Tag Archive: Propaganda

Dodd picture (118x150)

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By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield

Composite image of 1940s children in an archive

Ghostly children in the archives [composite image: corridor of the National Archives superimposed with image of children; both images cleared for non-commercial use with modification]

Some of the historical documents I’m using for my research are letters written by children to Marshal Pétain, the Head of the French State during the Vichy years. As my previous blogs have shown, Pétain’s regime made vigorous use of pre-adolescent children as both the objects and subjects of its propaganda; that is, there was a lot of propaganda about children as the future of France, and a lot of propaganda for children. Many were drawn into letter-writing campaigns to Marshal Pétain, but others wrote to him of their own volition. In a country where families were divided and many fathers were absent (as prisoners-of-war or forced labourers in Germany, or in hiding, perhaps) writing to Pétain may have provided some comfort. His office always replied in his name with a personalised response and often a gift; some children replied to this response, and a dialogue was established. As I have shown, many letters glorified the Marshal; others vaunted the right-wing, nationalistic values of the regime. And these letters were written by children, some as young as six.

The response when I explain this to people – friends, colleagues – is usually disgust: that the regime could coerce or manipulate children in this way is further proof – were any needed – of its baseness. Why is our moral outrage more exercised when children are invoked? Isn’t the corruption of adults – the decision-makers in society – of greater cause for concern? Don’t all societies manipulate children to embrace certain ideological principles? And is this just a story of simple manipulation: what choices did children make?

These questions set me thinking about historical research using primary sources created by children.

Doing this research on children in the past has revealed them to me as social actors in their own right. The idea of a child as passive, as a pawn, as simply vulnerable to adult machinations is a useful trope with a ‘common sense’ underpinning. Yet social scientists and some policymakers recognise children as ‘heterogeneous, active agents, playing out and shaping their lives’ and as ‘competent individuals – knowledgeable about their own experiences and situations’. While this values children’s production – their words and cultural outputs – it could also suggest that such production can be treated in the same way as adults’. But while children are competent social actors in the world, their worlds are different – not inferior – to adults’. They lack the accumulation of knowledge and experience of the adults around them, as Owain Jones has written, but ‘have fully blown imaginative, social lives’. They loved Pétain, they entered into an epistolary relationship with him, they received gifts of date jam and writing-paper, they responded with pictures and affirmations of loyalty, pride and obedience. What Pétainists they were! But were they? They cannot bear the same moral responsibility as adults; they did not shape policy; their views went unheeded. What did they think when their hero fell from grace in 1944?

All sorts of ethical regulations govern academic research involving children; but children in the archive are not afforded the same consideration. For social scientists conducting research on ‘live’ children, key ethical issues concern access, consent and confidentiality. While certain archival documents pertaining to children in the past may be embargoed if the archivist considers them particularly sensitive, in other cases access to children in the archive is governed by no formal constraints save the standard fifty or seventy year rule. And if you were seven when you wrote your letter to Marshal Pétain, the chances are you’re still alive. Whence the issue of confidentiality: should historians be more careful about anonymising children in the archive? If the documents are in the public domain anyway, is there any point? Certainly, no consent has been given by the child or child-now-adult to use their letter; indeed, as Carolyn Steedman has noted, ‘the historian will always read that which was never intended for his or her eyes’. Perhaps an adult writing to the mayor of his or her town might imagine that a record of the letter, or the letter itself, might be filed away somewhere. But could a child have imagined that a letter, a drawing, would end up in a national, public archive, kept forever? Archives contain snapshots of the past, of people ‘frozen in time’ as children. They had no power or control over the archiving of their words, and now have none over their use.

Finally, I have been thinking about what Owain Jones has called the ‘otherness’ of children and its ‘unknowableness’ – and beyond that, something of the epistemological conundrum of the evidence I find. Children’s worlds, Jones writes, ‘are irretrievably lost to adults’. So while I can read the letters, see what children said and what they did, I can never know what they felt or meant by doing it. When a child wrote ‘Vive Pétain!’ what did that mean? What did she feel at that moment? Not only is there an unbridgeable gap between the child and the adult, there is another between the archive reading room, and the Vichy-era living room, bedroom or schoolroom where the letter was written. The moment the source was created is irretrievably lost. Did her mother stand over her as she wrote? Did her brother write a letter alongside? Was she in her bedroom, alone, later pilfering a stamp from the sideboard to post the letter? Did she write it because all her friends were writing too, or was she a lone voice among her schoolmates? I imagine that child’s act, in a particular place and time. I cannot know it: I try to make this silence speak, but it will not. I can surmise, narrativise, imagine and empathise. I cannot know.

How many contemporary historians want to ‘do justice’ to a Pétainist? Yet I do feel that sense of obligation to these unwittingly-archived children which Steedman described as part of the frenzy of her archive fever. I want it to be recognised that they had loved Pétain, but that was in the past; it belonged to childhood and was comprehensible in the historical context. I want it to be recognised that there was coercion and manipulation, but there was not only that: there was the excitement of writing to a celebrity, to a hero – and getting a response. I want it to be recognised that these children were competent and creative actors, and Pétain was an important part of their social world.

Further reading

Hopkins, P. E. and Bell, N., ‘Interdisciplinary perspectives: ethical issues and child research’, Children’s Geographies, 6:1 (2008), 1-6

Jones, O., ‘“Before the dark of reason:” some ethical and epistemological considerations on the otherness of children’, Ethics, Place and Environment: a Journal of Philosophy and Geography, 4:2 (2001), 173-8

Mills, S., ‘Young ghosts:  ethical and methodological research in children’s geographies’, Children’s Geographies, 10.3 (2012), 357-63

Steedmman, C., Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester University Press & Rutgers University Press, 2001)


Dodd picture (118x150)By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield

‘Before we get [children] used to being thin, we have to show them that it’s not shameful to be poor’, came an instruction to the press from the Vichy government. Children in wartime France had to learn to deny themselves, to emulate the self-sacrifice of Marshal Pétain who ‘gave himself’ to France, and to see the benefit that each little cog brought to the bigger machine. There was a recognition that children were suffering. Resigning those in need to their lot, but also encouraging them to help others was the surest way to get the most out of children’s enthusiasm and energetic compassion. By focusing on poverty, hardship and rigour, children could be inspired to work harder and find satisfaction in the idea of helping their young neighbours. The irony, of course, was that many children being set up as agents of charity were themselves in need of that charity.

Children attend a gala in Paris financed by the money collected by other children, May 1941

Children’s charitable fundraising on behalf of other children is an important aspect of their politicised activity in Vichy France. In spring 1941, children over 12 years old were drafted into a mass campaign to sell badges worth 50 centimes each in the streets. Each child was given 100 badges, and across the department of the Seine there were 20,000 sellers. These youngsters approached their task with enthusiasm and competed with each other to see who could sell the most. The profits went directly to other children: they paid for grand theatrical performances for children from the most hard-hit sections of society – those who had been bombed out or made refugees, or whose parents were either prisoners or unemployed. 120,000 seats were available at the galas which took place across the Paris region, and impoverished children enjoyed the antics of clowns, magicians, contortionists … and of Babylas and his amazing performing geese.

The performer Babylas and his performing geese

In 1942, a new Christmas campaign was begun whereby the under-15s were to earn 2 francs and send them through to Marshal Pétain in favour of needy children. ‘We’ll give the under-15s the chance to make a real contribution on behalf of others and let them show their love for Marshal Pétain. It is, after all, among the very youngest that this love retains the most purity’, wrote the Youth Section of the Propaganda Ministry. Never missing an opportunity to use children to embed the regime more firmly into French society, the propagandists also saw the fundraising potential of harnessing children’s love for Pétain which they so assiduously cultivated.

While the official line stated that children should work hard for what they collected, many charitable endeavours clearly gave great deal of pleasure as well as the happy glow of altruism. A letter arrived in Vichy from 9 little children on holiday together with their families in the mountains, who had put on a little play and collected 255 francs. Another group had performed Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules, inviting friends and family, and raised a whopping 1720 francs. 12-year-old Guy put on a Guignol (Punch and Judy) show with two friends; they were sending 50 francs, half of the sum they had raised, ‘to save some little children in our great and beautiful France’. The other half would be reinvested in their puppet theatre in the hope of raising more next time. For those who could afford Punch and Judy theatres or mountain holidays, money was not short. The amounts they sent spoke of comfortable lives.

Other donations were more modest. Paulette sent ‘10 francs from my piggy bank’, while Suzanne enclosed within her letter to Pétain ‘the small sum of 10 francs which I got today for my 8th birthday, to help some poor little children’. Raymonde sent a bit less, regretting that ‘5 francs isn’t very much these days [but perhaps] a poor child would be happy to buy 5 francs worth of bread’. A 6-year-old donated a doll’s cradle, but asked that, in return, the recipient say ‘a prayer for my Daddy who is a prisoner in Germany’.

Jumping forward into our present times, children continue to take part fundraising for other children in so many ways. The long-running British children’s TV show Blue Peter was my own first encounter with charitable giving during the 1980s. Its annual appeals sought to highlight the plight of children elsewhere, and engage British children with helping them. As a little girl, it opened my eyes to children’s poverty across the world – although how much, I wonder, could I really understand that hardship? The BBC’s ongoing Children in Need appeal inspires enormous participation from children in its fundraising activities, which they take on with great gusto. Save the Children is currently running the Den Day campaign in which children are asked to build a ‘den’ and camp out in it overnight. Their sponsorship money will provide food, shelter and healthcare, protection and education for children across the world. Charitable fundraising is one of the ways in which children actively participate in society. This kind of ‘instrumentalisation’ or use of children, then, can certainly have laudable aims, and children raise huge sums of money for important causes.

But, returning to the historical past, my Vichy case study clearly illustrates the vast gap between the haves and have-nots. Such charity was inspired by inequality and depended too upon it. And, more seriously, a regime which sent 11,400 Jewish children to the death camps had evidently decided which children deserved the help that its charity could bring and which – very starkly – did not.

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Dodd picture (118x150)By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield

Making use of children for the transmission of political and cultural ideologies within societies is long-standing and widespread. As Vicky Crewe has written in this blog, ideologies of gender roles and identity are transmitted through children’s toys and games. Not only serving social stability by embedding masculine and feminine roles in society, such toys and games also make money for their manufacturers. Laura King, also in this blog, has shown that Winston Churchill used ideas of children and the future to justify military and political action during World War Two. A lot was at stake; but was using the winsome and war-affected child to put pressure on adults a morally neutral act?

Our vision of childhood abhors the exploitation of children in ways that jeopardise their bodies – exploitation in labour, sexual exploitation – and an idea of children as innocent, dependent and fragile is widely accepted. But children are constantly being used commercially, culturally and politically: is this not a form of child exploitation too? How much control do children have over how images of children or ideas of children are used, given that their agency in society is usually denied? This ‘Agents of Future Promise‘ AHRC Care for the Future research project will ask further questions about the morality of using children in these ways, drawing on historical examples to reflect upon current concerns.

Take children in wartime France. At Christmas 1940 a ‘Surprise for Marshal Pétain’ – head of the Vichy government since the summer of that year – was organised. Children were invited to draw a picture of ‘the little corner of France that [they] love the most’ and send it to him. He received two million drawings from children in the ‘Free Zone’ of France, the southern part which was not occupied by the Germans at the point. These pictures and the texts written on their backs were then used freely by the government to demonstrate children’s patriotic love for their country and their leader Marshal Pétain, and their desire to participate in the renewal of France – all three were highly politicised concepts.

A page of the 1942 edition of the widely-read Almanach Hachette showed four drawings and quoted from others in an article called ‘The Marshal and the Children of France’.

Four drawings by children were featured in the article 'The Marshal and the Children of France'

Four drawings by children were featured in the article ‘The Marshal and the Children of France’ (Almanach Hachette, 1942)

Marshal Petain, when he spoke to children on the radio, told them: ‘I have a particular affection and concern for you.’ He also said to each French person: ‘You must give me the faith of your heart and the faith of your reason.’ From the bottom of their hearts, children’s responses poured out. They understood straight away that the Marshal was truly the Father of the Patrie [fatherland]. ‘My dear Marshal Pétain, I’m writing to you to give you courage.’ Thus began a letter from Paul Morin, eight years old.

Did Paul Morin know his words would be used in this way? The article went further, with a metaphorical flight of fancy, asking the Almanach’s readers:

Can you see this little lad of eight years old, clinging onto the neck of the Great Old Man in whose arms lies injured France, whispering those words into his ear? Youth: it’s our only hope. His gesture proves that the France of tomorrow, inspired by instinct, understands that she cannot live except by putting her little hand into the Marshal’s to walk towards the future at his side.

Did Paul Morin know that, by sending a drawing to Marshal Pétain, he would be imagined into a metaphor which now conjured his body into the picture too? Giving his advice and counsel to the man who held the future of France in his hands and speaking on behalf of ‘the France of tomorrow’?

These extracts are interesting because they give us an idea first of Vichy’s image of the nature of the child – affectionate, simple, instinctive (like Pétain), knowing a truth that his parents had failed to grasp and therefore a more trustworthy kind of citizen. Second, they show that children were at the heart of Vichy’s project. Through numerous invitations to write and draw for Pétain, they were pulled directly into political propaganda. And third, they suggest an extended metaphor which likened France itself to a misguided, mistreated child, protected, cared for and led forwards by its father, Marshal Pétain.

While this example is drawn from a particular historical moment, the ideas that underpin it are more wide-reaching. How far is it appropriate to instrumentalise children for political, cultural and commercial purposes?


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Dodd picture (118x150)By Lindsey Dodd, Project Co-Investigator, School of Music, Humanities and Media, University of Huddersfield

The conservative, authoritarian Vichy government, headed by the octogenarian Marshal Pétain, saw in the defeat of France in 1940 an opportunity for national regeneration. Under the slogan ‘Work, Family, Fatherland’, it pumped out propaganda in pursuit of its goals. Children were explicitly targeted. They were to become the carriers of the regime’s ideologies which would prolong its existence and embed the ideals of the National Revolution. Leadership, national unity and population increase were high on the agenda.

Pre-adolescent children were singled out by Pétain as a special concern. He addressed them in a speech in October 1941:

You need to know that I am counting on you absolutely to help me reconstruct France, to make the French a great people, loyal and honest. And I do not want to wait until you’ve become grown-ups to ask you to do it.

Children’s value was in the future loyal population that they would become, and their love and support for Pétain now, as children, would cement this.

But their role in the National Revolution extended beyond that. They were asked by the government to participate in charitable and fundraising initiatives, always in Pétain’s name. While raising money for needy sections of the population was vital, it also served the regime, which was desperately trying to unite a nation divided by the German occupation as well as by ideals, economics and persecution. The Ministry of Information’s Youth Section explained its aims for Christmas 1942:

We will give the under 15s an opportunity to act in favour of others and thus allow them to show their love for the Maréchal. It is, of course, among the very youngest that this love maintains most of its purity. It is possible that a demonstration of this feeling could have an important influence inside families and even on the country as a whole. This would be an example of solidarity in action which would be easy to use in more general propaganda at Christmas time.

It seems from the thousands of letters and the millions of francs raised by children that they threw themselves wholeheartedly into this activity, wittingly or unwittingly propagating the regime’s ideologies. The sincerity of some letters is touching, as children donated their birthday money or their meagre savings to try to heal the wounds created by war and division.

‘A good peasant family’ – photograph in propaganda magazine l’Espoir Français (1943/4)

Not just the objects of the regime’s propaganda, children were also its subjects. The mass of children often photographed surrounding Pétain on his walkabouts represented the population increase so central to the regime’s family policy as well as loyalty to the chef or leader. Other images of children were aimed at potential – or existing – mothers and fathers to inspire them to grow their families and to devote themselves to building the next generation. ‘If you don’t have children, who knows? You could be denying the world of another Pascal, a Pasteur, a Lyautey, through your own selfishness,’ one Mother’s Day leaflet commented.

A different set of images of children were reflected back at children, as on the cover of Paluel-Marmont’s Winter Aid 1941 edition of his book Il était une fois un Maréchal de France (Once upon a time there was a Marshal of France), shown above. Here are pictures of children, in propaganda for children, encouraging children to raise money for children.

This case study provides clear examples of the way that children are used as vehicles for political ideologies, as the objects and subjects of propaganda, and their responses to it. They are mobilised because of their vulnerability and because of their potentiality, two qualities which continue to define our view of children in society today. There is a danger that in focusing on these qualities to the exclusion of others, we risk undermining the reality of childhoods lived. Children do embody a future potential, but to concentrate on that at the expense of their here-and-now existence, or to use that potential to shape and reshape society on ideological grounds, is a concern. And children are, of course, vulnerable, but to exploit that vulnerability for commercial or political gain is deplorable, if sadly common.


Notes and further reading

Read Marshal Pétain’s speech to French schoolchildren of 13 October 1941.

Extracts from Ministry of Information and Mother’s Day leaflet taken from the Archives Nationales, F41/293 and 19760145/145


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