When a state decides what people are allowed to see, read and know, we can speak of censorship. It is as old as the first civilizations. Censorship and propaganda have been used as tools for keeping people down across countries and regimes no matter which ideology the state was loyal to. Censorship and propaganda under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes can be studied in many historical contexts. Censorship has been applied in different ways depending on different national histories and propaganda by a given regime and circumstances. Striking examples can be found in Mussolini’s Italy between 1922-1943 on traditional family values, Hitler´s Germany between 1933-1945 on art, or Franco’s Spain from 1939-1975 on religious affairs. After the Second World War one can mention Hungary and its many writers in opposition, Yugoslavia where officially there was no censorship, and Poland which under Communist rule had a strong ideological censorship. Because censorship is so diverse, it is a complex topic. There are three strands of censorship. The first one is preventive censorship, keeping information from the people. It can be recognized in letters when words or parts are blacked out before the message is delivered. The second one is informative censorship. This provides an evidence base which is used to formulate social or cultural policy, or track down ‘subversives’. When a state developed a habit of espionage on its people, intelligence could use it to gauge the morality of the citizens, but also to track where they were and what they were up to. The third strand is productive censorship, expressed through propaganda, by which a specific image is constructed, a kind the untrained eye can’t see. For example it can produce good presentations of the leaders and the nation. In this function censorship goes hand in hand with propaganda. When we understand the three strands, we see that censorship not only occurred in non-democratic countries. In the twentieth century it became easier to spread information thanks to press, photography, film and internet. In today’s information society, the amount of information that travels freely across borders is difficult to control. Citizens may find ways to avoid being censored. This learning unit explores European history to help students understand how censorship worked, what the effect was on ordinary people and what this means for societies today in which free information and power continue to be entangled.
This unit has been made by the team working on the project "Silencing Citizens through Censorship. Learning from Europe’s 20th Century Dictatorial and Totalitarian Past”. The project has received funding from the European Union within the framework of Europe for Citizens Programme. The content of this unit reflect only the authors’ views and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
This module is published under the CC BY 4.0 licence.