Today, all consumers of media have to proactively filter through the vast amounts of data available in order to find the median truth. When it comes to media coverage about the situation for refugees, this is no exception. Young people, in particular, are exposed to dramatic and often propagandistic messaging in different forms, for example on social media or in viral videos, and have to sift through professionally crafted manipulations that aim to influence their thinking. That is why the topic of propaganda– understanding its forms and methods–is necessary in our classrooms. This in particular applies to students from post-Communist countries whose regimes were based on propaganda and censorship, and unfortunately, these patterns are seeping back into their societies now. Educators have the potential to give students the tools to understand:
- What is propaganda and how does it work?
- What are the most often used methods of propaganda and manipulation?
- What is fake news and how is it different from propaganda?
- What is media bias and how is it different from censorship?
- What are the effects and consequences of propaganda?
- What can I do to expose and confront propaganda?
In order to ask these questions, educators in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, have created activities on IWitness, the educational portal of the USC Shoah Foundation, to be used by teachers in the classroom in order to educate their students about the power of propaganda and the importance of critical thinking.
The locally designed activities– “The Operation of Propaganda,” “Freedom of speech, censorship and propaganda in Czechoslovakia 1968,” and “Not Welcome– the effects of propaganda during the events of March 1968” — were developed by local educators, Mónika Mezei from Hungary, Marcel Mahdal from the Czech Republic, and educators from the Polin Museum in Poland, respectively. In IWitness activities, students engage with video testimonies of survivors and witnesses of violence in many forms, including genocide, totalitarianism, propaganda, government surveillance, and more. These activities focus on the events of 1956 in Hungary and of
1968 in Czechoslovakia and in Poland. In the testimonies for these activities, individuals talk about how propaganda impacted their lives, describing how propaganda changed the attitudes of their neighbors, instilled fear in themselves and in their families, or led to them fleeing the country. There is also an activity similar to these available in English, entitled “The Power of Propaganda.” In this version, students learn about the different types of propaganda that the Nazis used and how propaganda impacted the youth. Students also reflect on the role of media in their own lives, focusing on how to develop a critical lens in interpreting media messages.
In the activities, students learn about how propaganda is not something of the past, but rather it is a form of communication used in many different eras, including today. They learn that propaganda can be used and reused for different purposes, and that the same messages are used in order to target different groups. By combining locally relevant testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History and critical thinking questions, students are able to develop their analytical skills and understand the connections between propaganda past and present.
The Hungarian activity, “The Operation of Propaganda” (“A propaganda működése”):
- A downloadable activity for grades 9-12
- Takes 40 minutes to complete
In this activity, students engage with the definition of propaganda by examining propaganda posters from different periods of the 20th century. These posters are from different periods, countries, and perspectives, but the students work together to find similarities between them. Mezei said, “I used materials from different periods and political systems in order to make them understand that propaganda works with the same methods in the same ways.”
They also watch a video testimony from György Kis. György was born in 1914 in Adony, Hungary. In his testimony, he speaks about the dangers of the Communist state controlled media and how propagandistic repetition during the events of 1956 led citizens to believe even the most “unthinkable” and “illogical things.” He also describes repercussions of adhering to, and of not adhering to, the narratives of state propaganda. Students also watch the testimony of László Keller who was born in Mezőcsát in 1928. He describes the Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda that he and his family were subject to. He recalls how propaganda, oftentimes without saying it explicitly, blames the problems of society on groups of people by using generalizations and erasing the uniqueness of human beings. After watching the testimonies, students are asked to discuss:
- How does power impact people?
- Which attributes of human beings does propaganda target?
The Czech activity, “Freedom of speech, censorship and propaganda” (Svoboda slova, cenzura a propaganda v Československu 1968):
- An online activity for grades 9-12
- Takes 1.5 hours to complete
In this activity, students learn about propaganda and censorship by examining the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia. They look at different examples of propaganda and are asked to analyze who or what is considered “our enemy” in the examples provided. They are asked to consider why the “enemy” was chosen and how the propaganda manipulates the audience to come to the same conclusion.
In addition to examining propaganda and forms of censorship, students watch the testimony of Eduard Goldstucker, a professor who became one of the symbols of the Czechoslovak reforms. He recalls how he received hate-mail in 1968 as a result of his activities. He describes the letter as:
“Virulently antisemitic, which was to scare me. ‘You Jewish vermin,’ and so on, telling me that a report on my criminal activity was already sent to the Soviet Union.”
Students also learn about the concept of freedom of speech within the constitution of the Czech Republic. They are asked to consider:
- Could freedom of speech be abused? How and by whom?
- What are two examples of freedom of speech being abused that you have come across?
In addition to propaganda, students also examine different forms of protest, like that of Czech student Jan Palach who set himself on fire in protest of the Communist invasion. Students are then are asked to discuss: “What are different ways one can protest for freedom?”
The Polish activity, “Not Welcome” (Niemile widziani – skutki propagandy podczas wydarzeń Marca 1968 r.”):
- An online activity for grades 8-12
- Takes 2 hours to complete
In this activity, students learn about the events of 1968 with a particular focus on the antisemitic propaganda that was present and its consequences for ordinary people. Students look at pictures from the student protests of March 1968 and discuss the impact of antisemitic propaganda, for example, how the propaganda caused the emigration of Polish citizens of Jewish origin, including Holocaust survivors and their families. The purpose of the lesson is to help students understand how propaganda works and how simple it is to manipulate the opinions of individuals and of the society.
Students listen to the testimony of a Jewish resident of Lodz, Bernard Brocławskiego. He describes the events leading up to 1968 by saying:
“They [the Polish government] decided to begin a terrible antisemitic campaign against Zionism and against Jews, because who can be a Zionist? And the campaign was unbearable.”
He continues to describe how he remembers his neighbors changing their perception towards Jewish people as a result of the propaganda campaign. Students are asked to consider: “what makes you and your family feel safe in Poland?” They then continue by watching testimonies of other individuals who were impacted by the propaganda of 1968 and who felt so unsafe they fled Poland. After watching these testimonies, students are asked to consider the role played by propaganda and if they see the impact of present day propaganda on social attitudes.
Learning from the Past, for Today
Student responses to these activities have been positive. According to Mónika Mezei:
“After completing this activity, my students, on their own accord and without my intervention, were able to connect the historical examples of propaganda from the lesson with the propaganda that surrounds them today. They understand that the devices of propaganda have not changed.”
Students after completing the Czech activity reported the following:
- “This activity was more effective and enjoyable than mechanical learning from a workbook or textbook.”
- “I was very surprised that I was having fun filling out the questions. The attached materials helped me to understand the era of communism.”
- “I like this activity, especially sections where I was asked to formulate my thoughts and arguments.”
- “This activity brought me closer to the events in 1968. And it showed me how easy it was to manipulate information.
- “When you hear it from someone who has experienced it, it is much more powerful than just reading it.”
While these activities use examples of propaganda from the past, their lessons are anything but outdated. Using the power of testimony, students are able to connect with the stories of the individuals highlighted in these lessons and understand the importance of their experiences. Through this method, they are asked not simply to take note of historical facts, but understand phenomena and patterns, and reflect on these within their own lives today. On the importance of this activity for today, Monika Mezei concluded:
“I think it is utterly important that at least my students develop some kind of shield against propaganda… Older generations in Hungary grew up in a dictatorship and were manipulated by the government. Maybe their minds can’t be changed, but I believe in the younger generations.”
IWitness is an educational website developed by USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education that provides access to more than 1,500 full life histories, testimonies of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides for guided exploration. IWitness brings the human stories of the Institute’s Visual History Archive to secondary school teachers and their students via engaging multimedia-learning activities. It connects the students with the past, engages them in the present and motivates them to build a better future.