Mass media and propaganda in 20th century Europe
The dawn of propaganda in cinema
Propaganda films in Fascist Italy
Propaganda films in Fascist Italy
For the inauguration of the new headquarters of Istituto Luce, an Italian film corporation created in 1924, the Fascist regime prepared a large backdrop showing Mussolini behind a camera, with these words below: ‘Cinematography is the strongest weapon’.
This is November 1937, but Mussolini has clearly already been considering this concept for a long time. In 1924, Giacomo Paulucci di Calboli, knowing that Mussolini had to go to Naples for the International Exhibition of Emigration, sent a troupe to Palazzo Chigi to make a short film about the Headquarters of the Chief.
In Naples, the documentary is shown to Mussolini, together with some scientific-educational films, and he is very impressed by it, immediately grasping the great potential that cinema offers him for the purpose of obtaining popular consent, all the more when he notes how the outdoor screening of the short film about him is a great success. We are at the dawn of the Istituto Luce, whose birth will be formalised a few months later.
In a country where the illiteracy rate exceeded 35% and very few people read newspapers, cinema immediately became a very effective means of spreading information, a means that fascism would use with obsessive attention. Mussolini himself checked films and photographs before authorising their publication.
In 1927, the first Italian mass newsreel Giornale LUCE was born, which, until 1945, would inform Italians in cinemas and in the squares of cities and villages of everything that the regime wanted to be known. Initially shown on a weekly basis, newsreels started to appear almost daily between 1935 and 1936, during the war in Ethiopia, as a result of the international sanctions against Italy when the need for propaganda became stronger.
Propaganda embraced different aspects of life in Italy: in 1935, a newsreel service informed the audience that a brand new cinema projection van had been deployed for agricultural propaganda in small rural villages.
Propaganda exalted land reclamation and the construction of new cities, gave instructions on how to avoid diseases, and hailed the successes of Italian medicine - a long series of documentaries showed surgical interventions of the most diverse nature, for example.
But propaganda is not just about showing, it is also about censoring. Mussolini appears in more than 11,000 photographs and 1,100 audiovisual reports. However, in the Luce newsreels, documentaries and photos, it is very rare to come across situations or events that could have undermined the spirit of the Italians. We very rarely find scenes of death and destruction, except when they can be attributed to the barbarism of Italy’s enemies.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Istituto Luce, with the cinematographic bodies of the Army, Navy and Air Force, created the War Department, tasked with providing photographic and cinematographic documentation of the war’s events. This was to be done 'with the unquestionable objectivity of the camera', according to an article that appeared in July 1940 in the magazine Lo Schermo (The Screen).
Obviously, this was not the case: all the photos were subjected to very strict censorship, traces of which can be found in the prints of many photos, whose negatives were archived with the word 'confidential'. The image below is an example of such a censored photo. The torn shoes and uniforms worn by the Italian soldiers are highlighted and a handwritten note has been added, saying ‘What a marvellous impression we would make if we published photos of this kind!’ According to the strict censorship rules, however, images of the front had to show the heroism and valour of the Italian soldiers. Therefore, photographs such as these, which gave too realistic an image of the war, were not allowed.
Between July 1943, when Mussolini was arrested, and the following September, when the Germans released him on the Gran Sasso, the Luce newsreels immediately took sides with Badoglio and the new government, showing scenes of jubilation after 25 July, with the symbols of fascism overthrown. But as soon as the Social Republic was founded and the Istituto Luce moved to Venice, the fascist propaganda became prevalent again. These were the last months of the war, tough months dotted with bombings and massacres, before Italy regained freedom on 25 April 1945.
Propaganda was without doubt one of key means by which fascism was able to maintain power for 20 years. Not the only one, of course, given that first there had been intimidation, violence. On 3 January 1925 Mussolini asserted his right to supreme power and suppressed any semblance of democratic life.
Generally speaking, dictatorships have always made great use of propaganda. This was the case with Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, and in Stalin's Soviet Union. But propaganda has also been used in democracies. Social media today are very effective platforms for political propaganda; they are pervasive and can be dangerous because it is so easy to convey unverified and false messages.
But before going back to the present day, we will first have a look at propaganda in the Netherlands during World War II. Greatly inspired by Benito Mussolini’s leadership and Italian fascism, politician Anton Mussert initiated a rise in Dutch nationalist propaganda during the 1940s. How did Mussert use mass media and propaganda to promote his political causes? And what were the effects of this rise in nationalist propaganda in the Netherlands during times of war?