Published Date

July 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 2: What Is Propaganda? (1944)

Whether the propagandist works in a peacetime or wartime situation, he uses certain tools to mobilize opinions and attitudes. What are these tools?

An important one is suggestion. Another word for it is stimulation.

The propagandist tries to stimulate others to accept without challenge his own assertions, or to act as he wants them to do. The idea of using suggestion or stimulation as a propaganda device is that it will lead a public to accept a proposition even though there are not logical grounds for accepting it. The propagandist usually tries to side-step critical reactions from his audience, and therefore suggestion is one of his most important tools.

How does the propagandist use this tool? By making broad and positive statements. By presenting his statements in simple and familiar language. By refusing to admit, or even suggest, that there is another side to the question. Hitler’s brutal and direct suggestion that the Jews sold out the German people in World War I—the “stab in the back,” the Nazi propagandists called it—is an example of this kind of propaganda. Another example is the repeated Nazi propagandist assertion that Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt are “warmongers.”

Suggestion is a highly developed art in commercial advertising. An obvious example is the flat declaration that some brand of vitamin will remedy “that tired and run-down feeling.”

A second propaganda tool is only a subtler form of suggestion. This tool is the use of hints, insinuations, or indirect statements.

An example or two from the field of advertising will illustrate this method. The sponsorship of a symphony orchestra by a commercial company may be expected to create a feeling of good will on the part of the listener toward the product of the sponsor. Sometimes programs designed to portray the life and culture of another country are propagandistic in nature, designed to “sell” that country to listeners in a home country.

A third method of propaganda is the appeal to the known desires of an audience. Psychologists say that desire is an important factor in belief. Thus some persons may support some unsound economic scheme because they desire an income in their old age. Others will subscribe to some fraudulent “scheme of psychology” in order to improve their “personality.”

The self-interested propagandist will study public opinion to find out what things people are “for” or “against” in order to decide on the labels that he will use to bring about desired reactions. He knows that such words as “justice,” “Constitution,” “Americanism,” and “law and order,” which arouse favorable attitudes, will serve as a favorable background for his message, and so he uses them. On the other hand, he may use certain other words—for example, “radical” or “un-American”—to influence his listeners to reject a cause or idea that he regards as inimical to his own interests.

Hitler is adept and completely unscrupulous in appealing to various groups in Germany. There has been little consistency in his appeals, but there have been many suggested cure-alls for discontented or unhappy groups. The insincerity of the Nazi performance is revealed in the statement of a careful student who says, “National Socialism has no political or social theory. It has no philosophy and no concern for the truth. In a given situation it will accept any theory that might prove useful and it will abandon that theory as soon as the situation changes. … National Socialism is for agrarian reform and against it, for private property and against it, for idealism and against it.”

The advertising man appeals to desire in the interest of his client. The desire to be strong and healthy, to be socially acceptable, to be beautiful, sells drug products, cosmetics, reducing preparations, soaps, perfumes. Anyone who is accustomed to reading advertisements will instantly recall dozens of illustrations of appeals to such desires used to promote a wide variety of products.

The skilled propagandist also knows the techniques of “making ideas stick.” It is because of this knowledge that he resorts to key words and slogans, shibboleths, or other symbolic forms.

The advertising slogan packs meaning into short sentences. The purpose is to get them noticed. They will find their way into the minds of people. When a person is choosing a commodity to buy, it is expected that the slogan will come easily to the surface of his mind. A good many years ago advertisers discovered that “reason-why” appeals were not always effective. Appeals were shortened and emotionalized, since many readers will not wade through explanations of why one commodity is better than another.

The history of international political propaganda, the experts tell us, is full of examples of the use of striking slogans. For example, “the sick man of the Golden Horn” was used as a description of the former Turkish Empire. In Hitler’s name-calling techniques, the democratic nations are called “Pluto-democracies.” While seeking power he used the campaign cry: “The Versailles Treaty is a monstrous lie.” Under Mussolini, the Fascists were fond of such slogans as “a book and a rifle make a perfect Fascist” and “a plough makes a furrow but a sword defends it.”

Though the Nazi propaganda both inside and outside Germany has been marked by terror, this is not a common characteristic of slogans and symbols. No one could challenge such Red Cross slogans as “All you need is a heart and a dollar.” No one could question the socially minded impulse behind the Salvation Army slogan, “A man may be down but he’s never out.” Compelling slogans have been devised to win support for war relief, community help, and many other such activities.

Sometimes slogans have fired the imaginations of people in the past and continued their influence down to the present. One authority suggests that if a slogan catches correctly and objectively “the underlying forces in a critical situation,” it may turn out to be “vital and lasting.” We remember such striking slogans as “No Taxation without Representation” from the American Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” from the French Revolution, and “Peace, Bread, and Land” from the Russian Revolution.

Propaganda makes use of slogans, but it also makes effective use of symbols. A symbol is a concrete representation of air idea, action, or thing—a sign that stands for something, as crossed rifles stand for the Infantry and as wings and propeller represent the Air Forces.

A symbol can be a word, a mark, an object, a song, a flag, an image, a picture, a statue, or some collective or grouped representation—anything that conveys a common thought to masses of people. A symbol is a kind of cement that holds together a social group.

The propagandist knows the art of working with symbols. He uses symbols to develop both favorable and unfavorable attitudes.

Symbol usage will create likenesses that are used much as a stenographer uses shorthand. Cartoonists have stereotyped symbols to represent the taxpayer, the college professor, and many others. One cartoonist pictured the “prohibitionist” as a tall, thin, long-nosed, black-garbed figure in a plug hat, and others portrayed the saloonkeeper as a very fat, barrel-like figure. The “capitalist” was once pictured as a huge diamond-studded man wearing a suit covered with dollar signs.

There is some reason to believe that in the past half century there has been a decrease in the number of popular symbols used in the Western nations. But a vast amount of symbolism has been created by the fascist, Nazi, and communist states.

The Nazis made their symbols so unmistakable and conspicuous that if any German omitted to display or use them, he would be quickly detected. These symbols, you will recall, included the Nazi salute, the swastika, and a lot of titles, badges, and uniforms. “Hitler himself,” writes one authority, “must have his own title, denied by special edict to all other leaders, and he won great popular approval, after the death of Hindenburg, by pretending that the title President was altogether too august for him.”

The use of “non-Aryan” as a symbol by Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy was a demagogic device to encourage the persecution of minority scapegoats who were neither numerous nor powerful enough to resist the violent tactics of the Nazi propagandists and Nazi terrorists.

Catchwords and slogans abound in Nazi propaganda, contrived for the sake of impressing the German people. The Nazis are fond of such important and high-sounding words and phrases as “immutable,” “imperishable,” and “for all future time.” Opportunists, they are quick to discard a slogan when it has served its purpose. Then new ones are coined and must be on all German lips.

The chief symbol used to inspire the Japanese civilian and fighting man is the emperor. The Japanese higher-ups maintain their internal power by making a god of their emperor—emphasizing his alleged descent from the sun god. This symbol of the emperor as god is used to stimulate the fighting effectiveness of soldiers and sailors. The Japanese, in their propaganda attacks on Americans and British, play up the symbol “white exploiter.” They disguise Japanese imperialism behind the symbol of “co-prosperity” in their efforts to win converts among the brown and yellow races.


The Japs Call It “Co-Prosperity”

Another technique used by the propagandist is the prestige element in human relations.

The psychologists are not agreed as to the extent to which attitudes and opinions can be propagated by prestige, but it seems certain that prestige does play an important role. The influence the parent has over his child, for example, can be traced in part to the prestige of an adult-in size, strength, knowledge, and power.

Some individuals or groups resent expert opinion and are unwilling to respond to the suggestions made by fact-finders and scientists. But there seems to be no doubt that in politics prestige is a decided factor. A poll of men whose biographies were included in Who’s Who was used, for instance, in a political campaign some years ago to indicate that persons described as “superior and influential” were mainly on the side of one party and candidate. The prestige of businessmen has been a factor in political campaigns, especially in times of prosperity.

In wartime, belligerents stress the prestige of their military and political leadership. Sometimes this prestige is increased by legends, which are another means of influencing the attitudes of people. Usually legends are built up around a core of truth, but the end result may be like a character from fiction. The legends of Ulysses, Roland, and Siegfried, for example, grew up around mighty warriors. Whether legends are deliberately created or not, there can be no doubt that they are accepted and believed by many people, and so they influence the conduct of people. Someone has said that “masses of mankind live in these images” or legends.

Hitler, Mussolini, and their followers have been industrious mythmakers. The near-deification of Hitler by the Nazis and the technique of mass hypnotism of the Germans are things that we, as a democratic people, find it very difficult to understand. To us it is incredible that a fanatical, intense, uneducated Munich agitator, unschooled in economics and politics, should be exalted by mass appeals and terroristic tactics into an all-powerful and “infallible” leader, “Der Führer,” who exacts unquestioned obedience from his people. This “infallibility” that the Nazis have credited to Hitler is bluntly expressed in the words of Robert Ley, the director of the Nazi Labor Front. “Germany must obey like a well-trained soldier,” he said. “The Führer, Adolf Hitler, is always right.”

Why did large sections of the German public come to accept this legend of the Munich agitator? One historian thinks that it was because millions of Germans were yearning for “an end of all thought, will, or action on their own part in the conduct of their own affairs.” The idea of a Führer, he believes, expressed their satisfaction in having found a leader who to them was “a symbol of absolute authority, a Great Father, a patriarch-ruler who can be worshipped as an all-wise Messiah, bringing solace and salvation to his sorely tried children.” Hitler took “all responsibility for their own welfare.” What they had to do was to give him “implicit faith and blind subordination.”

Next section: Some Limitations of Propaganda