World History II

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. and Christe A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays and Wednesdays, 6:00 - 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time



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Chapter 30: The Great Depression and World War II
1929 to 1945

53: Wed, Mar 18, 2020

Please post in the forum for the day a short essay in response to this question:

The middle of the twentieth century saw the inexorable rise of a media culture. For good or ill (arguably some of each) broadcast media — chiefly radio — and film (not yet ready for broadcast, but seen as newsreels alongside feature films) eclipsed cooler and more cerebral print media such as newspapers in influencing the public's minds and hearts. The ability to rouse whole populations through imagery, dynamic juxtaposition of events, and live reportage from the theaters of war was exploited by both sides to enormous effect. Some of this took the shape of news; some of it was rendered up as popular entertainment with a message. All of it can be considered propaganda to some extent, and though that label has come to have strongly negative connotations, it — like any other basically rhetorical content — is a fundamental part of waging a conflict.

Below are links to a number of different YouTube videos that played a part in influencing morale both at home and abroad. Some of these pieces of film were even conscious of the role of propaganda, and challenged that.

Hitler's chief of cinematic propaganda was a woman named Leni Riefenstahl. She was arguably one of the most talented filmmakers of her age; her glorification of the Nazi cause in two films — Triumph of the Will and Olympia — was widely thought to have given Hitler considerable traction in his later career, and though she denied knowing anything about the Holocaust and other atrocities, suspicions about her engagement with Hitler's inner circle continued to follow her until her death in 2003. The films are worth reviewing now as (at least) object lessons in the power of media to provoke mass responses without sufficient examination and skepticism.

Triumph of the Will (1935) is a depiction of the Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934, and regarded by some — despite the position it takes — as the greatest propaganda film ever made. Whether it is or isn’t, however, its influence was indisputably broad. This and many things like it help explain why and how a nation could be brought under the spell of such a leader as Adolf HItler. The clip here is fairly small.

Olympia (1938) is a fairly lengthy documentary on the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.

Widespread radio communication was making its mark on the world at this point as well. Those who lived through the era recalled long afterward the vivid and visceral accounts of people like Edward R. Murrow, who reported from London during the Blitz, and before America entered the war did a good deal to win American sympathies to the British cause. The two videos here are video in name only: the substance is in the audio, which is chillingly immediate.

American reporter Edward R. Murrow reporting from London on the first day of the Blitz. Murrow became the voice of CBS in London, and had a long and distinguished career after the war as well.

Here is Edward R. Murrow reporting after the fact on a bombing run that he accompanied over Berlin later in the war.

Many Americans certainly recalled hearing Winston Churchill's famous speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, just after the (mostly) successful evacuation from Dunkirk. It was meant to rally the forces at home, of course, but its reach was international. It is an example of traditional rhetoric reaching beyond its normal original scope by means of broadcast media.

One British documentary film and another undertook the task of subverting Nazi propaganda by displaying it with commentary, and did a reasonably good job of it. The results are not in especially good shape here, but worth watching at least in part.

Germany was not alone in enlisting its premiere cinematographic talent in making a case for the war effort: in America, no less a luminary than Frank Capra (known in happier times for Mister Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life) created a series of films entitled Why We Fight. The episode on the Battle of Britain is worth your attention.

Similarly, popular entertainment stepped up to take on the cause as well. Here are some unabashedly propagandistic fragments of popular films that still hold up quite well:

You probably don't have time to watch all these, but try to watch a representative sample, at least. Certainly there's no reason to watch the longer videos in toto. What I'd like you to consider is this: how does propaganda like any of this affect morale at home, and how can it sometimes backfire? Would you have found any of this hard to accept if you were already part of the target population? How did the commodification of propaganda as film and radio change the way in which it fundamentally worked as a kind of rhetoric?