by Irving Silverman
In WWII both Germany and the Allies used propaganda/war movies to help their war effort, but there were major differences in their respective approaches and uses.
While both sides believed they had a just cause for their fight in this war, when it came to trying to prove it with documentary films, the course of the war itself made it harder for Germany and easier for the Allies. The Germans used propaganda documentaries to show not only why they were fighting, but also why they expected to win the war. Their master race theory and the need to expand the nation controlled every event and every use of propaganda, especially in films.
The Allies, at first Britain, and then America, showed why they had to win the war. It was not good enough to show just the fighting. The important message was what would happen if the Allies did not win the war.
In Britain and America there was no one person in complete control of this industry. It was done through military/government agencies with individual directors who were given a certain amount of freedom to choose their topics. In America, the famous director Frank Capra was chosen to direct the most important series, "Why We Fight", to explain the war. In Germany, the Ministry of People's Enlightment and Propaganda chief, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, was in complete control; from assignments to editing and distribution. And when Goebbels wanted something done he usually got his way. There were very few people who could or would defy his orders.
In 1934, about one year after Adolf Hitler came to power, there was the first serious attempt to document Germany's renewal as an important nation in Europe and the world. "Triumph Of the Will" (1934) was directed by Leni Rienfenstahl and it showed how Hitler was preparing Germany for war. While it did not show the strength of the newly forming military, it did show how the people were enthralled by Hitler. But this movie was not under Goebbels' control. Riefenstahl, by 1934, had already become very famous in Germany and she was able to avoid Goebbels only because she had an even more important fan, Hitler. After some initial work for the Nazi Party, with Goebbels interfering in the operations, Riefenstahl "told Hitler of the obstacles she had encountered ... (and) he was angry over Goebbels' interferences and ordered her to make the film of the 1934 rally ..." and guaranteed her the independence that she wanted. This movie ended up being a classic in the field of propaganda. But Goebbels was determined never to let anyone else ever get the credit again.
Goebbels now made sure that everyone working in the media followed the Party's line, and that also included the film makers. Of whom many would end up using their talents to document the war with the help of Germany's technological advances in cameras, Leica; lenses, Carl Zeiss; and film, AGFA. With these improvements they would be able to film real scenes under harsh conditions and fluctuating lighting sources due to battle effects like smoke and fire. 'During the war the Propaganda Ministry employed over four hundred cameramen to maintain the image of a great and victorious German nation.' by making newsreels of what was happening. The ministry formed them into an organization; 'the Propaganda Companies to serve ... from the battlefronts. Film cameramen, reporters and commentators were mobilized into a general pool under military discipline ...' And according to Goebbels, they were both soldiers and cameramen, doing one job for the nation. 'Propaganda-Kompanien (PK for short). Teams of cameramen and journalists seconded to the armed forces. The PK's, armed ... were supposed to represent a "new kind of reporter" who, in Goebbels' words "Besides a pistol and a hand grenade ... carries other weapons: the film camera ..." ' And they suffered just like the rest of the military.
On the land, in the air, and on and under the seas these German cameramen followed the war. As Goebbels recorded in his diaries: 'In the evening I receive six cameramen from the Propaganda Companies, who have just returned from active service on all fronts. They have seen and done a lot, and are able to tell the most interesting stories." But while doing their double duty for their Fatherland they also had to endure double the risks. It was one thing to expose yourself for a brief moment in battle to try and kill your enemy; but to leave yourself vulnerable throughout most of a battle in order to get the best shot might get yourself shot instead. These cameramen had to be either very brave or very foolhardy, or very obeying of commands, but in any case they got the job done. They were totally involved in the fighting and there was 'no segregation for the war reporters ... and their casualties were heavy.' And some of them were rewarded for their actions. On October 23, 1939, after the invasion of Poland, Goebbels met ' with eight holders of the Iron Cross from the Propaganda Companies.' But even after all their efforts what they documented was not propaganda. The stock footage had to be selectively edited to make sure that only the proper images would be seen.
While Goebbels appreciated the propaganda capabilities of the various media; newspapers and radio, especially before the war, ' it was upon the film that Goebbels relied for his most effective propaganda. ... He realized how important it was to develop a strong newsreel, documentary and instructional film service ... .' Goebbels really enjoyed this part of his propaganda work. This was seen in his diaries in which hardly a day went by without a preview of the latest newsreel or film production. ' Goebbels previewed every issue of the newsreels that he could, and every major production of the feature studios. In addition ... , he viewed foreign films, particularly those which he had forbidden release in Germany. He saw every anti-Nazi film of which he could obtain a print. ... He looked at these films ... as good or bad examples of propaganda.' But it was with the newsreels that Goebbels saw real potential for propaganda. In fact, he ordered ' a few cameramen from the Propaganda Companies to be placed at my disposal. I shall use them for special tasks.' The special tasks were the continuation of thought control amongst the German people, especially the youth, and the people in occupied and soon to be occupied nations.
These newsreel clips were quite often compiled into documentary propaganda movies. One such film was "Baptism Of Fire"(1940). Here the film makers ' used the method of building up shots of conquest and destruction to paeans of Wagnerian music and sardonic commentary ... (that) mocks at Chamberlain for the futility of his decision to support the Poles ... .' To help make sure that Germany's message got through to foreign audiences, Goebbels arranged for these films to have ' prestige screenings at the German embassies in those countries which Germany hoped to bring under her power ... . The aim of these films was to impress rather than to inform, in fact to blackmail the audience into a bloodless surrender.' And they also went beyond future European victims. ' German agents, where ever they could, pressed them into distribution in the neutral countries (and) to Latin America for immediate release to neutral cinemas.' While in Germany this movie ' was shown simultaneously in 55 movie houses in Berlin and throughout the Reich. Mobile film vans took it to remote villages which lacked movie theaters.' The effort that Goebbels went through on the production and distribution of these movies was an indication of their importance.
But while the German authorities believed in the movies' importance, it was not always easy to get the message across to an audience. To get the impression across that these movies were important, Germany passed a law ' forbidding anyone from leaving or entering a theater during the showing of a war documentary.' This law was originally for German audiences, but it later was also applied to the audiences in occupied Europe. In these nations the Germans also had to deal with people who tried to interrupt the showings. ' These demonstrations ... grew to such proportions that the authorities ... were quick to insist that while newsreels were being projected some ... lights should remain ... on so that the agitators could be more easily identified.' The Germans had a good reason to try and show these movies. They were trying to prevent any hostile actions by the occupied peoples from occurring.
But it was not in occupied Europe where Germany focused the brunt of her propaganda. It was in Germany, for the ' mobilization and maintenance of fighting morale among both troops and civilian population.' But the Germans were not alone in the need to build up morale, the Allies needed to follow a similar idea also. ' Though of course the maintenance of wartime morale was an aim common to both systems, the task of the British propaganda apparatus was (built) upon the general acceptance of a just and necessary war in defense of existing values.' These values were a firm belief in democracy and religion. And these beliefs definitely applied to the Americans when they were forced to enter the war.
The Americans firmly believed that God was on the side of democracy. That even though Germany still had people who had a faith in God; God could not possibly condone their barbaric acts of war. But because of some strong disagreements over the war, the American government had to form a symbol, a rallying cause for the public. The need to fight to save democracy and show the enemy as the worst form of evil became that symbol. So when America went to war in WWII they fought because ' Americans adhere to honorable rules of conduct based in morality.' And their documentary propaganda/war films were made exactly for that reason. But here the Americans came across a similar problem that Germany had. How to make sure that the public was getting the message. In a democracy the government can not put a gun to a person's head and force them to watch and listen. Nor could they bribe the audience because there would still be no guarantee that the people would understand what they are supposed to be watching. So it became ' reasonable to suppose that unless that ... influence is repeated time and again it will have little if any permanent effect on the audience.' To assure this, a continuous series of movies would have to be made to make sure that the public would be exposed to the same message throughout the course of the war.
These types of movies were made to boost morale. The army had always worried about this problem and WWII was no exception. They tried various ways to instill the need to fight, but none seemed to work very well. After some American officials had seen "Triumph Of the Will", the idea that movies might do the trick became the next approach. Capra was given the job of answering the threats to freedom that the German movie showed. He knew that he needed one simple idea that every American could understand and he found it in the Bible. Just one sentence that could change the war. ' Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.' But Capra still wondered if it would and could work. He then realized that the actions of the enemy could prove he was right. ' Let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause - and the justness of ours.' These actions were recorded for posterity by the German newsreel makers and found in their propaganda movies. All Capra had to do was view thousands of feet of film and choose the best of the beastly scenes.
While at first these movies were made only for viewing by the military, the first movie in the "Why We Fight" series, "Prelude To War"(1942) was viewed by President Roosevelt who then stated that: ' Every man, woman, and child must see this film (and) that army chief of staff General George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson were as eager ... for the general distribution of "Prelude To War".' There was a very wide scope to this film which covered much history. And this was purposely done to allow for scenes that were put in to reinforce the Christian moralities that America was fighting for. This was shown when the average American citizen, John Q., was shown to have the right to go to any church he wanted to. While this was a very patriotic movie it also summed up the answer to the series title. Anyone who had seen this movie had to now know "Why We Fight".
The answer was shown through the we and them; white and black; good and evil process. The good guys wore the white hat; loved and respected freedom while the enemy, the bad guys, wore the black hat and enslaved people. Capra even went so far as to dramatically illustrate this point at both the start and the end of the film. He used two animated globes revolving in space, one white, the other black. With both representing our world and what could happen to it. Which way would the world turn? To a black, evil life of repression or to the white, good life of Christianity. The answer would depend on the course of the war. This movie series emphasized America's historical attitude towards morality.
During WWII both Germany and America depended, to a certain degree, on documentary propaganda/war movies. While they both tried to maintain the morale of their nation, the German use of fear tactics to try and enforce their ideas just could not work forever. Once Germany began to lose the war it eventually became clear to most Germans that they were lied to by their government. By 1944 only the most die-hard Nazi could still believe Goebbels' propaganda. On the other hand, in America, it became easier because they were winning and the government did not have to cover up any big lie. So the major difference ended up being that truth wins out over lies when justice prevails.
Richard Meran Barsam, "Triumph Of the Will" (1975)
BBC TV: Art In the Third Reich - The Propaganda Machine (1989)
Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, "Doctor Goebbels"(1960)
Fred Taylor, "The Goebbels Diaries 1939-1941"(1982)
Anthony Rhodes, "Propaganda"(1976)
David Welch, "Nazi Propaganda"(1983)
Kathryn Kane, "Visions Of War"(1982)
Douglas Waples, "Print, Radio And Film In A Democracy"(1942)
Frank Capra,"Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title"(1971)
Bernard F. Dick, "The Star-Spangled Screen"(1985)