The Complexity of The Term “Propaganda”.
Watching the two documentaries The Nazis Strike, in Why We Fight and Triumph of the Will in consecutive order made me have a newfound realization of the complex definition of the term “propaganda”. In The Nazis Strike, the documentary I watched first, I began the viewing experience focusing on the fact that this documentary would consist of elements of propaganda. For me, propaganda has always had a negative connotation attached to it, understandably so, as the first images that appear in my mind are of Fascist Nazi propaganda and Communist Soviet Union propaganda that I have studied in school, researched in my own time, seen in blockbuster films and read in books. However, watching this documentary in particular, I couldn’t help but feel naturally connected to its message it resonated in its narratives as a call to action to join the fight against the toxic and invasive Nazi regime.
I tried to put myself in the position of a young man, with a similar age to me, back in the late 1930’s when WWII began and these documentaries were created by governments to educate their citizens on world conflicts. Although I have seen countless WWII documentaries, movies, TV shows and YouTube videos in my lifetime and consider myself to have the same knowledge of the event as the average Canadian and world citizen, there were plenty of aspects of the viewing experience that I felt were new to me. The documentary’s comparison of the raging imperialist Nazi regime to that of the Gengis Khan empire was a particularly interesting example of a new perspective on the war, as well as the idea that the Nazi’s sent their citizens abroad in the form of tourists, international students and commercial travellers around the world, to spread the Nazi ideology, as well as the possible hint toward them also acting as political spies. Up until now I never heard of this happening, and I still don’t know how widespread this strategy was, but I couldn’t help but feel that this focus within the documentary couldn’t have helped the many German-Canadians who were faced with prejudice and discrimination during these years.
I have always viewed everyday Germans who lived in Nazi Germany as relatively “trapped citizens”, or as eventual brainwashed followers who were also victims of the war and Hitler’s reign of terror. To see the documentary take this angle by putting suspicion on the German population as a whole, was the first time while watching that I felt as though the film had some element of propaganda in it. Nonetheless, I would say that I was affected and significantly shaken by the film, as it was intended to do at the time, and I reacted emotionally with tears to the heartbreaking scenes of Poland being bombed and invaded by the Nazis. I finished the documentary feeling saddened, moved and angry about these crimes of war and the perpetrators who committed them. I also felt proud of the resistance that the Polish people put up against the invasion. Still, I felt conflicted from the experience, as I knew this documentary was being used to prompt viewers at the time to join forces and fight in the war, which is something I feel personally torn by, as I am anti-war, but also pro-peace. I do, however, accept the reality that the Nazi’s had to be stopped through force.
Upon walking away from the viewing experience, I felt a sudden change in my previously hardened perception towards propaganda. Perhaps not all propaganda is inherently evil? This seemed like a radical thought in these moments after watching the film, as I realized that perhaps propaganda in a time of actual evil doing, to defend victims from this clear evil, might actually be necessary to bring peace to the world. Afterwards, I read the Foundational Principles of the Propaganda Theory. I read almost the exact same thing in regards to how early theorists used the term propaganda, as there was an intention to use it to educate the general public on crimes against humanity and undemocratic government behaviour in foreign parts of the world. It led me to think, are the many YouTube documentary videos on world affairs, events and conflicts forms of propaganda also? Upon really thinking about what the term propaganda entails, I am highly doubtful that the majority of these videos I am referring to could even remotely be propaganda. I would never consider the ethical and unbiased forms of journalism depicting a real life situation in the world to be any form of propaganda, but perhaps as technology and the level of education around the world has improved and evolved, propaganda holds such negative connotations today because some authoritative governments who censor freedom of information and speech still use it to persuade and convince citizens who cannot access real information themselves.
I then watched Triumph of the Will, which was an experience that I can only compare to as the sort of propaganda that I have always associated the term with. The film is an exhausting, relentless and repetitive exercise in depicting the Nazi rise as one of a strengthening of a “suffering” community, the bonding between young adolescent male and female German citizens and a cult-like summoning of an angry, impressionable and fanatic general public. While this film was intended to attract Germans to the Nazi cause, I think more than anything it was used to try to transport viewers to the Nazi rallies themselves as the film had essentially no plot, story arc or anything quite recognizably cinematic. It was instead, a virtual Nazi demonstration. Rather this form of propaganda being used to create a functioning democratic society, as the term was sometimes considered to be defined as at the time, represents itself as a corrupt, hateful version with the same call-to-action intention. However, in Triumph of the Will it was instead used by an authoritative and tyrannical government to try to light a fire under their helpless citizens to join the cause out of fear, or instead flee and leave the country, as the spiteful message was obvious, it was essentially join and obey or die.