Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
Teaser Image


Title: There's work to be done - War Manpower Commission
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
Organized and usually emotional government campaigns employing print, film, and especially radio designed to persuade audiences of nefarious enemy actions while supporting one's own war effort. Propaganda as a modern psychological weapon of war was first systematically applied by all major combatants in World War I. With more modern media available—and a far clearer ideological conflict between democracy and fascism—propaganda became much more pervasive in World War II. Some was aimed domestically to encourage support for the war; the best-known efforts were directed at opponents.

The Axis Powers: Germany, Italy, and Japan

Germany's stellar propaganda efforts drew on Hitler's own experience of Allied propaganda during World War I. Recognizing the importance of a clear effort, Germany developed centralized control of all media from the beginning of the Nazi regime with the March 1933 creation of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which was headed by Joseph Goebbels. Initial efforts were largely domestic and soon included a steady beat of anti-Semitic and anti-Communist content. Another theme was how World War I had been lost not on the battlefield but thanks to subversion and internal collapse. By the late 1930s, propaganda focused on how others (such as Poland) had attacked Germany and on the "decadent" Slav people. There was also a steady building of the Hitler personality cult.

Two media were especially valuable to Goebbels—radio and dramatic films and newsreels. Epitomized by The Triumph of the Will (1935), Leni Riefenstahl's heroic film portrayal of the Nazi Party's 1934 Nuremberg rally, sound, Wagnerian music, and dramatic photography combined to illustrate Germany's growing might. Likewise, shortwave radio, including the use of turncoat broadcasters such as "Lord Haw Haw" and "Axis Sally," was invaluable in attempts to weaken enemy morale and soften up target countries before and during attacks. Film and radio helped promote the power of German arms on land, on the sea, and in the air, as did bright poster art and printed media. Germany's propaganda was clearly the most effective and cohesive of any belligerent in the war.

Italian efforts were more for internal consumption and dated to the beginning of Benito Mussolini's regime in 1922. Marshaling all media, the fascist movement was pictured as reviving the glorious days of Imperial Rome. Central to that message was (as in Germany) building a cult around the maximum leader, Mussolini.

Japan's approach to propaganda, or what its leadership termed "thought war," centered on the conception of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. This economic empire backed by Japanese arms was described as liberating Asia for Asians as old colonial powers (Britain, France, the Netherlands) were beaten back. The glory of empire was personified again, this time in the role of the virtually godlike emperor.

Given the distances covered by Japan's conquests, at their height stretching from the borders of India to the mid-Pacific, Japan relied on extensive use of shortwave radio, and "Tokyo Rose" and others broadcasted directly to American troops. Internal propaganda emphasized Japanese victories and expansion even when that was no longer true. Japanese listeners were thus stunned when they first heard Emperor Hirohito call for an end to hostilities in August 1945, having had no idea of the true direction of the war for the previous two years.

The Allies: Britain, United States, and Soviet Union

Allied propaganda efforts began as a response to Axis messages. The British drew lessons from their World War I experience and again divided internal and external propaganda operations. The former involved considerable reliance on media cooperation with authorities rather than government orders. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's government established a Ministry of Information (January 1940) under former British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) director general Sir John Reith. Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill appointed Duff Cooper in May 1940 and then Brendan Bracken, a journalist and close political associate, in July 1941. Although there was some clumsy initial censorship, the ministry found its feet as the war took hold. Churchill also established a Political Warfare Executive (September 1941) to direct propaganda aimed at enemy countries. These efforts included massive leaflet drops from bombers and effective use of BBC news and other broadcasts.

Themes evident in print, film, and radio propaganda emphasized that all Britons were in the war together. "We" might be "standing alone" but "London can take it." These and similar themes helped to rally domestic support even at the height of the Blitz. In its 4,000 theaters, Britain made excellent use of hundreds of motion pictures, including both features and short news items. Some were screened in the United States to encourage U.S. support of Britain's fight. The BBC played a central role, including broadcasting Churchill's persuasive and gripping speeches. Churchill and others made use of the "V for Victory" appeals from early 1941 to mid-1942 and succeeded in covering Europe with the painted sign or Morse Code signal ( . . .–).

Through 1941, the United States remained heavily isolationist and wary of foreign propaganda, given the World War I campaign that had helped lure the nation into the war. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and several initial organizational attempts, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the Office of War Information (OWI) in June 1942 under respected radio news commentator Elmer Davis. OWI established domestic and overseas sections, the latter eventually becoming the Voice of America.

American propaganda themes emphasized Roosevelt's Four Freedoms (of speech and worship, and from fear or want). Messages promoted military victories combined with some censorship. That the efforts of women were needed to back the fighting men was evident in posters featuring "Rosie the Riveter" and in Hollywood films that presented a positive view of the war. Frank Capra's seven-film "Why We Fight" series comprised some of the best wartime documentaries made. Films by John Ford and John Huston, among others, and wartime application of famous cartoon characters and comic book heroes all contributed to the effort. Commercial radio broadcasts incorporated the war effort in nearly all drama, variety, and music programs.

Soviet Russia remained largely neutral in the propaganda wars until the German invasion on 22 June 1941. Then messages focused on the Russian "motherland" and traditional values, historical victories (as over Napoleon), and the once-vilified Russian Orthodox Church. All were combined in propaganda depicting Stalin as architect of victory in the "Great Patriotic War." Soviet authorities made good use of documentary and news film in major cities but relied on posters in rural regions.

Christopher H. Sterling

Further Reading
Balfour, Michael. Propaganda in War: 1939–1945—Organizations, Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany. London: Routledge, 1979.; Cull, Nicholas John. Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign against American "Neutrality" in World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.; De Mendelssohn, Peter. Japan's Political Warfare. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1944.; Laurie, Clayton D. The Propaganda Warriors: America's Crusade against Nazi Germany. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.; Rupp, Leila J. Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.; Short, K. R. M., ed. Film and Radio Propaganda in World War II. London: Croom Helm, 1983.; Welch, David. The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. London: Routledge, 1993.; Winkler, Allan M. The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942–1945. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
  Documents Prior to 1938
  1939 Documents
  1940 Documents
  1941 Documents
  1942 Documents
  1943 Documents
  1944 Documents
  1945 Documents
ABC-cLIO Footer