The Power of Propaganda, and Original Documents

I took students to the National Archives expecting to give them a sense of propaganda, on the British side, although they were free to explore any documents the Archives might store that they found relevant to our class. I didn’t realize that I would be getting a lesson myself on the trials of research in the age before Google, and the psychological power of paper.

We will talk later, in Germany, of the psychology behind preserving the past; my thoughts on that topic had been geared toward memoirs and memorials and other general remembrances, but it applies equally to the very specific conservation of paper documents. It is impossible to predict now what documents will be needed a century hence (although if we discarded them, it will seem obvious a century from now that we should have kept them), so they are thoroughly protected behind a sophisticated system of “reader” training and retrieval. In some cases this seems perhaps overzealous – it seems hard to imagine that anyone will really want the entire, 40+ page packet I read documenting the nitty-gritty details behind certain propaganda postcards, which seemed more focused on the quantity and publishing quality than any interesting debates on design, beyond proof that bureaucracy remains bureaucracy even during war – but as someone who still prefers paper to e-ink, I do think it’s better to err on the side of caution.

The abundance and nature of the paper documents did give me a sense of the work that must have gone into research, a hundred years ago. Only a sense, because I still had a digital database to search, and a quickly-printed photo ID card to swipe in a handy desktop reader to prove I had completed my online training on the handling of documents. Still, searching the database was a far cry from searching Google Scholar and having a dozen relevant studies show up, sometimes with a .pdf to be downloaded without even leaving the results page. The documents have names and filing numbers, but little in the way of digitized abstracts and certainly not searchable contents; it was sometimes difficult to find documents using any given search term, and then difficult to decide which titles might be relevant; you would have to request them, wait 45 minutes for them to be retrieved, and them read them yourself to know whether you’ve found what you’re looking for.

The documents themselves were hit-or-miss. My search for information on propaganda produced the slightly mind-numbing debate about the coloring quality for the propaganda postcards mentioned above (without the promised attached samples, alas), but it also produce a book with several dozen memoranda related to reports on the morale on the continent. The stories of what is promoted as true within Nazi occupied territory, and proposed to defeat morale there, are illuminating. Some of it is only illuminating because of the very nature of of paper, such as a document from November 1940 with suggestions of anti-German propaganda topics. Crucially, one suggestion reads:


“It has been reliably reported that inmates of lunatic asylums including Steinholz Vienna have been removed to Germany without the consent of relatives and chastised destroyed”.

“Chastised” is the original typed text; it has been crossed out in blue in, and replaced with “destroyed”. A whole host of questions arises for a historian, or a psychologist. Who changed the word, and why? Was it originally a translation error (“removed…and chastised” sounds rather odd, and anticlimactic, given the current bland meaning of chastisement)? Was it a deliberate attempt to make a bland report more emotional for propaganda purposes? Or was it a correction years later, when the full extent of atrocities was known?

The answers would take a historian to track down, as well as far more time in the documents room than we had budgeted, but the fact that we even know these questions exist is due to the preservation of the original paper. It could be an important illustration of the psychology of propaganda, and of language and translation, and of reactions to terrifying news, that would have been lost if the paper had been tossed aside.

While that particular document raises questions, others provide fascinating insight into a propaganda machine that was designed to raise the civilian morale while dampening those the enemies’. This was quite clearly laid out in a propaganda policy, marked “secret” and also from November 1940:

Propaganda as an arm in war has two main functions:–
To wage psychological warfare–
(a) with the simultaneous object of destroying the moral force of the enemy’s cause and of sustaining and eventually enforcing conviction of the moral force of our own cause;
(b) by co-operating with the other arms to prepare the way for and to export the effects of the military and economic offensive.

Fortunately for our desire to believe that we were the Good Guys, the policy goes on to specify that only true information should be used, and that unpleasant information should not be hidden – although the words “psychology” and “morale” appear with such frequency that the policy makers no doubt wanted to put as positive a spin on things as possible.

It’s not clear how much psychologists at the time knew about how propaganda worked, and how effective it could be. We know today that propaganda can be frightfully effective, thanks to the way we unconsciously process and are influenced by information. It’s a little academic and cool to think about how holding a hot cup of coffee can make us thing someone has a “warmer” personality…but it’s frightening to realize that just having seen a drug’s name on a pen will make medical students view that drug more positively, even though both likely work by similar unconscious mechanisms.

Propaganda also relies on several quirks in our memory. First, repetition really does work, particularly when it comes to catchphrases and language. I’ve only been in London for a week, and I’ve already noticed myself thinking in certain phrases and rhythms used by those around me; it was not at all ironically that I said to myself I’d have a “cuppa” (tea) before bed. I’ve seen “Keep Calm and Carry On” so many times – thanks to its status as the top souvenir at all war-related museums – that if disaster struck tomorrow, it would probably slip out of my mouth without my awareness.

A second quirk of memory is that we are more likely to remember a fact or a catchphrase than we are to remember the source of it (a failure of source memory). Political advertisements – which are really just another form of propaganda – exploit this; you might not remember where your heard that Obama did such and such, or who said it, you’ll just remember that you heard it. If you forget that it was said by an unreliable, far-right politician who was likely very biased against Obama, you might not realize you should take that fact with a grain of salt.

In the bigger picture – and given that people are likely to argue that the advertisements supported by their political party are not “propaganda” – we must also consider why Hitler’s speeches are considered propaganda, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches are not, when both relied on very similar philosophies of rhetoric. “Propaganda” has negative connotations, something we believe in slimy and loose with the truth, but truly any advertisement, action or speech that tries to persuade us to change our beliefs follows a similar format, playing on certain irrational quirks of the “rational” mind. The British leaders in World War II had no trouble calling their efforts “propaganda” and “psychological warfare”, just as they called the German rumors and pamphlets; if nothing else, the original documents show a refreshing honesty on that front.


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