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Paper War: Nazi Propaganda in One Battle, On a Single Day, Cassino, Italy, May 11, 1944

No editor or author listed; introduction by Randall Bytwerk
Mark Batty Publisher, LLC, West New York, NJ, 2005
64 pp., illus. Trade: $16.95
ISBN: 0-9762245-0-X.

The Goebbels Experiment

by Lutz Hachmeister and Michael Kloft, Directors
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2004
VHS, 107 mins., b/w, col.
Sales: $398; rental: $125 US
Distributor’s website: http://wwwfrif.com.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University, University Center MI 48710 USA.


Paper War documents the immediate use of print disinformation in one battle on a single day of World War II. Over Cassino, Italy, on May 11, 1944, the Germans dropped 14 different leaflets in various languages in hopes of demoralizing the Allied troops they faced. These leaflets were collected by Peter Batty (1924-2004), a British solider who served as a liaison officer with the rank of Captain in the Indian army. As the German army barraged the enemy with bullets, bombs, and paper, Batty collected the leaflets dropping around him. One can imagine another soldier pondering as the archivist stuffed his pockets ,"Oi, Batty, wot’s with all the leaflets then, aye?"

Evidently the Nazis misidentified the Allied troops, firing a total of 14 different leaflets in a succession of four languages: English, Polish, Urdu, and Hindi. Different messages and different graphics were used to appeal to, or dishearten, each intended ethnic audience. These images played on prejudices like Polish antisemitism, anticommunism, or anti-Hindu racism. Others (like the ones dropped on the Germans in retaliation by the British) are purportedly letters from girlfriends back home imploring them to give up.

The leaflets are reproduced full size, translated into English. One is immediately struck by the preponderance of text in the propaganda. Much like the American LIFE magazine advertisements of the era, it is not a central visual image that convinces but a written story. Whereas the magazine advertisements of the day might provide unnamed physicians who discuss the health benefits of Camel brand cigarettes, the propaganda of Cassino provides a typical English soldier’s praises for the German Army’s humane treatment upon his surrender.

An introduction by Randall Bytwerk discusses the leaflets in the context of Hitler and Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda machinery. Bytwerk reminds us that propaganda is not synonymous with lying, but is often most effectively the use of selective truths repeated often enough to crowd out competing information. Paper War is an enjoyable piece of military, propaganda, communication, and design history. The publisher Mark Batty, who has delivered numerous fine books on typography, graphic design, and visual culture, reminds the design professionals among this book’s readers to consider the logistics of design, production, and delivery of print propaganda within the heat of battle. This book might have been published more cheaply as a paperback, but it stands as a fine memorial to the soldier-collector whose ephemeral file from Cassino is worthy of study in our war-torn and heavily propagandized world today.

If any time of war is the appropriate time to contemplate the Nazi propagandists, a video called The Goebbels Experiment further helps us to do that. Originally a contemporary German television production, actor Kenneth Branagh reads excepts from Joseph Goebbels’ own journals as its soundtrack. The footage, remarkably clean (or digitally cleaned up), is from German propaganda movies of the 1930s, some of it in sparkling color.

We meet Joseph Goebbels as a grim young man in a black leather jacket, full of resentments and pettiness. He laments the loss of a book of poems, though there is no mention of the novel he wrote as a teenager Michael (a name that means the German everyman, like the US moniker, John Doe). Goebbels rails at the Weimar government and especially the Jews. He consorts with women, marries, and, while serving as a top Nazi official, has an affair with a Czech actress he meets on a movie set. A shortcoming of the production’s "Dear Diary" format is that history rolls on even when our protagonist is oblivious to it, or otherwise too occupied to write it down. The Germans are losing the war in the spring of 1945, and though we had seen early glimpses of Goebbels’ burned corpse to foreshadow his end, his diary is strangely silent as Berlin falls to the Russian troops, his wife Magda Goebbels kills his children, and he shoots himself.

That was Joseph Goebbels’ personal life, but it is his professional mark for which he is still remembered. His effectiveness as a rabble-rouser, plus the roiling politics of the Nazi Party, made him rise quickly in the party and brought him the role of Minister of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda. In March, 1933 he soon mastered the controlled use of the press conference and of the assiduous filming of official speeches by Der Feuhrer Hitler and other top Nazis to be shown in theaters shortly after they had been broadcast over radio. This must be the "experiment" to which the filmmakers’ title refers, the savvy discovery of the controlled use of mass media. In his essay in Paper War, Bytwerk points out that––much to Goebbels’ consternation––Hitler also had other Nazi leaders generate propaganda throughout the war.

As both Paper War and The Goebbels Experiment demonstrate, truth is the first casualty of war. In 2006, as the bloody Iraq War grinds on, one might study The Goebbels Experiment for clues to the mass media machinations, by Karl Rove and others, from US President Bush’s White House.



Updated 1st January 2006

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