Propaganda

Ross’s work can be firmly situated in both the Weimar era, with its craving for foreign travel reports and a market beyond the book trade’s traditional Bildungs-oriented readership, and the Third Reich, when he increasingly aligned himself with NS propaganda. However, travel and propaganda were not necessarily separate phenomena for Ross ever since he started sending his eyewitness reports of the First Balkan War, in late 1912, to German newspapers and began lecturing about these experiences.


Depending on political context, purpose, target audience as well as medium naturally the balance of travel experiences, (geo)political reflections, and outright propaganda shifted. As a matter of fact, with regard to Ross‚Äôs films we can only guess to what extent they all contained reflective comments and/or served propaganda purposes, as no prints have been retrieved of  his first feature film, Zentralasiatische Reise v. Rolin Ross (1922; nor of a shorter version, Weg nach Osten, released a year later), while his second, Mit dem Kurbelkasten um die Erde (1926), has only come down us in two fragments, which both contain quite stereotypical travelogue sequences. Only since the mid-1920s, with Der erwachende Sphinx (1927), and certainly with Achtung Asien! Achtung Australien! Das Doppelgesicht des Ostens (1930), does their reflective caliber come to the fore. Nor is the archival record of his lectures and other talks complete enough to trace Ross‚Äôs use of this medium in detail.

Nonetheless, surveying his career on the basis of all the documents that have been retrieved one can detect a gradual, consistent shift towards propaganda. This slow displacement of lived experience with explanatory or partisan comments may seem reminiscent of the New Objectivity that informed much (German) travel reporting of the interwar years. But the emphasis on facts, statistics, and other authenticating elements of travel accounts in this style played an increasingly negligible role in Ross’s work. Besides a prominent irrational, supernatural streak or his often unsubstantiated sources, if any, his embracement of Nazism, in 1933, undoubtedly pushed Ross to eventually transform his travel reporting, in print, film or lecture, and put it at the service of its political program.

Nico de Klerk





Ross’s involvement with propaganda goes back to the last year of the Great War, when he served in the propaganda section of the army, in Ukraine (see Shift to propaganda). And during his sojourn in South America, between 1919 and 1921, he defended the newly established social democratic Weimar Republic against monarchist-oriented Chilean Auslandsdeutsche (Germans abroad; see Ross rescuing the republic).

After Hitler‚Äôs rise to power, Ross also tried to gain recognition from, and a position in, the government circles. However, his (brief) role in the leftist, shortlived R√§terepublik, following the collapse of the Kaiserreich and defeat in the Great War, had always made him slightly suspect in the eyes of the national socialist administration. His difference of opinion with Hitler on foreign policy decisions, specifically with respect to America, didn‚Äôt improve his chances. Capitalizing on his fame and his profound travel experience, Ross‚Äôs role as propagandist in the interwar years was therefore largely ‚Äėconfined‚Äô to that of an immensely popular expert, who was able to embed recent trends in public life into a wider framework of global politics and who understood how to adapt his lectures and other talks to the ideological needs and interests of a diversity of audiences. (see The careful propagandist).

Katalin Teller


With regard to his 1938-1939 tour, however, his manager had warned him that it was difficult to get him booked.1 In fact, between his arrival, in mid-October 1938, and his first lecture, on December 3, opportunities for his public appearances had been made even more difficult by the Kristallnacht, on the night of November 9-10, and its aftermath. Apart from the increasing aversion to Hitler‚Äôs policies and politics in America‚Äôs public opinion by that time, this pogrom‚Äôs widespread destruction of Jewish shops and synagogogues, the murder and arrest of Jewish citizens, and subsequent, increased anti-Jewish measures provoked a wave of antagonism. Insofar as Ross was not appearing before sympathetic German (American) audiences his lectures and his defense of Nazi Germany were often met by disapprobation and hostility; in one case he was booed and hissed while on stage, in another, a speaking engagement had to be cancelled.2 It is not unimaginable, moreover, that, besides news reports, the American public had been given ‚Äėammunition‚Äô for their abomination by the more than average popular episode of the news film series The March of Time, titled  Inside Nazi Germany, which had been released in January 1938.

With respect to Ross there was also the question whether or not he was sent to America by German authorities or organizations. In a report on ‚ÄúNazi penetration‚ÄĚ in America (see footnote 1) he is described as being one of the many lecturers in the US who were ‚Äúselected (...) according to the audience they were to reach.‚ÄĚ Ross was in the category that ‚Äúcatered to the carriage trade‚ÄĚ.3 Indeed, given the venues he appeared at, his management clearly positioned him as a speaker for more well-to-do and/or prestigious audiences. But as the extensive itineraries of his journeys were made without the full and enthusiastic cooperation of the German Foreign Department,4 it doesn‚Äôt seem very likely that the topics he lectured about were commissioned or ordered, let alone that he was a spy.

His last scheduled speaking engagement, a debate in San Francisco with New York mayor and declared Nazi opponent LaGuardia, was for safety reasons distributed over two consecutive nights, with each speaker appearing separately. Speaking first, Ross elected to talk about President Roosevelt‚Äôs concept of the Western hemisphere‚ÄĒwhich would become the title of his last book about America, published in 1942. Evading LaGuardia‚Äôs response, on March 17, 1939 he left the US and sailed for Japan, never to return again.

Nico de Klerk

 

See also:

‚ÄúThe profound dreariness of life in Nazi Germany‚ÄĚ
America’s contrasts 1
Nazi penetration


1 Possibly Friedrich Auhagen, who was subsidized by the US German Embassy and the German Railroads Information Service‚ÄĒa covert propaganda organization‚ÄĒin New York to run a ‚Äúlecture bureau‚ÄĚ; see: O. John Rogge. The official German report: Nazi penetration 1924-1942, pan-Arabism 1939-today. New York ‚Äď London: Thomas Yoseloff; 1961; 102.

2 Bodo-Michael Baumunk. Colin Ross. Ein deutscher Revolutionär und Reisender 1885-1945. [unpublished master’s thesis]. rev. edn. Berlin; 2015 [1999]; 106-110. See Library.

3 Rogge. 1961; 101-105.

4 See for his 1938-1939 journey: Baumunk. 2015; 102-105.

 



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