According to one dictionary definition the term “propaganda” should be understood as “information, ideas, opinions etc. propagated as a means of winning support for, or fomenting opposition to, a government, institution etc.” There is nothing here to indicate whether the information, ideas and opinions propagated need be true or false. Thus, to take a simple example, the US occupation for more than a century of Cuban territory at Guantanamo Bay for use as a naval base, is a fact. To state that fact is to speak the truth. It is also a fact that the treaty by which the US came into possession of Guantanamo was imposed upon Cuba against the will of its people, with the threat that failure to accept it would result in the US occupation of the island. It is also a fact that since 1959 the Cuban government has refused to accept the rent from the US for Guantanamo, claiming, truthfully, that the territory housing the base belongs to Cuba and that the US has no legitimate right to be there. All of this factual information and the truthful expression of opinion by the Cuban government, most recently by President Raul Castro, demanding its return to Cuba, has been reiterated consistently for the past 56 years. The demand for the return of Guantanamo may be regarded as “winning support for” the Cuban government, or “fomenting opposition to” the US government. In that case such a demand could, according to the definition, be regarded as propaganda. It would, nevertheless be a just demand on the basis of a truthful presentation of the facts.
“Propaganda” has a derogatory ring to it. It is usually taken for granted that all propaganda must be mendacious, involving deliberate falsification intended to deceive its recipients and persuade them to accept what the propagandists know to be untrue. It may be readily accepted that in many cases this is indeed what propaganda is about. But not necessarily in all cases. During the Second World War following the Battle of Stalingrad, the National Committee for a Free Germany, composed largely of captured German officers who had turned against Hitler, broadcast messages to the Wehrmacht calling on them to surrender. One of these took the form of a clock ticking off the seconds with a voice-over in German informing the demoralized German soldiers that one of their number was dying every second on the Eastern Front, and leaving the sound of the clock ticking away. It was frighteningly effective propaganda. At that time, it was also true. Even propaganda involving deliberate falsehoods may be justified at times.
The radical journalist Claude Cockburn recounts (Cockburn Sums Up. 1981) how in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, he filed a news report, purportedly from Tetouan in Spanish Morocco, in which he claimed to witness a full-scale revolt by Moorish soldiers against the Spanish army. It was intended to persuade the government of Leon Blum in France that Franco might lose the war and thus persuade him (Blum) to lift his arms embargo on the Spanish Republicans. No such revolt had happened. Cockburn made it up. After the Second World War he was roundly condemned for having engaged in “Black” propaganda, by Labour MP Richard Crossman. When Cockburn reminded Crossman that he himself had engaged in exactly such propaganda exercises to deceive the Nazis during the war, Crossman’s response was that “Black” propaganda “may be necessary to war, but most of us who practiced it detested what we were doing.” “Was it then possible” Cockburn retorted, “ that throughout the life and death struggle our propagandists had all along taken the view that their paramount duty was to be gentlemen, and not to tell lies, however damagingly misleading these might be to the enemy?” With his unfailing wit he characterized Crossman’s stance as “a comfortable ethical position, if you can stop laughing.”
It is difficult to argue convincingly that all propaganda is bad and morally indefensible. Most people would agree that during the Second World War what Crossman referred to as “black” propaganda was necessary and morally defensible when employed by the anti-fascist forces fighting the Nazis. But all propaganda employed by the Nazis and fascists was indefensible and morally deplorable. It depends entirely on the cause in which it was employed: propaganda in support of barbarism and genocide, or propaganda for humanity and liberation.
Josef Goebbels, Propaganda Minister of the Third Reich, (in today’s parlance Hitler’s Director of Communications), bequeathed to the post-war world one salient lesson which he drew from the development of radio and the cinema in the 1930s. He knew that the most effective propaganda method for shaping public opinion in an advanced, literate capitalist society was one which persuaded people that they were not being subjected to propaganda at all. Most of the films they watched had no overt political content, but crucially, some did; the various news media persuaded most Germans that the racism, ethnic nationalism and anti-semitism they peddled simply echoed their own sentiments of patriotism and natural deference to leaders who deserved their trust and loyalty. German life, despite its evident militarisation, was thoroughly petit-bourgeois. The minority who were not taken in, learned, for the most part, to keep their heads down. Everyone was well aware that there were concentration camps for those who stuck their necks out. Most tried not to think about such things.
Today it is becoming more obvious than ever that we are subjected to a form of propaganda that owes a great deal to the pioneering work of Dr. Goebbels. There is no need for the threat of incarceration for those who refuse to consent to the dominant political narratives of the day. In Britain, despite the likelihood that the forthcoming general election will produce a hung parliament and that there could be something of an electoral earthquake in Scotland, there appears to be little awareness about the increasing gravity of the international situation. Wherever one looks – the Middle East, the exodus from Libya with hundreds drowning daily in the Mediterranean, Greece, Ukraine – there is evidence of deepening and unmanageable crises. But potentially the most dangerous of all is the growing Western rhetoric of revived cold war hostility towards Russia. It is impossible to understand this without looking at the part that the Soviet Union played in the Second World War.
Russia and the Falsification of History
One does not need to be an admirer of Vladimir Putin to recognize that his stand in confronting the Western powers and NATO over Crimea and Ukraine is justified. A few relevant facts, readily available but seldom mentioned in the mainstream media, are worth recording:
There are more than one thousand US and NATO military bases around the world. 737 of them are outside the USA. Since its establishment in 1949 with 12 founding members, NATO has steadily expanded to a present membership of 28 states. 12 of these are former members of the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe including Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The US has increased its military forces in Poland and NATO’s control over Baltic airspace on Russia’s borders. There are 116,000 US military personnel in Europe.
Russia has a military presence in nine countries. All but two of them (Vietnam and Syria) were formally part of the Soviet Union. The Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea in Crimea was retained after the collapse of the Soviet Union on lease from the Ukrainian government. The significance of Sevastopol for Russia is not simply due to its strategic geopolitical importance on the Black Sea. It is also because of its history, and in particular its determined resistance to the Nazi invaders during the 9 month siege of 1941/2 and the heroism of its defenders and citizens in the terrible final assault that overwhelmed them.
Anyone who genuinely wants to understand Russian concerns about the steady military expansion of the US and the NATO states on its western borders cannot afford to ignore the titanic part played by the Soviet Union in the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allied fascist satraps in the Second World War. But the mainstream western media and the political elites whose politics they endorse, have no interest in dealing truthfully with this. In fact, for 70 years they have propagated a mendacious, deliberately falsified, revisionist account of this history. Throughout the decades of the cold war the major part played by the Soviet Union in the wartime alliance against Hitler was ignored or downplayed. After 1945 the myth, concocted by ideologues in the United States and supinely accepted by their foreign acolytes, was propagated that Moscow was at the centre of a world-wide communist conspiracy aimed at world domination, and that the Soviet Union was the totalitarian successor to Nazi Germany, bent on military aggression against countries of the “Free World” in Europe and Asia. Only the United States it was claimed, as the beneficent protector of the “Free World” through its formidable nuclear arsenal and its global network of military bases, together with its subordinate allies in NATO, SEATO, and CENTO, could stop the communists from dominating the world. The Soviet Union and the communist-ruled states in Europe associated with it, no longer exist. But US and NATO military power has gone from strength to strength since then. The permanent arms economy that was the main expression of US and NATO power can only justify its continued existence and relentless growth by inventing new enemies against whom it has to defend “freedom-loving peoples.
The Second World War was the most colossal armed struggle in history. It is no exaggeration to say that had German imperialism in the form of the Nazi Third Reich triumphed in that war, the genocidal barbarism that it brought wherever its rule extended would may well have spelled the end of human civilization. It is estimated that 60 million people lost their lives between 1939 and 1945 in the war. This is about 3% of the world’s population in 1939. If we compare fatalities for four member states of the wartime alliance against the Axis (which excludes of course many other participant nations), the discrepancies are striking. The figures in brackets are the percentages of the country’s total population:
United States 420.000 (0.32%)
United Kingdom 450.000 (0.9%)
France 550.000 (1.36%)
Soviet Union 26.6 million (14.2%)
The Soviet fatalities in World War Two amounted to more than 1% of the world’s 1939 population. There is no parallel to the heroism and scale of the sacrifice of the Soviet people in that war.
Turning to the US and EU response to last year’s referendum in Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, it is worth repeating here a passage from an article that appeared in this column at the time of the referendum in March last year, including the extract from The Road to Stalingrad, John Erickson’s magisterial study of the Soviet Union at war.
“In that book he recounts in great detail the Soviets’ last ditch defence of Sevastopol in June 1942. General Manstein’s 11th Army subjected the fortifications to ‘27 days of relentless bombardment and savage attacks which raged on by the hour as each Soviet position had to be smothered in men and fire before opposition was literally blotted out...Each fort had to be blown out of the ground in which they were anchored with all their concrete and steel. Even when cracked open the forts fought on. Riflemen fought in gas masks and smoking stench...A sea of fire rolled relentlessly on Sevastopol.’ Erickson describes how Soviet soldiers, having fired their last rounds blew themselves up with their guns as German infantrymen closed in for the kill. The siege lasted 250 days, from 30.October 1941 to 4. July 1942. At least 18,000 Russians were killed and 95,000 were captured. After the fall of the city the Nazi Einsatzgruppen moved in and began the systematic genocide of the Jews. Ukrainian nationalist collaborators in the Crimea asked the Nazi authorities to be allowed to liquidate the Jews themselves. Manstein was promoted by Hitler to the rank of Field Marshal. Sevastopol, after its final liberation from German occupation in 1944 received the title “Hero City”. These events, like the 1941 defence of Moscow, the three- year-long siege of Leningrad, the unparalleled resistance and final victory at Stalingrad have been engraved on the memory and consciousness of generations of Russians.”
It is perhaps unnecessary to add anything to this in order to convey a sense of what the Crimea and Sevastopol mean to the Russian people and why it is that the millions who died in defending their homeland in “The Great patriotic War” are remembered and honoured with such reverence.
There are No Fascists in Kiev! So outrageous has been the western media distortion of the situation in Ukraine, presenting the Maidan coup as a democratic revolution or peaceful transition to democracy, that the pro-Washington FP Group had to admit in March 2014 that yes, “There are Bad Guys in the Kiev government.“ Rabid fascists and antisemites such as Right Sector, the Azov Battalion and Svoboda have either been ignored or described euphemistically as “nationalists”. At any rate, it has been claimed that such groups are insignificant and that they play no role in the Kiev government or in the activities of the Ukrainian army in the East. FG Group has had to come clean, reporting that when the State Department ridiculed Putin’s “false claims” and assured Americans that the “far right” were not represented in parliament, they were wrong. Putin’s claims were not false. They were true. Likewise, the former RT presenter Liz Wahl, who was feted in the west when she quit the station, falsely claimed that Ukraine had no neo-Nazis. Prior to the March 2014 referendum the fascist group, Svoboda, demanded that, despite the fact that 60% of Crimean people speak Russian as a first language, all government business be conducted in Ukrainian. They also pushed for the repeal of a law against “excusing the crimes of fascism.” The FG Group reporter admitted that “more than a few of the protesters who toppled Yanukovych , and of the new leaders in Kiev, are fascists.” After March 2014 Svoboda held 25% of Ukrainian ministries, including defence. Members of Right Sector held the posts of prosecutor general and Deputy Chair of Parliament. Another Right Sector MP founded the “Joseph Goebbels Political Research Centre” and described the Holocaust as “a bright period in human history.” US Senator John McCain shared a platform with Svoboda chief Tyahnbok, embracing him with the message “The Free World is with you; America is with you.”
Most Western commentary on Russia and the Ukraine seems either duplicitous or ignorant, sometimes both. Few and far between are those who have serious knowledge and experience of Russia. Few care a jot that both the Ukraine and Georgia were for hundreds of years part of the historic Russian state. Seldom mentioned is the fact that the solemn promise made to Gorbachev at the time of Germany’s reunification in 1990 that NATO would “not expand one inch to the East” was casually cast aside by Clinton. Ignored is the warning by 92 year old George F. Kennan (who did understand Russia) in 1996 that “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era.” Ignored are the views of Steven F. Cohen, one of the few US Russian scholars to place the blame for the present crisis where it belongs.
The cohort of new cold war ideologues and mediocrities that passes for the leadership of the Western world moves on from the chaos and carnage they have caused in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere to commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE Day on May 8th. In so doing they will, with straight faces, issue grave warnings about the threat we all face from Russia. They will absent themselves from the celebrations in Moscow on May 9th and pretend that Victory in Europe in 1945 was won entirely by the armed forces of Britain and the United States.