Tuesday, 12 May 2015

How did the governments of Britain, America and Nazi Germany use the cinema to boost the morale of the people and persuade them to contribute to the war effort?

This is my history dissertation, sadly this dissertation wasn't exactly the Citizen Kane of History dissertations but apparently it was much better as a film essay rather than a history essay. This inevitably became my downfall, and briefly rereading through my dissertation I completely agree with that assessment (and noticed other flaws). I suppose, however, that fact makes it more appropriate to publish the dissertation here. The dissertation will be released in instalments, I am going to start with part 1 because I'm not George Lucas.


While the battlefields of Europe were being ravaged by mortar fire and littered with the bodies of dead soldiers there was an ideological battle fought on screen between the nations fighting the bitter war. Each of them tried to better one another by attacking the enemies’ ideologies whilst promoting their own. They also attempted to better one another by making the most epic, grand scale films, for example Joseph Goebbels had always wished to make a Nazi version of the American epic Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). Throughout the course of the Second World War the cinema screen was used for propaganda purposes by the use of newsreels, documentaries or feature films. A number of cinematic exhibitions contained propaganda that aimed to boost the morale of the people, justify the war and persuade people into assisting in the war effort. Amongst the comedies and the musicals (that often used the war as a backdrop to the plot) there were these propaganda films, but while they never gained quite as large of an audience as the escapist entertainment that the audience demanded during a time of war the themes of heroism, patriotism and war stirred something in the hearts of the people. The British people needed a place to take refuge whilst the bombs were falling on London, the German people needed a place to hide whilst the bombs fell on Hamburg, Dresden and Dusseldorf and the American people needed a place to escape to whilst the many other American men were dying on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.

 It was a perfect opportunity to spread ideas as the popularity of the cinema increased dramatically during the period of the Second World War becoming one the most popular leisure activities (in Britain over 30,000,000 visiting the cinema every week[1]). Audiences sought to escape the woes of war and embrace their selves in the latest love story, adventure to foreign lands or become inspired by the next story of heroism and bravery. Films like Hitler Youthquex (Hans Steinhoff, 1933), Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941) and In Which We Serve (Noel Coward, 1942) combined themes of heroism, bravery and sacrifice but also added a love story to take the weight away from the fact that it was a propaganda film because propaganda is most effective when it isn’t even noticed. This essay will look at the many ways in which the British, German and American propagandists used the cinema to justify the war and motivate people to actively take part in the war effort.

What is Propaganda?

There are many definitions for the word ‘propaganda’, some of these definitions have given the word negative connotations of which are not entirely correct. These negative connotations applied to the word propaganda stem from the fact that the most notorious uses of propaganda come from totalitarian governments such as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, but, as apparent in this essay, propaganda was not only used by totalitarian states but by democratic ones too and the aims of the propagandists were not vastly dissimilar between the totalitarian and democratic states. In his book on film propaganda in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Richard Taylor views propaganda as ‘the attempt to influence the public opinions of an audience through the transmissions of ideas and values‘[2] while Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell define propaganda as ‘the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.’[3] This definition suggests that propaganda has negative connotations but seems to forget that propaganda can also relate to advertising and not just the spreading of ideological or political ideas.

The Nazi Party’s propagandists often are regarded as being the masters of propaganda. The Nazi propaganda machine was led by Joseph Goebbels who said that ‘good propaganda does not need to lie.’[4] Goebbels argued that lies in propaganda will not be successful in the long run which is a strange statement considering Goebbels (and Hitler) were the main initiators of the big lie propaganda technique most notably seen in The Eternal Jew (Fritz Hippler, 1940) where statements on Jews were fabricated and masqueraded as facts (the documentary claims that many gangster words derive from Hebrew words, but no examples are given). Goebbels also claims that the propagandist must be a master in the art of speech.[5] The countless visual evidence of Hitler orating at the top of the podium prove that an effective public speaker, one who speaks passionately and charismatically, can be staggeringly influential in assisting the effectiveness of the propaganda .

Cinema as propaganda

Long before the Second World War had even begun the cinema had been regularly used as a medium to allow propagandists to spread their ideas and convince the masses. During the silent era propagandists were not plagued by the language barrier as the language was symbols and images. A number of silent cinema epics were produced for propaganda purposes, most notably Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin (a film that Goebbels admired) which was made to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution against Tsar Nicholas II in 1905. 

Major political figures such as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Goebbels believed in the power of cinema to influence the views of those watching the film, but why did these great political leaders and propagandists believe that the cinema was one of best places of leisure for the propagandists to exploit? There are a number of reasons why a propagandist might wish to exploit the cinema and use it spread their ideas. One of the major reasons is the that cinema appeals to a large number of people, especially during war time when audience figures increased to record levels, thus the propagandists’ intended message can reach a wider audience, far wider audience than any newspaper or radio program could achieve. 

The second major reason is the question of human emotion; the cinema can stir emotion as the stories that are played out on screen engage those invested in the story. Once the human mind is engaged emotionally in a story it is perhaps more susceptible to manipulation as the cinema appeals to us at a more ‘primitive and subconscious level’[6] as a human mind is less rational at its most emotional. It is perhaps a beautifully drawn out character who stands for something he/she believes in (love of his/her country) that is perhaps most effective. However, film propaganda has its drawbacks, a problem with using film propaganda concerns the time it takes to make a film. By the time the production is finished and shooting is completed the issue that the film focuses on may be outdated, for example when the film Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942) was released the threat of land based invasion from Germany had long since passed.

Overview of the film industries

Even before the Nazi party gained power in 1933 they had already been involved in the business of making propaganda films, but whilst they made very little impact on the film industry the production of such films illustrated the party’s awareness of the importance of a well coordinated organization.[7] The first official film was a report of the 1927 Nuremberg party rally, it comprised of a few amateurish shots.[8] It would only be seven years later that a film would be produced, also about the Nuremberg party rally (this time of the 1934 rally), which would define Nationalist Socialist propaganda. The film in question is Leni Riefenstahl’s artistic masterpiece Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935). When the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) came to power they looked to control all aspects of society and culture, this of course included the cinema. In September 1933, Goebbels announced the Reichfilmkammer (Film Chamber of the Reich, RFK) which controlled filmmakers as well as the film industry. Naturally, Goebbels acted as the Propaganda minster for all of the seven chambers of culture (film, radio, theatre, music, press, writing and fine arts), and all of the chambers reported directly to Goebbels. The RFK kept strict control over its filmmakers; scripts had to be submitted and were checked before they were released to the public, film critics were banned (in 1936) and only descriptive reviews were allowed and foreign films were also banned as the war dragged on. 

The Nazi film industry was the most totalitarian of the three industries, it was also the most strictly controlled, but the amount of films that were not propaganda orientated differed very little from Britain and America as Goebbels also saw the importance of escapist entertainment (musicals, comedies and romance were  particular favourites) in boosting the morale of the German people. This explains why Rolf Hansen’s romance Grosse Liebe (The Great Love, 1942) was the most successful of the Nazi era.[9] Goebbels realised the importance of musicals and comedies and these two genres consisted of almost 50% of German film industries’ output[10] with official government produced films only consisting of 14%[11] of the output and thus dispelling the myths that Nazi film industry was dominated solely by propaganda films. It becomes apparent, looking at the life span of Nazi film industry the poorer the war was going for Germany the more the German cinema tended towards fantasy cinema as is evident when you compare the film Feuertaufe (Baptism of Fire, 1941, Hans Bertram) to Viet Harlan’s 1945 film Kolberg.

The lead organization of British war time propaganda, The Ministry of Information (MOI), used feature films (and documentaries) as a ‘call to arms, to effort, to self sacrifice.’[12] The MOI argued the ‘ideal of a good life which free men have created through two thousand years [and] a life based on equal justice, respect for the individual, family affections and love of truth’[13] are at risk from the Nazi threat. This type of propaganda is seen frequently in British cinema from its depiction of Germans to its criticism of fascism. The Nazi propaganda machine had a head start over the MOI which was only established one day after Britain declared war on Germany. The MOI’s unpreparedness for the nature of wartime propaganda showed in the early stages of the war when it received criticism for its slogan ‘your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution, will bring us victory’ which suggested that the war was being fought for the Government. Many other criticisms were aimed at the MOI including the lack of organisation with other governmental departments which had deplorable results that shook the confidence that the public and the media had in the MOI. 

It was the result of Britain’s comparative slowness in taking measures to ‘counteract the psychological offensives of the Nazi propaganda machine’[14] which seemed to make Nazi propaganda more effective than British propaganda. Eventually though, however, the MOI began to improve and real progress was made. The organisation featured heavily in the production of the 49th Parallel (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1941) by funding much of the project. 49th Parallel was one of the best films of the era and perhaps explains why Powell, in contrast to his contemporaries, holds the MOI in high regard.

It was not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 that the majority of American propagandists began to use the cinema for war based films. Whilst there were indeed films of an interventionist nature (Sergeant York) as well as films with an anti Fascist/anti Nazi message, for example Blockade (William Dieterle, 1938) and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, 1939), there was a strong sense of anti-intervention and strong determination to stick to America’s stance of isolation. The most vocal of the anti-interventionist was North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye, who felt that propaganda pictures were being made by those who had emigrated from Europe and thus were attempting to drag America into the war[15]. however when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor very few Americans held an anti-interventionist stance. 

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was followed by a number of anti Japanese war propaganda pictures, but without any guidelines the propagandists were unaware of the main objectives of the newly established Office of War Information (OWI). As a result the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) drafted a manual for the motion picture industry establishing the main propaganda objectives that filmmakers had to meet when making their film. This included numerous sections on the enemy, how one can contribute to the war effort and why America is fighting. The manual says that America is fighting for the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear).[16] The freedom of speech that is crushed by Nazi/fascist ideology features heavily throughout the war in American propaganda. The need for sacrifice is also heavily emphasised, and again this features heavily in a number of American films released during the war. A notable example is Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) when Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) gives up the love of his life, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), in favour of the war.

[1] James Chapman, The British at War: Cinema, state and Propaganda 1939-1945, (USA, I.B.Tauris, 1998) p 3.
[2] Richard Taylor Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, Second Edition (Great Britain, I.B.Tauris, 1998) p 15.
[3] Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion Fourth Edition (United Kingdom, Sage Publications, 2006) P 7.
[4] Joseph Goebbels, The Power of Propaganda (Shamrock Eden Published, 2009) p 9.
[5] Joseph Goebbels, The Power of Propaganda p 7.
[6] Richard Taylor Film Propaganda p 16.
[7] David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933-1945 (India, I.B Tauris, 2007) p 10.
[8] ibid
[9] Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion p 236.
[10] Eric Rentschler, ‘Nazi Feature Films 1933-1945’ Monatshefte Vol. 82, No. 3 (Fall, University of Wisconsin 1990), pp. 259.
[11] ibid
[12] Ministry of Information, Principles and Objectives of British Wartime Propaganda: The Ministry of Information's policy on British propaganda March 1940, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/hawhaw/8928.shtml?page=txt accessed 5th April 2013
[13] ibid                                                                                                                    
[14] Cedric Larson, ‘The British Ministry of Information’ The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Autumn, Oxford University Press, 1941), pp. 412-431.

[15] Gerald Nye, U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Motion Picture and Radio Propaganda, 1941, Digital History, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/senate_subcommittees.cfm accessed 5th April 2013.
[16] United States. Office of War Information. Bureau of Motion Pictures, Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry (Washington, D.C., Office of War Information, 1942) Indiana University http://www.libraries.iub.edu/index.php?pageId=3301 accessed 5th April.

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