Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The Fall of the Third Reich

As alluded to in my previous post, I went on a bit of a YouTube bender in the midst of reading Capital and Ideology. This was actually a momentous occasion, as it is the first time in my approximately 14 years of using YouTube that the algorithm did something good. Usually it suggests inane, offensive or redundant content, so it was a pleasant surprise that, for the first time in my entire life, I was actually seeing YouTube recommendations pointing me towards unexpected things that turned out to be delightful.

This all started with the aforementioned short The New Spirit, also known as "Taxes to Beat the Axis". This is a really remarkable piece, filled with education, humor, drama and spectacle. The Sixteenth Amendment was only a few decades old, and the idea of a progressive income tax was relatively novel.

The first section is really funny, with Donald's swings from enthusiasm to sulking and back again. It's really interesting to see historical artifacts in there, like old-fashioned ink blotters. But the most stunning section is the final few minutes. We pull out from Donald's private domestic zaniness and witness his enthusiastic run across America, gaining a broad perspective of the entire continent: all bound together, united, with the mass communication of the radio tying California with the East Coast, seeing the unique beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the Texan desserts and the Louisiana delta. And that dissolves into the awe-inspiring and shocking militancy of the final minutes: we see the fruits of that great united nation, putting to work the wealth of the nation, her factories busy, churning out the weapons to defeat fascism. I think the part of this short that sticks with me the most is the way the narrator says "Guns, guns, all kinds of guns!", his quivering tone suggesting a mixture of reverence and titillation.

That's actually the second video I saw when searching "Taxes to Beat the Axis" on YouTube. The first one I saw is sort of a sequel, "The Spirit of 43". This is the one I vaguely remember seeing at the Ground Round in my childhood, along with a video I can't seem to find anywhere that updated Aesop's Fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper and ended with the Grasshopper relaxing to a luxurious winter thanks to his stash of War Bonds. Anyways, The Spirit of 43 strikes a markedly different tone in many ways from the earlier work. This is a more internal struggle, with Donald reaching within himself to do the right thing instead of responding to an authoritative voice.

I'm struck again and again by the sense of collective struggle in these shorts. The government is us, it's we the people putting our resources together - "Your taxes, my taxes, our taxes" - to accomplish something important. I really wish we could reclaim that sense of all being in this together.

Another interesting artifact is the cartoons of Tex Avery, including Blitz Wolf.  This is less nuanced (who would have ever thought that Donald Duck would be the avatar of nuance?!), but crams in a ton of gags and is really fun to watch. Where Donald appeals to your mind, Avery appeals to your fighting spirit, with tons of slapstick and scenery-chewing. This is nominally a program to sell war bonds, but that appeal feels very perfunctory and tacked-on, not integrated into the story like the Donald shorts.

From here, I took a detour into a longer and more structured form of propaganda: Why We Fight. This amazing series of films from Frank Capra hold up impressively well today, both as history and as art.

So, just to state the obvious: Yes, this is propaganda. It was developed by the United States government to shape public perceptions of the war; more specifically, to convince a generally isolationist populace of the need to fight in Europe and Asia, and to convince conscripted young men that this cause was worth killing and dying for.

That said, it comes off as surprisingly nuanced propaganda. I was kind of impressed at how deeply it delved into the history of the rise of Hitler in Germany: it covers the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the punishing payments extracted from Germany, the hyperinflation this led to, and the human misery and desperation accompanying it. The narrator's overall message is along the lines of "The Germans were going through hard times, and they made the mistake of believing that the Nazis had the answers. Of course, we all have gone through hard times. In America we worked through our problems democratically, establishing the New Deal and fixing our economy while continuing to live freely." It carefully threads a needle, the same one Piketty delicately traces, of explaining how the prior actions of the Allies laid the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power, while remaining very clear that his actions were inexcusable.

The big overriding proposition of this series is that World War II is a cataclysmic battle between two incompatible worlds, the Free World of the allies and the Slave World of the axis. The Free World is implicitly denoted by FDR's famous Four Freedoms: Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The Axis only promises freedom from want and tramples on all the others. I was struck by how the films stressed America's diversity, making a note that Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Christians and everyone else shares equal rights to practice their faith. It also is (to my ears) surprisingly friendly towards the left, repeatedly decrying how Hitler and Mussolini suppressed socialist movements in Europe and praising the freedoms granted to labor unions in the US.

As history it works well and thoroughly, not starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the invasion of Poland in 1939, but the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. We see how long aggression had gone unchecked, how many times belligerent nations broke treaties without repercussions, how often the League of Nations tutted their tongues and did nothing. Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 follows the same vein. The narrator spells it out very clearly and darkly: The people in the United States asked, Why should we care that some Africans in huts have been attacked, or some Asians in rice paddies? The message is clear: we should have cared, we had a moral duty to care, and we're only in this mess now because we neglected to act when the victims were people who didn't look or speak like us.

That narrator is a constant companion through the series. It's fascinating and instructive to compare this to The Triumph of the Will. From what I understand, Capra intended this series to be a sort of response to or antidote for that famous Nazi propaganda movie. They are completely different beasts, though. Triumph of the Will has almost no dialogue, just sweeping and inspiring imagery of crowds and movement, mass roaring chants; there are selections from speeches by Nazi leaders, but the real power is the response to those words, not the words themselves. It's a film designed to overwhelm your senses, to inspire awe.

So, it's interesting that Why We Fight is such a dialogue-heavy series. We're getting a history lesson, and following troop movements on a map, and hearing glosses on major events. It cajoles, it pontificates, it debates, it states. It's doing a lot, but what it's trying to feel most like is an appeal to reason: it lays out evidence, makes arguments, and asks you to accept its conclusions.

The more I think about this, the more perfect this comparison is. When you're producing propaganda in the service of democracy, you're emulating democracy, and making each viewer its own citizen, capable of making up his or her own mind, and hoping we all pull together in the right direction in the end. When making propaganda in service of fascism, though, it's all about the mass movement, about unity, about unquestioning devotion and obedience. One picks you up, the other sweeps you away.

The nature of those arguments is also very well done. The movies frequently quote from Mein Kampf and various speeches from leaders in all three Axis nations, using their own words to illustrate the danger these countries pose. Sometimes it is highlighting the grandiose ambitions and despicable philosophy they hold. Other times it is to highlight their hypocrisy and treachery; one very effective example comes in part two, The Nazis Strike, replaying a speech from Hitler where he makes specific promises against any claim of territory on each of his European neighbors. The film returns to that speech again and again after each new border is breached, replaying his earlier words as an ironic counterpart to his later actions. It's making a clear argument that diplomacy with such a man is impossible. It also is stunningly similar to the technique recently popularized by Jon Stewart and now deployed by a variety of news-oriented comedians, highlighting the hypocrisy of politicians by playing old footage of them stating one thing alongside new footage of them saying or doing the opposite.

The series isn't perfectly high-minded, of course. While the movies rightfully decry the Nazi philosophy of Aryan supremacy, they're completely silent on America's own history of racial injustice, making no mention of the Jim Crow South or the Chinese Exclusion Act or the internment of Japanese Americans. It generally avoids racial and national characterizations, but does slip in a couple of suggestions that, say, the Germans have a history of aggression (while also going out of its way to show that America has been a good home for Germans, highlighting the many ethnic Germans serving in high ranks of American government and military).

Finally, I wanted to note that the editing of these films is really remarkable. It's surprisingly fast and kinetic, with the kind of rapid cuts and disorienting shifts in action that I tend to associate with 21st-century Hollywood movies. The aerial combat scenes as in The Battle of Britain are particularly effective, exhilarating and tense.

It's really interesting to see the shift between high-level and low-level information. Some of the US War Department's films were aimed to educate (or "educate") the populace about the broad contours of the war: why we were fighting, the theaters in which we were operating, what territory had been lost or reclaimed. Others were much more low-level: what you, the viewer, ought to be doing (or not doing). Those Donald Duck cartoons above are a great example of this: you should be paying your taxes to support the war effort. There was similar propaganda around discreet communications ("Loose Lips Sink Ships"), self-sufficiency (Victory Gardens), and volunteering for military or non-military duty.

A particularly fascinating sub-genre were films aimed directly at servicemembers. With a drafted, non-professional military that consisted mostly of young single men, there was a... very particular tone used to impart important lessons. Lewd and funny, it's kind of shocking that these were actual government films, but I can see why they might be more effective than a straight training movie.

I'm mostly thinking of Private Snafu here. The pedigree of these cartoons is kind of insane: Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) wrote the scripts, Chuck Jones animated them, and Mel Blanc voiced them. Unlike Why We Fight, these were not distributed for broader public consumption, and were exclusively viewed by members of the armed forces.

I think the humor still holds up well, with the unfortunate and major exception of the blatant racism. Unlike the Disney cartoons, which used anthropomorphized animals and vehicles to depict our foes, or Why We Fight, which uses actual footage of foreign leaders and soldiers, the Snafu cartoons include painful racial characterizations, particularly of the Japanese, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has viewed, say, Buck Rogers comics of the era. It is tempting to contextualize this and point out that we were at war with the Japanese, but you can't escape the major differences between how our European adversaries were depicted compared to our Asian adversaries.

Maybe the biggest impact all of these historical and artistic artifacts have on me is a new appreciation for the massive difference between the pre-1970s civilian army versus our modern professional army. Don't get me wrong, I am extremely glad that we no longer have a draft! But when I look back at history, it's striking how there was such a unified sense of purpose in our conflicts: everyone was serving in the war or directly affected by it; even when opposing war, as in Vietnam, it was a national issue that impacted everyone. Today, it seems like our wars are parceled out and self-contained, with citizens duly funding the expenses via our taxes but having no sense that it is "our" fight, "our" purpose. That seems to me like a dangerous trend. Whether a war is just or not, it is being fought on our behalf even if not by our personal bodies, and I kind of wish we paid the same degree of attention to our missions in Afghanistan that we once did to our missions on Pacific atolls or European beaches.


  1. Hello man! or should I say, oi chummer, eheh. shadowrunner from italy here. i've quitted lurking just to tell I'm happy to hear from you in those strange times, I've started to worry between the virus and the violence. How are things in you area? Also, have you seen "the ducktators"?

    1. Hoi, chummer! Hello from California, thank you for writing! Yes, I've been busy with a (non-game-related) project for the last month so I haven't posted much, but I will probably start writing more soon!

      Things are OK in my area. California is getting hit pretty hard by the virus, but the Bay Area is doing better than most cities. People here are mostly following the suggestions to wear masks and stay home, which seems to be helping a lot. I hope that things are OK in Italy, we heard some very scary stories from there early in the pandemic.

      I had not seen The Ducktators, thank you for mentioning it! I just watched it now, and wow, it's a perfect example of these sorts of programs. I thought it was really interesting how the peaceful dove is mocked but becomes the hero in the end.

      Thanks again for the note, I'm glad you enjoyed Antumbra Saga! Cheers!

  2. amazing work you've done, by the way, I should say. it was very interesting to play antumbra saga and it is very interesting to read your blog! keep rockin'

  3. Bro- Interesting to see your take on these films. I can't say that I've seen the Donald Duck ones, but Why We Fight was required viewing for me back in the day. I agree with your overall take on it, and would offer that this is an example of propaganda done right and largely done for the right reasons. We got a lot of things wrong (such as the JAICs)but overall this series should resonate today.

    1. Oh, cool! Was Why We Fight part of a class? I'm definitely familiar with the history but I'm like 99% sure I've never seen it, or even any clips from it before. And I agree, it's healthy to retain some skepticism but I do think this is propaganda done right: it isn't the whole picture, but is a truthful picture, and drawn towards a good end.

  4. So, my browser just went wonky on me. Not part of a college class,but part of an LPD program while I was in service. A lot of our soldiers weren't old enough to have internalized 9/11, so our Battalion Commander wanted to give us an example of how to communicate the root cause of a conflict. Very helpful for me as a young butter-bar,and distinctly different from the racist tones of a lot of media at the time. You mention the Buck Rogers comics- yeah, those are painful to read nowadays (Monkey men of Planet X in particular).