British Propaganda in the 20th and 21st Centuries
Snakes and ladders - Propaganda on the make
THE MESSAGE IS THE THING AND THEN THERE IS THE SPIN
Wikipedia has it that propaganda is information of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. It goes on to say that the dissemination of such information as a political strategy is also what propaganda is about.
Certainly, of late, 'politics' seem to have entered British television shows set in the past. If you have read George Orwell's 1984 (completed in 1948 and first published in 1949) you will know that warping history for either social or political gain is a dangerous game. It is possible that there will be some loss of identity for the British with dubious rewards for the perpetrators. Even so, it is happening right now.
Fighting the good fight has a nice ring to it when it is obvious that someone else is doing, in grand style, the complete opposite. Snakes in the grass are thus excellent creatures for those who wish to climb the ladder of popularity. For Winston Churchill to be the stalwart Prime Minister hero of British democracy, circa 1939, there has to be an opposite number in one el supreme Nazi leader, Adolph Hitler. It looks good in the papers and sounds impressive on radio.
Certainly Propaganda has been around a lot longer than the 20th and 21st Centuries. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans dabbled in it. The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches during the reformation excelled in it. Gutenberg's development of the printing press to where pamphlets could be produced cheaply and in large number, not only gave more people a voice, but also allowed propaganda to fly further and with greater speed.
In the 18th Century, the whole bit about Marie Antoinette saying the people who can't afford bread should eat cake was pure propaganda against the woman herself. There is no evidence that she ever said any such thing other than on the inflammatory pamphlets calling for an end to her reign as queen of France.
It could be said that great cities in America such as Chicago and New York were founded upon the art of exaggeration and then of turning what was exaggerated into profound reality. How else do you create buildings that scrape the sky?
In Elizabethan times, the English made great use of propaganda. We see it in works by William Shakespeare such as Macbeth. For example, when the ruling monarch is not well, or someone is on the throne who had not the right to be there, unnatural things seem to happen. Nature, in fact, appears to be protesting the wrongful situation. This points, in a somewhat melodramatic way, to the divinity of rightful monarchs and their responsibilities to keep good order in their kingdom.
Queen Elizabeth herself made great use of the art of public speaking as well as propaganda in her rousing speech on the eve of invasion by the Spanish armada. It is a speech that lives on. There is, however, some controversy over whether what was written down for prosperity were her actual words on the day or a more refined spiel created some years later. Nevertheless, the words are powerful and create in the mind of any who read them someone proud of her country and her people. Also someone who could show others the way of plucking up the necessary courage to face a powerful enemy. Incidentally, the Spanish invasion failed. Certainly, Queen Elizabeth being seen to go out to her people to lend her support amounted to a political strategy that paid dividends.
In order to understand British 21st Century propaganda, I feel an understanding of 20th Century propaganda is in order. I also feel an understanding of both had some merit.
KEEPING UP MORALE COME WHAT MAY
BRITISH PROPAGANDA OF THE EARLY 20th CENTURY
The British government, upon entering into the 20th Century, wanted to project an image of Britain as a democratic, industrialized nation with a heart and an empire. Of course this image didn't quite work with what was going on in Ireland, Scotland and India. There was unrest. Poverty and the desire for self rule was uppermost in people's minds.
There was the general belief that the empire had seen better days. Naval building projects in the first decade of the 20th Century helped to relieve some of the poverty in Scotland. It also helped maintain the image of Britain as a great and continuing naval power.
There was a sense of justice, British style, in the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle who is best remembered for having created Sherlock Holmes. It can be said that Holmes had been around since the late Victorian age but he was still popular and very useful as a propaganda tool in the 20th Century. He appeared in movies during the silent era and helped boost morale during the 2nd World War when he was put into what was then modern settings in a slew of cheaply made but very successful films. Other fictional heroes, such as Biggles and The Saint, also came to the fore in the 1940s to help out.
There is film footage of a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain adorned with the stick figure with halo of The Saint on his flight jacket (Check out History of the RAF documentary) . Obviously the fellow was a fan of Leslie Charteris' famous adventurer.
During the Boer War (1899 -1902), Britain received some flak from countries such as Germany for the building of internment camps for the housing of captured Boer women and children. With some reason, these camps have been regarded as the first concentration camps of the 20th Century. There food, sanitation and medical care were said to be not of a high enough standard by those who had to work in the camps.
In 1941, the Germans made much out of the Boer War in the propaganda film Ohm Kruger starring Emil Jannings and Lucie Hoflich. In this film both Churchill and Queen Victoria are sent up. Much is made of the mistreatment of Boer women and children by the British. No mention is made in the film, however, of the German concentration camps that were then in existence. The film ends with the dying Paul Kruger, played by Jannings, predicting the destruction of England by major powers out to make the world a better place to live in.
Britain countered bad publicity for what they were doing in South Africa by mentioning the willingness of men from her colonies to volunteer for active duty in the war. Soldiers from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, they said, had been happy to sign up to fight in a just cause. In an Australian newspaper of 1901, however, it was mentioned that many of the men who did volunteer from these colonies (now newly formed into the federation of Australia) did so because there was a terrible drought on and that money for participating in the fighting was often seen as the only way of saving the family farm.
There is early film footage of a re-enactment of a Boer War battle made to bolster interest and confidence in the British war effort. Of course, at this time, the movie camera was far too bulky to take into action on the actual battlefield. Even so, re-enactments showed what the people who paid for them wanted the audience to see.
In 1906, the short film, How A British Bulldog Saved the Union Jack, has many of the elements of melodrama and of less than subtle propaganda. A British camp is attacked by Zulus. The British are shown to be brave and without guile. The Zulus are savages with numbers on their side but the British do not require greater numbers in order to contend with them. The Zulus appear to revile all that is British. Even so, an actual bulldog, obviously the British camp's mascot, does save the flag and the Zulu about to burn the Union Jack is shot by a British soldier. All ends well for the British, including the bulldog, though not so well for the Zulus.
During the early stages of the First World War, the British home front was bolstered by film footage and exaggerations made concerning a new, motorized weapon - the tank. It was felt important in dealing with the tank to talk about what it would eventually do rather than what it was presently capable of doing. Hope for a speedy victory was also enhanced by the big battleships of the royal navy. They looked magnificent and they were the pride of a nation.
There were technical problems with the first tanks which rendered them, in reality, as being less than what was desired for the war effort. Adding to early technical difficulties was the rain on the Western Front. The tanks, of course, were as rain proof as they were bullet proof. Unfortunately, with the rain comes the mud and they did not do at all well on less than firm ground. In the last year of the war, the tank did come into its own as a definite asset but this was because, by this time, the muddy conditions had been left behind. It was also because an Australian general, Monash, was not only willing to put them through their paces but make them a part of his battle strategies.
Even though the arms race between Britain and Germany before the First world War had resulted in two great battle fleets, they only ever engaged each other once in the entire four years of hostility. What's more, mighty ships bristling with fire power could now be destroyed by two weapons not thought of as having much importance by the British before the war. There was the submarine and the plane. A torpedo from a submarine could put a hole in the biggest, baddest of ships circa the First World War. A plane could bomb the ship from the our with some effect. Thus naval superiority in the Great War did not mean what it had previously meant in warfare.
THE GERMAN LIGHTNING STRIKE VERSUS THE BRITISH BULLDOG
BRITISH PROPAGANDA DURING THE 2ND WORLD WAR AND BEYOND
Before the Invasion of Poland by the Germans in 1939, every reasonable diplomatic effort was made to prevent a war between Britain and Germany. In 1938 Prime Minister Chamberlain thought he had succeeded with Adolf Hitler. The headlines of the London newspapers were large with the 'fact' that there would be continuing peace. Adolf Hitler's last territorial demand had been met and it seemed that no more countries were to be swallowed up by the Third Reich.
When Poland was invaded by German forces the British Prime Minister had little else he could do other than call for the Germans to withdraw. When this did not happen, the British Prime Minister declared war on Germany. Not long after this sad event, Australia's Prime Minister also declared war on Germany in support of the empire. And so began the 2nd World War.
Much was made propaganda-wise over the fact that the British people had clearly wanted peace with the Germans and that it was the Germans, through their Nazi leader, that had pushed for war.
When France fell to the Germans it looked very much like Britain would quickly follow. The one great hope for Britain was the RAF. They had done a marvelous job at Dunkirk with the evacuation of British troops. Boats and other shipping large and small, many privately owned, had done the physical work of transportation which was no mean feat. Hurricane and Spitfires had taken on the German air force, preventing many of these rescue vessels from being bombed.
With the fall of France, Britain was in definite danger of being bombed into submission by the Luftwaffe. There were members of the cabinet who wanted to negotiate a surrender on good terms with the Germans before the first bomb fell on English soil. Even so, Churchill, who had replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister, was not about to capitulate to the Nazis.The British bulldog, because of its tenaciousness nature, became the symbol of the British will to fight on and Churchill was often seen walking his bulldog.
Posters that declared: 'Loose Lips, Sink Ships' had two purposes. One was to make people aware of the possibility of there being an enemy spy in their midst. The other was to have people feel that, even by not talking openly to strangers, they could, in some small way, do their bit for the war effort.
Children were called upon to help recycle. Old newspapers, magazines and tires were collected to stem waste. It was because a lot of food had to be brought in by ship that there was food rationing. All families were urged to have victory gardens. Where a garden was not possible, even a window box with herbs growing in it showed you had the right spirit. Civilians were issued with coal filter based gas masks just in case 'Jerry' decided to use gas in an aerial attack. How effective these gas masks would have been if the need arose for their use is debatable but they did give civilians some comfort in just having them. Air aces appeared on cigarette cards which were highly prized.
It is through film that propaganda was best spread during this time of great conflict. Here are ten propaganda films that helped the British to fight on during the conflict and to carry on in the gray years after the war:
1. The Lion Has Wings (1939) starring Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon with a cameo appearance by members of the royal family. This film is part documentary and part drama. Its main aim is to illustrate the perceived differences between a Britain steeped in democracy and eager for peace the good things in life and a dictator lead Germany goose-stepping its way into conquest after conquest. It should be noted that bits and pieces out of Leni Riefenstahl's infamous Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will (1934), are cheekily used and, quite possibly, without Reifenstahl's permission. The Lion Has Wings is also a hearty salute to the RAF as the title most definitely implies.
2. The Demi-Paradise (1943) starring Laurence Olivier as a Russian engineer who travels to England to get a new type of ship's propeller made and Penelope Ward as the young English woman he clashes with and then falls in love with, has a lot going for it. The general idea here is to introduce the Russians as Britain's allies in the struggle against Nazism. Communism may not be the way of the British people but not all Communists are bad. In some respects, it is not only a comedy/love story between two people from very different backgrounds but also two nations with very unique views on life. Either way, it is well worth watching.
3. The First of The Few (1942) starring Leslie Howard and David Niven is the inspirational true story of R. J. Mitchell - the man who designed the first Spitfire. There may have been more Hurricanes around during the Battle of Britain but it was the Spitfire that captured the imagination of a nation with its revolutionary wing design and its speed. Mitchell didn't live long enough to see his famous fighter plane in action but, as the movie implies, his spirit was in every Spitfire that took to the sky to protect Britain from the enemy. The German characters in this film have a certain arrogance about them that smacks of stereotyping. The Germans are also shown as sneaky and ruthless.
4. One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) starring Godfrey Tearle and Eric Portman is the fictional story of a British bomber crew shot down over enemy territory who are aided by the courageous Dutch underground. The Germans are shown to be rotters who mistreat the Dutch people.
5. Appointment with Venus (1951) starring David Niven and Glynis Johns has to be one of the more unusual movies set during the 2nd World War. Venus, a prize pedigree cow, must be rescued from the Germans. Set on a fictitious Island, the story is based on the evacuation of Alderney cattle from the Channel Island during the 2nd World War. It is a comedy in which the Germans aren't so bad. Even so, a young artist must pluck up the courage to do the right thing despite the fact that the enemy think of him as a weakling and a coward. Despite the fact that it was made well after the war had ended, it can still be considered a morale booster for the British people.
6. The Way Ahead (1944) starring David Niven and Stanley Holloway is about a bunch of transcripts being molded into a fighting force after the disaster at Dunkirk. It is about the never say die British fortitude.
7. 'Pimpernel' Smith (1941) starring Leslie Howard and Mary Brown has a professor, apparently supporting the Nazi view on racial superiority, rescuing victims of Nazi oppression on the side. This is very much a then modern slant on the Scarlet Pimpernel story. It is thoroughly British and fun to watch.
8. A Town Like Alice (1956) starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch is a British made film with a lot of heart and respect for the Aussie digger. Set in 1941, it is about the relationship between an English woman on a forced march with other English women, instigated by the conquering Japanese, and an Australian soldier in a Japanese labor camp. As a whole, there is courage and good mateship demonstrated by the captured Australians toward the women. The Japanese are shown to be extremely cruel which apparently they were during the 2nd World War. A Town Like Alice is a reference to the character, Alice, played by Virginia McKenna and also to Alice Springs which can be found in the Northern Territory of Australia.
9. Ice Cold in Alex (1958) starring John Mills and Sylvia Syms is set in North Africa during the 2nd World War. The crossing of a great desert has to be attempted by army personnel and a nurse. The prize is an ice cold beer in Alexandria if they make it. The movie demonstrates that not all Germans during the war were all bad and also that the British in general do have a strong and continuing sense of fair play.
10. 49th Parallel (1941) starring Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier this is one of the best made propaganda films of the 2nd World War. Set in Canada, it deals with German U-boat sailors stranded in Canada who must get into then neutral USA in order not to be Captured by the Canadian authorities. On their trek across Canada they meet up with an assortment of characters.
It is revealed on this journey that not all of the members of the U-boat are Nazis bent on conquest. One of them, for example, would rather bake bread for an appreciative audience rather than continue to take up arms against his fellow man. When this about him is discovered by the Nazi leader, he is eliminated.
One by one the U-boat crew are either killed or captured. An artist in the woods bravely defies Nazism and is shot for his trouble.
In the end only one Nazi is left and he is on a train headed for the USA. He does, however, get into a conversation and then a punch up with a USA soldier who doesn't like the fellow's attitude toward democracy. The USA soldier then arranges for the now unconscious Nazi to be railed back to Canada.
This movie shows Canada and the Canadians the way I am sure the Canadians wanted to envision themselves in 1941. It does the same for the people of the USA which are represented by one freedom loving soldier. The Nazis, though arguably not all the Germans in this film, are of course dead-set rotters.
Note: In 1953 writer Ian Fleming created the flamboyant and very British spy, James Bond. During the cold war, the Bond movies portrayed Britain as a competent go-between when it came to the major super-powers. If the Soviet Union has a beef against the USA because of some stolen rockets, for example, Britain would send her favorite son, James Bond, out to discover who was really responsible for the theft. If something is nicked from the USA and it appears the Soviets are responsible, Bond is again sent out to find out what's really going on. The movie I like best in this regard is You Only Live Twice. Naturally all this is fiction but it did give the British a certain glamor which was even more enhanced by the television shows of the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.
Who could argue with sophisticated men who knew what they wanted and the most attractive women imaginable in mini-skirts? The Invisible Man was an early trend setter. His sister was a real bottler and so were a lot of the women he came across. The Avengers, The Saint and The Champions are all good examples of this sort of thing. I was not happy when this 'glam' period finally ended.
The New Propaganda
BRITISH PROPAGANDA IN THE LATE 20th and EARLY 21st CENTURIES
It is difficult to say how propaganda against what the Russians are doing now, in 2014, will play out in terms of propaganda. Certainly mainland China still being red continues to be a concern. This is especially true since Red China holds much of the democratic world in debt.
Propaganda, in the last couple of decades, plays out best in the news. There was the chief reason to go to war with Iraq. Despite fruitless searches for them, the fiction of the weapons of mass destruction prevailed.
The leaders of the USA, Britain and Australia were apparently convinced at the time that these devastating weapons did, indeed, exist and that Saddam Hussein was up to his old tricks. Sure, he'd used chemical weapons on Kurdish civilians in the 1980s and, after the Gulf War, the United Nations had destroyed large quantities of these weapons. Even so, the weapons of mass destruction that should have been found during the early years of the Iraq War still elude us to this day. Were we tricked into going to war in 2003? Were we collectively lied to? This would appear to be the case.
It has been said that the journalists of the USA, Britain and Australia failed in their job to keep the public well informed and the politicians accountable for their actions. I would say there is some truth in this. Perhaps the public is also to blame for not holding both journalists and politicians to a much higher standard.
During much of the 20th Century, the main theme in British as well as American propaganda films has been that people from democratic countries do not employ torture. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany did during the 2nd World War but, according to the propaganda movies, this is not what members of the free world do. George Bush referred to the Invasion of Iraq by US forces as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Yet torture was employed by the US in Iraq. What's more, freedom of the press was also curtained by American occupation forces. It seems that neither British nor Australian forces used torture though it is possible that facts may come to light some day to argue against this statement. Even so, it is bad P. R. when your top ally is caught doing such despicable things.
It can also be said that a person should not be kept in custody by a lawful body indefinitely without charges being brought against them. This was something done by the USA at Guantanamo Bay. As part of the war against terror, it has been accepted, to some extent, by the British as well as the Australian government. The practice, however, goes against what the USA, as well as the other democracies including Britain, are said to stand for. The right to due process has, for some, been undermined.
Today television shows, such as Merlin and Robin Hood, appear to be pushing some weird political agenda in re-writing and re-working British myth and legend to suit 20th Century migrants or the children of migrants to Britain. There is the danger that British history, myth and legend will become so distorted that it will no longer be British but something else.
That's it for now. I hope you have enjoyed the read.
More by this Author
Islamic State, milk and honey, Australia, the USA, the UK, mini-skirts, bikinis, slavery, Gandhi, French Revolution, Karl Marx, Holland, starvation, Ancient Rome, Robin Hood, World War One, Syria.
The Jazz Age, Josephine Baker, Ken Burns, The League of Nations, radio, the gramophone, Kangaroo, Ragtime, Ku Klux Klan, Elvis Presley, World War One, The Saint, The Great Gatsby, Pollyanna, Paris.
Bullying in the USA, Australia and France. School boy bullies. Nations throwing out democracy for dictatorship because of bullying. Religious bullies. Computer bullies. Fighting against bullying.