Universally accepted contemporary definition of propaganda from the Oxford English Dictionary:

‘Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicise a particular political cause or point of view’.


Edward Bernays: ‘if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical date involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything.’

In the most neutral sense propaganda means to disseminate or promote particular ideas. In Latin it means to ‘propagate’ or to ‘sow’. In 1622 the Vatican established the ‘Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide’ it was at this point that propaganda as a word lost its neutrality and subsequently the term became pejorative. Identifying a message as propaganda today would imply that it represents negative or dishonest objectives. In essence propaganda is a form of communication, or more accurately it is a manipulation of the recipient’s emotions. It is this subterfuge of subliminal communication that differentiates it from persuasion in the sense that persuasion aims in its’ appeasing, to satisfy the needs of both persuader and persuadee; propaganda attempts no such compromise, and often employsidealised ‘Petrarchian’ images aimed at furthering the propagandist’s desired intent. It has been well documented that propaganda can affect the public on a mass scale and even effect a behavioural change. Unimaginable inhumane atrocities would go ‘unnoticed’ in the twentieth century; the ramifications of public behavioural changes and willingness to accept the truth according to Nazi propaganda. Propaganda is not a mechanical science, it is an art form requiring a special skillset. The ability to sway attitudes requires relevant experience in the milieu and to some extent an inherent instinctive ability to judge what the best argument is for the audience. It is worth noting also, propaganda is a deliberate attempt to shape perceptions whether they be local or international. On one hand it could be implemented to present a false profile of happenings for the benefit of the international community, on the other it can be used to oppress a public in depicting false images of the global perceptions. Propaganda serves an informative function in that it tells people what to think and how to behave, but is not necessarily always an evil thing. It can only be evaluated within its own context according to the players, the played upon and its purpose.  

By the nineteenth-century, propaganda had begun to modernise as a result of increasing literary rates and interest in political affairs of the nation, and could be used to present more complex themes. The political cartoon began to emerge during this period when it quickly became a powerful form of communication. German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast used this to his advantage in his work.    

Pacific Chivalry, Thomas Nast, 1869.

To understand the origins of propaganda it is necessary to look at what it was used for and how it was used to change public perception, to gain the approval of the public by changing their mental pictures of the world with a purpose of telling us who to admire and who to identify as the enemy.

In 1936, Boston merchant Edward Filene helped establish the short-lived Institute for Propaganda Analysis which sought to educate Americans to recognize propaganda techniques. Although it did not last long, they did produce a list of seven propaganda methods that have become something of a standard:

Parliamentary War Savings Committee, 1915

1. Bandwagon: Pump up the value of 'joining the party'.

2. Card-stacking: Build a highly-biased case for your position.

3. Glittering Generalities: Use power words to evoke emotions.

4. Name-calling: Denigrating opponents.

5. Plain Folks: Making the leader seem ordinary increases trust and credibility.

6. Testimonial: The testimony of an independent person is seen as more trustworthy.

7. Transfer: Associate the leader with trusted others.

The First World War gave rise to what is now known as "modern propaganda", particularly that of political parties and organisations aiming to influence public opinion and ideology. Used most effectively by the British and later the Americans, Allied propaganda sought to retain public support and increase conscription.






Propaganda in Theatre

Theatre has been used as a means of influencing public opinion since antiquity, with Greek playwrights in particular promoting certain ideals in their plays. The use of propaganda in theatre first became particularly prominent, however, during the reign of Elizabeth I, a tumultuous period of European state building and political and religious conflict stemming from the Reformation. These conditions paved the way for a desire to influence public thought in a time before television and the widespread distribution of a centralised printing network. It was confounded further by the albeit declining rate of illiteracy. Theatre stood out as a forum for advocating a political agenda to a relatively wide audience. Theatrical satires directed against the enemies of Elizabeth I, including the likes of Philip II of Spain and Catholics more generally, became common, with playwrights displaying more caution and even flattery when depicting the Queen herself. This only increased during the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604).

One of the most renowned playwrights used propaganda to great effect. William Shakespeare used his plays to portray historical figures, such as ‘Richard III’ and ‘Henry V’ as national heroes. In doing so, he is able to invoke patriotic pride in the audience and able to rally the audience behind the Royal family at the time. Shakespeare also used his theatrical pieces as propaganda against certain classes. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ uses Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, as propaganda against the Jewish population. This is because Shakespeare portrays him as the villain of the story, as well as portraying him with traditional anti-Semitic views, as he is presented as cruel and cunning throughout the screenplay. 

Agitprop (agitation propaganda) is a phenomenon of the modern era, originating in the Soviet Union, and can be defined as the use of propaganda (particularly in theatre) in order to agitate an audience into actively pursuing a particular agenda. Trotsky famously used an agitprop train toured the country following the Russian Revolution, performing various plays in order to promote Communist ideals among the population. This then spread across Europe most notably through the German Marxist Bertolt Brecht and over to the US in the 1920s. This type of propaganda is often explicit in nature and has been criticised for its idealistic, black and white depictions. Examples of agitprop theatre include Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich.

‘Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.’
— Bertolt Brecht, a German Marxist Playwright


Radio Propaganda

Radio was the cheapest form of entertainment, and it was the most popular medium during World War II. The accessibility and availability meant it fuelled propaganda and could reach a large number of citizens. Radio helped entertain and inform the population, encouraging citizens to join in the war effort. One of the most popular shows in Britain during the time, Tommy Handley's ‘It’s That Man Again’ was able to reach up to 40% of the British population. Subsequently, the success of radio propaganda during World War I, had gone on to inspire fascist and social regimes during World War II. Effective radio propaganda arrived in the form of news reports by Edward. R. Murrow. He covered the Battle of Britain and nightly bombing raids in London, with his vivid imagery capturing the nation’s imaginations. In America, broadcasting was offered twenty-four hours a day in an effort to keep citizens engaged, and 90% of American families owned a radio during World War II. However, propaganda was not well received, reminding citizens of the efforts used in World War I. This led President Roosevelt and others to attempt to convince the people that the government was not out to censor information but inform the public. One of the most successful radio program methods the American government used was the “you technique”. This method put the listener directly in situations like battle or being in a military camp by addressing them personally.

In Nazi Germany, radio was an important propaganda tool. Just a few short months after the outbreak of World War II, German propagandists were transmitting close to 11 hours of programming a day, with the majority of the transmissions in English as well. Their focus was on eroding the pro-British sentiment, and propagandists also focused on certain groups such as capitalists, Jews, and specific newspapers and politicians. Joseph Goebbels, German propaganda minister, called the radio the “eighth great power”, noting the influence of radio in promoting the Third Reich. Goebbels approved a mandate in which millions of cheap radio sets were subsidized by the government and distributed to citizens. Germans also delivered their messages to occupied territories and enemy states. One of their main targets was the United Kingdom where William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) regularly broadcasted. In the United States, there were Robert Henry Best and Mildred Gillars (Axis Sally). “One People, One Reich, One Führer,” was a piece of one of the most important parts of the German propaganda. By establishing a rudimentary worship for the leader figure, Adolf Hitler was established as the absolute head of the government and to some a semi-deity. This inspired the public to work harder and do more for the Reich, having been convinced by the propaganda that the war was a sort of holy quest or crusade. Speeches and radio broadcasts of this type helped to instil pride in German population for Germany and the Reich.


Examples of televised propaganda campaigns:

Nuclear attack warning


Coughs and Sneezes 1945


Cinema, television and the theatre became effective mediums to portray propaganda messages to captivate audiences. From the First World War cinema was exploited by the War Office via the Ministry of Information who introduced the film-tag, a short film, to support morals it saw as useful to the war effort and attached them to news bulletins. It was recorded in a Government Report after the war. It was estimated these films were seen by ten million individuals after being shown in as many countries as possible.

In 1937 Lord Tyrrell, the President of the British Board of Film Classification, remarked “We may take pride in the fact that there is not a single film showing in London which deals with any of the burning issues of the day”. Regardless, films were already in circulation exploring controversial topics like race in “Song of Freedom”, 1936,which investigated life in the west for a black man and his feelings of displacement living in London’s dockland.

In 1940, following the outbreak of the Second World War, the British Government drew up an Information and Propaganda Policy listing themes for war propaganda. They used feature films, documentaries and cartoons to show British Life and Character and the need for sacrifice to win the war.  The policy explained the films needed to be entertaining and not induce boredom or antagonise the audience. This is demonstrated in the film showing German air raids on London in 1940 targeted at American audiences and renamed “Britain Can Take It”.

After the war social issues were tackled by the film industry such as crime, female delinquency, boys borstals, management and unions, mining tragedy, deafness and moving to what may be considered modern issues of racialism and homosexuality but by the 1960’s Cinema audiences were on the decline and the role of film as a medium for propaganda would be joined by the advent of television

At first, television was in the form of public broadcasting which had been suspended duringthe second world war would now bring propaganda to an even larger audience and currentlyin the form of satellite television technology.  In 1946 the Central Office of Information (COI) had been formed to replace the wartime Ministry of Information to make the public aware of governmental actions which could impact their lives achieved by the introduction of the public information films covering topics from recruitment drives for the armed forces, keeping Britain tidy, health issues e.g. drugs, HIV aids, drink driving and many more.  Television would be an avenue for political parties to campaign for voters and sitcoms like Coronation Street and Eastenders currently provide new avenues for highlightingmodern controversialissues such as rape, abortion, HIV aids.

Political Culture

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television “The power of film propaganda—myth or reality?”  13,  2, 1993


The movement for realism in the theatre was an experiment to make the theatre more useful to society. First seen in France at the end of the nineteenth century, it would cover contemporary problems like illegitimacy, war and business, health issues, sin and many more

During the war, the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts funded theatres and companies with money from the Treasury eager to influence the theatre’s potential for propaganda.

Theatres were predominantly run by men who chose contemporary issues concerning them.  The Actresses Franchise League founded in 1908 was able to write and perform plays to stimulate thought and incite women into suffrage action

The Internet and Propaganda

As the influence of the internet has risen in the 21st Century, propaganda has expanded from the sole use of posters and text to incorporate websites and social media. Due to the wide scale of the internet regulation of information is almost impossible. This tied with the vast engagement of the public with the internet makes online propaganda ideal for those who want to portray their views.

A recent example of this can be seen with the actions of the Islamic State (Isis), where a variety of images and videos have been uploaded by its members with the aims of provoking the West and raising recruitment levels. The public’s interaction with the internet in the modern day means that it cannot be denied that a large amount of people have been exposed to Islamic State propaganda, and this shows the benefits of using the internet as the basis for propaganda. A more subtle approach can be seen with the Chinese ‘Internet Water Army’. This is made up of a selection of paid ghost-writers with the aim of changing the public opinion on a variety of subjects by posting on social media. In a less aggressive and extreme way compared to Isis, it is another example of people aiming to spread their views and alter the opinions of others via the internet.

The use of online advertisements is also common, with many ‘pop-ups’ or flashing images used to catch the user’s attention. Engaging in social media, promoting ideas from politicians, intellectuals, friends, musicians or corporations through likes, shares, tweets and more, we are promoting information and attempting to influence how people think about these things. Whenever we post an opinion on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media site, we are issuing propaganda, a piece of information designed to make those who read it think about an issue or behave in a certain way. This has been exploited by corporations and explains their active social media presence.

Branding and advertising has become a major aspect of social media for all businesses, with a far greater personalisation to match the needs of consumers. By promoting brands, we are engaging in issuing propaganda on their behalf.

Unlike other mediums for propaganda, social media carries the potential for anonymity. Recently there have been several cases where accounts have been exposed as fake, or deliberately designed for political purposes. Such accounts operate very much in the mould that was seen throughout the First and Second World Wars and because of this, it means that one should never instantly believe everything read, and that the same rules of scepticism and analysis need to be applied to digital propaganda as to any other. Due to its instantaneous dissemination, and the potential for immediate widespread response, the deep thought and analysis that is often applied to other forms of propaganda can easily be lost. Therefore reactions to digital propaganda can be quite different to that of other forms.


Religious Propaganda

The Religious Origins of the term ‘Propaganda’

As previously mentioned, "propaganda" as a term first appeared in 1622 under Pope Gregory XV. The Sacred Congregation of Propagating the Faith was responsible for fostering the spread of Catholicism and the regulation of Catholic ecclesiastical affairs in non-Catholic countries. The organisation was later renamed by Pope John Paul II in 1982 as the word "propaganda" now held largely negative connotations as a result of the work of Joseph Goebbels during the Second World War.

Religious Uses of Propaganda

Propaganda within religion has been present throughout history to convert people to certain faiths, increase their religious conviction and to convey negativity about other religions. Pope Urban II's speech at the Council of Clermont in 1097 was a clear example of propaganda to increase religious conviction of the population. Examples of emotive language, rhetorical questions and pathos, logos and ethos are all found in the speech, thus showing that such persuasive techniques were used in propaganda from at least the eleventh-century.

The Jehovah's Witnesses often use propaganda to encourage members to "avoid independent thinking, thus keeping them under the influence of their religion.

A further form of propaganda present in religion is the practice of preaching, whereby ideas and doctrine are conveyed through public announcement. This method is especially effective, since, unlike other forms of propaganda, it encourages active participation from the audience. In doing so, the preacher can undermine any existing beliefs of the audience by answering questions and emotively connecting with the audience.

Propaganda during the Reformation

During the Reformation, literary propaganda such as pamphlets, documents, letter and translations of the Bible and New Testament were circulated amongst communities. Pamphlets were particularly popular and usually consisted of approximately eight to sixteen pages. Their relatively condensed length kept them short and easy to understand, as well as easy to conceal from authorities.

Both Catholic and Protestant propagandists attempted to publish documents about church doctrine, either to retain their followers or influence the newly joined. Occasionally printed texts also acted as manuals for lay people to refer to in order to understand the appropriate way by which to conduct themselves in the church and society.

For the illiterate majority, woodcuts were able to convey relatively sophisticated religious doctrines and ideas without the need for extensive religious education or deep thought to gain an understanding.

Propaganda of the Revolutions

The Velvet Revolution

The Velvet Revolution was a non-violent series of protest that began in November 1989 in Prague and subsequently in all major cities in Czechoslovakia and ended with the fall of Communist regime in December the same year. The protest was led primarily by students. It started as a jubilee march in the memory of students of Prague, who were massacred by the Nazis in 1939. The march was allowed by the official authorities, but later erupted into a protest, which police force was send to suppress. The effect of the violent suppression was, that protests broke out the following days everywhere else in the country. Propaganda used in the revolution basically built on the legacy of the Prague Spring of 1968. It opposed the Russian occupation which was in effect for 20 years, as well as pointed to the weaknesses of the Soviet Union, such as economic insufficiency. It used the victims of all three protests: 1939, 1968 and 1989 as ‘martyrs’ to fuel the feelings of anger and revenge against the Communists. The general motto of the protesting mob was: “Mámeholéruce”, which translates to: “Our hands are bare”. Perhaps the most famous symbol of the revolution is the jingling of keys, which symbolized the ‘unlocking of doors’ and which was done jointly by all protesters.

Revolutionary Propaganda is most well known in the form of war posters. However, at its root it is simply a mode of communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position, and it is not always necessarily maleficent in its intent. Although propaganda is often used to manipulate human emotions by displaying facts selectively, it can also be very effective at conveying messages. Propaganda and revolution have been intrinsically linked for centuries. There is a juncture in a revolution when it becomes necessary for the continuation of the insurrection to persuade the people that the revolution is in the interest of the nation.  The famous photograph of Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 has circulated throughout the globe in the past half century, endlessly reproduced in increasingly exotic forms, each created with different intentions and evoking varied responses. Che the icon has overtaken Che the revolutionary practitioner and theorist. The Russian revolution had pioneered the creation and use of political posters as an important propaganda tool, and the Cuban revolution had done the same, adopting the commercial techniques of Madison Avenue for their own ideological purposes to brilliant effect. It exploded on to the international scene at a very specific moment, when the new wave of pop art, which created posters associated with the music business, was sweeping through the western world. The red star in Che’s beret was up there with ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’, and Andy Warhol’s silk-screen images of Marilyn Monroe. Guevara can be considered a success as he has become a popular symbol while his image is often too dissociated from the philosophy that gave rise to it. It is the vulnerability of Guevara’s spirit that makes him a contemporary hero although he might have failed as a revolutionary, he has somehow retained a powerful hold on the popular imagination, seeming to transcend time and place; his legacy continues to influence not only those who were inspired by him then, but also those who are discovering him today. In essence his very image has become propaganda of a revolutionary ideology. However in today’s society it has been misappropriated for capitalist endeavour in ironic usurpation of the original meaning behind the image but also illustrating the effectiveness of the selective nature of propaganda.   

War Propaganda

During wars, many nations employ propaganda in order to raise domestic morale, while simultaneously demoralising the enemy. The First World War, the Second War and the Cold War are perfect examples in which propaganda was deployed.

The First World War can be seen as the start of modern day propaganda. In Britain between 1914 and 1918, public opinion was generally pro-war, this led to many posters enticing members of the public to join the army, using guilt and patriotism to great effect. For example, ‘Who’s absent? Is it you?’ and persuading people that the war would be over before Christmas in 1914, and to get involved and be a part of history.

In the Second World War, Britain used propaganda to the full extent of its abilities. Propaganda released by the government was centred around the home front. ‘Dig for Victory’ for example, encouraged British citizens to be resourceful, and make the nation less reliant on imports; growing vegetables and food for the population.  This need for independence was due to imports being threatened by Nazi U-boats, thus increasing demand for home grown goods. During the Second World War,  bombing raids by the German air force became increasingly regular. Commonly known as the Blitz, the air raids spread fear and distress amongst the population, the government saw a rectification of this as paramount. As a result, propaganda was required to raise public morale, such as the "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters, encouraging a mentality of strength and resistance against the enemy.

The Nazi propaganda effort had been geared towards war from an early stage, with films such as Triumph of the Will (1935) promoting ultra-nationalism and strength in an attempt to shape the mind-set of the German people in favour of war – something which arguably contributed to many Germans fighting until the very end.


Throughout the war years, society in Nazi Germany was continually exposed to strong propaganda, with the establishment of Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels. This escalation can be illustrated by the newspaper Der Sturmer’s attempt to dehumanize Jewish Poles through anti-Semitic caricatures following the invasion of September 1939, attempting to justify the invasion to the people of Germany.

Although the Allies liked to caricature Nazi propaganda as crude, and presented their own as ‘information’, in fact, as this following banned Looney Tunes short cartoon from 1942 shows, the Allies could be just as simplistic.


With the aftermath of the Second World War, and the rise of the Cold War between the capitalist United States of America and communist Soviet Union, this brought about propaganda in regards to fear, for example, many propaganda posters told Americans how to prepare in case of an atomic bomb detonation, posters also told citizens to watch out for communist spies and also showed a ruined America due to communism.



Propaganda to Spread Ideologies


Hitler and the Nazis: Nazi propaganda was made to target different audiences to try to gain support; they advertised bread and work in the working class areas, anti-Semitic messages were targeted at shopkeepers and negative messages about the Weimar Republic was targeted at the conservative class. The Nazis used a variety of propaganda such as posters, leaflets, rallies and speeches, as well as more modern methods such as film and radio. Their propaganda was designed to evoke emotion from the audience; the rallies they held used orchestrated music and emotive language. Headed by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis were successful in using propaganda to compose an image of Hitler as Germany’s hero; Goebbels emphasised Hitler’s strong and fearless character in a time where the Weimar politicians seemed weak and inept. Their expertise in propaganda, without a doubt, impacted positively on their rise to power and during war time.


Stalin: Throughout the Soviet Union, Stalin was keen to promote communism, and himself. There were various means in which he used to promote this, a key way was the cult of personality he created around himself. There were paintings and posters glorifying Stalin created in order to indoctrinate the people with the idea of him and the ideology of communism. “Roses for Stalin” is a commonly known propaganda piece created in Russia to promote Stalin as being a strong, popular leader to appeal to the younger generations. The purpose of the propaganda created by Stalin and other party members was to promote communism throughout Russia and make them a strong, communist nation. He created this hero-like image of himself amongst his people so that citizens could, “understand and be mobilized by Bolshevik ideology”. 

Cultural Revolution

Mao: The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution was created by Mao Zedong in 1966 to preserve true Communist ideology in the country by removing all traces of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. The programme was in itself a form of propaganda, but also used modern mass propaganda techniques, adapting them to the needs of the nation which had a largely rural and illiterate population. Electronic media (television and film), educational curriculum and research, print media (newspapers and posters), cultural arts, oral media and thought reform and political study classes were all adapted to fit the state's aim. Propaganda within China at this time was everywhere and engaged the entire population, reaching out to Mao's supporters and encouraging the destruction of both his and the regime's enemies.  The Cultural Revolution particularly centred around the youth of China, mobilised by the government to purge the impure elements of society.  At least 1.5 million individuals were killed during the revolution, and millions of other suffered imprisonment, humiliation and torture having been deemed enemies of the state, namely the elderly and intellectuals of China. The movement lasted until Mao's death in 1976.

Propaganda for Welfare and Social Purposes

Why is propaganda used in Welfare and Social mediums?

Propaganda is used to influence people in their decision making either by subtle or direct methods e.g. advocating eating healthy food (five-a-day) or promoting smoking cessation by using graphic images on cigarette packets.

Public health and welfare has used propaganda in the promotion of public health campaigns allowing a wide spectrum of people to be able to see via advertising what is harmful and how to protect one’s own health. An example of this type of propaganda can be identified in the portrayal of world crises like famine and disease epidemics and the need for help by charitable donations.

The government, during the Second World War, addressed some of the health problems with its propaganda agenda.  There were national campaigns like ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases’, ‘flies and disease. Kill the fly and save the child’, and after the war -

Matt Wuerker, 2005

Before the invention of the radio the ways of circulating propaganda had not changed in thousands of years. Public speeches, coins, story tellers, poets, preachers, minstrels, and with the printing press, pamphlets, leaflets and newspapers were all common forms of giving/receiving propaganda.  It was the rapid technological change of the twentieth century that saw social propaganda experience an extensive evolution.  The development of the radio, which Lenin called ‘a newspaper without paper….and without boundaries’, and then the moving image being seen first in cinemas and then later through televisions gave propaganda a far wider reach than ever before.  But it was the invention of the internet that has given propaganda a source of worldwide and immediate coverage.

Propaganda has always been used in a social capacity for the distribution of news by raising public awareness but the information may be of a biased nature and therefore not necessarily be of the truth.  When we post an opinion on a social media site we are issuing our own propaganda, we want those that read it to think about an issue in a way that is conductive to what we want them to.

Further Reading:

Susan Sonntag, ‘Fascinating Fascism’

Edward Bernays, "Propaganda"

Jowett & O’Donnell, "Propaganda and Persuasion"


Historical individuals and their manipulation of documents and historical evidence

A way of interpreting the history of the overlooked concerns historical individuals and their distortion and manipulation of evidence and information, crucially that of a photographic nature. This has often been done to present an altered, somewhat falsified image of the individual, more desirable perhaps to how they want to be perceived by others. Furthermore, they can be seen to be responsible for removing other individuals from images, sometimes for obscure reasons. As historians we  can analyse this distorted evidence to understand how those who worked alongside prominent historical individuals were deliberately ‘overlooked’. We can also consider the reasons behind this, which in themselves might be deemed examples of overlooked history, representative of the more private areas of individuals’ leadership and lives. This sort of information is invariably surrounded in conspiracy and protected from public knowledge. Furthermore, this can offer us an insight into the context surrounding historical events. 

Stalin with Commissar Nikolai Yezhov. Source

Manipulated Image: Source

Photograph manipulation can be seen on numerous occasions during the leadership of many dictatorial historical figures. Above, for example, Stalin is pictured next to one of his Commissars, Nikolai Yezhov, Chief of the Secret Police. However, after they fell out with each other, Stalin had the Commissar removed as if to eradicate him from existence. This image is often used in relation to Stalin’s purges, and therefore might not necessarily be considered ‘overlooked’ as such. Despite this, it can be considered representative of how individual victims of the purges were overlooked, their stories and accounts of this period lost and shrouded in secrecy and mystery. The photograph manipulation mimics how thousands of people were lost to the purges, in many cases, without a trace. Moreover, in Soviet history, as asserted by David King, ‘photographic manipulation worked very much on an ad hoc basis’;[1] it was based on a request or order for it to be carried out, implying a desire for someone to be specifically ‘overlooked’, or perhaps the events or circumstances that dictated their elimination from a particular photograph to be conveniently overlooked.

Left: The manipulated photograph, Hitler pictured without Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda. Source

Hitler also used photograph manipulation; pictured above, Joseph Goebbels was removed from the photograph, which was also believed to have happened in similar circumstances of a discrepancy between the two men. Whilst both Yezhov and Goebbels might be well recognised in the teaching of history, we can see from this evidence that for some reason, both Hitler and Stalin wanted them to be hidden and thus not recognised by those who could see these photographs. This surrounds the photographs in controversy. Furthermore, and in both cases, we can see that not only the overlooked histories of those individuals closely linked to the likes of Hitler and Stalin are significant, but quite possibly overlooked elements of the regimes themselves. Hidden from the photographs therefore are not just the individuals, but the more controversial and private elements underpinning the regime and its dynamics. 

Benito Mussolini, pictured left in a manipulated photograph with his horse handler removed. Source

From a slightly different perspective, individuals can be seen to manipulate images to more explicitly present themselves in a more favourable light. Here, for example, Benito Mussolini can be seen before and after a photo manipulation after requesting the horse handler was removed, presenting himself as considerably more powerful and valiant. It would be simply untrue to suggest that Mussolini has been ‘overlooked’ in history, and indeed, our knowledge that this photo was manipulated tells us that he wanted to present himself in a certain way, unrepresentative of the real person. This photograph might indeed therefore be interpreted more as an image of propaganda, than overlooked history when one considers Mussolini’s intentions for manipulating it. However, perhaps we can consider once again the more private dynamics of Mussolini as an individual not so widely understood and perhaps ‘overlooked’ in favour of studying his widely recognised power and authority. The psychology behind Mussolini wanting to be perceived in this particular way might have been disregarded, a study of which might shed light on understanding his regime further and furthermore the principles and ideologies he believed in, and the way he chose to lead based on these ideas.

Another point of interest related to these ideas might be the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, Nicolae Ceausescu, who added himself to images as well as manipulated and distorted his public image. A documentary about this can be found on YouTube.

[1] David King, “Photographic images should not be relied upon, but even falsified photographs can be illuminating for students of history”, available at

References and Recommended Reading

“The Lost World of Communism- Part 3- Romanian Revolution & Life in Communist Romania” Available at

“Ethics in photo editing”, available at

Manipulated photographs of Stalin and Hitler, available at

“Falsification of History”, available at

Case, Holly. “The Tyrant as Editor.” Chronicle of Higher Education 60, 6 (2013).

King, David, The Commissar Vanishes: Falsification of Photographs and Art in the Soviet Union. Henry Holt & Company Inc, 1999.

King, David, “Photographic images should not be relied upon, but even falsified photographs can be illuminating for students of history”. Available at