Journalists and the wars

Boaventura de Sousa Santos*

The crisis of journalism has been talked about almost since the beginning of newspapers with large circulation. As early as 1919, Upton Sinclair published The Brass Check, a devastating critique of the power of capital to corrupt the press and journalists. But this critique has grown in tone since the beginning of the new millennium, when it became clear that the manipulation of the media was aimed not only at the interests of capital, but also at the interests of the national security state. It was with the invasion of Iraq (2003) that a new type of journalist emerged, the “embedded journalists”, i.e. reporters attached to military units involved in armed conflicts, who therefore report only what the military authorities allow, and are therefore subject to censorship or self-censorship. This creates a media consensus on wars that is just one dimension of the propaganda war. Patrick Lawrence, a great American journalist – as a curiosity, he covered the Revolution of April 25, 1974 in Portugal for the Guardian – author of the recent book, Journalists and their Shadows, shows that the manipulation of journalism to serve national security policy began with the Cold War from the 1950s onwards.

He says: “I lived through the Cold War but for its very first years, and my memories remain vivid. It is the hysteria in the press and over the broadcast waves that lingers most in my mind. These things have left scars that do not fade with time, and in this I cannot be alone. This hysteria was at its highest pitch during the nineteen fifties and some of the sixties. The major dailies and the networks gave that time its texture and timbre. They delivered the Cold War to our doorsteps, to our car radios, into our living rooms. They defined a consciousness. They told Americans who they were and what made them American and altogether what made America America. A free press was fundamental to this self-image, and Americans nursed a deep need to believe they had one. Our newspapers and networks went to elaborate lengths to give this appearance of freedom and independence. That this was a deception – that American media had surrendered themselves to the new national security state and its various Cold War crusades – is now an open-and-shut matter of record. I count it among the bitterest truths of last seventy-five years of American history.”

One question stands out. Are Europe and North America today plunged into a new propaganda war, now over the war in Ukraine? I have no doubt that they are.

The most general questions that readers who are less intoxicated by propaganda ask are these. Do journalists believe the news they report and what they write? Or do they know that they are distorting the truth and misinforming, but that this is the only alternative to keep their jobs? These questions arise with particular insistence with regard to what war correspondents or special envoys report about the war. The answers to these questions, if they are ever possible, will not be for many years. Perhaps that’s why, for now, we can only report on journalists who were correspondents in previous wars, who were “embedded” before the term existed, but who nevertheless had the courage to independently observe what they saw and write as soon as possible about what had really happened. The most notable case is that of Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957) in his book Kaputt, first published in 1944 and considered one of the best books on the atrocities of the war.

 Malaparte started out as a supporter of Italian fascism and an enthusiast of Mussolini, but broke with both in 1933 and was imprisoned several times. From 1941, he began covering the Second World War for Corriere della Sera. He was on the eastern front (Ukraine) and on the northern front accompanying Nazi troops. Many of his articles were censored and only published later. Three cases cruelly illustrate the violence of war. These are atrocities committed by the Nazis with whom he was in close contact, but it can’t be ruled out that the Allies didn’t commit them too.

The Russian prisoners in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union)

Gathered in a kolkhoz near the nearby village of Nemyriv, the prisoners were subjected to a test that consisted of assessing who could read well and who was illiterate or semi-illiterate. They had to read the Pravda. The result of the test given to 118 prisoners was as follows:

“The examination lasted for about an hour. When the last batch of three prisoners completed the two minutes of reading, the colonel turned to the Feldwebel and said, “Count them!” The Feldwebel began counting from a distance, pointing at each man with his finger, “Ein, zwei, drei….” On the left were eighty-seven, on the right were thirty-one who had passed successfully. Then, at the colonel’s bidding, the Sonderführer began to speak. He seemed like a schoolmaster dissatisfied with his pupils. He said that he was disappointed, that he was sorry to have flunked so many, that he would have preferred to pass them all. At any rate, he added, those who had not succeeded in getting through the examination would have no reason to complain, provided they worked and displayed a greater skill than they had displayed at school. While he spoke, the group of the successful prisoners gazed at their less fortunate comrades with a compassionate air, and the younger ones dug their elbows into each other’s ribs and giggled. When the Sonderführer had finished speaking, the colonel turned to the Feldwebel and said: “Alles in Ordnung. Weg!” and he walked off toward his headquarters followed by the other officers who looked back occasionally and exchanged whispers.

“You’ll stay here until tomorrow, and tomorrow you will start for the labor camp,” said the Feldwebel to the group on the left. Then he turned toward the group on the right who had passed and harshly ordered them to fall in line. As soon as the prisoners formed a close line touching one another’s elbows – they looked pleased, and laughed, glancing at their companions as if making fun of them – he counted them again quickly, said, “Thirty-one,” and made a sign with his hand to a squad of SS men waiting at the end of the courtyard. He ordered, “Right about, turn!” The prisoners turned right about, marched forward stamping their feet hard in the mud and, when they came face to face with the wall surrounding the yard, the Feldwebel commanded “Halt!” Then turning to the SS men who had lined up behind the prisoners and had already raised their tommy guns, he cleared his throat, spat on the ground and shouted, “Fire!”

When he heard the rattle of the guns, the colonel, who was within a few steps of the office, stopped, turned abruptly; the other officers stopped and also turned. The colonel passed his hand over his face as if wiping away sweat and, followed by his officers, entered the building. walking past me. “Russia must be cleared of all this learned rabble. The peasants and workers who can read and write too well are dangerous. They are all communists.”

Romania’s Jewish prostitutes

 Young Romanian Jewish women were sent to the front to serve German soldiers and officers for twenty days in brothels. Malaparte visited one of them in Soroca on the Diniester River, now part of Moldavia. It was late in the evening and Malaparte talked to some of the young women. “Oh, no! After twenty days of this work we are not fit for anything. I saw them – I saw the other ones.” She broke off and I noticed that her lips were trembling. That day she had had to submit to forty-three soldiers and six officers. She laughed. She could no longer bear life. The physical exhaustion was worse than the disgust. “Worse than the disgust,” she repeated smiling.

 “I learned that two days later they were taken away. Every twenty days the Germans provided a change of girls. Those who left the brothel were shoved into a truck and taken down to the river. Later Schenck told me that it was not worth while to feel so sorry for them. They were not fit for anything any more. They were reduced to rags, and besides, they were Jewish”.

“Did they know that they would be shot?” asked Ilse.

“They knew it. They trembled with fear. Oh, they knew it! Everybody knew it in Soroca.”

Suicides on the northern front.

By 1941, many German officers were convinced that Germany could lose the war. On the northern front, as on other fronts, soldier suicide began to be so frequent that Himmler visited the front with a plan to reduce suicide … by punishing the suicidal. Report reproduced by Malaparte: “It’s awful! Always carousing, day and night, while suicides among officers and men are increasing at a dizzy rate. Himmler in person has come this far north to try and put an end to this epidemic of suicides. He will place the dead under arrest. He will have them buried with tied hands. He thinks he can stop suicides by terror. He had three Alpenjägers shot yesterday because they had tried to hang themselves. Himmler does not know that to be dead is a wonderful thing.” He looked at me with that look that the eyes of the dead have. “Many shoot themselves through the head. Many drown themselves in the rivers and lakes — they are the youngest among us. Others roam about the woods delirious.”

These are three atrocious war stories. How many atrocities of this or other kinds were committed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, or are being committed today in Syria, Yemen and Ukraine? We already know a lot about the former, but we won’t know much about the latter until many years from now, if there are still journalists like Curzio Malaparte.


*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article sent to Other News by the author on September 8, 2023