How did Stalin control the media during World War II? And how did that level of control shape the direction of the war and compare to similar efforts in Germany? Karel C. Berkhoff explores these and other questions in his June 2013 Historically Speaking essay, "Motherland In Danger: How Stalin Micromanaged The Media During The War With Nazi Germany and Hurt Mobilization Efforts." (See the full piece at Project Muse.)
Asks Berkhoff: "If you lived, say, in Novosibirsk or Tashkent during World War II, what were you told? What did Soviet newspapers and radio tell Soviet civilians, and what did it all mean for the outcome of the war?"
Throughout he notes that Stalin's extensive wartime propaganda stood out when compared to contemporaries. Here's a brief excerpt:
A close look reveals that during the war with Nazi Germany, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, Soviet propaganda was much more centralized than in Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels led the German Ministry of Propaganda, but he lacked dictatorial power; competing forces remained in place. In the Soviet Union, however, one man basically decided everything. Stalin created a central information bureau, instructed editors, studied drafts of newspaper articles, glanced at page proofs, and immensely tightened censorship. He squeezed out the voices of real people, quite contrary to the view that the war made him loosen his grip.
Stalin found keeping control more important than stimulating and mobilizing people, so in this sense, Soviet propaganda was more totalitarian than its notorious Nazi counterpart. The extreme centralization, as both an ideal and a practice, had no equal in wartime Europe. Nothing shows this better than the Soviet state’s almost immediate confiscation of radio receivers from its own citizens; only wire radios remained. It was all because of fear. Stalin led a regime that had known for a long time, even under Vladimir Lenin, that its popular support was slim, and now, at war with Germany, he feared that his citizens might become less loyal to him. Stalin also feared that accurate information might benefit Nazi propaganda or cause the Americans and other allies to reconsider their Soviet aid.
One could argue that propaganda that barely informed did not really hurt the war effort because the home country was under attack and the invaders’ regime was more brutal and murderous than any earlier occupation in world history. It is true that eventually the “war of annihilation” declared by Adolf Hitler just had to be opposed. The danger underlined in Soviet propaganda was real, and Soviet citizens realized that, indeed, Nazi Germany offered them nothing but slavery and death. Stalin’s propaganda told them that the “Hitlerites” were murdering innocent civilians, including women, children, and the elderly; soon rumors and first-hand accounts by refugees confirmed these tales. The entire country was under threat. Moreover, Stalin, in a rare brilliant stroke, made propaganda speak more of the “fatherland” and the “motherland” than of Russia, a word that alienated many non-Russian citizens. While Russian patriotism did flourish, the Georgian-born dictator restrained its chauvinistic version.
In various ways, the war propaganda of the Soviet Union resembled that of other belligerents. There were stories about selfless war heroes, which people suspected were partly or wholly untrue, and if Moscow received information contradicting the tales—corpses not found, dead heroes turning out to be alive––it was suppressed. Soviet citizens were also provided with many stories about traitors. In Germany, the UK, and the U.S., too, the media searched for and found war heroes and traitors. If British and American propaganda denigrated entire nations as enemies, for most of the war, Soviet propaganda also emitted hate speech—it encouraged and incited ethnic hatred and violence. In an ideological heresy tolerated by Stalin, the German people, not just their leaders or the “fascists,” became evil incarnate.
Most surprising is the similar treatment of what we now call the Holocaust: how the Nazis—assisted by many other Europeans—succeeded almost completely in murdering all the Jewish men, women, and children within their reach. Early on, Stalin and his associates were told by various sources that the Nazis were exterminating all Jews. But the media hardly ever highlighted this killing campaign. Stalin was aware that many of his associates and subjects were anti-Semitic. Telling the country about Jews would hurt the war effort against those who were exterminating them, he seems to have assumed. Here, too, Soviet coverage resembled British and American reporting.
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