Propaganda has always been an important tool used by the government. Having a group of people think alike and believe a particular agenda is very useful, as it eliminates doubts and perturbations and focuses its members on completion of certain tasks. However, in the 20th century, propaganda became a euphemism for lies, slander, and corruption aiming to brainwash the people into passivity in the face of evil or into committing atrocities in the name of obscure and unjust goals.1 While always present and utilized to push various agendas both within countries and across their borders, the first half of the 20th century could be considered the golden age of propaganda as a tool of control. The emergence of two ideologically inclined superpowers, such as Nazi Germany and the USSR, also signified the emergence of two powerful propaganda machines. The violent military conflict between these nations, the bloodiest and fiercest theatre of the Second World War, took lives of more than 34 million people.2 At the same time, it showcased the power and usefulness of propaganda to unify the people under one goal, motivate them to sacrifice their lives for the cause, and commit atrocities and acts of heroism for their leaders, people, and country. This paper will examine the confrontation between the German and the Soviet propaganda machines during the period of the Second Patriotic War (1941-1945), outline the goals and purposes of each, and identify the changes that both had on the psyches of both German and Soviet people.
Propaganda is a word of Latin origin, derived from the word ‘propagare’, or ‘to propagate’. For the first time, the word propaganda was utilized in 1622, as a name for a particular department within the Catholic faith responsible for external missions to non-Christian countries with the intention to spread the faith.3 Although initially the word was utilized with a religious connotation, its meaning has changed over the centuries. Modern dictionaries define propaganda as the means of providing information that is not objective with a purpose of influencing the audience and altering their perception of facts by providing false or selective information to further a political agenda. Propaganda utilizes any means of conveying its message, be it the press, the radio, the news channels, demonstrations, word-of-mouth, etcetera. The first historical evidence of propaganda being used as a political tool goes way back to the 6th century B.C. and the rise of Darius I of the Persian Empire.4 The ultimate goal of propaganda, thus, is to influence the minds of the people and sway public opinion to gain support on a particular issue.
Scholars of propaganda have identified over 60 effective techniques used to sway individual and public opinions in the direction required by those initiating a propaganda effort. While these tools are many, Kallis covers seven staple propaganda techniques actively used by both sides during the war to either bolster their civilians or troops or spread discord among enemy ranks. 5 Some of these techniques are as follows:
– The demonisation of the enemy is perhaps, one of the oldest propaganda techniques. It involves dehumanising the enemy by portraying them as something subhuman and evil, making it easier to justify any atrocities committed against them.
– Ad nauseam is a technique that involves constant repetition of an idea or a slogan to condition people into believing it. It is frequently used in various demonstrations or through other means of communication, such as radio, TV, and the press.
– Appeals to fear are used to instil fear and dread within the general populace to advocate measures and decisions that are supposed to be aimed against such a development.
– Demoralization is a set of propaganda techniques intended to wear down the spirit of the enemy to cause discord, desertion, and instability within enemy ranks. It usually comes in the form of messages that depict the futility of struggle or directly offending the leadership of the opposing side.
– Loaded language is a tool that helps influence listeners by using words that have either strongly positive or negative connotations to achieve a particular goal.
– Media control usually goes hand in hand with Ad nauseam, as it involves the media presenting facts piece by piece or blatantly lying, but repeating the message enough for it to stay in the minds of the population.
– Exaggeration is intentionally maximising personal successes and victories, as well as the flaws and failures of the enemy, while minimising own failures and shortcomings.
Reich Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels is considered the architect of Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine and the father of modern propaganda.6 He was one of the first to acknowledge the potential of media control and its ability to influence the people of his nation. The effects of his propaganda were profound and immense, as up to the last days of war, a large sum of Germans believed in a close victory and continued to fight for what was a lost cause.
The goals of Goebbels’ propaganda were changing as the war went on and were highly connected to the Nazi Party’s overall agenda, as well as the situation on the frontlines. The four key purposes of his propaganda were: to bolster the morale of the troops, to instil discipline as well as inspire loyalty, selflessness, and dedication to the cause at home, to introduce the doctrine of total war, and to breed hatred towards the Reich’s enemies’ racial and political views.7
Although German propaganda avidly used all informational outlets to convey its message to the masses, its primary tools were the cinema and the radio. At the beginning of the war, Germany was already a highly industrialised and wealthy nation, as they benefitted from the riches of conquered nations. Germany’s military complex also produced numerous household appliances. Nearly every German home had a radio, which exposed it to Goebbels’ propaganda on a regular basis. Cinema was also very important in the propaganda effort, as it enabled to convey a verbal message, and depict striking and patriotic visuals. Every movie showed at German theatres began with an obligatory 15-30 minute propaganda picture of Die Deutsche Wochenschau. Overall, out of 1,300 German movies produced between 1941-1945, almost 200 were produced with the sole purpose of transmitting propaganda.8
At the beginning of the war, German propaganda was largely motivated by the Nazi doctrine titled “Lebensraum,” which translates into ‘living space’, which suggested a military push eastward, to free those lands for the Germans. Freeing those lands, subsequently, meant the extermination of over 70% of the Slavic population occupying it and enslavement of the rest in concentration camps.9 To accomplish these inhuman goals, Goebbels needed to mould and prepare the German psyche into accepting that war is inevitable and being willing to commit atrocities in the name of the Reich. This preparation started at least a decade before the war. The Soviets were depicted as a threat to Germany and the Western way of life altogether. The soldiers were taught not to view the enemy soldiers and civilians as people, and instead commit crimes and brutalities against civilians and prisoners of war that are official orders of the German high command. The soldiers were being convinced of a quick and easy victory.
However, as the war went on, and it became apparent that the USSR would not be defeated quickly and easily, the tone of German propaganda began to change. Fact obfuscation and exaggeration techniques were used to great effect to convince the Germans that the odds were in their favour. At the same time, patriotism and selflessness for the cause were widely propagated as means of increasing recruitment rates and bolstering the production by involving women and children. Near the end of the war, when the situation was desperate, Goebbels’ propaganda started aiming at children as a makeshift replacement for soldiers lost in the Eastern front. Hitler Youths and Volksturm were widely utilized in a vain attempt to contain the Soviet offensive. Due to how effective and all-encompassing Goebbels’ propaganda machine was, many Germans lived in ignorance of the war, until it was impossible to ignore.10
However, Goebbels’ propaganda was not aimed at Germans and its allies alone. Working with the populations of occupied territories was paramount to the German war effort as well. Germans used loudspeakers and dropped leaflets on Soviet positions, to convince the soldiers of the opposing side to switch allegiance or surrender. While these techniques were effective at the beginning of the war, as the crimes committed against POWs and civilians behind enemy lines were discovered, the effectiveness of German propaganda efforts against the Red Army dropped significantly.11
Due to the unpopularity of the Soviet government in some occupied areas such as Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus, attempts were made to separate and disintegrate the communities by creating myriads of factions that were supposed to be hostile to one another.12 Other than that, Goebbels fuelled nationalistic tendencies in those territories, which resulted in the formation of various collaborationist paramilitary forces such as the Russian Liberation Army and the Polish SS legion. There were efforts to make the population support the occupation troops and refuse to engage in guerrilla warfare that was undermining the German lines. In occupied territories, leaflets, pictures, and loudspeakers were the main tools of propaganda, as peasant households did not have radios.
The Soviet propaganda machine started off, arguably, at the worst position when compared to its German counterparts. The beginning of the war was devastating for the Soviets, with many divisions located near the Soviet-German border being surrounded and captured by the Germans. Mass surrenders coupled with a lack of will to fight promised to lose the war within months. Thus, the first and main goal of the Soviet propaganda machine was to bolster the country’s spirit and ignite the will to fight the foreign invaders.
The main propaganda instruments utilized by the Soviets were the press, the word-of-mouth, and loudspeakers. Unlike Germany, the USSR was only rebuilding its means of production. The majority of the households did not possess any radios, which posed limitations.13 This enabled the use of the press and informative leaflets as primary propaganda outlets. Word-of-mouth was also widespread. In the Red Army, political commissars, who were re-introduced in 1941, to ensure loyalty among the commanders and troops, conducted propaganda efforts. Their primary role involved reading informative leaflets to the troops and use personal knowledge and charisma to make propaganda more personified and efficient.
The three core motives found in almost all Soviet propaganda of that period revolves around hatred, heroism, and sacrifice. The atrocities committed by the Germans towards civilian populations of the occupied territories served as powerful propaganda fuel for Soviet soldiers. Pictures of executed civilians, villages and cities burned to the ground, and murdered women and children were vastly more powerful than any rhetoric that German propaganda was able to provide.
The Soviets engaged in psychological warfare to demoralise German troops. One of the famous techniques used by the Soviets is the “metronome.” Using loudspeakers, they broadcasted pleasant music over to the German positions, which was suddenly interrupted by a loud ticking of the metronome. During it, a sombre voice informed the Germans that every seven seconds, a German soldier dies. This technique was used extensively during the Battle of Stalingrad.
Revenge was a powerful motive for Soviet war propaganda. Soviet poets and writers managed to produce much hate filled poems to convey the atrocities committed by the Germans on Soviet soil.14 Examples of poetry and music used for propaganda purposes include Ilya Ehrenburg’s poem titled “Kill the German,” as well as “The Sacred War,” written by Alexander Alexandrov and Vasily Lebedev-Kumach. Both pieces are extremely powerful and capable of instilling righteous anger and inspire soldiers and civilians alike to fight to defend their country.
One of the more notable effects of German and Soviet propaganda alike is that they both helped escalate violence against each other. German propaganda was more efficient in that regard. The Soviet losses suffered during the war included 27 million dead, at least 10 million of whom were civilian casualties. Although certain scholars argue that the SS committed the majority of atrocities, the sheer magnitude and number of civilian casualties, as well as the overwhelming evidence obtained from various sources, suggests that regular Wehrmacht was also actively taking part in subjugation and extermination of the civilian populace.15 The demonisation and dehumanisation of the enemy, propagated by German media, made this a reality. Soviet propaganda, which also used hatred as a weapon, is to blame for the atrocities committed by Soviet troops on German soil. The most famous and notable act of violence against the civilian population was in the aftermath of the Battle of Berlin, where thousands of German women were either raped or killed.16
The aftermath of German and Soviet war propaganda is visible even in the 21st century. In Russia and many post-soviet republics, the word “fascist” is considered one of the worst insults, as it is used with a malicious connotation. The dismounting of Goebbels’ propaganda in Germany after the Second World War caused a nation-wide cognitive dissonance, followed by nation-wide feelings of guilt and effective dissemination of national identity.
The effectiveness of propaganda for either side largely depended on how it correlated with the reality of the situation on the frontlines. Soviet propaganda was on the back foot for the first year of the conflict, as it tried to inspire the troops by using unpopular political slogans and demanding loyalty to the Communist Party. However, once German war brutalities were exposed and the message changed from loyalty to communism, the effectiveness of Soviet propaganda was increased tenfold.17
German propaganda, on the other hand, was at its peak at the beginning of the war, when the promises of easy victory correlated with successes of the German Wehrmacht. However, once the Soviets managed to stop the Germans in the Battle of Moscow, and the perspectives of ending the war within a year became more unlikely, the effectiveness of propaganda among the troops began to drop. The Eastern front turned out to be a nightmare when compared to relatively easy victories the Germans had in France, Poland, and the majority of Europe. Goebbels’ propaganda machine managed to deceive German population at home, up until the point when Soviet artillery began shelling the city. Ultimately, no amount of brainwashing and propaganda was able to hide the truth of Germany’s imminent defeat.18
During the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the USSR, both sides have utilised a wide variety of tools to win. The propaganda war between these nations was multi-layered and had a lasting impact. Words alone were capable of moving armies, brainwashing entire countries, and having soldiers commit acts of terror that the world has never seen before. At the same time, tools of propaganda were used to mobilise the nations in times of great need, which changed the course of history. The legacy of these countries in the field of propaganda lives on, in fact, many nations across the globe adopted these tools and techniques to further their political agendas. Although a useful tool, the challenge, however, is to prevent history from repeating itself.