In the first part I tried to demonstrate how a figment of the imagination takes being “only second best” (a victim, a looser) as proof positive of moral superiority. According to this tenet, the truly worthy elite of the global pecking order are wearing the crown of another world, a world that is yet to come, and all that remains is to find out who is and who isn’t “truly worthy” and separate the grain from the chaff accordingly. Bodies like the PLO and their many successor or partner organisations (IRA, Rote Armee Fraktion, Hamas, Hezbollah, to name a few) were and are heavily indebted to a narrative of victimhood as proof of moral superiority; on a comparably smaller scale Black Lives Matter use the same narrative’s dividends as political capital, too.
This narrative of course isn’t logical but psychological and it goes unchallenged as long as somebody needs and/or wants it to be true – if you feel like a nail everything looks like a hammer. Also, it is much easier to rid oneself of one’s frustrations at the expense of others than change one’s own life, apparently. Never mind that it’s dysfunctional and dangerous: keeps you from ever improving your lot to think that reality is to blame when in deed it is not. You might even want to start a war over it…
The comfort of such a narrative is mainly reliant on reconstructing reality in a manner that fits the emotional needs of its recipient: a safe space for the mind. That’s where the news media become instrumental. Their role now is to stage the world as a place threatened by inherently vicious people: nasty nannies who voted “Leave” for instance. Now precious little Damian can’t get his Erasmus stipend which would have taken him to Bologna for a year – what a pity! So why not go and smash some nasty nannies, Damian? At least on Farce-Book he wouldn’t even incur the risk of being prosecuted for official heresy (“hate crime”).
And now for the tricky bit. There isn’t only propaganda that is inherently vicious and destructive (on a personal, social and national level) but there is also a form of propaganda that achieves quite the contrary. And I dare say it achieves its aim effortlessly, or at least without showing too much of a strain when trying to demonstrate what is good about an individual, its social place and/or historical context. At least, it achieves its aim best when being effortlessly done, that’s for sure.
To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly refer to some remarkable movies portraying the Second World War. I’m not doing this in my capacity as self-appointed film critic or movie buff and I’m most empathically not doing this as a historian. I’m doing this on a purely personal basis and in order to give some evidence of how effective good propaganda can be in shaping the public’s perception of a desirable cause. And I dare say there can be no doubt at all about the desired outcome of a war whose myriad sacrifices must never be forgotten.
My fascination with wartime movies started innocently enough with an American production boldly named “Sink the Bismarck!”. (The remaining von Bismarcks are actually quite nice once you get to know them and also quite active in Hamburg’s Anglo-German-Club apparently). This movie was a personal game changer because where German documentaries and movies felt an ostentatious urge to state the fact that fascism is actually a bad idea and tirelessly and tediously had to explain why this was the case, “Sink the Bismarck!” cut right to the chase: Britain good – Nazis evil. History spoke for itself and boy could you get it in one!
It presented the moral cause for the war in stark relief but that didn’t make it any less true or ethically accurate, I suppose. In fact, I think the German way of approaching all things Nazi is a bit awkward: it’s almost as if by seriously questioning the period from 1933 to 1945 about its non-existent merits Germans contend themselves with giving Nazism credit where none’s really due. Fascism is a particularly perverted form of socialism and both should be treated without any moral ambiguity, that’s all there is to it for me.
Hooked by this fare I approached a true classic of the genre and a movie that one must assume is a work of art on a level with “Citizen Kane” (it shares many of its story telling and cinematographic techniques): “In Which We Serve” is an enduring testament to what Britain could achieve artistically while the war was still very much on, so to say. Noel Coward treated the basic proposition of his masterpiece as something that went without saying because he felt sure it would be self-evident why Britain went to war. This also resulted in him treating his audience with dignity and respect. But his movie is much more than just excellent propaganda because with all its witty and clever dialog and love of details it offhandedly paints a stunningly elaborate, if probably a bit larger than life, portrait of wartime Britain.
There are a lot more films that I’d like to mention: “One of our Aircraft is Missing” stands out for being a movie without non-diegetic music, i.e. there is no musical score accompanying the action. There are only brief musical interludes in a church, a family home and, funnily enough, a radio programme of what was once the BBC but they’re all integral parts of the setting. This, I thought, was maybe a bit lacking in dramatic effect but it made up for it by addressing its audience with honesty – by categorically refusing to treat them as a malleable mass conditioned by mood music. It’s still an inspiring story about a British aircrew escaping from The Netherlands with the help of a village.
There are a few good movies about aircrews, airmen and inventors to be sure (“Dam Busters”, “Reach for the Sky”, “The First of the Few” spring to mind) but there’s just one other movie about a village. And it might have been felt that this movie was really the first and the last word about villages, too. “Went The Day Well” is an unassuming production that had to compensate lack of star appeal with good writing by Graham Green and a terrific plot: An English village ridding itself (with belated help from the outside) of Nazi invasion. It’s quite a story: from Mrs Collin’s famous line that “accidents will happen!” to revenge served at gunpoint when Nora shoots the traitor it has some very memorable plot points.
When the war was finally over, the tone changed: “The Cruel Sea” seemed to take off where “In Which We Serve” had ended. But it took over by painting a much grittier and dare I say realistic picture of the proceedings along the convoy routes of the North Atlantic between Canada, Britain and Russia. There is some very fine acting to be seen by Donald Sinden and also by Jack Hawkins when he portrays the moral sacrifice made by attacking a German U-Boot which used civilian survivors for cover. It’s still a refreshingly curious movie as it’s more interested in the moral reactions to warfare and its resultant ethical dilemma. That, more than any of the war’s more obvious achievements.
The time after the war was apparently also a time when everybody got their cinematic memorial: bomb disposal squads (“The Small Back Room”), civilian populations (“Malta Story”), even the frog men (“The Silent Enemy”). To be sure, this was also the time when the Americans hit the screen big time as only the Americans can do with their tank and gunship operas (“The Bridge at Remagen”, “Midway”) and an aircraft ballet (“Battle of Britain”). As impressive and enjoyable as these productions still are, they also seem to suffer from a lack of character development and rather construed love interests, something sophisticated British productions could do without while still grasping the audience’s imaginations. When you’re fighting for survival in the country which you rightly love, there’s apparently precious little need for a romantic angle to make things more interesting.
There is one movie left that I’d have to mention just to sum it all up and it’s quite close to my heart: “Decision Before Dawn” tells the story of a captured German soldier the Americans send back to Germany in order to spy on the German positions prior to the Allies’ crossing of the Rhine. It has a very cohesive Oskar Werner in it and Hildegard Knef is almost believable as a tawdry proto-starlet of troop entertainment fame with a somewhat rattled belief in the Nazi endsieg, or “final victory”.
This again is an accomplished movie because it doesn’t have to argue its point. And in this regard it is quite contrary to the German output even of much later years because it doesn’t feel the urge of ostentatiously passing judgement in its portrayal of the dying days of the entrenched regime. Because it took for granted what decent people would take for granted anyway: that it went without saying that this was a war Germany deserved to lose by all means. And seriously questioning this assumption would be giving credit where none really was due – a mistake that I feel was made in the otherwise significant “Das Boot”.
So, there’s good propaganda and bad propaganda but what does it do to the price of milk? Well the main difference between the two seems to be not only its stated cause, the aims and values it stands for, but also the way it treats its viewers. While bad propaganda would place its audience in a contrived safe space of victimhood, good propaganda can treat its viewers as equal. The difference is in its basic assumption: for the official narrative to work you’d have to buy in to its notion that you’re being dealt with unfairly by world events, that you’d deserve better and that there’s a born master in you just screaming to come out.
Good propaganda on the other hand has a far more chilling proposition to make: it offers liberty; it gives you the choice. As long as all agree on the basic assumption that the Allies are the good guys and the Nazis are the bad guys (a proposition that has probably never been easier to agree with than during Germany’s fascist episode) you can come to your own conclusions. In particular, there’s no need for the continuous passing of judgement on each character at every turn of events because as long as the basic tenets of what separates good from evil are firmly in place, most other considerations become secondary.
In essence: contrary to bad propaganda, good propaganda doesn’t have to be afraid of the audience wising up to its game. That’s why it’s so wonderful – and that’s why today’s “BBC” should be so very afraid.