Years back, when I was studying the Nazi rise to power in Germany (which is what my work in history often boiled down to) I found and read Mr. Hitler’s famous pages about how essential galvanizing propaganda is to any great cause.   Propaganda, he pointed out in a surprisingly coherent section of his hastily dictated Mein Kampf, must enflame the passions of its audience.   For that reason Hitler applauded the ruthless, lying propaganda of the Allies in World War One which made Allied soldiers righteously hate the Germans.  Propaganda must arouse strong feelings and inspire fervent faith in the rightness of the cause.

That’s propaganda in a nutshell.   

Back in the days before the internet, when research was conducted in libraries, I pulled down and read through books that referred to other books.  You would consult the bibliographies, jot down the titles and authors of other books that promised to deal more directly with the exact question you wanted to grapple with.   In one such book I found that the word “propaganda” was first used by a Pope who decided to use the mass media of the day to propagate the faith.   If you were so inclined, you could find the encapsulated story, the exact year, the name of the Pope and all that, in seconds, by saying a few words into your phone.  [1]

Pope Gregory XV was late to the party.   The first to arrive was a highly principled monk named Martin Luther, who propagated his faith almost a hundred years before Pope Gregory XV coined the phrase.   I saw a documentary about the life of Martin Luther recently that opened my eyes.   I’d read quotes of Luther’s over the years about the Christian duty of obedience to rulers that made him sound like an authoritarian type.  He’d stated that the duty to obey one’s masters was clear because God had not put a fox tail in the hands of the rulers, but a knout.  Here is what a knout looks like:


I also knew him as something of a famous anti-Semite [2].  I watched the biographical movie with great interest, it was very well-done.  Here is what I gleaned.

Young Martin Luther studied law.  His father wanted him to become a lawyer, to assist him with his business troubles.   At some point the Lord called Martin Luther and he abandoned his legal studies.  His father, feeling betrayed and bereft of the badly needed brilliant legal counsel his son should have provided him, was furious.   Martin Luther felt intense guilt over his decision to abandon his father.  Luther did what any devout Christian monk with a troubled conscience would do, he mortified his flesh, flogged himself, fasted for days, wore a hair shirt, burdened himself with heavy chains, and he prayed.   One assumes that none of this made a favorable impression on his disappointed father.

Martin Luther took a principled stand against the corruptions of the Catholic church of his day.   It burned him, for example, that rich people could buy “indulgences” which exempted them from penance for certain types of sins.   He preached against these corrupt practices and eventually was given the choice of publicly recanting his blasphemies or facing excommunication, which sometimes came with a gruesome execution.  He braved the consequences, stuck to his principles, and his faith in God, and was not flayed or burned to death by the Church.

He had begun writing about his beliefs, and apparently had a genius for it.  Gutenberg’s new printing press, invented 43 years before Luther’s birth, would become the vehicle for propagating Martin Luther’s writings.  The filmmakers suggested that it was the popularity of his writings, mass distributed in the manner of sixteenth century Europe, that may have saved the heretic Luther from gristly death at the time of his excommunication.  The world’s first best-selling author, writing powerfully on matters of conscience, Christ, and the relation of humans and God, he was simply too popular, too loved by many in the rabble, for local authorities to burn at the stake.  The filmmakers didn’t mention it, but it probably didn’t hurt that he spoke with authority of the rabble’s duty to obey those who wielded the knout.

We are told that Luther preached a message of liberation to the masses that millions of hardworking Christians were delighted to hear.  You pray directly to God, not through a paid, corrupt, intermediary.  A poor man has the same access to his Creator as a baron or a king.  You don’t need a priest to interpret what God expects of you, read God’s words for yourself, in your own language.  Luther himself translated the scriptures into the vernacular. 

All over Europe people would read his writings and rush to set more copies in print, churn them out on the printing press, the Twitter or Facebook of its day.  Luther himself was shocked at how quickly his writings spread.  He was, apparently, an inspirational writer who wrote things like:

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

So, but for the invention of the printing press, which spread Luther’s ideas to every corner of Christiandom, who knows if there would have been a Protestant reformation?  It certainly would not have gotten underway during Luther’s lifetime, anyway.

Propaganda can be as tricky to identify as pornography.  It can be slippery to describe.  People of good faith may differ on what is pure manipulative propaganda and what is good information to base your decisions on, but we can all say, as a famous Supreme Court justice wrote in a famous ruling on pornography, “I know it when I see it”.  Leaving aside, of course, as in any discussion of The War on Terror, the jarring fact that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.  

The world is complicated.  Propaganda makes it easy to understand.  Vote for me and I’ll set you free.  Ball of confusion, that’s what the world is today. [3].

[1]  today any snot-nosed bastard can come off like an authoritative genius, the accumulated knowledge of the world one click, or voice command, away:

The term “propaganda” apparently first came into common use in Europe as a result of the missionary activities of the Catholic church. In 1622 Pope Gregory XV created in Rome the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

[2]  The filmmakers took some trouble to explain the unfortunate strains of anti-Semitism in Luther’s later writings.  It appears he expected the Jews, once the corruptions of the Pope’s church were cleared away, to flock en masse to his perfected version of Christianity.  He’d been quite nice to the Jews in the beginning, in expectation of welcoming them as brothers and sisters in Christ.  The Jews, for their part, stubbornly refused to give up their ancient religion and convert to Luther’s.   After that, understandably, Luther had little use for the Jews and concluded there was no saving them.   He began to write mean things about them, but, the filmmakers suggested, you shouldn’t really hold those unfortunate writings against him.

[3]    Ball of Confusion   (1970)     The Temptations

 People movin’ out, people movin’ in.
Why, because of the color of their skin.
Run, run, run, but you sho’ can’t hide
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Vote for me and I’ll set you free
Rap on, brother, rap on.
Well, the only person talkin’ ’bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems nobody’s interested in learning but the teacher
Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation,
humiliation, obligation to our nation
Ball Of Confusion that’s what the world is today (yeah, yeah)
The sale of pills is at an all time high
young folks walkin’ ’round with their heads in the sky
Cities aflame in the summer time, and oh the beat goes on
Eve of destruction, tax deduction,
City inspectors, bill collectors,
Evolution, revolution, gun control, the sound of soul,
Shootin’ rockets to the moon, kids growin’ up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will solve ev’rything, and the band played on.
Round and round and around we go, where the world’s headed nobody knows.
Great googa mooga, can’t you hear me talkin’ to you, just a
Ball of Confusion that’s what the world is today. (yeah, yeah)
Fear in the air, tension ev’rywhere
Unemployment rising fast, the Beatle’s new record’s a gas,
and the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation,
and the band played on
Eve of destruction, tax deduction,
City inspectors, bill collectors, mod clothes in demand,
population out of hand, suicide too many bills, hippies movin’ to the hills
People all over the world are shouting end the war and the band played on.
Round and round and around we go, where the world’s headed nobody knows.
Great googa mooga, can’t you hear me talkin’ to you, just a
Ball of Confusion that’s what the world is today
Let me hear you, let me hear you, let me hear you
Ball Of Confusion that’s what the world is today

Songwriters: Norman Whitfield / Barrett Strong
Ball of Confusion lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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