The first half of the twentieth century was indeed a time in history in which things such as two of the most deadly wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the foundation of the UN and the start of the Cold War took place. But, were these events at any point influenced by the views expressed by citizens?. This essay is going to discuss public opinion during the first half of the twentieth century. To do so, the essay uses a journal article on public opinion written by Hans Speier as a guideline of the essay.
In order to understand the impact of public opinion on international affairs, we must firstly define what we mean by public opinion. According to Slavko Splichal, ‘the concept of public, publicness, publicity, public sphere and public opinion are among the most controversial, ambiguous and nontransparent concepts in the social sciences, that have been used consistently since the eighteen century’. ‘Public opinion’ he adds ‘supposedly developed into a “inner-media” of political system, a mirror “generated by mass media to regulate the watching of the observers’. Then, ‘who precisely were the decision makers? Monarchs, presidents, foreign ministers, staff chiefs, or a combination of these?’
In the early twentieth century, public opinion did not have much of an impact in foreign politics. Speier says that public opinion ‘in its early phase […] showed a marked preoccupation with domestic affairs, i.e., with issues of immediate concern to the life of citizens’. On the other hand ‘foreign policy issues appeared less relevant, but they were expected to be ultimately relegated from the realm of power to that of discussion and agreement, as governments would become more enlightened’. And Speier emphasised that public opinion would only support going to war if that was something that ‘were in the interest of enlightened mankind’. As Mike Sharp, Ian Westwell and John Westwood say: ‘In most European countries public opinion in the years preceding 1914 had accepted the likelihood, to some extent even the desirability, of war’.
Talking about the interest of enlightened mankind, Woodrow Wilson stated: ‘National purposes have fallen more and more into the background; and the common purpose of enlightened mankind has taken their place’. Moreover he added that ‘this is a people’s war, not a statesman’s’.
But Speier states that it was just after the First World War, when the ‘faith in the power of public opinion to render world politics reasonable’ was called into question. Speier argues that this was due to a series of events.
The first of these was the demise of the League of Nations, which failed to fulfill its purpose, namely to prevent the outbreak of a new world war. Moreover, US President Woodrow Wilson was an advocate of the League of Nations, yet his country refused to join the organisation. Despite Wilson’s description of the Great War as a ‘people’s war, not a statesman’s’ and his intentions to join the League of Nations, the Senate refused to join the organisation. This action showed that public opinion did not have much influence in fact; it appears that statesmen still played a big role in deciding issues of internal relations.
Secondly, Speier mention the ‘disillusionment concerning the lofty war aims of the Allies and the general distrust of propaganda which spread between the two world wars’, as a large section of the public thought that the Allies’ aims were overly idealistic and, more importantly, those aims were not fulfilled. The human cost of the World War was enormous. People had lost their families from the trenches and the reports from the soldiers were awful. War wasn’t glamorous and against this perception, idealism could do very little.
Thirdly, Speier talks about the rise of fascism and National Socialism as the main events for which people all around the World dismissed any chance that public opinion could had a possibility to change politics or at least to have a say.
On the one hand the emergence of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy was the beginning of a fascist era around Europe. This was followed by the establishment of the Nazi party in Germany, which led to the outbreak of the Second World War.
In these systems everything was under the control of the state. That means, that all media coverage, either, radio, newspapers or books were censored by the government in power, to make sure that nothing against the government could be said. Censorship was the biggest attack against the public opinion. People could not give their own opinion and demonstrations were forbidden. In a form of state like that, the only presumptions that one can make are that public opinion was almost defunct. People could only see what the people in power wanted to show them.
Apart from that, we need to bear in mind that the systems in these countries went further than censorship but rather they believed in the power of propaganda defined by Garth S. Jowett & Victoria O’Donnell trying ‘to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist’, made public opinion disappeared. Hitler for example said: ‘ “Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda. All that matters is propaganda” ’ and it worked, the public bought into the idea of a perfect race in Germany. And again in the Soviet Union, millions of kulaks were exterminated under the death silence of the State in 1918.
Fourthly, another factor is ‘the absence of inspiring peace aims during the Second World War’. Hitler had in mind two main objectives for the Second World War, which were ‘ first, to established German control in Europe, and the second (which might well come after his lifetime) to wrest control of the seas and world domination from Britain and the USA’. Both aims were quite demoralising. In practice this meant that the war was prolonged more than expected, which caused a delayed in the freedom of the public opinion. Throughout the war, Hitler made the German people think that the war was about to be won; ever-new levies of recruits were needed for the last effort.
Fifthly, another factor is ‘the sterility of the resistance movements in the realm of political ideas’. In Germany for example there was no Parliament and therefore parliamentary opposition was not possible. In Europe during the Second World War both sides had different successes, Germany, for example, had not one because of the great power of the GESTAPO. On the other hand, France had some success through the famous sabotage, and this made that some news were filtered in by the media in the West.
Finally Speier mentioned, ‘the use of weapons of mass destruction in the attainment of victory’. A clear example of this was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 that left ‘up to 140,000 reported dead by the end of the year’ an event which did not help to show people the end of the war and to convince the Japanese public that they faced annihilation if they continued the war.
Those events mentioned above were the cause of ‘demoralization […] in the power of public opinion’ just after the First World War.
To sum up, at the beginning if the twentieth century public opinion had a role in International Politics but it was just after the demise of the League of Nations, the disillusionment concerning the lofty war aims of the Allies, the rise of Fascism and National Socialism, the absence of inspiring peace aims during the Second World War, etc. that the World lost its confidence on public opinion as a way to change politics.