Political Propaganda in the Feature Film Industries of Nazi Germany and Maoist China

James D. Decker, Middle Georgia State College & Patrick S. Brennan, Middle Georgia State College


This interdisciplinary paper examines important similarities and differences in the way that Maoist China and Nazi Germany used political propaganda in their national feature-film industries. The first of part of this paper examines the film industry in the People’s Republic of China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. The Chinese communist regime used the power of film to perpetuate communist themes and to educate the masses about the heroic nature of the Chinese revolutionaries and Marxism. Mao believed through popular film the Chinese Communist Party could educate, entertain, and indoctrinate the Chinese population and could ferret out capitalist and bourgeois elements which he believed were infiltrating Chinese society. The second case study examines how Kolberg (1945), the very last feature film released in Nazi Germany, communicates key elements of Nazi ideology: the Leadership Principle, the celebration of Blood and Soil, and the call for total war, especially as expressed by Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels in his 1943 “Total War Address.”Kolberg demonstrates both the power of Nazi political propaganda and its limitations as a political tool.

The twentieth century saw a marked increase in totalitarian states. These states, in seekingcomplete control of their populations, each deployed what the French Marxist Philosopher Louis Althusser has termed Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses. According to Althusser (1971/2009), a Repressive State Apparatus controls the populace through physical violence and threats. It contains such institutions as “the Army, the Police, the Courts, and the Prisons” (p. 302). The Ideological State Apparatus controls the populace through ideology. It relies on private institutions, such as family structures, churches, political parties, and communications industries, to represent “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser, 1971/2009, p. 304). The boundaries between the Repressive State Apparatus and the Ideological State Apparatus are somewhat porous. The Repressive State Apparatus relies on some form of ideology for its structure, and the Ideological State Apparatus relies on some form of violence for its implementation. Still, it is the Ideological State Apparatus that offers citizens a sense of belonging and purpose. It recruits the people’s active participation in the state’s goals by constructing and proposing imaginary relationships between them and the state. In the twentieth century, an important tool of any state’s Ideological State Apparatus was its film industry. This paper will examine how two of twentieth century’s most repressive totalitarian regimes, Maoist China and the Third Reich, deployed their national feature film industries as propaganda tools, which aimed to spur their citizens to support the state’s ideological goals.

Maoist China

In May of 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong launched The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Its stated goal was to enforce communism in the country by removing capitalist, traditional and cultural elements from Chinese society, and to impose Maoist orthodoxy within the Chinese Communist Party. During the years from 1966 to 1976, this movement became the biggest non-wartime concentrated social and political upheaval in world history. Following Mao’s edicts, a nation of over 800 million responded to the whims of one man to purge the country of noncommunist, revisionist thought and art (Clark, 2008).

The revolution marked the return of Mao Zedong to a position of power after the failed Great Leap Forward. The movement paralyzed China politically and significantly affected the country economically and socially. Millions of people were persecuted in the violent factional struggles that ensued across the country, and suffered a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment, and seizure of property. A large segment of the population was forcibly displaced, most notably the transfer of urban youth to rural regions during the Down to the Countryside Movement. Historical relics and artifacts were destroyed. Cultural and religious sites were ransacked (Tsou, 1986; Dreyer, 2000).

The success or failure of communist regimes to transform the attitudes and behavior of populations is an apt example of the use of propaganda within the wider application of political culture theory. Gabriel A. Almond (1983) proposed that political culture theory ascribes some importance to political attitudes, beliefs, values, and emotions in the explanation of political, structural, and behavioral phenomena such as national cohesion, patterns of mass cleavage, modes of dealing with political conflict, the extent and level of political participation, and the compliance with authority. The communist experience has been particularly important as an approach to studying propaganda and political culture theory application because from one point of view it represents a genuine effort to “falsify” it. The attitudes that communist regimes encounter where they seize power are often viewed as false consciousness, which may include nationalism, religious belief systems, ethnic subcultural propensities, or economic views. These attitudes have been viewed as the consequences of preexisting class structure and the underlying mode of production, which are transmitted by the associated agents of indoctrination. Communist movements/regimes seek to eliminate or to undermine the legitimacy of these preexisting processes and frameworks and replace them with a new and thoroughly penetrative set. The goal is to reshape the society and transform the thinking of its citizens toward a new paradigm of education and actions.

According to Dittmer (1977), one of the main purposes of the Cultural Revolution was to change the people’s ways of thinking and relating to one another, a pragmatic objective concerning the trinary relationship among elites, masses, and the target to which considerations of political theory and propaganda were focused. By drawing attention of the masses to the target’s deviation from the norm, and by dramatizing that deviation by means of exaggerated contentious symbolism, the elites sought to persuade the masses to embrace and incorporate the norms. Another benefit was to permit the masses to displace regressed negative emotions against the target. This allowed elites to seek enhancement of solidarity within the community and increase the masses’ support and commitment to the societal norms. The implications of this propagandistic process for the target were that that he should rectify his deviation through self-criticism and reintegrate himself within society. In the end, the target may hope to atone for his sins and become a model of the type of moral transformation expected by the masses…Access Full Text of the Article

Related Contents

Rupturing the ‘political’: Socialist-Utopian Performatives in Satyajit Ray’s Seemabadhha (Comp...
views 1171
Dwaipayan Chowdhury, University of Amsterdam Abstract The article delves into Satyajit Ray's film Seemabadhha (1971), as a pamphlet for social crit...