World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 2: Almanac, UXL, 2000.
For a long time it has been thought that soldiers fight better when they believe they are fighting for a good reason. So every government in World War II wanted to convince its soldiers that they were risking their lives to protect their country—and their own families—from being conquered by a cruel enemy, that they had been forced to go to war to defend themselves, and that the world would be a much better place after the war than it had been before.
The nature of World War II also made it important for each government to rally its civilian population at home around these same causes. This was because World War II was a total war, in which victory depended on devoting all the resources of a country to the war effort. (Other aspects of total war are described in Chapter 8.)
The most obvious example of devoting resources concerned jobs. Millions of women in the United States and Britain worked outside the home for the first time during World War II. Both women and men were doing jobs, such as working in factories, that were harder, dirtier, noisier, and often more dangerous than anything they had experienced before. If people believed that their work helped preserve their country’s freedom, they would work harder, with fewer complaints, and do a better job. The same was true for all the other hardships and inconveniences that the war brought, such as crowded housing, product shortages, and, of course, separation from loved ones in the armed forces. In countries like Britain and Germany, the civilians also had to endure deadly air raids. All these things were easier to tolerate if people believed in the goals of the war.
Convincing people that their cause is righteous is the job of propaganda. Propaganda is information, usually officially communicated by the government, that is aimed at large numbers of people to influence their opinions. Originally the word applied whether the information was true or false. By the time of World War II, however, propaganda usually implied that the information was one-sided, distorted, or even an outright lie. Enemy communications were always described as “propaganda,” while one’s own side offered “information” or “news.”
In countries that Germany had defeated and taken over (occupied), the governments did not control the information the people received. Instead, there were two opposite sets of messages, one from the Germans and one from the Allies (the countries fighting Germany). There was also information from resistance movements, secret and illegal networks that opposed the Germans in each conquered country (see Chapter 6).
The Allies reached the people of these occupied countries mainly by radio, especially the programs of the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC broadcast in twenty-three languages. Millions of Europeans listened every night, even though they risked severe punishment if they were caught. The BBC developed the best reputation that any source of information can have, especially in wartime: people believed that it told the truth. This was because the BBC rarely exaggerated Allied victories or underplayed their defeats.
The BBC did not need to explain the purpose of the war when it broadcast to countries under German occupation. Getting rid of the Germans and restoring their independence was enough for most people. This became increasingly true as the occupation became harsher and living conditions worse. (Life in occupied Europe is described in Chapter 6.) Instead, the BBC’s message to those countries was that the war was continuing, that Germany would eventually be defeated, and that people who cooperated with the Germans would later pay for their actions.
German Foreign Propaganda
At the beginning of World War II, German political and military leaders were sure the war would be short. Because of this, they did not try to convince citizens of occupied countries that a German victory was a good thing. Instead, they just wanted to convince them that a German victory was certain, that there was no point in resisting, and that they should cooperate with the German occupation.
Later, when it became clear that the war would be a long one, some German authorities wanted to persuade people to actively support the German side. Germany was depicted as building a New Order and creating a united Europe. According to German propaganda, Germany was defending European civilization against the Communist Soviet Union. (Communism is a political and economic system based on government —not private—ownership of most businesses.) Posters showed a handsome German soldier protecting a helpless child.
A few people responded to these ideas, as well as to German propaganda that blamed the war on the Jews. But for the most part, these efforts came too late to have much effect. Even if it had been more skillful, German propaganda could not have overcome the reality of the occupation. Germany was using each conquered country’s wealth for itself. No matter what they saw on posters, hungry people blamed the Germans for stealing their country’s food. They knew they were forced to work harder for longer hours and less pay. They knew they could not speak freely, read what they wished, or vote.
Psychological Warfare: Speaking to the Enemy
Just as each country tried to convince its own people that it was necessary to fight, it tried to convince the enemy’s people of the opposite. Each side used radio broadcasts, leaflets dropped from planes, and other methods to try to demoralize enemy troops and civilians, to try to discourage them and weaken their determination to fight. This was often called psychological warfare, and its backers claimed it would make a major difference in the war. Most historians now believe these efforts had very little effect.
One example of psychological warfare was Germany’s use of a pro-Nazi Englishman named William Joyce on their radio. For years, Joyce told the British troops that they were losing the war, that they were fighting for no reason, that their leaders were getting rich while they died. The British troops called him Lord Haw Haw because of his exaggerated upper-class accent, and thought he was funny. There is no evidence that anyone ever believed anything he said. Even so, Britain tried Joyce and hanged him for treason after the war.
American troops in Europe often listened to an all-night program on the German radio that played the latest jazz and swing recordings. They called the show’s host Axis Sally. (The Axis was the name for Germany and the countries fighting on its side.) Axis Sally was really Mildred Gillars, an American who had worked as an actress in prewar Germany. In between records, she tried to demoralize the troops by talking about how the GIs (ordinary soldiers) must be lonely, how their wives and girlfriends back home were probably cheating on them. Sometimes she read the serial numbers of American soldiers who had been killed or captured. In one of her programs, aimed at the troops preparing for the invasion of France, she and other actors dramatized the death and horror that awaited them. Gillars was one of only twelve Americans convicted of treason for their actions during World War II. Sentenced to ten to thirty years in prison, she was paroled after serving twelve years.
One of the other Americans convicted of treason was also a radio propagandist for the enemy. She was Iva Toguri Ikoku, an American woman whose parents were Japanese. She was the best-known of several women who broadcast to Allied troops on Japanese radio, all of whom were called Tokyo Rose. Like Gillars, Tokyo Rose mixed popular music with talk that was supposed to demoralize her soldier audience. Just as with Gillars, the soldiers listened to the music and apparently ignored the talk. Ikoku served six years of her seven-year sentence and was later pardoned.
German Propaganda at Home
Although German propaganda did not have much impact on enemy soldiers or the people of occupied Europe, it was much more effective when directed at Germans. Propaganda had been an important tool for the Nazis both before and after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. The man most responsible was Joseph Goebbels (pronounced Ger-bulls). Goebbels developed the technique of the big lie, repeating the same outlandish accusations again and again until people believed them. It was he who arranged that the Nazis’ uniformed parades, banners, posters, speeches, and songs all worked together to produce a powerful effect. Goebbels had also organized the book burnings in the first days of the Nazi government. Books written by Jews, by opponents of the Nazis, or by anyone whose ideas the Nazis hated were publicly thrown on bonfires.
But most of all, Goebbels became a master at using two relatively new ways of presenting information and entertainment: radio and film. As an increasingly powerful member of the government, whose official title was Minister (Secretary) of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, he controlled all radio broadcasts and film production in Germany. By the beginning of the war, about 70 percent of German households owned a radio. Never before had a government been able to reach such a large proportion of its people at one time. Goebbels understood the power of radio and used it in a way that no one had ever done before.
Nazi Germany’s Films
Goebbels also understood the importance of film. Movie theaters in Germany never closed down during the war, even after 1943, when the government ordered that museums, concert halls, and sports arenas be shut down. In cities where Allied bombing had destroyed the available theaters, the government arranged special outdoor showings.
Some of the films that Goebbels sponsored before the war have remained famous. Chief among these were the films of Leni Riefenstahl, a young actress turned movie director. Her Triumph of the Will was a documentary that celebrated the Nazi Party’s rally in Nuremberg, a city in southern Germany, in 1934. Riefenstahl filmed the massed Nazis marching in intricate formations at torchlight ceremonies. Even today, when everyone watching the film knows that it glorifies a political movement that led to mass murder, it still has the ability to stir and frighten audiences. Similarly, Riefenstahl’s film on the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin, glorified youth, strength, and athletic excellence—but also Hitler and the Nazis. Almost every documentary film made about sports competitions, especially later Olympic Games, was strongly influenced by Riefenstahl.
Entertainment and Lies
As these examples show, Goebbels knew that artistic works were often the most effective propaganda. He also understood that most people did not want to be reminded of the war every minute of their lives, that they sometimes needed to relax. He knew entertainment was necessary, and he tried to cloak his political message in entertaining forms.
Goebbels’ propaganda machine had a major success with Jud Süss (“The Jew Süss”). This supposedly historical movie was intended to stir anti-Jewish hatred by telling the story of a Jew who became an important adviser to a German duke in the early eighteenth century. The movie portrays Süss as a rapist who plots with his fellow Jews to take over a city. The film apparently succeeded because German audiences accepted it as dramatic entertainment rather than propaganda. It was shown throughout occupied Europe in an attempt to persuade other countries to support the Germans’ anti-Jewish actions. It was also shown to concentration camp guards.
Another historical drama—in fact, an epic—was Kolberg, a project that Goebbels insisted on completing even though it drained increasingly scarce resources. Thousands of real German soldiers—180,000, according to its director—were used in the film, made in the final years of the war. Kolberg tells the story of how the people of a German town resisted French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1807 until the arrival of a German army saved it at the last minute. Obviously Goebbels hoped the film would inspire the German people to resist the invading Allies. The film opened in bomb-devastated Berlin at the end of January 1945—just as the Allied armies were preparing to advance into the heart of Germany.
Other popular German films of the period were made purely for entertainment. The most successful German film of the war years—in fact, the most successful German film ever up to that time—was Die Grosse Liebe (“The Great Love”), released in 1942 and seen by 28 million people, more than one-third of the population. The film, about the stormy romance and marriage between a German singer, played by Swedish star Zarah Leander, and an air force fighter pilot, was set against a war background. In it, Leander sang a song called “I Know Someday a Miracle Will Happen,” which became a kind of theme song for German civilians during the war years. Another extremely popular production, made in 1943, was Münchausen, a color film depicting the fantastic adventures of Baron Münchausen, including a balloon trip to the moon.
The American film industry was by far the biggest in the world, both before and during the war. In 1940, it produced more than 500 feature films. During the war, Hollywood provided all its films for free showings to troops overseas and sailors aboard ships; it was the only industry that gave its products to the government. But Hollywood could afford to be generous with the government: Americans were going to the movies like never before. In 1944, nearly 100 million tickets were sold every week in the United States—at a time when the U.S. population was about 130 million.
Before the United States entered the war, the film industry formed the Motion Picture Committee Cooperating for National Defense to distribute and show, without charge, national defense films made by the government. These films included so-called recruitment films made by the different branches of the armed services used to persuade people to enlist. It also made Women in Defense, written by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by the movie star Katharine Hepburn, which encouraged women to work in defense factories or to join the armed services.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the United States entered the war, the government produced documentaries on various aspects of the war. Typical examples include The Fighting Lady (the “life story” of an aircraft carrier), With the Marines at Tarawa, and The Liberation of Rome.
One important American documentary series was Why We Fight, seven films produced by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The series was conceived by Frank Capra, the star Hollywood director whose films, like It’s a Wonderful Life, are still shown. Capra himself directed the first film in the series, Prelude to War. The purpose of the series was to explain the events in Europe and Asia leading up to the war, the kind of governments the United States was fighting, and the purposes of the war. Originally, the audience was supposed to be limited to members of the armed forces. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw Prelude to War at a special White House screening, however, he said that “every man, woman, and child must see this film.” Despite heavy promotion, these films were not box-office favorites, though apparently American soldiers liked them more than they did most war films.
Hollywood and the War in Europe
The great majority of American films made during World War II were fiction. They were supposed to be entertaining, and they were supposed to make money. In 1940, 95 percent of Hollywood films had nothing to do with political themes or the war. The big American studios (film companies) earned a significant part of their profits by showing their films in foreign countries, where, just as today, American films were very popular. Fear of offending foreign governments, which might strike back by banning a studio’s films, was one reason that American films usually did not address controversial world issues.
Even so, even before World War II began a few films dealt with the rising threat of Nazism. One of the most important was Confessions of a Nazi Spy, released early in 1939 and directed by the German-born Anatole Litvak. A fictionalized version of the activities of a real German spy ring operating in the United States, the movie was the first openly anti-Nazi American film. It was a major commercial hit, but it was banned in Germany and countries that supported Germany— or that were afraid of offending it.
More typical in some ways was 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, which, although it was a British movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was very popular in the United States. The bad guys in that film are from some unnamed country apparently in central Europe. However, the message of the movie, that ignoring evil in foreign countries will never bring safety, is clearly referring to Germany.
During the more than two years between the beginning of the war and the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Hollywood films seemed to be aimed at winning support for United States entry into the war. Sergeant York was based on the life of Alvin York, an American soldier who became America’s greatest war hero fighting the Germans in 1918 during World War I. The story revolves around York’s early opposition to serving in the army because killing violates his religious beliefs. But York is finally convinced that fighting a war is sometimes the only way to prevent even more killing. An American audience seeing Sergeant York when it was released in 1941 would almost certainly have understood this message to refer to World War II as well.
Even more obvious was A Yank in the RAF, which told about an American pilot who joined Britain’s Royal Air Force to fight the Nazis. The film was made by 20th Century-Fox, whose top executive, Darryl F. Zanuck, was strongly in favor of American entry into the war.
Support for Allies
A Yank in the RAF illustrates one of the most common themes in Hollywood films of the period: creating sympathy for the countries fighting Germany, especially Britain, as a way of building support for the war. This theme continued even after the United States entered the war.
Perhaps the most effective and certainly the most popular pro-British movie was Mrs. Miniver, the 1942 film that won five Academy Awards, including best picture. Set at the beginning of the war, it tells the story of an average English middle-class family (though, since they have two live-in servants, they probably would have seemed somewhat wealthier than average to American audiences). The film shows the increasing hardships and dangers of the war, including German bombing of their village. The title character, played by Academy Award-winning actress Greer Garson, displays quiet strength and determination, even capturing a downed German pilot. Each person in the village puts aside his or her own selfish concerns in an increasing sense of national unity. The final scene takes place in the badly damaged village church, after a heavy air raid that killed several people in the village, including a lovable old stationmaster, a choirboy, and the beautiful young bride of the Minivers’ son (Teresa Wright, who also won an Oscar). The minister explains that these victims are all part of the fight because this is a “people’s war. It is our war. We are the fighters.”
Mrs. Miniver was used as an example of the movies Hollywood should be making by the Office of War Information (OWI), the government agency created in June 1942 to oversee American propaganda efforts. The OWI was different from military censors, who kept information secret because they were worried it would hurt military and civilian morale. Instead, the OWI was more concerned with making sure that certain messages got into movies, books, and newspapers—messages like the one in Mrs. Miniver.
The British were not the only people that Hollywood idealized. Many American films portrayed the activities of resistance movements in different parts of Europe, often in a completely unrealistic way. The French resistance was a favorite theme, with the classic 1942 film Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, being the most successful. Casablanca also included one of Hollywood’s favorite character types of the war—the American (Bogart) who does not want to get involved, but who comes to see the need to put aside his personal desires and join with others to fight the Nazis.
In a single year, beginning in September 1942, Hollywood released five movies describing the resistance in Norway. One of them, The Moon Is Down, based on a book and play by leading American writer John Steinbeck, Hollywood bought for $300,000, a record amount at the time. It was expected to be a major hit, and prints were even dropped by parachute into German-occupied Norway.
The Moon Is Down was not a hit, probably because audiences were tired of seeing gloomy films about the war. But it did create a major controversy because it portrayed the German colonel in charge of the Norwegian town not as a violent brute but as a complicated man who was partly motivated by a desire to be respected and liked. Actually, although it was unusual to show a German officer this way, the “good German” was a common character in many American World War II films, especially those set before the war. The idea was that most German people had fallen under the spell of the Nazis but were themselves were not necessarily evil.
This attitude is not surprising, since there were many Germans who had fled Hitler—writers, directors, and actors—now working in Hollywood. One of these directors, Fritz Lang, had even been offered the top job in the German film industry by Goebbels in 1933, shortly after the Nazis came to power. Instead, Lang went to Hollywood.
The same is not true for portrayals of Japanese people in American movies. Almost without exception, the Japanese were shown as sneaky and dishonest, or as savages who enjoyed inflicting pain. Most historians believe that these differences can be explained by racist feelings toward the Japanese. (The treatment of Japanese Americans in the United States is described in Chapter 5.) Whether Hollywood helped create those feelings or simply reflected the way people already felt is impossible to know.
Once the United States entered the war, Hollywood began turning out hundreds of features with a war theme. The new Tarzan movie had Nazis for the enemy, and Sherlock Holmes now hunted German spies in modern London. Even Donald Duck collected scrap metal for the war. At the same time, Hollywood never stopped making musicals, romantic comedies, and other films that had nothing to do with the war. Some of them were far more popular than most war pictures—especially among the soldiers, who actually had to fight and considered most combat films unrealistic.
The earliest of these combat films was Wake Island, released in September 1942, less than nine months after the events it described. Dozens of others followed, depicting specific battles or particular branches of the armed services. Action in the North Atlantic portrayed the bravery and sacrifice of the sailors of the merchant marine. The Fighting Seabees was about the navy construction companies that built airfields on Pacific islands, often while fighting was still going on. Destination Tokyo was about submarines, Sahara and The Immortal Sergeant were set in the desert battles of North Africa, and The Purple Heart and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo were both about the American bombing raid on Tokyo in April 1942.
One of the best of these films was Guadalcanal Diary, released in late 1943. It was based on the best-selling book of the same name by Richard Tregaskis, a twenty-six-year-old reporter who was with the marines on Guadalcanal in August and September 1942. The book originated with the notes he wrote for his daily reports. Although his criticisms of the navy’s failure to adequately supply the marines were censored by the military, the book and the movie both seemed to provide a realistic picture of the day-to-day experiences of combat troops, even though the film included invented scenes not found in the book.
The publication of Guadalcanal Diary made Richard Tregaskis famous, but he was only one of many well-known American war correspondents who reported on the war. For the first time, many of the correspondents were women. But they were not readily accepted: the women had to fight against the prejudices of top military and naval officers, whose permission was necessary to enter a war zone, as well as their own editors and publishers.
One of the most successful American correspondents in Nazi Germany before the war was Sigrid Schultz of the Chicago Tribune. She sometimes published under a false name so that the Nazis would not throw her out of Germany. Her articles gave American readers an idea of the ambitions and goals of the German leaders—who were not pleased. Hermann Göring, the second most important Nazi, called her the “dragon lady from Chicago.” Schultz continued to report from Berlin, the German capital, for the first year of the war. She left Germany for a visit home in January 1941, and the Nazis refused to allow her to come back.
By reporting on war plans and preparations and covering war news from Berlin, Schultz helped open the door for other women reporters. But she did not travel with armies, sail on warships, or report on battles as an eyewitness.
Despite opposition, however, many women were soon doing just that. Helen Kirkpatrick, the London correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, covered the Blitz, the German air raids on London, riding through the city in ambulances and fire trucks. Later she accompanied Allied troops in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany. In one famous story, she wrote an eyewitness account of gunfire erupting inside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris during a service to celebrate the liberation of the French capital. Kirkpatrick became so popular that the Daily News featured her in promotions, including placing her picture on the sides of Chicago buses.
Some of the women correspondents reported from areas that were more difficult for reporters to cover than the European theater (area of operations). Sonia Tomara of the New York Herald-Tribune, for example, covered the China-Burma-India theater, flying in combat missions over the high mountains. The pictures of Margaret Bourke-White, one of a group of brilliant photographers for Life magazine, spanned many areas of the war, but she was one of the few Americans who covered the war in the Soviet Union.
Ernie Pyle and the GIs’ War
The most famous American war correspondent was Ernie Pyle. Pyle was very successful at home, where almost 400 daily newspapers and 300 weeklies around the country carried his reports. He was respected by everyone in his profession, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1944.
Besides these achievements, Pyle was unique in one respect. He was immensely popular with, and even loved by, the troops. Whenever a GI met a reporter, the most common question was, “Do you know Ernie Pyle?” In his early forties, Pyle was significantly older than typical GIs, but he often shared their hardships. His writing was not flashy, and his subjects were rarely glamorous. Perhaps because of this, many GIs felt that Pyle expressed what the war—their war—was really like.
Pyle was with the GIs through North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and then in France from the Normandy beaches to the liberation of Paris. He returned home to America but then decided to go to the Pacific, to cover the war against Japan. Pyle said he was not seeking more fame or glory. “I’m going simply because there’s a war on and I’m part of it,” he said. “I’m going simply because I’ve got to, and I hate it.” In other words, he felt very much like the GIs felt about the war. On April 18, 1945, Pyle was killed by Japanese fire on the little island of Ie Shima, near Okinawa. The GIs put up a wooden sign. Above Ernie Pyle’s name and the date on which he died, they wrote: “At this spot, the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy.”
Willie and Joe
Another war correspondent who was extremely popular with the soldiers—and who also won a Pulitzer Prize—was Bill Mauldin. Mauldin was not a writer or photographer, but a cartoonist. He drew a cartoon called Willie and Joe. Unlike Pyle, Mauldin was the same age as many of the soldiers he pictured. In fact, he had started the war as a regular soldier, who drew cartoons for his division’s newspaper as a part-time assignment. Before long, Mauldin’s fame had spread to soldiers in other divisions, and eventually he was transferred to the staff of Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper published by the army and distributed to the troops. When Ernie Pyle wrote a column praising Mauldin, newspapers back home also began to carry his cartoons.
Like Pyle, Mauldin told the story of the GIs’ war, but he told it humorously. He saw it through the eyes of two infantrymen named Willie and Joe whose feet always hurt and who thought officers led an easy life while the GIs did all the work. In Mauldin’s cartoons, the soldiers were always unshaven, with their shirts hanging out. Willie and Joe did not have much use for army rules about neatness. It was always muddy and miserable where they slept, and keeping dry seemed more important than capturing Berlin.
Willie and Joe were no heroes, but they did their job. They did not talk about the purpose of the war, and they often expressed doubts about the way it was being run—but they never questioned that it was necessary. Some top officers did not appreciate the way Mauldin kept poking fun at them and thought Willie and Joe set a poor example of discipline and the proper behavior for a soldier. General George S. Patton, commander of the U.S. Third Army, threatened to ban Stars and Stripes from his area if Mauldin continued to publish his cartoons. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Patton’s boss, instead arranged for Patton and Mauldin to meet face to face and discuss the problem. Mauldin defended his cartoons, saying they made soldiers laugh at their own problems. Patton was not convinced, but Stars and Stripes, with Mauldin’s cartoons, continued to be read by GIs throughout Europe—including the soldiers of Patton’s Third Army.