Mass media and propaganda in 20th century Europe
From nationalist newspapers to patriotic cinema
The ideal regime through the eyes of Anton Mussert
The ideal regime through the eyes of Anton Mussert
Please note: Some historical images in this chapter are considered derogatory and antisemitic.
'I am a Dutchman with heart and soul, and anyone who wants to destroy this country will find in me his greatest enemy'.
These are the words of Anton Mussert, leader of the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB), the Dutch National-Socialist movement that he founded in 1931. Since the start of his political career, Mussert’s main interest was to increase Dutch nationalism. Inspired by Mussolini and Italian fascism, he wanted to win a mass following in the Netherlands and destroy the socio-democratic Pillarisation system which, at the time, characterised Dutch society. By means of mass propaganda, Mussert tried to increase a sense of Volksgemeinschaft (community among people) in the Netherlands, to create a national community based on order, discipline and patriotism that would free the country from capitalist or individual interests.
Below: Propaganda poster depicting Mussert, accompanied with the text ‘Support Mussert, as a good Dutchmen, in his fierce battle, especially now’ as well as a rather radical quote of Anton Mussert himself: 'I am a Dutchman with heart and soul, and anyone who wants to destroy this country will find in me his greatest enemy.
For the Nazis in Germany, propaganda played a key role in the persecution of Jews: they used it effectively to win the support of millions of people. Propaganda also proved to be powerful in Italy, enabling Mussolini to maintain a fascist dominance in the country for twenty years. Similarly, it became an important tool for the NSB in the Netherlands too, even before World War II had started.
In 1933, the NSB founded their newspaper Volk en Vaderland (Nation and Fatherland), which was published weekly by Mussert’s own firm Nenasu (an acronym from Nederlandsch Nationaal Socialistische Uitgeverij, meaning Dutch National Socialist Publisher). So, by means of print media, the fascist opinions of the NSB’s political leadership were reflected and communicated to the Dutch public.
Below: An NSB Newspaper ‘Volk en Vaderland’ from 1936. On the front page, the words, ‘De strijd om een gaaf volk’ are printed, which roughly translates to ‘The battle for a clean nation’. At the top of the newspaper, it states: ‘Chief executive: Ir. A. A. Mussert’ (‘Ir.’ is a Dutch abbreviation for the title of Professional Engineer)
Mussert soon realised, however, that another type of media might be more effective for spreading his political ideas. Propaganda through newspapers, pamphlets or posters could be simply dismissed by people. Film, on the other hand, could easily be imposed on the Dutch nation. Cinema-going was highly popular in the Netherlands and had the potential to spread a strong message throughout a significant amount of the population.
Mussert decided to appoint G.J. Teunissen as Head of the NSB film production company called Filmdienst den NSB (Film service of the NSB). As an experienced film director, Theunissen was able to professionally produce audiovisual material. What’s more, the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 provided the NSB with extra funding from the Nazis, which allowed them to produce high-quality film material. Other national production companies such as Polygoon and Profilti were obliged by the Germans to support the NSB with their film recordings. Consequently, the NSB started their own 10-minute newsreel called ‘Spiegel der Beweging’ (Mirror of Movement) that mandatorily showed patriotic films in all Dutch cinemas, right before the start of the actual movies.
Many Dutch cinemagoers, however, did not appreciate this new type of propaganda. The audience would often openly show their dissatisfaction, voicing outraged reactions in the theatre by cursing, swearing and shouting out loud.
Episode of the NSB-newsreel Spiegel der Beweging (1943): Dutch soldiers being bid farewell before leaving to the Eastern Front to fight against the communists.
Overall, the NSB propaganda in Spiegel der Beweging was not as radical as the German propaganda of the time. For example, when the Dutch version of the German 'documentary' The Eternal Jew first premiered in the Netherlands in 1941, some members of the NSB were shocked by the way in which the Jewish population was portrayed in this film. The movie showed very negative stereotypes, comparing Jewish people to rats that needed to be exterminated. Several members of the NSB believed this to be too extreme and they thought a better approach would be to show propaganda discreetly, combined with something fun like a popular movie.
In the early days of the war, NSB propaganda films did not often radically influence masses of people to become right-wing extremists or anti-Semitics. In fact, since Mussert himself initially rejected Nazi Germany’s racial policy, anti-Semitism was usually not even the focal point of NSB propaganda. Instead, the storylines were rather mundane and sometimes even frivolous or silly, as can be seen in the following short film called Een dag vol pech (A day full of bad luck).
This film portrays the daily life of a rather conservative Dutchman, Mr Roddelaere Verroest, who notices how all the people around him support National Socialism, whilst he seems to be the only one who does not want to give into this far-right ideology. In his portrayal, Mr Roddelaere is discreetly being ridiculed for his aversion to National Socialism. This was supposed to encourage the viewers of this film not to be like him, and support the NSB instead.
Short NSB propaganda film (1942), in which the main character - an arrogant, conservative Dutchman - is confronted with the omnipresent National Socialism in the Netherlands.
Over the course of the war, however, NSB propaganda slowly became more explicit under the influence of Nazi Germany. One of the most well-known examples of NSB propaganda is a film called 'Een Nieuwe Tijd Breekt Baan' ('A New Dawn Breaks'). In this movie, the NSB tries to win over the Dutch population by glorifying nationalism. Their depiction of a Europe in chaos, in which they specifically point out that its crisis is a consequence of Jewish capitalist imperialism, is followed with a clear and simple message: National Socialism is the perfect solution to build a hopeful future.
Fragment of 'Een nieuwe tijd breekt aan' (1941), a NSB propaganda film which announces that the time has come for a new Europe. The film is mainly directed against capitalism, against the peace of Versailles, and against the crisis.
Some people were amazed by the new film techniques the NSB Film Service used. Over the course of the years, the NSB also saw some increase in the number of NSB supporters: at its peak, the party reached more than 100.000 members. However, despite their efforts in using mass media propaganda to glorify their political movement with concepts such as unity, solidarity and destiny, the NSB never became a highly popular party in the Netherlands and Mussert struggled to achieve his expected breakthrough.
Fragment showing a resistance exhibition in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Amsterdam, with representations of events from World War II. Amongst others, a mock representation of Reich Commissioner Arthur Seyss-Inquart and NSB leader Anton Mussert can be seen.
Like the Dutch population, the Nazis also seemed rather unimpressed by Mussert, deeming him not radical enough in his political leadership. Mussert, therefore, started to increasingly adapt the ideologies of his party to the far-right Nazi ideals, leading NSB propaganda to become more and more radical too. In doing so, Mussert hoped that the Germans would give the NSB full power of the Netherlands, with himself as a Dutch Mussolini leading the country. Despite his efforts, the Nazis showed little interest in his grandiose plans to create a 'Great Netherlands'. Mussert’s beloved country would simply become a part of the 'Greater Germanic Reich.'
So, a new era had begun – just not in the way Mussert had foreseen it. And although World War II ended, mass media propaganda would remain ever present in times of the Cold War and beyond. Media manipulation would be used far into the future to reinforce marginalised unpopular political opinions, leading to more mass fear and polarisations of socio-political ideologies.
From Mussert’s attempts to subtly manipulate the Dutch population during World War II, we will now take a look at the use of propaganda in a new period: the Cold War. How and why did the German Democratic Republic (GDR) use propaganda during these times of geopolitical tension? And what involvement did the 'Radio in the American Sector' (RIAS) have in all this?