Human beings are astonishingly easy to manipulate. Ask anyone who works in advertising; a few choice words, a bit of wilful distortion or even just a whopping great lie, repeated ad-nauseam can turn us from rational, reasoning creatures into swivel-eyed lunatics. Don?t believe us? How many of you still think councils are being forced to call Christmas ?winterval?; or that “immigrants take our jobs”; or schools force British children to wear goggles to play conkers? All of those totally-made-up stories were swallowed hook, line and sinker by the British public, simply because enough people claimed they were true. And that?s in peacetime. When a war is on, propaganda only gets worse. Here we explore the history of leaflet propaganda, from its inception to the present day:
Early Days: Siege of Paris, 1870
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, France decided it had had enough of that upstart Prussia and declared war; in what would turn out to be something of a miscalculation on their part. Germany sided with Prussia, the two turned on the aggressive French and, 3 months after war was declared, laid siege to Paris. A long and bitter winter followed, that would ultimately see the French capitulate and Germany occupy Paris. In October, though, the French were still on fighting form; taking to a balloon to drop government proclamations on Prussian troops, mocking their blind obedience. It may not have had the desired effect, but that one balloon trip would start a trend extending right up to the present day.
World War I
WWI was when leafleting first got serious. Hideous, bloody, and devastating as it may have been for all, no-one suffered more than those on the frontline. Mud, rain, Trenchfoot, shell-shock and worse were all part and parcel of a soldier?s average day; interspersed with shelling, gunfire and gas attacks. Unsurprisingly, morale was low, and leaflets of the time did everything they could to make it lower. By reminding those who read them of the loss of friends, the pointlessness of the conflict and its interminable length, both sides hoped to push the other into desertion or even mutiny. There?s no telling how effective or otherwise it may have been, but such relentless campaigns doubtlessly added to the absolute hell soldiers were already faced with.
World War II
By the time the sequel rolled around, propaganda had become an art. Both sides engaged in campaigns of disinformation; distributing leaflets supposed to have originated in enemy territory, along with more traditional leaflet drops. Particularly effective was the Nazi propaganda machine, which spewed forth a relentless wave of posters and flyers designed to instil despair and resentment. Several played upon fears of infidelity back home or parodied movie posters, while one ? targeted at the English ? prophetically warned of Stalin?s ambitions for a defenceless, ruined Europe. Crude by today?s standards, it remains debatable how much of a difference they ultimately made; but there is no denying how seriously both sides took their distribution.
Examples of WW II leaflet propaganda:
credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
credit: IMLS DCC
Present Day: North & South Korea
While the rest of the world no longer takes leaflet propaganda very seriously, it remains a big deal on the Korean peninsula. Activists based in the South are fond of floating balloons over the DMZ into the North, which has a history of responding rather badly. Last time such a move was made, Pyongyang threatened a military strike; a threat the South has been forced to take seriously after the 2010 shelling of one of its islands. No longer used as a tool of influence, leaflets have instead metamorphosed into a form of provocation, a way of sticking it to a vastly more powerful enemy. Is this the final evolution of the propaganda leaflet? Only time will tell.
This fascinating retrospective was contributed by PrinterInks; the online shop for ink and toner cartridges around the UK.