The History Of Propaganda
Appendix 1 to 'Clear Thinking' by R W Jepson

DURING the last forty years 'Propaganda' has suffered the fate that has overtaken many other words which began life with a more or less innocent connotation. It has acquired a derogatory sense; and though it is still used as a neutral term with an objective reference, it is common to find it used as a vague term of abuse.

The first time I remember its being used in a derogatory sense was in the early years of the present century in connexion with the unusual and often violent methods used by the militant suffragettes to advertise the cause of women's suffrage. Before that time, propaganda was rather a learned word and moved almost exclusively in literary circles. It had reputable and dignified associations. It referred to the spreading of information about some cause in order to enlist sympathy and support for it; and it had not quite lost its association with religious causes. At any rate, the causes and the methods used to propagate them were not generally discredited or such as to arouse widespread suspicion and doubt as to the disinterestedness of the motives actuating the promoters.

For the chief reason why propaganda came to be discredited we must look back to World War I, and to the measures taken then by the governments of the belligerent countries under the name of propaganda or 'public information'. (Perhaps their preference for the latter term was an indication that even in those early days the word propaganda was suspect.) In all those countries the governments established a rigid censorship on news for home consumption.

Reports of reverses were suppressed or toned down. Victories were magnified. Everything was done, directly or indirectly, to keep people at home cheerful, confident, determined, industrious and united. Doubt and criticism, however justified, were discouraged or suppressed, and even in countries with a strong democratic tradition, the Press worked loyally with the government in galvanising the national effort, in glorifying the national cause, and in discrediting the aims and achievements of the enemy.

The Germans were the first to realise the importance of winning sympathy in neutral countries; and although they were at a disadvantage because the Allies had command of the sea and cable communications, they remedied it by setting up a powerful radio station, powerful enough to reach Mexico and South America. Over the air they radiated a service of news, in which German aims were presented in a favourable light and the aims of the Allies blackened and discredited. Their own gains and victories, and the Allies' losses and disasters were exaggerated. All was directed towards winning neutral sympathy or spreading discontent and revolt in the imperial or colonial possessions of the Allies.

But the Allies did not lag behind; and there was little to choose between the methods of either side. News was doctored, and rumours and 'atrocity' stories were spread abroad. Towards the end of the struggle, they carried the propaganda war into the enemies' countries in all sorts of ingenious ways. Hitler went so far as to attribute the Allies' victory to the thoroughness of their propaganda and to the comparative feebleness of the German counter-efforts.

At the end of World War I, the general opinion in Britain on official propaganda was that it was one of those regrettable necessities (like the censorship and conscription) enforced by the extraordinary conditions prevailing during a period of national crisis and emergency. As far as propaganda for home consumption was concerned, most people deprecated the suppression or misrepresentation of the truth, and many felt resentment at some of the methods— variously characterised as bullying, doping, and jockeying — used to influence people's behaviour. About the use of propaganda as a weapon of war, many British people salved their uneasy conscience by assuring themselves that, though the methods employed (like poison gas and 'reprisals') could not be morally defended, the necessity for counteracting the enemy's machinations and the consequent saving of their fellow-countrymen's lives was a sufficiently overriding consideration. But when the time came for some of the secrets of war propaganda to be revealed, no one felt particularly happy about the revelations; and it was forcibly brought home to everyone what a powerful instrument broadcasting could be made in the service of propaganda.

Between the two World Wars, western Europe watched with growing uneasiness the establishment of totalitarian regimes in Russia, Germany, and Italy, and the ruthless, thorough-going propaganda used by the dictators in fortifying them and making them immune from attack both from within and without. And in Russia, too, the Comintern was set up with the object of propagating communist doctrine throughout the world and of fomenting discontent among the workers in capitalist countries.

The use of propaganda by the dictators can best be studied in the case of Germany, for Hitler left details of his principles and methods in his book Mein Kampf. There he states that he learnt the secrets of successful propaganda from the British in World War I. How far this statement was itself an ingenious bit of propaganda I do not profess to know; but wherever he learnt his lesson, there is little doubt that he profited by it and proceeded to apply it with characteristic thoroughness to welding together the German people into a powerful instrument for war and aggrandisement. We are not concerned with those odious methods of physical compulsion which shocked the civilised world. Hitler was no fool: he knew that violence by itself would not achieve his object; and history had shown him that it was ineffective in the long run and that its effects often recoiled upon the heads of its perpetrators. He knew that success depended on securing domination over the minds, thoughts and feelings of the masses, and on conditioning them by the indoctrination of Nazi theories, hates and enthusiasms to be instruments of his will.

Such an ambitious, far-reaching aim could only be accomplished by seizing and monopolising all the means for the dissemination of propaganda—platform, hoarding, press, radio and cinema: and once in undisputed possession of all these, Hitler proceeded to turn on and keep running a steady and constant stream.

He tells us himself the ways in which he hoped to achieve his end, and they can be briefly summarised thus:

  1. driving home by endless repetition a few simple points, and using catchy slogans or war-cries;
  2. playing on the herd instinct, and appealing always to groups or to the mass—never to individuals;
  3. avoiding rational argument, and concentrating on securing instinctive reactions, especially to the primary feeling of fear.

There was nothing new in all this—little more than could have been gleaned from a Correspondence Course on the psychology of advertising. But when Nazi and Fascist propaganda had been at work for some time, new and, to many people, rather frightening features became clear. They were:

  1. its thoroughness and ruthlessness: it was made to permeate every kind of informative, educational, cultural and recreational activitv—even scientific laboratories and the courts of justice were not spared
  2. the complete suppression of criticism, rivalry and competition; and the deliberate measures taken to prevent the free exchange of ideas and opinions with the outside world
  3. the glorification—one might almost call it the deification—of the 'leader' as the sole and infallible source of authority and truth
  4. the blatant acceptance of the Machiavellian principle that the end always justifies the means, and of its corollary that the only criterion by which propaganda can be judged is its results—it is 'good' when it succeeds, and 'bad' when it fails. On these grounds deliberate falsehoods were defended; the bigger the lie, it was said, the more credible it could be made. Hitler himself claimed that by skilful and sustained use of propaganda one can make people 'see heaven as hell, or a most wretched life as paradise'.

Propaganda conducted on such lines as these has been justly described as

'a debased system of persuasion which boasts neither impartiality nor accuracy, substitutes emotional catch-phrases for reasons, puts results before principles, and success before truth'.

And its ultimate effect could well be to suppress individual thought and action, to standardise thought, behaviour and even taste at their lowest level, and to create a nation of robot citizens by mass-production methods.

Reports of this kind of propaganda at work in the totalitarian countries were received by British people in various ways. A few were frankly enthusiastic about its results; but the attitude of the majority who thought about it at all varied from sheer incredulity and mild amusement to uneasiness and utter repugnance. It was often pointed out that the state of Germany after the war of 1914-1918 — disunited, disillusioned and humiliated — made it ripe for that sort of propaganda; and that, in any case, the German people as a whole were pathetically sheep-like and easy to lead and to hoodwink.

Before long, Britain was involved in World War II, and once again the flood of propaganda was released, both for home and foreign consumption. For the most part, it was 'the mixture as before'. People at home had to be made aware of the critical situation of the country and of the supreme effort required from everyone if it was to survive; they had to be kept acquiescent, cheerful and tolerably contented in the face of controls, regimentation, privations, shortages and hardships; leakage of information to the enemy had to be stopped and fifth-columnists had to be circumvented; and the spirit of resistance had to be kept alive at home, and, abroad, the enemy's strength had to be undermined. The one outstanding feature was the unprecedented extent to which the radio was used.

But the end of the war did not bring an end to government propaganda: indeed the political and social repercussions of the war appear to have made propaganda an almost inescapable feature of our national life and international relations. In the international field, the way of life of the western democracies is being aggressively challenged. In the 'cold war' and in face of the 'iron curtain ', the democracies are very much on the defensive; and, if they really believe in the superiority of their own way of life, they cannot be blamed if they use some of the resources of propaganda to advertise as widely as possible what that way of life stands for; or if they try to re-convert some of those countries where it has been discarded, and to break down the barrier these countries have erected to prevent 'contamination' from the western world. It is, for British people, an unaccustomed role to assume — the defence of their own institutions: for generations they had taken the superiority of these institutions for granted and there was no need to justify them in their own eyes or in anyone else's. Perhaps it is not a bad thing that this role has been thrust upon them by challenges from without that threaten their very survival.

In the meantime, at home, governmental planning, necessary during war to use the resources and man-power of the country to the best advantage, has been continued after the war, first to ease the transition from war-time to peace-time economy, and then to lay the foundations for economic recovery and improvement of social conditions. Policies have been framed, programmes drawn up, 'targets' fixed — and if these policies are to be carried out, programmes fulfilled, and targets reached, the active support of all sections of the community must be enlisted. The vast administrative machine necessitated by such planning and reconstruction will work much more easily if the willing consent and co-operation of citizens can be obtained by persuasion, and if compulsion and repression can be avoided. And for this purpose the government makes use of all the instruments of propaganda — posters, press advertisements, films and radio. There are also other causes for which public support is enlisted by government-sponsored propaganda — causes generally accepted to be in the public interest, such as thrift (national savings), road safety, the treatment and prevention of epidemics, economy in the use of fuel, and so on.

Propaganda also plays a large part in the 'warfare' of political parties, ideologies, creeds, and schools of thought. It is used by all sorts of associations bent on influencing public opinion with the ultimate object of shaping national or international policy, and of tugging the heart-strings or unloosing the purse-strings of sympathisers. More recently, the propagandist ranks have been swelled by the accession of 'big' business and commerce, which, not content with advertising its own wares or services, now seeks to justify its existence, fearing perhaps that its very survival is threatened in the new order of things.

The foregoing account of the working of government propaganda, in Britain and elsewhere, during the last fifty years should enable us to understand some of the prevalent attitudes towards propaganda in general. It should explain how the word, which once stood for something respectable and comparatively innocuous, has acquired unpleasant associations. Many people regard it as only another name for lies, or dismiss it contemptuously as a 'stunt '. Some, although grudgingly admitting that it may sometimes be justified, find all propaganda, from whatever source it derives, equally distasteful and repulsive, because it implies stultifying the reasoning faculty. Others effectually beg the question by drawing a line between 'good' and 'bad' propaganda: i.e. when its end is such as they approve and its methods not outrageously noxious to them, it is 'good' or at any rate admissible, and when the reverse, it is 'bad.' Others again advocate using the word propaganda solely for the dissemination of what is biased or untrue; and they recommend publicity, or some other word without bad associations, for the spreading of the truth. In fact, there is much confused thinking and prejudice surrounding the word that needs to be dispelled before a more rational attitude is possible.