During the worst conflict the world has ever known, propaganda images were sharpened into weapons of mass persuasion. By Nicholas Siekierski.
The term propaganda has become synonymous with deception and lies. But the word did not always have this strongly negative connotation. Starting in World War I, it began to be used as a pejorative by combatants on both sides: British, German, and later, American government information agencies. Propaganda had once been a term that described a “concerted movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine or practice” without judging its harm or benefit, but the twentieth century saw its evolution into an all-encompassing term for insidious attempts by an enemy to manipulate public opinion.
The sinister aims of propaganda during World War I were enhanced and magnified during the Second World War. Demonization of the enemy became a preferred technique, especially for the Nazis and Soviets. The brutality of that war is in part a testament to the effectiveness of propaganda to dehumanize an opponent and thus to justify his destruction. Many such examples appear in a new Hoover Archives exhibit, The Battle for Hearts and Minds: World War II Propaganda (www.hoover.org/library-and-archives/exhibits/112296). It will be on display until February 2013. Several of its most striking images appear on the following pages.
Herbert Hoover was well aware of the power of propaganda to influence people both for good and for ill. In fact, Hoover used its positive form to help the needy and to combat the people and forces that used it with malign intent. He led highly successful appeals for donations and support while heading the Commission for Relief in Belgium, the U.S. Food Administration, and the American Relief Administration during the First World War and the years afterward. Persuasive campaigns of that nature ultimately kept millions of people from starving. The Hoover War Collection (today’s Hoover Institution), which Hoover established at Stanford University in 1919, stands “as a challenge to those who promote war” and use propaganda toward that end.
Hoover touched on that theme in June 1941, just six months before Pearl Harbor, in a speech dedicating the Hoover Tower: “In an alcove of this library is a collection which shrieks to be heard today. That is the tens of thousands of pieces of propaganda in the last war. . . . [Propaganda] was used by every government in endeavor to keep some nations out of war, and to get others involved in war. War propaganda is a highly developed species of untruth and part truth and distorted truth. As war sanctifies murder, so it sanctifies the lesser immoralities of lies.”
Hoover went on to become a close observer of World War II. In writing his history of the conflict, after citing the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse—war, death, famine, and pestilence—he describes “a fifth Horseman bearing propaganda loaded with lies and hate.” He pointed out in another postwar speech that “total war results in the mass slaughter of truth” and urged postwar America to purge itself of “the war-perfected skills of government propaganda.”
The institution Hoover established, home to more than one hundred thousand posters and millions of documents and publications, many of them in the realm of propaganda, is part of his legacy to future generations. “Surely from these records there can be help to mankind in its confusions and perplexities, and its yearnings for peace,” he said in 1941.
Grisly images such as this 1941 Soviet poster emphasized a perennial theme of twentieth-century propaganda: the enemy as inhuman. Here the Nazi leader, blood dripping from his mouth and hands, gnaws on a human bone surrounded by skulls carrying the names of the European nations Germany has conquered.
In every country, propaganda images must present simple messages bluntly. The American image from 1943 (upper left), was part of a series of vivid ideological posters to educate the public about Nazi beliefs and policies. A 1944 Soviet poster (above) shows smiling Soviet soldiers marching through Berlin and vows “We will raise the flag of victory!” In the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, a third poster (left) from 1943 warns “Hands off!” and suggests that the German invaders are actually guarding Europe.
Mein Kampf, translated as My Struggle or My Battle, is Adolf Hitler’s infamous political and ideological tract, which incorporates autobiographical elements. Hitler completed the book while incarcerated in Landsberg prison after his failed revolt, the Beer Hall Putsch, in Munich in 1923. This copy is a first edition from 1925. Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s generated greater interest in the book, particularly in the author’s anti-Semitic and expansionist rhetoric. Hitler dedicated several chapters to the importance of propaganda, and the book itself can be considered a prime example of political propaganda.
The Nazis directed extensive propaganda at children. One example was this 1936 book, Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jud bei seinem Eid: ein Bilderbuch für Gross und Klein, which means “Do not trust a fox in a green pasture or a Jew upon his oath: a picture book for young and old.” A page from the book, at right, shows a stereotypical Jewish figure luring children away with candy. One of many such books published by Julius Streicher, Trau keinem Fuchs portrays the Jews as a burden on German society and paints gross stereotypes through illustrations that contrast “typical” Germans with “typical” Jews. Other such works portrayed Jews as poisonous toadstools. After the war, Streicher was found guilty at Nuremberg of inciting violence against the Jews and was executed by hanging in 1946.
“Our hope is in you, red warrior” pleads this 1943 Soviet poster (detail), its tearful young woman in a barbed–wire compound representing the tens of millions of Russians behind German lines. In the background, other prisoners are being shot. Propaganda images often reach for an emotional response based on danger to one’s family or people, particularly innocent women and children.
Crammed with anti-American images, this bizarre poster was created in Nazioccupied Europe in 1944. Emerging from a world of skyscrapers, a monster, one of its legs a bloodstained bomb, the other the “world’s most beautiful leg,” is about to smash the treasures of European civilization. From its Ku Klux Klan hood to its bomber wings, jitterbugging black Americans, and Star of David loincloth, it purports to characterize the primitiveness, hypocrisy, and destructiveness of U.S. life.
Not surprising, Americans’ view of themselves and their reasons for fighting were much different from those of their enemies. The Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, became a rallying cry for war. A 1942 poster (left) focuses on the destruction of the USS Arizona and on the American outrage that followed. A more whimsical image from 1941 (above) paints patriotism in terms of baseball and cultural and religious diversity, as well as a shared purpose. Also characteristic of many World War II posters in the United States: its emphasis on wielding the “weapon” of industrial production.
Before Pearl Harbor, with Europe embroiled in war but the United States still neutral, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies lobbied to send weapons and materiel to Britain. The interventionist group argued that doing so would protect America from Nazi aggression, as depicted in this early 1941 poster. The group dropped the last part of its name after Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941 because it refused to consider the Soviet Communists true allies.
This romantic depiction of U.S. planes strafing an enemy airfield is one of many posters that touted the new power of air forces in the European and Pacific theaters. Praising “The Greatest Team in the World!” the poster specifically appeals to teenagers, inviting seventeen-year-olds to enquire about enlisting.
Nicholas Siekierski, an assistant archivist, is the exhibit and outreach coordinator at the Hoover Archives.
Special to the Hoover Digest.