A Bulwark Made of Words: the Francoist Press during the Second World War

By Miguel Rivas Venegas

In the opinion of Sir Samuel Hoare, British Ambassador in Spain, the Spanish press from the 1940s was a toy in the hands of the Third Reich’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. Newspapers were full of terminology described by the researcher Luis Veres as the ‘lexical arsenals’ of authoritarian regimes, and were as Hoare underlined, ‘literally illegible’.[1] The American ambassador, Alexander Weddel, who would accuse the Home Minister, Ramón Serrano Suñer, of organizing a propaganda campaign coordinated by Nazi agitators, shared the opinion of the British diplomat in Spain.

According to Weddel, the German Press Attaché was indeed behind many of the articles and editorials of the Falangist newspaper Arriba, which were ‘clearly translated from another language’. Stanley Payne also discussed translations in reference to the early fascist newspaper El Fascio,[2] promoted by the J.O.N.S member,[3] José María Alfaro, close collaborator of the German Press Attaché Hans Lazar.[4]  Research on Jonsist language reveals possible translations and adaptations of the ‘Lingua Tertii Imperii’ within the language and rhetoric of Spanish Jonsists, Falangists and Francoist propagandists of the late 1930s and 1940s.[5]

Report in Spanish newspaper, ABC, on Hitler’s activities in Berlin. Source: ABC (Sevilla), 9/4/1943

The enormous power of journalists and Spanish correspondents in Germany under the command of Hans Lazar, as well as the influence of the media in general should not be underestimated. As Weddel would claim, a systematic, coordinated press could be enough to drag the exhausted masses of Spain into a ‘new battle of the same war’ –asserted Franco– against the enemies of the Fatherland.

Spain was represented by the Spanish Caudillo, German propaganda, and General Moscardó (who was in charge of the Deutsch-Spanische Geschellschaft),[6] as the first front of the crusade against bolshevism and its ‘allies’. The press should be, as Home Secretary Serrano Suñer claimed in 1940, ‘Military column, militia, and fundamental backup to the State’.[7] As stated in one Diario Norte article signed by the National-Socialist press agency Arco-SPES, the journalist should become a soldier,[8] and get rid of his civilian clothes. Discipline under a strict chain of command included linguistic discipline:[9] dilettantes or propagandistic improvisation could be more dangerous than enemy counter-propaganda. Arsenals of words, or, ‘purr’ and ‘snarl words’, as Hayakawa would categorize certain political vocabulary,[10] should be cautiously and meticulously chosen.

The so-called ‘New Spain’ needed its journalists on the front lines of combat. Germany would be the best example of the strong power of persuasion of media under a rigid, sophisticated and, according to General Director of Propaganda Dionisio Ridruejo, ‘perverse’ control of the State.[11] Spanish news correspondents were positioned in many European countries, another one of the Generals’ weapons since the First World War.[12]

At first glance, Spanish newspapers showed not only a non-belligerent attitude towards the political and imperialistic aspirations of the Axis, but clear support of their propaganda and propagandistic language. Information relating to Japanese expansionism presented to Spanish readers in the newspaper ABC was similar to the allusions that appeared in Arriba or Levante, in which German imperialism and the offensive against Poland was described as a ‘vital necessity’, clearly supporting the hitlerian principle of Lebensraum. According to these newspapers, the egoism, incompetence, and lack of empathy of the so-called decadent democracies provoked the German reaction and made any pacific solution to the conflict impossible. The newspaper El Norte de Castilla would affirm that German troops were obligated to penetrate the Polish territory, as the Poles rejected any pacific alternative.[13]

The Falangist daily, Arriba, delivers Hitler’s speeches to a Spanish audience. Source: Arriba, 31/1/1941

Germany was pictured as a proud nation reacting to the constant provocations and warlike offenses of those ‘false democracies’ that according to Franco ‘did not want peace in Spain’. [14] Salvador Merino, Head of the Falangist Trade Unions, would talk about an ‘obliged war’, a defensive war, of Germany against its offenders. The opinion of the prominent Falangist appears in the Pueblo newspaper right after one of his ‘formative trips’ to National-Socialist Germany.[15] According to his own description of these visits, he contacted prominent Nazi leaders and studied (and in many senses reproduced) the structure of the German Labour Front.

The same subjective, laconic, imprecise and propagandistic description can be found in El Alcázar referring to the German offensive in Norway.[16] The position of certain Catholic newspapers towards Nazi racial measures in occupied territories can be easily perceived in the pages of El correo de Andalucía. They exhale the same anti-Semitism found in the pages of Onesimo Redondo´s Libertad:

‘When going down Nawrek Street the citizen formation decreases and changes, turning, degenerating into filthy residences corresponding to the Jewish suburbs. Even the three-floor buildings look nauseating and disgusting. The “doroskas” stroll around streets full of dirty and ragged kids. The Jewish caftan stands out over any other clothing and the beards are legion as the fear of an epidemic disease’.[17]

The Spanish press commonly pointed towards ‘British egoism’, which was described constantly in ABC. The origin of the Japanese occupations was, according to this newspaper, an ‘obliged’ defence against the British manoeuvres:

The fight of Japan against the Anglo-Saxon powers is a transposition of the social war on the international scene (…) the Japanese archipelago is too small for it’s almost one hundred million inhabitants (…) if the Anglo-Saxons would have understood the vital necessities of the Japanese people, the actual conflict could have been avoided.[18]

The first Press Office Director and member of the Office of Press and Propaganda, journalist, and correspondent Luis Antonio Bolín considered, at the beginning of the conflict, that the war should be won by force of arms. Maybe his early contacts with non-Spanish journalists and propagandists in Salamanca changed his mind. Propaganda and the press were, as Bernays claimed in 1928,[19] a fundamental tool in modern times. Weapons were not enough. A bulwark of words, also serving the propagandistic goals of National-socialist propaganda in Spain, was successfully built in the newly-born ‘España Nacional’.

Miguel Rivas Venegas is a second year PhD student in the deparment of Art History and Theory of the Autónoma University (UAM) in Madrid, where he forms part of the research group  ‘Artistic and Audiovisual Cultures in the Contemporary World’. Miguel currently lives in Berlin, where he has spent time as a scholar at the Humboldt University. His PhD research investigates the similarities and differences between the totalitarian language of Nazi Germany, and that of Francoist Spain. 

[1] Ingrid Schulze Schneider, ‘Éxitos y fracasos de la propaganda alemana en España: 1939-1944’. Melanges de la Casa de Velázquez 31-3, (1995), pp. 197-217.

[2] Stanley Payne, Falange. A History of Spanish Fascism (Stanford University Press, 1961), p. 31.

[3] The Juntas Ofensivas Nacional Sindicalistas was the first relevant political movement in Spain.

[4] Schulze Schneider, ‘Éxitos y fracasos’, p. 200.

[5] The German philologist Viktor Klemperer defined the particular use of language and rhetoric of the Third Reich as “Lingua Tertii Imperii”. See Viktor Klemperer, LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen (Berlin, Aufbau,1947).

[6] Speech by General Moscardó, president of the German-Spanish Society- Quoted in El Alcázar, 6 August 1941.

[7] Speech by Serrano Suñer to the journalists of Valencia. As quoted in Informaciones, 24th April,1940.

[8] ‘La prensa en la guerra’ Norte. Diario de Falange Española Tradicionalista y de las J.O.N.S., 27th February 1940.

[9] The propagandistic possibilities of the press, particularly during armed conflicts, had been obvious to German propagandists since the First World War. For more information, see Almut Lindner-Wirsching,‘Patrioten im Pool. Deutsche und französische Kriegsberichtestatter im Ersten Weltkrieg‘ in Ute, D. (Ed.) Augenzeugen. Kriegsberichterstattung von 18. Zum 21. Jahrhundert (Göttingen, 2006).

[10] S. I. Hayakawa, Language in thought and action (Orlando, A Harvest/ HBJ Original, 1990 [1939]).

[11] Francisco Sevillano Calero, ‘La estructura de la prensa diaria en España durante el franquismo” Investigaciones históricas: Época moderna y contemporánea, ISSN 0210-9425, Nº 17, 1997, p. 316.

[12] Reinhard Stauber, ‘War and public Sphere. European examples from the Seven Years´ War to the World War I.’ in Seethaler, J., Karmasin, M., et al., Selling war. The role of Mass Media in Hostile Conflicts. From World War I to the “War on Terror”. p. 28.

[13] Appeared in the newspaper El Norte de Castilla. Quoted in Virginia Martín Jiménez, ‘La prensa vallisoletana ante el final de la Segunda Guerra Mundial’, in Pena, Alberto (ed.), Comunicación y guerra en la historia, pp. 343-344.

[14] Paul Preston, Franco (1995), p. 415.

[15] ‘La estancia del Delegado Nacional de Sindicatos en Alemania’. Appeared in Pueblo. Diario del trabajo nacional. 5th of May,1941.

[16] The Carlist newspaper would briefly refer to that 1 September ‘in which the democratic powers declared war on the Third Reich (…) on the triumphal Germany (…) that possessed the moral of victory’. In ‘En vísperas de las grandes batallas’, El Alcázar, 10 May 1940.

[17] ‘La paz  no depende de Alemania’, El correo de Andalucía, 11 October 1939.

[18] ‘Los japoneses han ocupado la capital de Tailandia.’ ABC, 10 December 1941.

[19] Edward Bernays, Propaganda. (Brooklyn, 2005 [1928]), p. 54.


Max Nordau’s pre-Fascist Discourse of ‘Degenerate’ Art and the Authority of Scientific Language

by Charlotte Armstrong

The notion of ‘degeneracy’ in music has often been associated with Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party’s attempts to galvanise public hatred of music deemed ‘un-German’ at the Degenerate Art Exhibit in 1938. However, in an interview for the documentary Forbidden Sounds: Composers in Exile, Hans Ulrich Engelmann said:

‘It is not Hitler’s or Goebbels’ fault that after 1945 the appreciation of contemporary music did not increase much […] the word ‘degenerate’ is still used by the older generation, especially in Germany. But I must emphasize, we don’t get much further if we believe that it is purely a legacy of the Nazis. The Nazis simply picked up on it.’[1]

Indeed, whilst the classification of certain art as ‘degenerate’ is almost exclusively associated with the Third Reich, discourses of degeneration in fact emerged within mid-19th century scientific contexts, and were translated into artistic critique as early as the 1890s. Such discourses  condemned artists and artworks deemed to pose a threat to ‘healthy’ aspects of society, due in part to the contamination of the artist by negative aspects of modernity.

Perhaps the most influential of these works was written by the physician Max Nordau in 1892. Degeneration, or ‘Entartung’, ­drew its conclusions on degeneracy in the arts from the

Max Nordau. Source: Wikicommons

bio-medical foundations of degeneration theory, and utilised the language of science and medicine to associate certain artworks with the idea of ‘sickness’.

As a physician, Nordau believed that it was his duty to undertake the ‘long and sorrowful wandering through the hospital’ of European culture, and to diagnose the ‘severe mental epidemic’ of the contemporary arts.[2] Suggesting that ‘we now stand in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria’, he lamented that civilised society was growing ‘fatigued and exhausted, and this fatigue and exhaustion showed themselves in the first generation, under the form of acquired hysteria; in the second, as hereditary hysteria’.[3]

For those who theorised artistic degeneration, the legitimacy of medical expertise enabled them to make claims about society that were crafted from medical language. By adopting the biological language of disease, Nordau was able to harness the authority of science in his attempt to prove that the cultural avant-garde was an atavistic and regressive influence on the masses.

During the nineteenth century, doctors were regarded as forward-thinking men of reason and science, and were characterised by their specialised knowledge and commitment to serving others. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept a scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians became accustomed to methodically describing diseases, thus developing an esoteric medical language which was utilised and shared amongst other doctors to classify and treat disease. The development of complex medical language began to elude patients, thus placing the doctor in a position of power

Poster for the ‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibition, Dusseldorf, 1938. Source: Wikicommons (Reproduced under the Fair Use Rational for the purposes of critical commentary)

and trust.

Foucault has considered the doctors’ associated power of ‘governance’ over their patients.[4] The innate authority of doctors helps to explain Nordau’s use of medical terminology: his reliance upon the works of notable exponents of socio-biological degeneration theory highlights his attempts to measure subjective, artistic value by using an objective, scientific paradigm. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

Degeneration warns against the infectiousness of degenerate art and literature, but for the author, music is perhaps the most noxious of all. The distinct approach to artistic criticism conceived by Nordau in his Entartung became increasingly adopted in music criticism following the publication of the work.

In 1912, the Austrian composer and conductor Felix Weingartner suggested that ‘in general terms something is wrong and somewhere things are rotten in the development of music today […] music must become healthy again’.[5]

The notion of degeneracy had begun to appear in German music criticism from the closing years of the 19th century, and continued to be a prevalent theme in the years leading up to

Richard Wagner. Source: Wikicommons

the Second World War. The fact that musical ‘sickness’ became an increasingly popular concept around this time was due – at least in part – to the influence of works that engaged with the concepts of decadent and degenerate art.

Alongside the growing prevalence of ideas about the dangers of ‘diseased’ music, the insidious nature of Nordau’s rhetoric is evidenced in the adoption of the notion of degenerate art by the Nazis.

The Nazi Party would not acknowledge Nordau, perhaps because of his Jewish heritage and his role as a Zionist activist, or even conceivably because of his derision of Wagner and Nietzsche. Nonetheless, the value they awarded to German artworks that celebrated the ‘blood and soil’ ideology echoed Nordau’s derision of late 19th-century decadent culture. It certainly seems likely that, as Richard Taruskin wittily imagines, ‘many copies of Dr Nordau’s Entartung must have fed Dr Goebbels’s bonfires even as the book’s theses were being oh-so-selectively appropriated to fuel the latter’s propaganda mill’.[6]

Charlotte Armstrong is a PhD student in the Department of Music at the University of York. Her research takes place at the intersection between opera studies, disability studies, and the history of science and medicine. In her thesis she considers early-twentieth-century discourses of disability, disease, and degeneration, and their relationship to the presence of a ‘degenerate condition’ in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, with a particular focus on the representation of physical disability in these operas. You can find her on Twitter: @CharlotteArms


[1] Verbotene KLÄNGE: Komponisten im Exil, directed by Norbert Bunge and Christina Fischer-Defoy (Vienna: Winklerfilm, 2004), DVD.

[2] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (London: William Heinemann, 1895), 537-538.

[3] Nordau, Degeneration, 40.

[4] See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 159-198 and Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2003), 8-9.

[5] Felix Weingartner, “Zurück zu Mozart?” in Akkorde: Gesammelte Aufsatze (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, 1912), 108-112, quoted in Leon Botstein, “Nineteenth-Century Mozart: The Fin-De-Siècle Mozart Revival” in On Mozart, ed. James M. Morris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 204.

[6] Richard Taruskin, ‘The Golden Age of Kitsch’ in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, ed. Richard Taruskin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 243.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: via Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under fair use rationale

Image 3: Franz Hanfstaengl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons