does propaganda exploit and bring to reality pre-existing prejudice in our society today?

Propaganda is compelling

The art of propaganda is not telling lies but rather seeking the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear”.  Richard Crossman – British Government Minister, 1907- 1974.

Propaganda is essentially the spreading of ideas to convince people to think and then act in a specific way and for a specific purpose. I would argue it is only the purpose that makes propaganda different to, say, education or advertising. Persuasive propaganda will always appear to be educational or patriotic and will usually play on an existing prejudice.

Propaganda can equal patriotism

These days we often associate propaganda with communist states such as the extreme national pride of North Korea. This nation is famed for massive orchestrated displays of national propaganda – while most North Koreans live in primal conditions. A colleague from South Korea told me recently that the state patriotism achieved through the education system is so effective that “educated children” will inform on their parents to the authorities for anti-patriotic comments made over dinner. I asked him in this age of all pervasive information and internet penetration how is it that people don’t work out what’s going on? His reply was frighteningly simple “…. they’re not allowed electricity”. Refer to the satellite image below contrasting South Korea with the cold blackness of North Korea.

NKorea Propaganda

Propaganda during WWII

Returning briefly to the situation we started with, Nazi propaganda took the approach still used by some today of depicting a small easily identifiable group as a national threat. Jews were made out to be behind everything including capitalism, the allies, the resistance, and the ownership of wealth. Apparently there was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy before which the world was crumbling. They played heavily on pre-existing prejudices and re-enforced anti-Semitic stereotypes already in play. Take the Nazi poster below from occupied France. It emphasised strong stereotypical prejudices, depicting a Jewish man (Star of David clearly visible) as a covert, shadowy, figure hiding behind allied flags.

Letters home from German soldiers demonstrate these prejudices and all of this helped create what was at the very least a national mood of indifference to the plight of Jewish families. From France alone 75,000 Jews were deported to death camps from which just over 2,000 returned.

WWII Propagandav2

Of course propaganda is used by all sides in every conflict, and sometimes to very positive effect. See for example the remaining WWII posters in the sequence. Perhaps more questionably, toward the end of the war when German planes were dropping leaflets in Britain stating that Hitler wanted talks with Churchill, the British government, eager to not lose momentum, put out a national campaign that German planes were dropping leaflets impregnated with poison which should not be touched under any circumstances!

Much more recently of course our Government very effectively used a sham campaign around weapons of mass destruction to start a war with Iraq. Propaganda used well can legitimise almost any activity.

Propaganda goes bottom-up

Up to the end of the 20th century we see that propaganda campaigns were always “top-down” initiated by governments since governments control national symbols, education, currency, and sometimes the media. In the past few years however we have started to see a new kind of “bottom-up” campaign driven by ordinary individuals using the power of electronic messaging and social media. The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in 2010 but quickly spread to other countries including Egypt, Libya and Syria relied heavily on social media to communicate and raise awareness of state repression. This is a kind of propaganda – but driven from the street. The empowerment that social media brings to individuals, and the accompanying ability to popularise a message and rally and orchestrate massive public presence within hours is completely new, and will be an increasing feature of protest and demonstration in all our futures.

Propaganda in our own backyard?

An important question remains: to what extent does prejudice in our society today provide the breeding ground for extremist groups to create propaganda in order to victimise a minority?

Minorities can include people on state benefits, immigrants perceived to take jobs, travellers, Moslem ladies wearing the hijab etc etc. Given the stifling political correctness we live in where native traditions and cultures are frequently eroded it’s not hard for extreme nationalistic groups such as the English defence League here in the UK to whip up their own propaganda-based hate campaigns. People who would never belong to organisations like this suddenly feel an empathy with them, or at least an indifference to their actions. That is the danger.

Until we can answer this question we have not really learnt the lesson from the young schoolboy’s text book.

If you found this to your liking, try A Campaign To Reinstate Hadrian’s Wall


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