The organizers of “Propaganda: Power and Persuasion,” on view at the British Library, London through September 17, have tried hard to straddle the two senses in which we use the word “propaganda.” Persuasion lies at the core of both, but one of them is neutral and signifies nothing more than that those who control the power of the state will always seek to induce people to think and act in a particular way. In this sense even anodyne health messages—such as the current British government’s attempts to persuade its citizens to drink less, eat more vegetables, and take more exercise—are propaganda. They neither hector nor scare and in the contemporary world as well as in the exhibition are ubiquitous, and in the main worthy and boring. Far more interesting, and in a good and bad sense exciting, are those items that embody the second sense of the word propaganda, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way.” Here the emphasis is on the deceitfulness of propaganda and the emotive quality of an art aimed more at feeling than thinking.

The exhibits reveal a marked contrast in this respect between democratic and totalitarian societies, notably Communism and National Socialism, and within the democratic societies a contrast between peacetime and wartime. War requires a degree of socialism and socialism is a kind of war. Both involve a single-minded, centrally-planned struggle against a real or imagined enemy to which all a nation’s resources must be devoted. It is the difference between holding a monopoly of power over the means of persuasion while having nothing but enemies—which is the case with war and socialism—and having to deal with legitimate competitors in the peaceful marketplaces of democracy.

The curators understand this point but are apt to lapse into the left-liberal weakness for equivalence. Whenever an unpleasant aspect of the socialist societies has been revealed by its own propaganda, they feel that they must throw in a minor and misleading western parallel to show how “even-handed” they are. The section on “The Propaganda of Leadership” has absurdly heroic posters and photographs of Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, and Stalin, holding them up as the omniscient, all wise, and infallible leaders of their peoples and the images are discussed in a well-reasoned way.

Then it is felt necessary to throw in the “extraordinary and charismatic impact” in the democratic nations of figures such as Churchill and John F. Kennedy Jr. The artwork that is supposed to sustain this comparison is inadequate and it is a gross misuse of the term “charismatic” to suggest that these men had magical qualities beyond their charm, affection, and inspired leadership. No one ever claimed that Churchill was superhuman, and he was decisively dumped by the British electorate in 1945 as soon as the war in Europe was over. If Kennedy had not been assassinated, he would probably by now have been largely forgotten. His speechwriters’ rhetoric was gifted, but his words did not inspire the kind of fervor associated with the great dictators—and in a democratic society it is neither possible nor desirable to drum up such excitement.

The exhibition provides an excellent overview of the history of the use of propaganda, in particular radio propaganda with its cunning mixture of “white,” “grey,” and “black” stations in which the Americans in the Cold War and the British in World War II and the Falklands War excelled. Whilst the exhibition is very good on questions of technique, when it comes to the social and political background it often lapses into tendentiousness. We could certainly have done without the televised snippet of Noam Chomsky saying “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” In a democracy there is competing propaganda and countervailing power. But you can’t argue with a bludgeon. The curators will no doubt say that all points of view have to be represented, but this seems to mean only progressive points of view, however foolish. Indeed the entire coverage of the propaganda of the Cold War is biased in a leftist direction using equivalence as a cover. It is compounded by the gross inability of those responsible to think quantitatively, by which I do not mean an absence of statistics but the lack of use of our utterly basic ability to see that and to say “this is a lot bigger than that”—a mode of thinking we all use in our everyday lives.

Perhaps the most repellent and mendacious propaganda in the exhibition is that of the anti-Semites, summed up in a French poster declaring “Derrière tout le juif” (“Behind everything is the Jew, the power behind the scenes, the source of all misfortune”). The 1940 film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) shows the “ghetto Jews” of recently invaded Poland in their traditional garb, supposedly dirty and unkempt, always petty traders, never workers or farmers. The film takes their faces, renders them sly, and changes their clothing and appearance so that they become the stylish, sophisticated, assimilated Jews of Berlin. Such people are always the same says the film, always the enemy, a truly existential threat. They are even more dangerous when they are your hidden neighbors.

Curiously no examples of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitic propaganda are on display, even though there is a clear continuity of that theme and its viciousness, and it would have been a logical extension of the section.  Instead we have to be told that the Allies, notably the Americans and Australians, used racial images during the war against Japan, illustrated by posters of buck-toothed, bespectacled, ultra-yellow Japanese.  


What has been left out is the benign American propaganda of the time about “our Chinese ally” which portrayed East Asians very differently. Besides, the atrocities attributed to the Japanese in the American posters—including the execution of prisoners of war—really happened. The portrayals of the Japanese were not just or even primarily racist propaganda and any Chinese or Korean will tell you at great length and with considerable feeling that this is the case. There is a real material world out there that cannot be reduced to just an exchange of propaganda images. The German “atrocities” of World War I, so central to British, French, and American propaganda about the barbaric Hun, were greatly exaggerated and largely fictitious, but those of the Nazis were harshly real. Evil is not postmodern; it has an objective existence. The resort to equivalence is simply the propaganda of a misplaced moderation. It is noticeable too that no comment is made on a Spanish Republican poster by Juan Antonio Morales attacking the supporters of the Nationalist cause and including two of the Moorish soldiers fighting in Franco’s army. The Moors have been made into “blackamoors.” One wears a sinister turban and the other a silly fez. But the Republicans were a coalition of left-liberals, socialists, anarchists, and communists so their posters can’t possibly be racist, can they?

A central characteristic of the British propaganda in the exhibition is its extensive and successful use of humor, often achieved by giving official employment to professional cartoonists such as Fougasse. Some of the visitors laughed out loud at the British Ministry of Propaganda film London’s New Version of the Lambeth Walk performed by the Nazi Ballet (1941). The producer, Charles A. Ridley, simply took Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will (1934) and edited it so that the marchers, drummers, and goose-steppers of a Nuremberg rally sometimes move too quickly and sometimes move backwards and forwards. They no longer look menacing or impressive, but idiotic. It was all done to the then popular tune “The Lambeth Walk” that accompanied a jaunty walking dance popular in Britain and later in America. The actual music used was from the 1937 musical Me and my Girl. Even Hitler and his comrades salute in time to it.

On seeing the orderly precision of a Nazi rally reduced to a dance that had earlier been condemned by them as “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping,” Goebbels is said to have been so angry that he ran out of the projection room kicking chairs and shouting obscenities. This short film without words was distributed to newsreel theaters throughout the world. A simple but effective technique for debunking power.

There are a few humorous German exhibits from World War II, but they lack skill and subtlety. It is perhaps worth remembering that in Mein Kampf Hitler had firmly rejected the kind of German humor used in World War I and advocated instead a propaganda of total hostility and hatred. Humor fitted better into the Nazis’ pioneering campaign against tobacco, which is illustrated and discussed in the exhibition; it used visual humor rather more effectively.

The exhibition is interesting and worth visiting, but it tries to do too much. It ranges from Trajan’s column in Rome proclaiming his victories and triumphal processions, to the European Union’s wordless anthem; from a Soviet exhortation to Muslim women to discard their headscarves and affront their elders with loose, flying hair to an imperial portrait of Napoleon.  It was unwise to try to cover hysterical propaganda posters and sober medical advice in a single exhibition. They are both forms of persuasion but the differences between them are so much greater than the slim degree of continuity that it does not really make sense to place them together.

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