The Man in the Street and Second World War Propaganda

By Finch, Lynette | Journal of Australian Studies, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Man in the Street and Second World War Propaganda


Finch, Lynette, Journal of Australian Studies


Throughout the second world war the allied state-run propaganda departments found themselves in a philosophical conundrum. Despite officially declaring themselves to be departments of information, they were never impartial conduits of `fact' about the war's progress; the skill of their staff was judged by the information they withheld, rather than by that which they broadcast. The messages they released, the morale-boosting film and radio scripts they approved and the news broadcasts they censored with blue pencils, were aimed at an imaginary community made up of ordinary Australians. The narrators, too, were constructed characters. Newsreaders and documentary narrators were selected because of the timbre or resonance of their voices with `the sole purpose of trying to get the average man in the street to listen'.(1)

The main task of the propagandists was to convince civilians that the war was their war and that survival depended upon victory. With this task in mind they enlisted the help of an irascible modern character: the bumptious, frequently cynical, mediumly intelligent but resourcefully ingenious `man in the street'. This article analyses the ways in which tensions in representations of the man in the street in Australian and allied second world war morale-boosting propaganda proclaimed deep philosophical contradictions within modern democratic experience.

Following Baudelaire, Marshall Berman describes the archetypal modern man as `a pedestrian thrown into the maelstrom of modern city traffic, a man alone contending against an agglomeration of mass and energy that is heavy, fast and lethal'.(2) While city traffic throws rapid movement and chaotic disorder at him, `the individual walkers or drivers, each ... may be pursuing the most efficient route for himself', negotiating crises that are commonplace and therefore, ordinary. The modern man calls upon `resources he never knew he had'.(3) He is:

   forced to stretch them desperately in order to survive. In order to cross
   the moving chaos, he must attune and adapt himself to its moves, must learn
   to not merely keep up with it but to stay at least a step ahead. He must
   become adept at somersaults and movements brusques, at sudden, abrupt,
   jagged twists and shifts -- and not only with his legs and his body, but
   with his mind and his sensibility as well.(4)

The chaos of modern warfare threw this problematic hero into a maelstrom that was greater and far more pervasive than anything that the city and its hurtling traffic could create. War propaganda films attempted to capture this sense of vulnerability while featuring individual resourcefulness.

It is unique to modernism that warfare has become literally, wars between masses.(5) For the twentieth century citizen there would be nothing short of total commitment for, as Bertrand Russell put it, `a nation cannot succeed in modern war unless most people are willing to suffer hardship and many people are willing to die ... to produce this willingness, the rulers have to persuade their subjects that the war is about something important -- so important, in fact, as to be worthy of martyrdom'.(6) Professional armies were replaced by civilian armies, private property was confiscated by invading armies for the first time, and civilians -- especially those in cities -- became the legitimate targets of the new weapons of mass destruction.(7) War propagandists embraced the new situation by, as Sam Keen points out, seeking `to condition individuals to act as a mass'(8) or, as a speaker addressing the Melbourne Rotary Club in 1942 put it, propagandists had `to persuade millions of people with diverse interests that it is necessary to merge them into attaining one end'.(9) Herein lay a conundrum for the allied propagandist: if their task was to convince modern people that an extra layer of crisis had been added and that the modern solution of negotiating a multiplicity of responses and of finding an infinite number of individually efficient routes could no longer be permitted, how could their message differ from the fascist message? …

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