Teaching about national personifications and their use as propaganda

This article is the nineteenth of an ongoing series from EuroClio providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.

This blogpost develops further ideas for teaching using personifications of nations. If you have not already read the previous blogpost, please do so. In it you will find an explanation of national personifications for history teachers and also some ideas to consider when teaching using them. In this blogpost the specific focus is upon national personifications and their use as propaganda.
Propaganda is itself a complex term for students to understand. It can be described as material to persuade to achieve a political purposes. Often students encounter propaganda in history classrooms as an entirely negative thing. It is not so. For example, campaigns by governments to persuade citizens to eat more healthily or to wear a face mask in a pandemic are propaganda, but are not regarded as sinister and negative by most citizens. Some examples are given in the Source collection on the topic.

Appealing to Nationalism to support the annexation of Trieste
Source: La lontananza dalla famiglia: Livia Morica via Europeana 1914-1918, 5556.
Ideas to consider when exploring national personifications and propaganda

The teaching needs to be carefully planned and broken down into stages to help students to work confidently and effectively with both national personifications and propaganda in the history classroom. There are a number of important issues to consider when planning.

Firstly, propaganda can be sensitive and controversial for some students. While some students may not experience an emotional connection to some propaganda, others may do so. The teacher needs to know their students and to be prepared to set up the tone of the classroom so that the focus is on using images as historical evidence of the past. At the same time, there may well be propaganda images that are not appropriate to use in school classrooms, or at least not without very careful consideration of contextualisation and teacher explanation. For example, where a national personification is used in racist propaganda. In general, as teachers, we should be questioning our use of any image that harms the dignity of a person or people.

Secondly, it is a good idea to introduce the concept of national personification before the concept of propaganda. For more on the former, please see the previous blogpost. The two concepts can be introduced on one lesson, just not at the same time. Depending on the experience of your students, you may also need to take time to introduce the concept of a political cartoon; a common form of propaganda.

Thirdly, a wide variety of methods of persuasion are deployed in propaganda. They are not all likely to be present on one form of propaganda, but any activity teaching students about propaganda
should introduce the methods and give students chance to work with a range of sources which deploy different methods. When selecting sources try to find ones which show use of the following:

  • Convincing people that the subject of the propaganda has authority to make a claim
  • Exploitation of existing beliefs of people who are to see or hear the propaganda
  • An appeal to patriotism
  • The creation or stoking of fear
  • Humour to entertain
  • A suggestion that everyone agrees with the point of view being supported
  • Disguising the propaganda as something else
  • The use of very blunt and clear messaging
  • Making false connections
  • Selective use of the truth
  • Establishing a leadership cult

Finally, while, in the history classroom our primary responsibility is to teach about how we interpret the past, propaganda is all around us today. There are many examples of useful activities available that focus on the wider issue of helping students not to unwittingly fall vulnerable to propaganda. The work of the Stamford University History Education Group and Professor Sam Wineburg is one such example.

Appealing to French patriotism to help the war effort
Source: Correspondance entre Emile MONFRAY et sa sœur., Emile
Monfray, 1916, Archives départementales de Seine-Maritime via
Europeana, 230012.

Teaching about national personification and propaganda using the e-learning activity

The e-learning activity is designed to introduce students to the concept of national personification, to familiarise them with some common personifications they may encounter and to introduce them to how personification has been used as propaganda. It starts by defining the phrase ‘personifying the nation’ and then introducing some commonly used personifications of nations; both the name and the way they are commonly portrayed. To check this learning is secure, students sort a series of images into national groups. They then focus on one political cartoon from the second decade of the 20th century. They have to identify the two countries represented in the cartoon, explain the clues they used and how they used them. The next task uses two versions of the Uncle Sam personification of the USA and students identify the similarities and differences between them. This helps cement the idea of common features in personifications as well as providing an opportunity to study sources carefully; a key skill for a historian. The students are then introduced to a definition of propaganda and to the different ways that propaganda can attempt to persuade people. They then work with two examples of propaganda, one a personification of Italy and the other a personification of France from the era of the First World War, to identify the methods of persuasion are used in the propaganda and to explain why they have arrived at their decision. Finally, students reflect on their learning.

Acknowledgements

Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.

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