Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Tedium of Authoritarianism

As part of my research on Francisco Franco, I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the Archivo General de la Administración near Madrid, looking at old files from the wartime years produced by the National Press and Propaganda Delegation of the Falange and the Vice-secretariat for Popular Education that subsumed it after 1941. (Between 1938 and 1966, newspapers in Franco’s Spain were subject to prior censorship, with the Vicesecretaría de Educación Popular in charge of providing guidance to the media and administering the actual censorship apparatus between 1941 and 1945). These were the years when the Franco regime was at its most “fascistic,” most concerned with mobilizing and indoctrinating the population via the media. I was especially interested in old “consignas” – instructions to the newspapers about what to publish or not to publish, often quite detailed, sometimes even including directives about the exact wording of articles or the typography to be used for the headlines. While reading through these “consignas,” it struck me that they provided much evidence of what we might call the censor’s dilemma: a press that uniformly reports one message directed from above is a boring press, incapable of genuinely holding the attention of its readers and thus ultimately of indoctrinating them; but a press that shows originality may stray into dangerous territory, promoting unapproved and subversive thoughts.

The Spanish censors of the time were perfectly aware of the need to produce a lively, stimulating press if any indoctrination was to happen at all, and hence to avoid the excessive use of “official” speeches and obvious propaganda. For example, in a circular from 1940, the national press chief complains about the excessive publication of political speeches without commentary, and exhorts newspaper directors to exercise original thinking and journalistic judgment rather than publishing every speech sent to them; while in 1941 he urges newspapers to be original in the special issues they are supposed to produce to commemorate the Día del Caudillo (1 October, the anniversary of Franco’s elevation to Chief of State in 1936) and the death of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange (20 November), rather than to regurgitate the text of the scripts sent to them from the National Delegation, and bitterly alludes to the halfhearted fulfillment of such instructions in the past. Other documents encourage newspaper directors to find the “less well-known” anecdotes about particular figures they are ordered to celebrate, like Miguel Primo de Rivera, though these anecdotes still needed to be “exemplary.” In 1942 several newspapers are reprimanded for their lack of attention to their editorials section, where, understandably, they never publish anything that is not officially suggested (“absteniéndose de publicar ninguno que no sea sugerido oficiosamente”), and are ordered to produce more original content; and at around the same time some provincial chiefs are admonished not to micro-manage the newspapers in their jurisdiction, presumably so as to avoid losing the attention of local audiences, bored to death by an unremitting diet of speeches and other “official” announcements. Occasionally newspaper directors are implored to try to take away the “official flavor” (“quitándole … todo sabor oficial”) of the articles they are ordered to publish and the propaganda campaigns they are supposed to run; and even the film section is sometimes criticized for a lack of interesting and original writing.

Yet one senses that the effort is doomed; already in 1944 the exhortations to originality cease, and ever more detailed scripts (“guiones”) to newspaper editors, specifying in great detail what needs to be published and how, become more common. And the press remained boring and distrusted, as confidential reports, declining circulation, and other evidence indicates. (I can testify to that, having spent a lot of time over the past few months reading 1940s issues of Arriba, the regime’s mouthpiece). Even Franco himself agreed, as Stanley Payne reports in his classic book on the Franco regime: in the late 40s and 50s, Franco “often ignored the Spanish press since his censorship rendered it predictable and rarely interesting.” (Though “[h]e did sometimes look at the New York Times, considering it a “bulwark of international Masonry” on which he needed to be informed and with which he could practice his limited English”; Kindle locs 9311-9314).

At the end of the day, a boring Spanish press didn’t matter that much to the regime after 1945, since Franco was content with a demobilized and acquiescent population; but the censor’s dilemma seems real enough whenever governments are explicitly interested in deeply molding a population’s beliefs by controlling what they can read or see. Joseph Goebbels, for example, was perfectly aware of it:
Goebbels knew that people would not tolerate a diet of unremitting propaganda. Already in May 1933 he began turning down requests from Nazi Party bosses keen to hear their voices on the radio, and limited broadcasts of political speeches to two a month. Radio, said the Propaganda Minister, had to be imaginative, modern, up-to-date. ‘The first law’, he told radio managers on 25 March 1933: ‘Don’t become boring!’ They were not to fill their programmes with martial music and patriotic speeches. They had to use their imagination. Radio could bring the whole people behind the regime. Despite this warning, the radio network was initially used for broadcasting large quantities of political propaganda, with fifty speeches by Hitler being transmitted in 1933 alone. On 1 May 1934 broadcasts of the Mayday celebrations, with their speeches, songs, marches and the rest, took up no fewer than seventeen hours of radio time. No wonder that there were reports that listeners were growing blasé in the face of such excesses and listening, when they could, to foreign radio stations. Only gradually was Goebbels’s oft-repeated advice heeded.
But some still complained that even the music was boring, and they missed the radio plays that had been so popular under the Weimar Republic. As the Security Service of the SS complained in 1938, the ‘dissatisfaction of radio listeners’ was demonstrating itself in the fact that ‘almost all kinds of German radio listeners … now as before regularly listen to German-language broadcasts from foreign stations’. (Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 2579-2595).
The Nazis, unlike the post-1945 Franco regime, were not satisfied with a merely acquiescent population; they wanted to reach more deeply into the beliefs of the German people, converting them into genuine partisans of their worldview. And boring radio and newspapers did not serve this purpose; in fact, they contributed to alienation from the regime, as the propaganda minister was well aware. But for all of Goebbels’ exhortations, the incentives of the media were all in the direction of publishing “safe” content - pre-approved, indistinguishable from everyone else’s, and ultimately incapable of holding the attention of the unconverted. Consider the story of the Frankfurter Zeitung, a newspaper which (due to its international reputation and the fact that it was at the time owned by the chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben) was allowed a certain freedom of action early in the third Reich. The paper
not uncommonly failed to print stories emanating from the Propaganda Ministry, even when they were ordered to do so by Goebbels. They attempted, sometimes successfully, to carry articles emphasizing the humane values which they considered the Nazis to be trampling on. Many of the forty new members of the editorial staff appointed between 1933 and 1939 came from parts of the press that had fared badly under the Nazis, including Social Democrats, Nationalists and Catholics. Many of them, such as Walter Dirks, or Paul Sethe, became famous West German journalists in the postwar years. Two other well-known writers, Dolf Sternberger and Otto Suhr, who had Jewish wives, were also able to remain in their posts. Staff writers printed ostensibly historical articles about Genghis Khan or Robespierre whose parallels with Hitler were obvious to the average intelligent reader. They became adept at conveying facts and reports that were unpalatable to the regime with formulae such as ‘there is no truth in the rumour that’ and headlines that denounced as lies stories which were then expounded in considerable detail. The paper soon acquired a reputation as virtually the only organ in which such things could be found, and its circulation actually began to increase once more. The Gestapo was well aware of the fact that the Frankfurt Newspaper in particular contained articles that ‘must be described as malicious agitation’ and thought that ‘now as before the Frankfurt Newspaper dedicates itself to the representation of Jewish interests’. (The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 2693-2705)
But this situation could not last, especially once the Nazis consolidated their power:
Yet with time, and especially after 1936, the regime forced the paper more and more onto the defensive. Innumerable compromises with the Propaganda Ministry’s instructions were unavoidable. Direct resistance was barely possible. Already in August 1933 the English journalist Henry Wickham Steed noted that the once-proud liberal newspaper had become a ‘tool of unfreedom’ under the new regime. The foreign press quickly stopped citing stories carried in the paper, taking the view that they had now become mostly indistinguishable from the torrent of misinformation and propaganda pumped out on a daily basis by Goebbels’s Ministry. In 1938, realizing that it no longer needed to influence public opinion, since there was effectively no public opinion left in Germany, I.G. Farben secretly sold the firm to a subsidiary of the Nazi Party’s Eher Publishing House without even troubling to inform the paper’s editors or staff. On 20 April 1939 the Nazi Party’s publishing mogul, Max Amann, formally presented the newspaper to Hitler as a birthday present. Its function as a vehicle for free, if disguised, comment was over; its readership declined further, and it was eventually closed down altogether in 1943. (The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 2709-2718)
Over time, the desire to control content won out over the desire to encourage any sort of independence or originality. The propaganda ministry issued ever more detailed instructions to newspapers about what to publish and how, just as in the Spanish case, probably contributing to an overall decline in press readership and the migration of the reading public towards less boring forms of media, such as illustrated magazines focused on non-political topics:
whatever the journalists of the Frankfurt Newspaper might have been able to achieve, the majority of editors and journalists lacked the ability or the inclination to vary the propaganda they were required to serve up to their readers with any touch of independence or originality. The number of newspapers declined from 4,700 to 977 between 1932 and 1944, and the number of magazines and periodicals of all kinds from 10,000 to 5,000 between 1933 and 1938. And the contents of those that remained became increasingly homogeneous. […] The result was a crescendo of dissatisfaction amongst the newspaper-reading public, relayed through the regular surveillance reports of the Gestapo. ‘The uniformity of the press’, noted the Gestapo office in Kassel in its monthly report for March 1935, ‘is felt to be unbearable by the people and also in particular by those who are National Socialist in their views.’ […]
[…] Despite his loudly proclaimed injunction to broadcasters and pressmen not to be boring, Goebbels ended up, therefore, by imposing a political straitjacket on radio and the press that led to widespread popular complaints about the monotonous conformity of these two key opinion-forming mass media and the dull subservience of those who worked in them. Already in 1934 he was telling newspapermen how pleased he was that the press was now reacting to current events correctly without necessarily being told how to. But with his customary cynicism, he concluded a few years later that ‘any man who still has a residue of honour will be very careful not to become a journalist’. (The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 2786-2821).
More generally, given the choice between the dullness of a maximally controlled cultural scene and the more stimulating unpredictability of a less controlled cultural life, the Nazis ultimately opted for the tedium of forced acclamation and uniform praise. As a result, they ended up maximizing not genuine commitment but mere acquiescence, as Evans shows in abundant detail:
The mass acclamation which the regime demanded on occasions such as Hitler’s birthday, plebiscites and elections, Mayday and other festivals, was rendered as much out of fear as out of enthusiasm, and people were getting tired of constantly having to go to meetings and demonstrations, the Potsdam district Gestapo office reported two months later in October 1934. In radio, cinema, literature and the arts, as we have seen, all that Goebbels’s efforts to make propaganda interesting did was to make people bored, because individual creative initiative was stifled, the variety of cultural life was drastically reduced by censorship, and the monotony of Nazism’s cultural offerings quickly became tedious. Even the Nuremberg Rallies soon lost much of their power to inspire, despite the fact that those who attended were by definition the most fanatical and the most enthusiastic of Hitler’s supporters. (The Third Reich in Power, 1933 - 1939, Kindle locs 4056-4062).
As Jay Ulfelder reminded us the other day, it is difficult to know what would have happened in the absence of such uniform propaganda; in a counterfactual world many things would have been different, including the content of propaganda. Perhaps both the Franco and the Nazi regimes actually produced the maximal amount of persuasion possible under the circumstances by stressing uniformity, though I doubt it. More likely, it seems to me, is that there are trade-offs between maximizing genuine persuasion (which requires some degree of uncoerced attention and stimulation, or, in other words, the avoidance of complete boredom) and minimizing focal points for opposition; and both the Nazi and the Franco regimes, for all their claims to be engaged in the transformation of national characters through indoctrination, ultimately preferred to minimize opposition. But one can imagine that other regimes might attempt to manage this trade-off differently, tolerating some amount of opposition in exchange for the more genuine commitments that a more stimulating, less predictable cultural life might produce. Indeed, it seems that in some cases a less uniform cultural life is the (inadvertent?) consequence of censorship, and that the commitments produced in these cases are stronger than the commitments produced by boring and uniform propaganda. For example, Barbara Mittler has noted that the “smashing the four olds” campaign during the cultural revolution actually introduced a new variety into the cultural life of many people in China (by, for example, exposing them to the Confucian classics that they were supposed to criticize); and she argues that this accounts in part for the freshness and staying power of cultural revolution culture, which was far less regimented than the kind of culture produced by say, the Nazi regime. (“Cultural Revolution culture … is effective, as is popular culture, because it is nothing but popular culture”).

At any rate, it seems to me that the moral of these stories, so to speak, is that ideological persuasion is a sort of by-product of particular discourses, not something that can be produced intentionally and at will. In the Spanish case, ideological persuasion faltered in the face of terrible economic conditions during the 40s; as one Falangista wrote in a confidential report in late 1939, “frente a todo esto, no caben propagandas” (“in the face of [these conditions], no propaganda can work”). Similarly, Nazi propaganda was less effective the less contact it had with the existing beliefs of the German population and their real conditions of life. But in both cases the attempt to directly persuade a population by tightly restricting the variety of points of views presented failed to produce maximal commitment; wherever persuasion occurred, it was less due to the content of the rhetoric of both regimes and their monopoly over public space than as a by-product of the conditions under which propaganda was received. I suppose this is good news: the tedium of genuine authoritarianism prevents such regimes from truly shaping people’s characters.


  1. Anonymous1:07 PM

    I think the second excerpt from The Third Reich in Power is missing a "not" before "uncommonly failed to print stories".