Propaganda and lies

The willingness to influence the course of events and to manipulate public opinion using propaganda is consistent throughout history and is still relevant today.

From his coronation in 1804, Napoleon oversaw the development of his image, commissioning numerous artists whose work he controlled. The propaganda aimed to strengthen his authority, promoting the man and also the empire. Mission accomplished—the myth of Napoleon Bonaparte outlived his regime.

Bonaparte franchissant les Alpes au Grand-Saint-Bernard (1840) by Georges Rouget (Painter) and Based on Jacques-Louis David (Painter)Musée de l'Armée - Hôtel des Invalides

In this famous painting by David (here a copy of the museum), Napoleon is showing great composure on a spirited horse, raising his hand as an invitation to follow him. Portrayed as a virile, glorious conqueror, who could stop him?

His name is carved alongside Hannibal and Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus in Latin), two great historic figures who also sought to conquer Italy This was a way of legitimizing his conquests and, by association, their casualties.

Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard (1908) by Edmond Marie Félix de Boislecomte (Painter)Musée de l'Armée - Hôtel des Invalides

The reality is quite different: Napoleon crossed the Alps on a mule wearing a simple gray frock coat. Not so epic …

In the 19th century, the development of the press and media resulted in a new form of political communication: caricature. The use of images to influence public opinion became particularly prominent at the time of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894.

Musée des horreurs, n°6 le traître (1900) by Victor LenepveuMusée de l'Armée - Hôtel des Invalides

Here, Captain Dreyfus is pictured as a snake—a creature known for being sly, wicked, and, above all, associated with original sin. The animal is represented with several heads in reference to a supposed Jewish conspiracy.

Violence, which is materialized by the sword, is necessary to end the conspiracy. Associated with knights, this weapon symbolizes courage, justice, and revenge. No doubt about Dreyfus' guilt …

During World War II, the image war escalated and all belligerent parties were involved: from the creation of the Allies' information department to the Ministry of Propaganda in Germany.

Population abandonnée, faites confiance au soldat allemand (1940) by Théo Matjeko (designer)Musée de l'Armée - Hôtel des Invalides

Written in French, this poster directly targeted the occupied population. Put up in June 1940, it depicts a tall, strong German with a bright smile, in line with the ideal of the Third Reich.

He holds a little boy in his arms to whom he apparently gave a slice of bread—this at a time when food rationing was ongoing in France…

At his side stand two shy but begrudging young girls who are jealous of the little boy (well … mainly his bread!)

The German man conveys the idea of a caring father. The message behind the propaganda is clear: the Germans aren't the enemies of the French, but should be considered friends, or even protectors.

The inscription "et quoi encore …? (oh, come on!)" was added by E. Crick, a Parisian jeweler who, like many others, didn't believe a word of this propaganda and rejected this occupation.

Une à une, on lui brisera les pattes (Ca. 1941) by Kimon Evan Marengo, a.k.a KemMusée de l'Armée - Hôtel des Invalides

Published by the English Ministry of Information and translated into several languages, this poster features Hitler as a spider, a symbol of cruelty that spins its web to ensnare its prey. His many legs spread over the map, some of them being cut by English ships and planes.

Since the first half of the 19th century, the colonial ideology has strongly shaped people's perception of the "Other." The world expositions started in 1855 and were used as showcases for the colonial empires to display "their" products and wealth. 

Exposition coloniale internationale Paris (1931) by Jean-Victor Desmeures (Designer) and Robert Lang (Editor)Musée de l'Armée - Hôtel des Invalides

These men are depersonalized and echo the stereotypes, even caricatures, of the time: the refined Asian, the mysterious Maghrebi, and the Indian and the African seen as bare-chested primitives.

On the left, the outline of a minaret. A French flag, at the time a symbol of national unity, flies at its top: thanks to France, cultures and religions are brought together.

On the right, the temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. A replica of the temple was built for the 1931 exhibition and dismantled a year later. It symbolizes the French presence in Asia.

What were the goals of this poster? It aimed to show the vastness of the Empire to the French and to the neighboring countries, as a mark of power and authority, but it also aimed to convince them that these colonized populations were consolidating the nation.

Credits: Story

A story written and edited by the teams of the Army Museum. 
© Musée de l’Armée

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