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The Man Behind Hitler | Article

World War II Propaganda

USHMM, Courtesy of Library of Congress

"The essence of propaganda consists in winning people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that in the end they succumb to it utterly and can never again escape from it," wrote Joseph Goebbels in his diary. Adolph Hitler agreed. Following the Nazis' rise to power in 1933, he established a Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda with Goebbels as its head. Goebbels promoted the Nazi message through art, music, theater, films, books, radio, and the press, and censored all opposition. Goebbels worked to inflame the anger of Germans over their defeat in World War I and emphasized German cultural and military achievements to boost national pride. He played an important role in creating an atmosphere in Germany that made it possible for the Nazis to commit terrible atrocities against Jews and other minorities.

War and Propaganda
During World War II German propaganda emphasized the prowess of the German army and contrasted it with the British and Allied armies who were depicted as cowards and butchers, or brave but misguided. Russian troops were presented as dehumanized beasts and killers who attacked without fear of death. After the Nazi loss at Stalingrad in February 1943, Goebbels admitted recent losses and argued for total war in his famous Sportpalast speech. While the new strategy prolonged the war, Goebbels recognized that his efforts were failing. A month before his suicide in Berlin, he took note of the Allied propaganda being directed back at him. "Enemy propaganda is beginning to have an uncomfortably noticeable effect on the German people. Anglo-American leaflets are now no longer carelessly thrown aside but are read attentively; British broadcasts have a grateful audience."

British Propaganda
The radio broadcasts were the handiwork of the British Political Warfare Executive (P.W.E.), created by Winston Churchill in 1941 to disseminate propaganda that would damage enemy morale. The British Broadcasting Company's foreign language broadcasts became a key element in the Allied campaign for German loyalties. By 1945 the British had established more than 40 clandestine pseudo-German radio stations using powerful American transmitters. The P.W.E. also delivered subversive messages to the German people through so-called black propaganda, printed postcards and leaflets dropped behind enemy lines. Though a product of Hollywood, William Wyler's award-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942) portrayed the struggle on the British home front and glorified Britain's resolve to fight. The film ended with a rousing sermon in a bombed-out church: "This is the people's war. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it, then. Fight it with all that is in us, and may God defend the right." United States President Franklin Roosevelt found the speech so inspiring that he had it printed and airdropped over the European front.

American Propaganda
The Office of War Information (O.W.I.) was the source of such propaganda in the U.S. In 1941 most Americans, especially those who remembered World War I, were still isolationist, believing that their country should rebuild following the Great Depression, not fight a distant war. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, most were convinced to support the war, but Roosevelt created the O.W.I. in 1942 to boost wartime production at home and undermine enemy morale in Europe, Asia, and Africa. OWI photographers documented aspects of homefront life and culture such as women in the workforce, and dealt with a wide array of morale issues such as the question of using Japanese Americans as soldiers, and "subversive activities" like the Los Angeles zoot suit riots.

Highly Visible Messages
Other propaganda came in the form of posters, movies, and even cartoons. Inexpensive, accessible, and ever-present in schools, factories, and store windows, posters helped to mobilize Americans to war. A representative poster encouraged Americans to "Stop this Monster that Stops at Nothing. PRODUCE to the Limit!" It depicted a monster with two heads, one Nazi, one Japanese, clutching the Statue of Liberty in one hand and fending off American advances with the other. Nearby a hand holds a wrench with the inscription "production" -- the key to winning the war.

Movies and Cartoons
While most propaganda aimed to boost patriotism, some took on racist overtones. Director Frank Capra produced seven films called Why We Fight, which portrayed Germany, Italy and Japan as nations of inhuman murderers. As World War II progressed, the O.W.I. had a hand in Hollywood, which churned out patriotic films such as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) with James Cagney, Pin-Up Girl (1944) with Betty Grable as a USO entertainer, and Anchors Aweigh (1945) with Gene Kelly as a dancing sailor. Even cartoon characters got into the act. Warner Brothers sent Popeye and Bugs Bunny to fight the Japanese, while Disney released a short showing Donald Duck incapacitating Hitler with a ripe tomato. The war, movies and cartoons did their part to keep Americans focused on the war effort, even as they were being entertained. The Allied forces fought long and hard against the Nazis in the air and on the ground, but also with the powerful tool of propaganda.

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