Their Propaganda vs. Our Propaganda
The novel I’m writing now focuses on the Eastern European experience during World War II. As I near the end of the initial draft, I keep discovering many new, untold stories of brutality, tragedy, and triumph. In many ways, it has been heartbreaking, but certainly both eye-opening and uplifting. It has been an amazing exploration of history that frankly, I knew very little about.
One of the reasons I chose to write about Eastern Europe, and Lithuania in particular, relates to two visits I made to the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania in 1990/1991.
I traveled with a delegation of Weber State University students, including (oddly enough) current Utah Speaker of the House, Brad Wilson. (see the photo to the right...my my wasn't he young looking!)
When we were there, we had the rare opportunity to interview Jouzas Urpsys, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister who was forced to negotiate with both Hitler and Stalin.
On the occasion of his last meeting with Stalin, Urpsys was threatened with an imminent Soviet attack unless he accepted the ultimatum to allow Soviet troops to occupy Lithuania. Seeing no other option, Urpsys signed the document, then sat next to Stalin and chatted over dinner. The next day, Stalin arrested Urpsys and sent him to a gulag where he spent the next 13 years in solitary confinement.
Juozas Urbšys signing the documents of the capitulation of Lithuania. Josef Stalin,
Vyacheslav Molotov (Soviet Foreign Minister) as well as others look on.
Fast forward to 1990, Urpsys was 95 when we met him.
My video interview with Juozas Urpsys, 1991
He spoke softly, but he was nonetheless alert and sharp during our interview. Sadly, he passed away three months later.
I also had a chance to interview the man who was chosen to be the President of Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis. He was instrumental in Lithuania’s eventual independence and became an international figure for freedom against Gorbachev and the Soviet communist party.
Vytautas Landsbergis at a public rally for Lithuanian independence
Because of these experiences, I learned to love Lithuania and its people. The more I learned about it, the more fascinated I became. From a storytelling perspective, the Lithuanian experience during World War II is both unique and terrifying. It’s definitely a story worth telling.
You may ask...of all the places to go, how did I end up in Lithuania?
I won’t go into all the details, but in a nutshell, it all started in 1989 just after the wall came down in Eastern Europe. I started a project to help schools in Czechoslovakia and Romania get some American textbooks. They didn’t want socialist textbooks and were desperate for American textbooks that could teach them about things like democracy, capitalism, and how to speak English. Because of that project, many textbook publishers willingly stepped up and sent their excess textbooks and supplies to many Eastern European countries.
Once the word spread about that project, we were invited to visit the independence-minded Lithuanian Soviet Socialists Republic in the USSR. We traveled to Kaunas, Lithuania to help the first private university in the Soviet Union to obtain American textbooks. They were eager to get books that weren’t laced with Soviet propaganda.
As I look back on that experience three decades ago, I'm embarrassed about how little I knew about propaganda, and how effectively it was used to shape opinion and behavior in Lithuania. I still have an example of a Soviet-era textbook that I brought home with me. I’ll show you an example in a minute.
As I work through the process of writing this book, I’ve been reminded just how expert the Soviets and the Nazis were at using sophisticated propaganda techniques to persuade, create divisions, evoke emotion, and use fear to control people.
How do we know if it’s propaganda?
As I continue to study the use of propaganda during World War II, I’ve learned a few things that have great relevance to our day. Allow me to share with you some of the insidious and sinister techniques they use to control the minds of their citizenry.
The most important thing for any propagandist is to create and control a single narrative about their opponent. To do so, they must possess power. Power to not only create a false narrative about their opponents but to impose that false narrative as the definitive story about their opponent. This is done by preventing opposing views and preventing the dissemination of accurate and truthful information about those they oppose.
When this false narrative is repeated and reinforced enough times, it eventually becomes accepted as truth. Nazi Reich Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels’ famous quote is still true today. "A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth"
How do propagandists create a believable false narrative? By using the 4 S’s of propaganda:
1- It's Sensational – Using conflict, exaggeration, scandal, sex, lurid details, racism, etc., they grab people’s attention to produce strong emotions like fear, anger, indignation, resentment, and hatred.
2- It's Superficial – They’ll give people just enough of a story to elicit concern, but they won’t provide a fair or complete story. If they did, people wouldn’t behave in the ways they want.
3- It's Selective – Propagandists will only tell you the worst things about their enemies, then compare their enemy’s worst characteristics against their best characteristics.
4- It leverages Stereotypes – They will promote common biases and stereotypes to generate strong emotions to reinforce those biases.
As I look back at my experience in traveling to the Soviet Union, I can see better now, how the Soviets use these very propaganda techniques to promote their narrative that the United States was inferior in every way to the Soviet Union.
Take for example this Lithuanian 4th Grade textbook that I brought back from the USSR.
It was used to reinforce the Soviet narrative as it taught young students how to speak English. Notice how the communists inserted a not-so-subtle propaganda message into a child’s curriculum.
Excerpt from a Lithuanian 4th Grade English textbook from the Soviet era
The message reinforces all the elements of their propaganda narrative. First, it’s a sensational story about a black American boy named Sam who lives in a box. Second, it’s superficial by implying that Sam’s experience is typical of all black people in the USA. Third, it’s selective by comparing the worst example from the USA with the best example from the Soviet Union. Finally, it promulgates a biased, stereotypical view among Soviets that black people in America are usually poor, uneducated, and homeless.
In contrast, they explain that Laima represents the typical Lithuanian schoolgirl who lives in a big house with a big yard by the sea.
On the surface, this whole Soviet narrative is silly. I had information to contradict the official narrative, but the people I met in Lithuania living under Soviet rule, had little evidence to disbelieve it.
I, however, had seen both sides of the story. I’ve seen the typical dwellings of people in the USA, and I’ve seen the typical apartments where the vast majority of people lived in the Soviet Union at the height of its power. I knew it was just as unlikely to find a family living in Lithuania with a big house and a big yard as to see an American boy living in a box in the park. Was either scenario possible? Yes. But was it typical? Absolutely not.
The Nazis used the same tactics. And while their messages are still repulsive and sickening, the end product nonetheless exhibits a high level of skill and artistic craftsmanship. Which makes it even that much more effective. Here are a few examples.
This is the cover of a 1942 propaganda leaflet called “Der Untermensch (the Subhuman). They included in this group of non-Aryans, the so-called “masses from the East,” which meant Jews, Roma, and Slavs, or the ethnic peoples of Poland, Serbia, and Russia. The concept of the Untermensch was key to convincing the German people that the Aryans had a monopoly on truth, goodness, and virtue.
“Behind the enemy powers: the Jews”
The Nazis worked tirelessly to condition the population to believe that the Jews were the primary source of all of Germany’s problems. After repeating that message enough, most people came to believe it.
Using stereotypes that reinforced existing biases against Jews, they convinced their people to believe that all Jews hate Germans. That Jews were rich and greedy, and that Jews possessed enough money and power to destroy their country.
In truth before WWII, Jews in Germany accounted for less than 1% (.75%) of the total population. But that bit of logic was lost on most Germans. Once the Nazis had convinced enough people to believe that core message, the slippery slope of hate, fear, and genocide was not far behind.
This poster illustrates how the Nazis saw themselves not only as a political movement but as a cultural movement as well. They criticized and stigmatized any type of music that did not conform to their narrative that Aryan music was superior to other forms of music. The result was that all jazz-related music was forbidden because of its “Negro roots.” This ticks all the boxes when it comes to propaganda.
"Jews are like lice, they spread typhus"
This poster from Poland implies you will be at high risk of contracting typhus if you associate with Jews. It was false, it played on existing biases and fears, and it was demonstrably false. But that didn’t stop them from using this poster to further isolate Jews from those around them.
At the risk of sounding smug, we would be disingenuous to assume that we are somehow immune from the power of propaganda. We all see propaganda if we’re online, own a phone, or watch TV. It’s everywhere. It’s in every home. On every device. In every form of mass communication.
Do we recognize it when we see it?
What do we accept as truth when it comes to our political opinions? Do we automatically embrace the narratives we espouse, especially those about opposing political ideologies?
What has shaped your beliefs about “liberals,” or “conservatives?” , “Leftists” or the "alt-right?” Do you have strong opinions about any of these groups that were influenced by propaganda?
And I'm not happy to admit it.
So I need to take more precautions with how I consume media. I need to do a better job of conducting an honest self-assessment when I'm exposed to any message that's meant to persuade my opinion.
I'm committing to doing better. That’s why I’m sharing my commitment with you.
To do better at identifying propaganda in my life, here are 10 questions I'm committing to ask myself whenever I encounter social media, television news, and any media that may try to influence my views:
1- Do I recognize sensationalism when it’s used to persuade me to believe a certain viewpoint about a person or group?
2- Am I drawn in by exaggeration, scandal, lurid details, etc.?
3- Do I allow myself to be “stirred up” by what I consume in the media?
4- Do I believe in superficial stories that lack balance?
5- Am I willing to critically assess such narratives and see the holes in their logic?
6- Am I slow or quick to reject alternative narratives that don’t fit my expectations?
7- Do I accept selective stories that promote the worst examples about those I disagree with, while comparing their worst examples against the best examples among those I agree with?
8- Do I allow my own biases to carry more influence over my thoughts and beliefs than I should?
9- Do I readily accept the unflattering words about those I disagree with?
10- Do I assume to know the motives of those I disagree with? Is there truly any way for me to know what they are thinking, and am I truly that arrogant to assume I can know what they are thinking?
When I honestly answer these questions, it's easier for me to recognize that I possess many unfortunate cognitive biases, such as:
I am frequently guilty of overestimating the extent to which I understand those I disagree with.
I have blind spots when it comes to believing that others succumb to propaganda, but I don’t.
I often assume that my beliefs and the groups that I associate with are morally superior to those groups or beliefs I disagree with.
Despite decades between now and the rule of the Soviets/Nazis, propaganda continues to be used to great effect. It has grown to be more powerful, divisive, yet more subtle. Recognizing propaganda can be a challenge, especially when you agree with the narrative. The hard part is stepping back and critically assessing the messages, and identifying some of the 4 S’s of propaganda.
I’m always looking for examples of modern propaganda in American culture. If you see any great examples, send me a link in the comments below. I’ll add it to my collection and I’ll share them in a later article.