Watch the segments from Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” films and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” linked to on the syllabus page. Capra’s film was one of a series he made for the US Army Signal Corps for showing to American troops in World War II. Riefenstahl made her film at Hitler’s request as a record of the 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. Both of these films have been described as propaganda. Here are three definitions of propaganda:
Pick ONE of these definitions and use that definition to indicate whether it is adequate to distinguish these two films from other films like a documentary or a newsreel. Is propaganda in the eye of the beholder — a purely subjective judgment?
1. “Propaganda may be defined as any attempt by means of persuasion, to enlist human beings on the side of one party to any dispute.” Bertrand Russell
The important difference between propaganda and media is intent. Propaganda is differentiated from news because it combines the emotional response of entertainment media with smatterings of information from events like what the news media would offer and presents it as absolute truth. Popular media generally avoids presenting its material as truth. News media generally avoids presenting emotion swaying soundtracks and one sided arguments. However, there is a gradient; human interest pieces and historical fiction bend the expectations of their respective media forms, but generally these sources avoid trying to inspire the viewer to action.
According to Bertrand Russell’s definition, propaganda is meant to inspire the audience to action or at lease prepare them so that in a dispute the audience cannot remain neutral. The two films shown demonstrate a key feature of propaganda: they tie long held beliefs with new beliefs and emotional content. The american film ties war with freedom and quotes from the bible, koran and famous american figures. The German film ties ethnic german culture, happiness and unity of the german people to the third Reich and the rise of Hitler. By tying emotional music and long held ideals to target ideas, these films persuade the viewer to agree, not on a level of logic, but on the much more basic and deep rooted level of emotion. In the context of the time, holding the beliefs presented in the films contributes to action to support or inaction to disagree in the war effort. These two films fit Bertrand Russell’s definiton of propaganda and differentiate them from newsreels and documentaries. -Anne
Bertrant Russell describes propaganda as being “defined as any attempt by means of persuasion, to enlist human beings on the side of one part to any dispute.” This statement is adequate in distinguishing “Why We Fight” and the “Triumph of the Will” as more than a documentary or a newsreel. “Why We Fight” was commissioned by the US Government as a sort of documentary to show the troops before heading off to battle in either the Pacific or the European theaters of war. It’s purpose was to rile up those that were being shipped off– to give them purpose to go off and fight in a land far away that really had nothing to do directly with them. The “Why We Fight” series played off of fears and racial stereotypes and did so well enough to manipulate or persuade mainstream America into believing that the United States alone was the world’s savior and gave a shoddy at best argument about “why we fight”. On the other hand, the “Triumph of the Will” was more in the newsreel kind of style, showing the grander of the Third Reich in attempts to persuade people how “great” and “awe-inspiring” their government is. However, it too is different from a ‘real’ newsreel in that it is completely not objective. As what we perceive to be as news, we expect their to be a standard of objectivity; however we don’t get that with propaganda. I don’t believe propaganda is “in the eye of the beholder”– I believe that propaganda can fool people into believing that it’s purely objective or if not it’s a correct method of thinking, and it’s up to individual agents to question whether or not what they are being told is completely one hundred percent the truth. If a piece of information is trying to paint a picture of black and white, good and bad, and that that information is the good and the right and the white, then chances are it is propaganda. -Holly
There is a fine line when determining what constitutes as propaganda, especially when comparing it with another form of information dissemination, such as documentaries. Betrand Russell claims that “propaganda may be defined as any attempt by means of persuasion, to enlist human beings on the side of one party to any dispute.” Although both war films do fall under this definition – both films were clearly an attempt to persuade people of the righteousness of fighting for or against the Nazis – this definition is not adequate in making this category exclusively descriptive of propaganda films. For example, most documentaries describe an ideology or viewpoint in a way that attempts to persuade the viewer to ascribe to their beliefs. By extension, newscasters, writers, political speakers, and even journalists may let their beliefs skew the way they present facts, consciously or subconsciously, in an effort to convert people to their system of beliefs. Ultimately, this fine line between propaganda and other forms of news dissemination is hard to distinctly define, and perhaps this lack of a firm definition casts propaganda in the same category as pornography – one will simply “know it when they see it.” -Amy
2. “The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we do not believe in is propaganda.” Edward Bernays
Edward Bernays definition of propaganda is not adequate enough to distinguish Capra’s and Riefenstahl’s films from documentaries or newsreels. However, I do agree with his belief that the distinction between propaganda and education is a subjective judgment.
The main problem with Bernays’ definition is that “what we believe in” is dependent on who “we” are. Thus Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” would have been considered an educational documentary by many Americans but would probably have been considered propaganda by many Germans. This idea of “what we believe in” is also dependent on the time period and public knowledge at that time. While Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” may have been more accepted by Germans as an educational documentary in the 1940s, now many Germans would consider Riegenstahl’s film to be a form of propaganda. Similarly, a film on global warming may have once been considered an educational documentary, but due to climategate many more Americans may change their opinion of the same film and see it as propagandistic.
However, unlike Russell’s and Webster’s definitions, Bernays definition of propaganda does imply that propaganda is a subjective judgment. I agree with this sentiment as it depends on who you are, what you believe in, what knowledge you have, when you are living, etc. This notion that propaganda is something that persuades a person in one direction or another is too simplistic as almost all films, especially documentaries, have some sort of message that they are presenting to audiences as the truth. Thus what distinguishes a documentary from propaganda is one’s own personal beliefs and perhaps the actions taken based on that film. -Rachel
According to the father of modern day PR, Edward Bernays, “The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we do not believe in is propaganda.” As the blood relative of Sigmund Freud, Bernays enlisted the social force of advertisements to effectively manipulate the subconscious desires and anxieties of his audience. Subsequently, the success of his methodological approach was adopted by the government to promote its war efforts, and provoke the psychological drafting of patriotism. However, by covertly labeling the military industrial complex’s coercive agenda “educational,” the ideological construction of “propaganda” was deemed a brain-washing tool elicited only by the enemy.
In relation to the two “educational documentaries” produced by the US War Department and the Third Reich, both Capra and Riefenstahl utilize Bernays’ negative connotation of propaganda to dehumanize the enemy. In “Why We Fight,” Capra illustrates the “treacherous” nature of the Nazis by contrasting images of the “peaceful, hardworking, and free” people of the neutral nations (ex: riding bikes and holding hands). One particular scene juxtaposes a time when refugee German orphans were raised and cared for by the kind Norwegians, to the triumphant marching of Nazi troops through Norway, “repaying kindness for terror.” By contrasting the good-natured neutral nations with Hitler’s “propaganda barrage” (a radio tower transmitting waves of “lies, lies, lies”), Capra elicits sympathy in order to capitalize the deceit-driven enemy. Similarly, the description of German naval infiltration (masked as innocent merchant ships) makes use of the commonly known allusion to the Trojan horse in order to strategically condemned the act as synonymous with “treachery” rather than credit the Germans with clever planning. In “Triumph of the Will,” Riefenstahl evokes nationalism by attributing Germany’s “rebirth” to the charismatic leadership of one man, Hitler. The film opens with the most beautiful sweeping landscapes of the clouds and ancient churches, as Hitler’s graceful landing is met with an enthusiastic welcoming of banners and smiling fans. Accompanied by a triumphant theme song, Hitler is paraded through the streets like a celebrity, shaking the hands of women and children while waving from an elegant black car. The unceasing procession of Hitler’s glorification exhibits Riefenstahl’s talent for persuasion.
The goal of education (whether in the form of a documentary or newsreel) is to objectively relay memories of the past; yet, the vocabulary and selective choice of images represented by both films appeals to the emotions of its viewers to strategically heighten fears toward the enemy and substitute anxiety with comfort, championing nation-specific heroes. -Erica
3. Propaganda is “dissemination of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” Webster’s Third International
Propaganda requires choosing a certain side of a situation that could potentially be viewed or supported in multiple ways. The method that propaganda is commonly manifested, as demonstrated in the two videos, is through rhetoric. The biased word choice of the US military video is quite poignant when viewed in an objective manner. The Nazis attack “cold-bloodedly” (5:14) and “prey upon”(5:20) “defenseless” (5:25) Denmark, which is thus “erased as a nation and the Danes go into slavery.” (5:45) All these underlined words are propaganda, because they add a subjective twist onto events that can be described in an objective manner. The Triumph des Willens also uses rhetoric to add a subjective emphasis by describing the “start of the German suffering” (1:02), and contrasting that to the “start of Germany’s rebirth” (1:12). The Webster’s Third International distinguishes propaganda from a documentary or a newsreel, because ideally a documentary or a newsreel is unbiased, and would not describe an attack as “cold-blooded” or the need for a nation to be “rebirth[ed].” Words like these have “the purpose of helping or injuring an institution,” and are therefore propaganda. For this reason, propaganda is not in the eye of the beholder, but is clear cut when word-choice is looked at carefully. -Zachary T.
Both of these films are clearly serving to portray a message. Capra works to portray the Germans as soulless villains while Riefenstahl attempts to capture Hitler’s power and popularity. But both of these films are based on (selective) historical events, and what film is not created with an intention to leave the viewer with some take away meaning? Is there a defining characteristic that separates propaganda from other historical and factual films? I find Webster’s definition particularly interesting. They claim propaganda is “dissemination of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” This definition focuses entirely on the intent of the person spreading information; relevance, completeness, and sense of context are not a factor. Thus, by this definition, today’s tabloids, constantly printing images and stories of today’s cultural icons to portray them in a very positive or very negative light, may be one of our greatest sources of propaganda. Additionally, we are bombarded by this type of propaganda in the form of advertisements constantly (“4 out of 5 women prefer our drug store shampoo to their expensive salon brand!”). However, this differs greatly from what is typically thought of as propaganda, films such as “Why We Fight” and “Triumph of the Will.” Although television commercials, tabloids, and these films are created with similar intentions – to build an image – in my opinion there is one crucial difference. In the grand scheme of things, it does not matter if Tiger Woods is or isn’t a sex addict or if Colgate really makes my teeth whiter than Crest. These facts, although perhaps interesting and in some ways relevant, are completely trivial when compared to matters related to war. It does indeed matter whether Capra or Riefenstahl leaves out details or embellishes the facts when persuading a nation to engage in war, where the ultimate consequence for many is death. Thus, Webster’s definition too broad. However another topic to discuss still remains: when it comes to subjects such as war, is there such a thing as unbiased news, or is it all propaganda? -Michelle L.