Propaganda throughout history - the good, the bad and the ugly

Playing cards given to soldiers fighting in Iraq in 2003

By Alex Ward

When Coalition commanders gave playing cards to the troops fighting to invade Iraq, it wasn’t just to keep soldiers occupied while the battlefront was quiet.

On each card, the notorious faces of Saddam Hussein’s regime smiled back, their mug shots subliminally permeating the troops’ memory – the targets they must identify and take down.

When Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi party’s propaganda minister, deliberately made the ‘people’s radio’ accessible to the average German household in 1933, he infiltrated the lives of millions with Hitler’s message.

“Goebbels talks about the radio being an extraordinary medium for getting a message across,” says Jude England, curator of the Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition at the British Library. “It was mass communication through deliberately producing items that were accessible for the population.”

Propaganda has had negative connotations ever since the First World War, seen as an insidiously subtle tactic to spread lies and falsehoods, playing on people’s emotions and interests to drive home feelings about a nation, fortify authority of a figurehead or demoralise enemies.

And while propaganda has been used throughout history by many dictators and governments for, what in retrospect has often been seen as, evil rather than good, propaganda also has its merits in educating the masses, combating disease and instilling national pride.

“Propaganda is really no more than the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way,” said the first international communications professor in the UK, Philip Taylor, his words featured among the exhibits.

Walking around the Library’s exhibition witnessing propaganda in many different forms, it is clear that propaganda is a powerful tool to persuade the masses through posters, coins, films and even board games.

Propaganda dates back to ancient times when Roman emperors built sculptures and monuments dedicated to themselves, with their head stamped on every silver coin – a tactic still used around the world today. Rulers devised ways to reinforce their authority and a sense of identity that could justify wars and criticise enemies. Postal stamps have also come to be used in this way, an essential item just like money, used widely and circulated across borders. They display national heroes and leaders – the images of a country.

Propaganda presents a grey area for journalists who must decipher what is propaganda for good and propaganda for bad. It may be a surprise to know that the London Olympic Games and Margaret Thatcher’s funeral also made the exhibition floor, examples of propaganda in possibly some of its most positive forms, many Brits would argue, showing off an image, a ‘global brand’ of Britain to the world.

“It’s about creating a sense of nation and a sense of who we are. Thatcher’s funeral expresses the symbolism perfectly through the image of Britain it creates,” England says.

It seems that the negativity surrounding propaganda stems from a perception that it is sinister in the way it works to communicate. During World War One, propaganda took centre stage as a way to recruit troops, bolster morale on the home front and demoralise enemies. Arthur Ponsonby wrote the 1928 bestseller Falsehood in Wartime which aimed to expose the lack of supporting evidence behind stories of atrocities piped into the mainstream media by the British government. His book, which disputes the credibility of articles in the British media about the Germans creating a ‘corpse factory’ distilling glycerine from dead bodies for example, fuelled public opinion that propaganda was based on lies and deception. Funnily enough, scholars more recently have argued that Ponsonby himself was a promoter of propaganda, with his conclusions also not backed up by hard facts.

“We associate propaganda with lies and falsehood,” says David Welch, author of the exhibition’s accompanying book. “It’s about persuading people, about reinforcing existing opinions. The problem occurs when there is a monopoly of propaganda and you are not getting alternative sources of information.”

Even a portrait can be considered insidious in the message it can convey. Leaders such as Mao have ‘mythologised themselves,’ creating an almost super-human aura around themselves. A poster of a young, proud Chairman Mao leading the victorious strike of miners in Anyuan did just that. The poster was reproduced an estimated 900 million times, plastered in houses, factories and offices. He became a model for cultural revolution art and the ideology behind such art fuelled the perception of his personality and godliness. Other leaders made sure that their personality was seen in a positive way too such as being photographed with children.

Some propaganda is much more forthright and obvious such as a poster from the British Parliamentary War Savings Committee during WWI which reads ‘Lend your five shillings to your country and crush the Germans,’ communicating a direct link between donations and military success. A public health campaign displaying vivid imagery of a bloodied needle and rag to educate on AIDS also aimed to hit home the message about the dangers surrounding heroin use.

Governments do rely on the media to be the vessels of dissemination so journalists must be wary in determining what is in the public’s best interest. It is a tricky minefield to tread but understanding the instigator’s motives and the effects such messages will have on the general public are important places to start.

“We want visitors to consider the role of propaganda in their own lives today, as well as look at the state’s use of propaganda throughout history,” England says. “That’s why, as well as displaying iconic pieces of propaganda from the Library’s collections, such as posters from both World Wars, the Cold War and Vietnam, we’ll also be focusing on more surprising examples, such as the 2012 Olympics and even Twitter – things you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a word like ‘propaganda’.”

There are more than 200 exhibits in this fascinating display of propaganda throughout history and interviews with experts in journalism, government and academia including Alastair Campbell, John Pilger, Iain Dale and Tessa Jowell. There will also be a series of talks and events to accompany the exhibition.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion runs from 17 May to 17 September 2013 at the British Library.
Visit the British Library website Price: £9 / £7 and £5 concessions / Free for under 18s

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