Normandy landings during World War 2. Ships putting cargo ashore on Omaha Beach, at low tide during the first days of the D-Day operation. Mid June 1944.

Propaganda, an art and science

(This is the text and material from a presentation that I gave)

6 June was the anniversary of D-Day, the Second World War amphibious landings at Normandy in north-western France.

75 years ago, some 150,000 soldiers from the UK, Canada, the USA, among a small number of others, fought against German soldiers.

Yesterday, Elizabeth the second, Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries hosted leaders from allied nations in memory of the wartime event.

Representatives from 16 countries attended the solemn event commemorating the occasion: Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia, the UK and the US.

One after another, these leaders acknowledged an everlasting debt of gratitude to those who fought against fascism.

The leaders of these 16 countries paid homage to the events of June 1944, highlighting the Normandy landings where 150,000 Allied troops fought against the 50,000 German ones that defended the Western Front against Anglo-American attack.

Meanwhile, in June 1944, at the Eastern Front, some 850,000 German soldiers faced against 1.6 million Soviet ones. These two sides had already been fighting for three years. The Germans had initially fielded 3 million soldiers in an invasion of the USSR.

The secretary of the US Navy during World War 2 had this to say about the war: “We and our allies owe and acknowledge an everlasting debt of gratitude to the armies and people of the Soviet Union.”

General Douglas MacArthur, the US Commander in Chief of that other eastern front, the Southwest Pacific Area was even bolder in his praise of the Soviet effort, claiming that it was the “greatest military achievement in all history”.

Notice in the picture shown here [Image 1]. No one represents the post-Soviet countries of Russia, the Ukraine or Belarus at the Second World War memorial.

Why is that?

But Germany is there represented by Angela Merkel.

See here, queen Elizabeth is about to shake Merkel’s hand. The Royal Family’s official Twitter account claims that “The Queen was introduced to leaders by the Prime Minister [of the UK] – each [leader] representing the allied nations that took part in D-Day.”

Notice that the tweet answers our question for us. The leaders of each allied nation that took part in the Normandy battles over the Western European front meets the queen – Germany included.

Soviet soldiers were not present in Normandy.

In 1944, the USSR was an ally of the United Kingdom and the US. So why weren’t they involved in Normandy?

As I’ve already mentioned, they were fighting in the Eastern Front, and they were about to launch a military operation that would finally defeat the bulk of the German forces massed in their many hundreds of thousands.

The Germans, however, were present at D-Day. But Germany was not an Ally Nation in 1944, even if the image shown here [Image 2] might have us believe.

Let’s ask another question, a better one.

What does the Queen and her spokespeople mean by her meeting “each [leader] representing the allied nations that took part in D-Day”?

This ceremony is not about the past, it’s about the world today. A selective memory of the past is paraded in order to construct the present.

The Allied Nations mentioned are the Allies of today not the Allies from World War Two. Today’s Allied Nations include Germany, and are bound by such bodies as NATO and the European Union.

Meanwhile the USSR was an ally of convenience and one of necessity. They wrote themselves into the story by stalling and defeating German advances against them.

After the war, things changed. As for now, Russia is a foe; Ukraine is a broken buffer state and zone of geopolitical contest.

Here’s another question: what is propaganda?

Here’s an expert on the field writing about it from the perspective of a liberal democrat: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

“It [propaganda] takes account not merely of the individual, nor even of the mass mind alone, but also and especially of the anatomy of society, with its interlocking group formations and loyalties. It sees the individual not only as a cell in the social organism but as a cell organized into the social unit.” This comes by way of the famous Edward Bernays from his book entitled Propaganda.

A Marxist contemporary of the above had this perspective to offer: “Consciousness takes shape and being in the material of signs [the communication of meaning] created by an organized group in the process of its social intercourse. The individual consciousness is nurtured on signs [the objects that communicate meaning]; it derives its growth from them; it reflects their logic and laws. The logic of consciousness is the logic of ideological communication, the semiotic interaction of social groups [the system of communicated meanings in action within society].”

Propaganda is run by a narrow group or via a broad body of representatives. It is sneaky or it is plain. It manipulates or educates. It demands or debates.

Frank Capra, supervising director of the film we’re soon to watch had his mind made up on the issue. In a 1934 interview, he says that “it’s the entertainment qualities that carry a picture”. “People don’t want to think”.

Propagandists may believe in the need to manage a turbulent and unpredictable mass of people who are by nature prone to violence. Or, they may instead believe that ideological relations should closely reflect the material basis of a society of involved people who are invested with power rather than divorced from it.

All propaganda is not equal. It is a tool wielded by groups with different philosophies of life and society. It can be a tool for conservation, or one for change.

It can represent an image of the world as inherited history that people must bear and make the best of.

It can also confront us with the framework of our objective conditions, and show us how the actions of previous generations can be impacted by our own actions. Intelligent social processes can transform the framework of our lived reality, and create a new objective situation that opens up new options and possibilities.

Clearly propaganda is a tool: but a political tool put to ideological use.

Propaganda wears different masks: public relations, media communications, spin, community outreach. Those who work in the field carry multiple names and specialisations: press agents, PR councilors, communications experts, spokespeople.

Here’s another quote by Bernays: “it is only necessary to look under the surface of the newspaper for a hint as to propaganda’s authority over public opinion. Page one of the New York Times on the day these paragraphs are written contains eight important news stories. Four of them, or one-half, are propaganda. The casual reader accepts them as accounts of spontaneous happenings. But are they?”

This may have been true in Bernays’ time, and it is certainly sometimes the case in our time as well. One of my past jobs was to make just this happen.

A friend of mine, an excellent propagandist, made a keen observation. He said that: at the start of our careers we used to think that we were very good at what we did. We would regularly have this or that journalist copy one of our communications releases nearly word-for-word. They’d even put their own name to it. After some 5 years of this we realised that we weren’t so exceptional, but that the system of news was set up to make our work easy.

These journalists and the propagandists made a living from their proximity to sources of power, usually without reflecting on what they were doing or how it came about.

The film that we’re about to watch is propaganda. What does that mean, in this case? Why was it made in the first place and how does it impact us and others now, in our historical context?

We’re about to watch part one of a two part film called The Battle of Russia. It’s part of a seven volume serial – Why We Fight – made by the US Army.

The film is part of a World War II era series directed by highly awarded Hollywood directors Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, serving directly under chief of staff George C. Marshall (of the Marshall Plan). Screenwriting is by Anthony Veillier, and narration by Walter Huston. These characters are honoured with medals or Oscars.

Released in 1943,The Battle of Russia was made to influence the minds and hearts of the US military and citizenry, and called on them to wage war in Europe and in the Pacific against Germany, Japan, and Italy.

Frank Capra was among the highest paid Hollywood directors of his day. He was also an immigrant to the US, and a naturalised citizen. He was well aware of this condition and actively sought to prove his patriotism.

He had trouble through the 1930s into the early 1940s. He was under investigation by Army Intelligence and by the wartime House Un-American Activities Committee.

Capra signed up for the US military after that country’s formal entry into war in the aftermath of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He wasn’t alone in doing so. He was accompanied by many Hollywood producers, directors, screenwriters, editors, and actors.

The film industry was so involved in the war effort that even someone as well established as Capra was concerned that contracts would dry up. So, enlisting in the military was also a career choice.

The film does not stand alone. It was released at a time when a range of popular media were put to similar use, including radio, and comics.

Now, let’s get to it. I present today’s short feature film.

Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia, parts 1 and 2

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