"Information is the currency of democracy" said Thomas Jefferson. In the computer era access to information is as easy as a click of the mouse. All media provide us with information on various topics, news, different opinions, and points of view. And there are also movies, songs, posters, fliers, circulars, etc. Each person is bombarded every day with tons of information. Whether we like it or not information shapes our thinking and creates our opinions. Of course we have a choice which information to accept or whom to believe.
But information can also be a powerful weapon if it falls into the wrong hands. According to Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, if a lie is told persistently people will start to believe it. In a system based on the freedoms of the press and of speech a lie can be easily exposed. However when the circulation of information is monopolized by a totalitarian regime lies can be used to manipulate people. All Communist regimes have remained in power by strictly controlling the minds of their nations. They use three ways to control people's minds: language, propaganda, and censorship.
Language can be used by a Communist regime to camouflage its abuse of power. As Jan Jozef Szczepanski in the "Little Encyclopedia of Totalitarianism" points out, a totalitarian regime changes the meanings of words. Things and concepts are often given names with the opposite meaning. As an example there was a Ministry of Public Security in Communist Poland whose main function was to infiltrate all public institutions, enterprises, organizations, and citizens' private lives in order to eliminate dissidents, opposition, and those whose opinions differ from those allowed by the Communist Party. The methods commonly used by this Ministry were torture, and show and secret trials. This was the "security" this Minstry offered. Another example is the use of the term "democratic centralism" to describe the system of totalitarian government. There was a great deal of "centralism," but very little democracy.
Propaganda and censorship are closely related and complement each other. In Communist Poland propaganda created a positive image of the Party and the country's economic and social situation, even though the reality differed drastically from that image. The Party's leaders were always glorified. Non-communist countries and those who opposed Communism were always portrayed negatively. Citizens were coerced to accept the official propaganda's view and those who openly disagreed were persecuted. Propaganda was not restricted to the media but also penetrated the school system, culture, and art.
Censorship was not only limited to the removal of, or changes in, information or publications. It often controlled all publications, performances, and arts by delegating the responsibility to publish according to the Communist Party's guidelines to the media outlets. The big state-run media outlets like TV or major newspapers became branches of the central censorship office.
Another vicious technique used by the Polish censorship office was forcing authors and artists to censor themselves. After several interventions into the article or book the author learned how to write to satisfy the censor so as to be able to publish his or her work.
Some examples of censorship were very serious and distorted even historic fact. During World War II over 4,000 Polish Army officers captured by the Soviets were murdered in Katyn at the order of Stalin and the Soviet Politburo. However this fact was covered up and the German Army was blamed. Censors ensured that the true account was not published anywhere.
Aleksander Pawlicki in "Complete Drabness" tells of another instance of censorship: the rejection of a movie that suggested a man can start believing in religion upon meeting with danger and illness. The Communist government was afraid that something other than the "only correct" Communist idea might find its way into people's minds. Pawlicki also mentions an amusing incident of censorship inflicted on a famous Polish columnist. His articles were rejected by the censor. The desperate journalist wrote a politically neutral article about his walk in the forest. However the censor rejected this article again because according to the censor the article about walking in the forest encouraged engaging in partisan fighting.
As a result of such actions the Communist government lost credibility. It was only able to maintain its rule with the help of the army, police and foreign support. People did not trust the media. They learned how to read between the lines and to look for the facts omitted in the news. But they were afraid to express their opinions freely. This lead to a kind of "double thinking" in which people separated their real opinions from anything they could show. This also devastated people's morality. The country's economic and social problems were serious and difficult to hide despite the blockage of information. However, in public nobody dared to say a word which would differ from the official Party stance. On the surface the contrast between the reality and the picture presented by the media seemed absurd, but actually it was tragic.
Now the Communist oppression in Eastern Europe is history, but there are still countries suffering from Communist totalitarianism and dealing with similar problems. These few observations may provide a closer look at the tragedy of those countries and arouse our sympathy for their people.