4/24/09 - propaganda

In today's excerpt - propaganda in war. During all modern wars, there has been a highly active subset of each combatant's population that has spontaneously stepped forward to advocate the justness of the war, the heinousness of the enemy, the importance of unquestioning loyalty, and the nobility of dying for the cause:

"Thus far it has been assumed that by propaganda [in World War I] we mean government propaganda. In fact, much wartime propaganda was not produced by governmental agencies at all, but by autonomous organizations or private individuals. ...

"A good deal of less expensive 'propaganda' was produced without any reference whatever to government by associations like Sir Francis Younghusband's Fight for Right Movement, the Council of Loyal British Subjects, the Victoria League, the British Empire Union and the Central Council for National Patriotic Organisations. The same can be said for Germany, where the Pan-German League and the new Fatherland Party performed a similarly independent role. In America, the search for the enemy within was conducted less by the Justice Department than by vigilante groups like the American Patriotic League, the Patriotic Order of Sons of America and the Knights of Liberty. Such organizations were responsible for hundreds of incidents of extra-legal violence during the war years, including lynchings of individuals suspected of harboring sympathy for the enemy. ...

"Poets mobilized themselves too. The Times estimated that it received around a hundred poems a day in August 1914, the vast majority in the patriotic/romantic vein. According to one estimate, no fewer than 50,000 war poems were written in Germany every day in the same month. ...

"At every level of society war propaganda did not have to be produced by governments; it produced itself. Academics, journalists, amateur poets and ordinary people churned it out unprompted. Businesses manufactured it too. Nothing perhaps illustrates this better than the production of toys and comics for children, a phenomenon discernible in nearly all the combatant countries. In Britain there were toy tanks (available six months after they were first used in battle); in France, Lusitania jigsaws and a militarized version of Monopoly; in Germany, miniature artillery pieces which fired peas. ...

"In all countries there was a torrent of what Paul Fussell has called 'high diction': a friend became a 'comrade', a horse became a 'steed', the enemy became the 'foe'. ... Poetry was the preferred vehicle for such sentiments. 'Death is no death to him that dares to die,' intoned Sir Henry Newbolt, not untypically, in his 'Sacramentum Supremum'. 'Who stands if freedom fall?' asked Kipling in 'For All We Have and Are'; 'Who dies if England live?' No aspect of the war, no matter how unromantic, was safe from this idiom. Newbolt could adopt it even when writing about a war film ('O living pictures of the dead, O songs without a sound. ...) Alfred Noyes, another poet of the old school, described Glaswegian female munitions workers 'lavishing all the passion of motherhood' on their 'gleaming brood of shells ... brought forth to shield a dearer brood of flesh and blood.' Gilbert Murray sought to justify such drivel, arguing that 'the language of romance and melodrama has now become ... the language of our normal life ... The old phrase about 'Death being better than dishonor'—phrases that we thought were fitted for the stage or for children's stories—are now the ordinary truths on which we live.'

"He protested too much. A more sober critic was closer to the mark when he dismissed wartime high diction as 'word paint.' "


Niall Ferguson


The Pity of War: Explaining World War I


The Penguin Group


Copyright 1999 by Niall Ferguson


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