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Media and fascists: Lessons of history

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Sep 15, 2019, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Sep 15, 2019, 12:00 am IST

The Fascists believed that this aspect was critical to reshaping their intrinsic internalisation of Fascism in perpetuity.

Adolf Hitler (Photo: AFP)
 Adolf Hitler (Photo: AFP)

One hundred years ago out of the ravages of World War One emerged a new political arrangement in Germany called the Weimar Republic. It lasted 14 years between 1919 and 1933. It was Germany's first experience with democracy. It strove to provide pellucidity to political processes including freedom of association and a free media. In the 1920s, the principal media vehicles in Germany were newspapers and the radio. By 1932, there were 2,483 newspapers, both daily and weekly, catering to a population of 65 million people. An atmosphere of permissiveness and liberalism pervaded the environment.

However, this progressive culture did not last long. In the latter years of the Weimar Republic, newspapers, particularly their proprietors, developed a maniacal fascination with the National Socialists and, in particular, Adolf Hitler.  

With the help of a fawning media, the Nazis ascended to power in Germany in 1933. The Nazis wanted complete control of the mindspace and the newspapers obliged them by becoming willing collaborators.  Business-run newspapers were rapidly co-opted as the Third Reich established itself. Most of them happily made the transition from a culture of active citizenry to one of unthinking obedience.

The Nazis did not nationalise Germany's newspapers. What they in fact did was far simpler — they just bullied any remaining publishers critical of Adolf Hitler’s grandiose fantasies into subjugation and made them sell their businesses to those amenable to the Nazi worldview. Not merely satisfied by coercing recalcitrant newspaper owners to part with their establishments, they tightened control even on the co-opted by enacting the Editors Law -— Schriftleitergesetz — on the 4th of October, 1933, that mandated that newspapers must proscribe any reportage intended to diminish the métier of the Reich abroad or at home. This ambiguous directive made publishers responsible for bowdlerising their own publications and ensuring they did not print information or opinions critical of the Nazi government. Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda provided copious doses of Nazi lies —the original fake news — to pad the by-now-vacant columns of newspapers.

Not having the conviction of courage to oppose the Nazi steamroller, editors and journalists who till yesterday held themselves out as the poster boys of liberalism willingly marched goose step to goose step in perfect synchronicity with the Nazi system. The chilling effect of this co-option, cooperation and a conscious conversion of the “conscience” best manifested itself on Kristallnacht — the night of the broken glass — when on the 9th and 10th of November, 1938, the Nazis systematically destroyed Jewish property and murdered over a hundred Jews.  German newspapers blacked out Kristallnacht as if nothing had happened. Between 1933 and 1938, the prostration of the German press was complete.  All it took the Nazis was five years to get the German newspapers to crawl on all fours.  Mark the phrase, five years.

Having subjugated the national press, the Nazis turned their attention to the   international media. Critical foreign newspapers were banned within a year of Nazis usurping power.  Even large British-American agencies such as Keystone and Wide World Photos were forced to close their bureaus after being targeted for engaging Jewish journalists. Only those international newspapers and wire agencies that conceded control of their content by endorsing the Editors Law and foreswearing not to publish any reportage, column or editorial that in the opinion of the Nazis may be “calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home” were permitted to function. The Editors Law obligated international newspapers and wire agencies to hire reporters who concurrently served with the Nazi party’s propaganda division. Herr Hitler personally curated the content and photographs that were disseminated abroad by those wire agencies and other international publications that had made the Faustian bargain.

In Italy, too, a similar thing happened in the wake of the First World War. Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. He dismantled all democratic institutions and by 1925 and declared himself “Il Duce” — the leader.  Italian Fascism rested on a tenuous balance, predicated by mass confidence juxtaposed with terror. The aspirations of this pernicious project extended not only to the executive, judiciary and economic organisation of the state but had, as its most critical element, the reformatting of the minds of the Italian people.  

The Fascists believed that this aspect was critical to reshaping their intrinsic internalisation of Fascism in perpetuity. To achieve this end, absolute control over all elements of information dissemination was critical. Co-option of, collaboration with and suppression of the newspaper industry were, therefore, a foremost priority.

A dexterous polemicist, Mussolini was penetratingly mindful of the linkage between the perpetuation of power and optics. In 1929, Mussolini decreed a High Commission for the Press. He averred that the said institution would not interfere with the freedom of the press. However, Mussolini’s minister of justice Alfredo Rocco, carved out exceptions to even these sanctimonious homilies for coming down with an iron fist on non-pliant newspapers. Loosely worded formulations subject to the most expansive interpretation, namely “any activity contrary to the national interest” and “faithfulness to the Fatherland” were routinely abused to stamp out any vestiges of dissent. This was, however, unnecessary, for the voluntary capitulation of the media to the Fascist enterprise was by then complete and total.

Reporters and editors were “stimulated” to understand their vocation was a service to the nation. They were encouraged to believe that inculcation of Fascism among the Italian people was their true calling. Mussolini perceived himself to be a radical and his régime being an organic quintessence of transformative dogmas of myriad persuasions. The communication of these philosophies and the institutionalisation of mass subservience to the Fascist ideal in Mussolini’s worldview was the cardinal obligation of the Italian press.  It was blasphemous for the newspapers to even countenance the conception of oppositional commentary, of holding actions of state to any inquiry and examination much less account. This was an infection was decisively purged from the collective psyche of the nation's journalists and editors once and for all. The Fascists were indeed spectacularly successful in achieving this goal.

Mussolini believed that that the Fascist project required a committed press. The country's newspapers must stand as a solid bloc zealously committed to the “Cause”. They must obfuscate, or even better, bury, every fact, development or story hostile or negative to it. Even more than editing or expurgation, Mussolini preferred this kind of abasement from the press. In Fascist Italy, self-policing by the media was as imperative as legal proscriptions.

Finally when it all ended, Adolf Hitler and his mistress committed suicide and Mussolini and his mistress were executed, but both Germany and Italy paid a heavy price because their institutions refused to stand up and be counted when needed.

Tags: weimar republic, hitler