The Power of Propaganda: Using Disney’s Wartime Films in the Classroom
Film in the classroom is always engaging to students. It provides them with a new perspective of events from the past. Rather than have students read or listen to their teacher speak on an event, putting on a movie can break up class time while appealing to even the most reluctant of learners. Films also help identify and highlight the deeper motivations of the producers, directors, or sponsors. There is always a motivation or a reason behind each piece, whether it be to share a personal story, to provide entertainment, or to spread a political message. Throughout history, political messages have been deeply embedded in movies, creating a new form of propaganda to reach a wider audience and spread their messages.
During the time the United States was involved in World War II (1941-1945), filmmakers such as Walt Disney were recruited by the United States government to spread specific messages. In January 1943, Disney released three popular short films: “The Spirit of 43,” “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” and “Education for Death.” Each of these cartoons unveils a complex political message to gather support for the United States war effort. Because World War I was extremely unpopular with Americans, the need for citizen support in this new war, mentally and monetarily, was essential to be successfully involved (Steele, 1978, p. 706). Disney’s three propaganda films can be incorporated easily into the social studies classroom to teach deeper lessons, especially when discussing the American home front during World War II.
The first of Disney’s more popular propaganda films is “The Spirit of 43.” This cartoon shows Donald Duck as he navigates what to do with his money on payday. First, Donald meets Thrifty Duck, who encourages him to save his money to pay the upcoming national income taxes for the benefit of the war effort. Next, he meets Spendthrift Duck, who advocates for spending his paycheck to buy material objects, thus going against the war effort and supporting Nazi Germany. The final scene of the film shows the guns, planes, and tanks that were created because of the tax money. The repetitive saying, “Taxes to defeat the Axis” is one of the lasting impressions of the cartoon, signaling the need for the funds to be given to the government in order to end the war (Disney, “The Spirit”, 1943). By showing this film, students will come to realize that this six-minute propaganda film was used in a way that directly motivated Americans to do their part in the war effort. The need for income taxes is evident through this piece, and, by using Donald Duck, a classic Disney character, the film is engaging while still being informative. This illustrates the lack of support for the war at the home front and the mindset the Americans needed to be in. Using “The Spirit of 43” in the classroom can be a great way to demonstrate the direct link between entertainment and politics. It is not commonly known that Disney used their art for the promotion of war, but through this film, the connection is undeniable; it captures the home front mentality and advocates for a call to action.
Like “The Spirit of 43,” one of Disney’s other films, “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” aimed to raise money for the war through war bonds. While it further illustrates the need for monetary support for the war, it also can be used to show students the life of a German worker. This short film follows Donald Duck as he navigates his day in Nutzi Land, a spoof on Nazi Germany. From the moment he wakes up, Donald Duck lives a life very different from most Americans: he has to ration his food, work “48 hours shifts” in artillery manufacturing, and salute pictures of Hitler every time he sees him. This life becomes so intense and overwhelming that Donald suffers a mental breakdown and passes out. When he wakes up, he is back in America, relieved to find that his adventure was a nightmare (Disney, “Der Fuehrer”, 1943). As illustrated in the film, the German home front was drastically different from America’s home front, and viewing it can allow students to compare the wartime efforts in the two countries. In Nazi Germany, all concepts of individualism and personality are gone, as seen through a now passive Donald Duck, one of the most boisterous Disney characters with an overwhelming personality. In America, a sense of individualism was kept, even when working in factories. The comparisons and contrasts that can be made are endless. While the film was created to raise money and support for the war, it can be further utilized in the classroom to supplement a lesson about the American home front, specifically through the differences of the two countries and the fear of losing personal freedoms, a defining characteristic of being American. “Der Fuehrer’s Face” has multiple applications for teaching World War II in the classroom.
The third Disney propaganda film that can be used in the social studies classroom is “Education for Death.” It is a cautionary tale to warn the American public about the dangers of Nazism. In the classroom, it can be incorporated into the American Homefront with the motivating factors for fighting Germany, but it can also be used as a way to illustrate perspective. Throughout the film, young Hans grows up in Nazi Germany and becomes indoctrinated in the ideology until he is a full Nazi soldier. The way he was raised illustrates how he sees his reality. For example, when Hans is in school, he learns about “natural law” through the analogy of a bunny and a fox. The weaker bunny was trapped and eaten by the fox, showing superiority. Hans immediately feels sorry for the bunny, a reaction that gets him punished by his Nazi teacher. The goal was to praise the strong fox for preying on the weak bunny, a mindset that the Nazis used in everyday life (Disney, “Education”, 1943). This is the perspective of a Nazi, something so different than that of the American soldiers. It demonstrates how the way they were brought up influences their actions as an adult. While this film is specific to Nazi Germany propaganda, it can be used for students to gain a deeper understanding of how one’s beliefs change the way the world is perceived. This skill of seeing events from a different perspective is essential in social studies classes to understand the purpose of a text, event, or action. This animation was created to entertain, but it also incorporated deeply embedded messages that are valuable to students. Through the film “Education for Death,” Disney’s short film can lend itself to multiple usages in the classroom.
Propaganda in the form of mass entertainment, such as short films, was essential in shaping the mentality and deeper sentiments of the American home front to be one that was more receptive and supportive of World War II. Through “The Spirit of 43,” “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” and “Education for Death,” Disney was able to convey deeper, inspirational, educational messages to the audience about the war effort. In a 1943 New York Times interview, Disney stated:
“The war” he said, “has taught us that people who won’t read a book will look at a film… you can show that film to any audience and twenty minutes later, it has learned something- a new idea, or an item of important information- and it at least has stimulated further interest in study.” (Strauss, p. 168).
Disney sums up perfectly what any good piece of mass media should do- teach the audience and get them motivated to act on the information, whether it be to learn more about it or actively make the change it calls for. All entertainment has a crafted message the creators want to express, whether it be to buy a new product, to illustrate a universal theme of life, or to persuade people to support the war effort. Within these pieces, there are deeper themes that can relate to the classroom and everyday life. As teachers, it is important to show students how influential mass media is, whether it be from today or seventy years ago. Mass media as a form of entertainment will not go away, and it can be used in any form, especially in short, engaging Disney films, inside the classroom to provide a deeper outlook into the lives, motivations, and wants of those who created it.
Disney, W. (1943). Der Fuehrer’s Face. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/DerFuehrersFace
Disney, W. (1943). Education for Death. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/EducationForDeathTheMakingOfTheNazi
Disney, W. (1943). The Spirit of 43. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/TheSpiritOf43_56
Lee, S. H. (2009). Herr Meets Hare: Donald and Bugs Fight Hitler. ArtUS, 26, 70–75.
Steele, R. (1978). American Popular Opinion and the War Against Germany: The Issue of Negotiated Peace, 1942. The Journal of American History, 65(3), 704-723.
Strauss, T. (1943, February 7). Donald Duck’s Disney. The New York Times, 168.