Propaganda. A loaded term that, today, has become so clichéd that its original definition is lost in a sea of moral equivalence.
Once, propaganda was merely a word describing … the dissemination of ideas, information or rumour … for the purpose of helping or injuring … an institution, a cause, or a person.
Today, unfortunately, the distinction between helping and harming has become all but irrelevant.
“So what’s the difference between selling shampoo and what Putin is doing?”
A PhD candidate at Cambridge University, one of the world’s top universities, asked this question during a guest lecture by Peter Pomerantsev, a British TV producer and expert on Russian propaganda. The question rendered him virtually speechless.
Pomerantsev shared this story last June at the conference on propaganda and genocide organized by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. He was one of several world experts whose presentations revealed how propaganda techniques used to commit mass murder and genocide are universal, and change only superficially due to technology, time, and societal circumstance.
The scholars examined the imagery and messaging used by the soviets and the Nazis. They also drew clear parallels to what is happening today.
Professor Ludmilla Hrynevych is one of the first Ukrainian scholars to study the Holodomor, the soviet-engineered famine of 1932-33 in which millions of Ukrainian peasants were deliberately starved to death. She illustrated how the soviet regime was preparing the psychological foundation for the Holodomor long before it happened.
“When a mass propaganda campaign is created, the purpose is to legitimize a crime,” she said. The first step is to define and identify the enemy. The next is the application of labels and categorization to cause division, the idea of “us versus them.” The goal is to demonize and dehumanize these people, via images and imagery of dangerous predators or vermin that need to be exterminated. Once maltreating and murdering fellow citizens becomes justifiable and acceptable to enough people, the regime can easily enlist their help to carry out the final stages of extermination.
Dr. Andrea Graziosi is an Italian scholar who stumbled upon diplomatic records of the Holodomor, and has since become a world-renowned expert on the Holodomor and genocide.
He made the surprising observation that aggressive propaganda techniques were not actually intended for mass audiences. As Dr. Hrynevych pointed out in her presentation, most people could see through it immediately. Rather, Graziosi said, it was aimed at zealous activists prepared to believe anything that would justify committing crimes against humanity in order to further their political goals.
The Nazis employed a similar process as the soviets to demonize and dehumanize Jews, using the new and sophisticated tools of mass media. Depicting Jews as animals or insects, even poisonous mushrooms, made it easier mentally to consider exterminating human beings.
This strategy, however, while effective in Germany and elsewhere in western Europe, proved problematic in eastern Europe.
The Nazis did not have enough manpower in Eastern Europe, so they needed to recruit locals. According to Russian Jewish scholar Kiril Fefelman, since the Nazis knew nothing about the people or the history of the area, their western strategy depicting Jews as evil capitalists and bankers didn’t work. Eventually they switched to portraying Jews as communists, which did.
Leading Holocaust scholar Wendy Lower described how Goebbels’ propaganda converted people in Ukraine through various dissemination channels that infiltrated all aspects of life.
Today … not much has changed in the dissemination of harmful propaganda, other than new technology to ramp up the messaging.
While Ukrainians battle the Russian invasion of their sovereign territory, Kremlin propaganda depicts Ukrainians as rats, weeds, aggressors. And recently, it recycled an old canard from the 1980s calling the Holodomor a hoax.
Jews are not spared from modern-day Russian propaganda, which both maligns and victimizes them. Jews are depicted both as victims of Ukrainian anti-semitism and as aggressors collaborating with Ukrainians fighting for independence from Russia.
Even more troubling, quite recently the Jewish community in Canada was shocked by a newsletter published in Toronto containing vicious, Nazi-like anti-Semitic messages.
Peter Pomerantsev, who authored a book on modern Russian propaganda entitled Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, calls for a more sophisticated understanding of propaganda … to help us recognize and appreciate the vast difference in scope between propaganda intended to sell products … and propaganda intended to mass murder human beings.
This has been Ukrainian Jewish Heritage on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. I’m Andrij Holovatyj in Toronto. Until next time, Shalom!