Currently, there are numerous proposed plans for how to tackle the critical issue of disinformation. One argument states that it is not appropriate for national governments to discuss defending against hostile disinformation and propaganda, since this information, albeit false and intentionally misleading, is amalgamated within a much wider body of work and opinion and should, therefore, be protected under freedom of speech. Furthermore, it is solely the responsibility of the media and civil society to counter the information attacks and not the responsibility of the government.
Karel Čapek, the famous Czech author and playwright who fought against fascism and communism in Europe on the eve of the Second World War, provided a strong rebuttal to this argument in 1938 that still holds true to this day. “He who hesitates to grant his nation the means to protect itself against propaganda is as foolish as he who would refuse to arm its military in a world ablaze with weapons.”
Less than four months after the publication of this essay, Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and annexed the Sudetenland. In March 1939, the Wehrmacht took over the rest of the country, declaring it a German protectorate. Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia lasted until Germany’s surrender in 1945. Čapek died of pneumonia six months after this article had been published.
Karel Čapek: Us and the Others
Lidové Noviny, June 12, 1938
While violence deprives people of free will, propaganda deprives them of free judgment. It is no coincidence, then, that dictatorships have pioneered propaganda as a political weapon.
I frankly detest everything that is nowadays called propaganda. I consider it among the greatest political abominations of the present age that violence – which has been used throughout history to control people and nations physically – is now joined by the 20th century’s latest innovations in propaganda to dominate them mentally and spiritually. While violence deprives people of free will, propaganda deprives them of free judgment. It is no coincidence, then, that dictatorships have pioneered propaganda as a political weapon. To democracies, meanwhile, propaganda is essentially something as alien as violence. But even democracies, as we know, must take up arms in self-defense should they be attacked by guns and cannons – and equally, they must be ready to defend themselves with words and ink should they be threatened in kind. He who hesitates to grant his nation the means to protect itself against propaganda is as foolish as he who would refuse to arm its military in a world ablaze with weapons. Of course, no one today would dare object to the importance of their nation’s military readiness. Yet it is impossible to escape the feeling that, somewhere, in some office or place of high authority, there prevails strong opposition to the idea that our nation should also actively defend itself against information warfare. Surely, there must be someone or something fiercely resistant to this – considering recent events, it cannot be a mere question of incompetence.
There is presently much debate about how our effective counterpropaganda should be structured and focused. Firstly, I don’t think we should use that term at all, considering that propaganda as we know it is seldom believed these days, having devolved into the mass production of lies, exaggerations, demagoguery, and brute manipulation. We do not want to pour sand into people’s eyes. Our objective is simply to convey, as accurately and effectively as possible, who and what we are. This does not mean foisting our propaganda upon other states and nations, but rather ensuring that foreign propaganda does not misrepresent or demonize us. It is thus not about propaganda per se, but about the defense against it – against lies and half-truths – and about protection of the truth. It is about defending genuine freedom of spirit. But simply having the truth on our side is not enough – we must also be unconditionally ready to defend it. Indeed, just as we protect our borders, so must we stand guard, weapons in hand, along the fragile frontiers of truth and fact.
The second duty we owe our nation, and which likewise is not propaganda, is speaking to the “others” – those on the opposite shore – and openly informing them about who we are, how we think, and what we want, in order to build personal understanding and learn more about one another. For example, it took us much too long to establish a German radio station, and now it seems we aren’t even sure what to broadcast. God only knows how long we will keep losing this fight, day after day, as though there is little to be said about democracy and peace, about human freedom, or about common European values – especially to those who now follow an opposing voice. Every now and then, at least, some of them might start to harbor doubt and think for themselves, and that already would be one small victory. As a democracy, it is imperative that we speak to people directly, and not only to their political leaders. So far, we have not done this.
Finally, the third thing we need, and in which we remain far behind, is frequent and honest communication with us all. Now more than ever, we are deeply bonded by the spirit of togetherness and unity, and we ought to express it outwardly by word, thought, conviction, and collective behavior. Today is the unique psychological moment when all that we share is suddenly recognized and cherished more profoundly than ever before. In such a moment, the spiritual fate of the nation is being determined for ages to come. It is a precious opportunity that must not be squandered at any cost.
And now for some practical suggestions about what to do. We have a free, largely uncorrupt press; geographically, we have well-positioned radio towers; abroad, there is unprecedented interest in our country and affairs. Except – I don’t know, really – it’s as though a dead hand was smothering our intellectual defenses. Hence this spiritual mobilization, which we need just as much as any other weapon in our arsenal, has failed to materialize.
Any idea who’s to blame?
Translated by Monika Richter
Based on the Czech original published by manipulatori.cz