As the latest land war in Europe grinds on in Ukraine, the fighting extends well beyond the military combat on the ground. Both sides are also waging a propaganda war — an old tactic updated with an array of new weapons and techniques.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as a master communicator, using social media platforms to bypass Russian censorship and communicate to the Ukrainian people. In his Instagram and Twitter posts and videos, he has outwitted Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and managed to capture the world’s attention with his direct and honest messaging — a feat in an age of snark and fakery. In this way, Zelensky has succeeded in showing the world that Ukraine — far from being a lost colony welcomed back to Mother Russia — is the victim of a war of aggression that was unprovoked and has been, so far, unsuccessful. In doing so, he is building on a wartime playbook advanced by the United States and other countries during World War II: mobilizing new communications technology as a weapon of war.
U.S. wartime propaganda from World War II played an important role in training troops, enhancing civilian morale and raising money for the war effort. Consider, for example, the famous series “Why We Fight,” created by Hollywood in the service of the U.S. War Department and directed by Frank Capra, the renowned creator of such beloved and sentimental American movie classics as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Capra, an Italian immigrant and U.S. Army veteran who served during World War I, viewed Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a unique global threat. Hitler’s primary propagandist was Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker. Understanding the power of film to persuade and evoke emotions, Capra was particularly worried about the effectiveness of Riefenstahl’s propaganda. Plus, he watched as wartime rationing sidelined most Hollywood production, sapping the American film industry of its own potential to persuade.
Capra and others in the film industry pushed the White House to mobilize Hollywood talent just as the government had mobilized other American industries, including car and textile production, in support of the war effort. American film, Capra said, could effectively counter Nazi messaging, and the impact could be as important as the building of fighter planes or production of military uniforms.
The idea, embraced enthusiastically by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his military chief of staff, George C. Marshall, was that such films could explain to recruits why they were being asked to go and fight in far-off lands. At first, the “Why We Fight” series was meant to be shown just in Army boot camps, but when Roosevelt screened an early entry in the series, he was so impressed that he ordered the government to pay for the rights to screen the films in free showings for all American moviegoers.
What was Capra’s message?
In “The Battle of Russia,” Capra drove home the theme that the Nazi assault on Russia was uniquely barbaric for two reasons: First, it was unprovoked. Second, it involved the dreadful tactic of laying siege to major cities and shelling civilian populations.
On an emotional level, the film made the case that the Russians were a stalwart people and that the United States could count on them as allies. Capra showed individual Russians in close-ups, including babushkas digging trenches and factory workers making munitions, and he showed civilians, including children, dying from indiscriminate shelling. He even showed a still image of a dead elephant at the Leningrad Zoo, killed by German bombs. In an eerie echo, the current Russian shelling of civilian areas in Ukraine led to reports about the trauma inflicted on the elephant in Kyiv’s zoo. (The animal was still alive at press time.)
By contrast, Capra depicted the Germans as faceless aggressors, shown only from behind or in groups. Through Capra’s lens, these German armies violated all standards of decency by reviving a medieval tactic of siege and engaging in bombing campaigns that killed innocent civilians. His most insistent indictment of the Nazi attackers was the shelling of noncombatants. Using actual footage supplied by the Soviet Red Army, Capra showed bombs falling night and day, followed by close-ups of dead men, women and children.
In Capra’s eyes in the 1940s films of “Why We Fight,” the Russians were to be admired for their determination to endure the brutal siege.
Today, the filmmaker would surely have cast the Ukrainian people in that heroic role, while the Russian army and its leader would be the brutal aggressors. In Ukraine, Zelensky — a figure straight out of a Capra movie, having been plucked from obscurity and thrust into a heroic role — is rallying his compatriots to stand firm. Meanwhile, Putin is playing the villainous role of the Hitler figure, launching a criminal assault on women and children. In one of the great ironies of European history, the Russians have effectively traded places with the Germans of World War II, by launching a ground war against a neighbor and using the brutal tactic of raining artillery down indiscriminately among civilians.
No one knows this better than the Russians, who endured the brutal German siege of Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) as well as Moscow, Stalingrad and other cities. Putin, as a native of Leningrad, probably heard horror stories about the siege that his family endured, so he should know even better than most about the suffering of civilians when they are attacked in war. He does not need Capra to remind him.
It is often said that when war comes, the first casualty is truth. But that does not mean all wartime communication is fake. Today, as the propaganda war rages, it may well turn out that the ultimate weapon in the information wars might just be the kind of truth Zelensky has been wielding in videos that show him alive in his office, not running away.
By Christopher B. Daly
Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America.”