In the introduction to his article, “The Paradoxes of Propaganda,” John Brown discusses a rather famous Nazi-era film—widely considered to be propaganda—called Triumph of the Will. Propaganda is one of those terms that often get lumped in with public diplomacy, but in fact there are key differences, both in their purpose and practice.
Today, propaganda is nearly used as a pejorative, a one-sided tool to persuade publics through manipulation, symbols and tricky language. Public diplomacy, on the other hand, is a means of explanation (without necessarily feeding conclusions), and can involve not only an output, but a listening and responding component as well (Melissen, The New Public Diplomacy, 2005).
Triumph of the Will was largely a domestic success, but was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response outside of Germany; Brown explains that such blatant and obvious propaganda could create “deep popular hostility toward the propagandists who are seen as the perpetrators of lies.” The lesson of Triumph? Sometimes, the best propaganda doesn’t look like propaganda.
Nonetheless, this type of propaganda could—and would—have serious historical consequences. This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and this year will mark similar anniversaries for concentration camps all over Europe. It marks the anniversary of when the world was first beginning to truly uncover the extent of Nazi crimes against humanity, document them and vow ‘Never Again.’ When General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his troops discovered Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchchenwald, in April 1945, he radioed back to Washington:
In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda’ (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Ohrdruf”, 2014)
Eisenhower also requested to bring journalists over to document what he found and bring it to public attention. The resulting reporting and photographs, while not specifically intended to be propaganda, do in fact represent yet another example of Brown’s paradoxes of propaganda: The photographs of liberated concentration camp survivors were certainly not meant to propagandize in the style of Triumph of the Will, but that may be what made them most powerful and effective.
Normally, propaganda is one of those words that leave a nasty taste in peoples’ mouths, but as J. Michael Sproule notes in Channels of Propaganda, “society exempts propaganda from condemnation when social influence is perceived to be in the general interest” (1994). There were no agendas with these photographs—that’s part of their effectiveness as not necessarily anti-Nazi, but pro-humanity.
It is important to be aware of the difference between propaganda and public diplomacy; one involves listening, communicating and explaining policies, while the other involves forcing a message. As the photos and film of concentration camps show, propaganda can influence a society to dangerous ends. While propaganda may have helped spur the events that would lead to the Holocaust, good public diplomacy can perhaps help ensure it never does again.
With increasing anti-Semitic sentiments and physical attacks toward Jews making a comeback in Europe, as well as an ongoing undercurrent of Holocaust denial in the Middle East, this is a relevant topic more than ever. A timely Holocaust documentary, Night Will Fall, is finally seeing the light of day this year almost seven decades after it was originally commissioned by the British government, then shelved due to Cold War politics.
Unlike with public diplomacy, one of Brown’s paradoxes about propaganda was that one must hate it to do it well; filming the aftermath of a state-sanctioned attempt at genocide was certainly no easy task. Documentation like this may not work like propaganda in the traditional sense, but that’s part of its paradoxical beauty.
Miriam Smallman is a junior studying journalism at The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.