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Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill: Communication between Political Leaders and Their Audiences in Interwar Europe and United States

Final Report Summary - LEADERS_FOLLOWERS (Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill: Communication between Political Leaders and Their Audiences in Interwar Europe and United States)

The main goal of the project was to elaborate a dynamic model of interaction between political leaders (Hitler, Stalin, and Roosevelt) and their followers, which would be solidly grounded in historical data, self-sufficient, rigorous, understandable, and applicable to other contexts. By and large, this goal has been achieved, with the following results being the most important:
1. The media feedback to the leaders' speeches before and after their assent to power shows that there is a significant correlation of changes in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and a low correlation (two divergent stable patterns) in New Deal USA. More specifically, the strong conceptual asymmetries (such as “Übermensch/Untermensch”) marking the “totalitarian” vocabulary of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, are found in the respective Soviet and German newspapers both in 1936 (when both were presiding over authoritarian states) and in 1920-1921 (when both were just aspiring politicians in a democracy (Hitler) and a dictatorship (Stalin)).
2. The summary informational value of communication between leaders and followers is vastly different in totalitarian and democratic contexts. For example, in the private letters and public speeches addressed to Joseph Stalin by Soviet citizens, the percentage of topical communication (relating to actual words and specific actions of the leader rather than his physical appearance or social status) is typically hovering around 10 %, whereas it is at least three times higher in the similar contexts related to President Roosevelt.
3. There is no direct correlation between the activity of the leaders and the specific political system: in general, Adolf Hitler is almost as active in interaction with his followers as Franklin D. Roosevelt, whereas Joseph Stalin barely pays attention to his audiences and to the communicative contexts in speeches and public ceremonies.

At variance with existing a priori perceptions of totalitarian communication, the following general conclusions can be made:
1. Totalitarian leaders are rarely the first in polarizing or antagonizing political discourse; they acquire their divisive, anti-establishment political language from their seemingly “loyal” media catering to extremist audiences long before totalitarianism sets in. In particular, the boundlessly confrontational discourse of the German right-wing newspaper Völkischer Beobachter (after its acquisition by NSDAP) provided a backdrop for Adolf Hitler’s highly unusual political rhetoric. (Interestingly, another important factor in the formation of the Nazi “language of hatred” was the German communist newspaper Rote Fahne, which imported the militant discourse of “class struggle” straight from the Soviet Union).
2. Communication between leaders and their followers is as intensive in totalitarian societies as in democratic ones, but its quality is much lower, with most of the communicative actions performing ritualistic loyalty/protection exchanges with little or no informational value attached. Archival research in Russia revealed that one of the seminal events of Bolshevik state formation – the 8th Extraordinary Congress of Soviets was largely an imitation of communication: a technical failure prevented the Congress deputies from hearing the main speaker Joseph Stalin, but still the meetings proceeded as planned. This kind of blind ritualistic behaviour created an explosive information gap which dramatically increased the social costs of making informative statements on both sides: Adolf Hitler was known to issue intentionally vague orders to avoid responsibility and prevent association with failures, while Soviet citizens in 1936-1937 were routinely arrested for ordinary statements that could hardly be considered subversive by any reasonable observer. The result of this communicative breakup was the proliferation of mutually overlapping feedback channels administered by secret services and other reporting institutions which did not really bridge the informational divide between leaders and followers, since the competing agencies (especially in Nazi Germany) were constantly engaged in proving each other’s untrustworthiness. In the Soviet Union, the deflation of the communicative process resulted in a truly remarkable admission of Joseph Stalin: in a conversation with other senior Bolsheviks, he admitted to be distrusting everybody, including himself.
3. The asymmetries in totalitarian discourse, communication, and politics are as mutually correlated as are the symmetries in democratic interaction at different levels. In the United States during Roosevelt's presidency, the regular rotation of political elites is mirrored in the largely conversation-based practices of public ceremonies (with relatively flexible agenda and frequent cross-references to “common values” between leaders and followers). Even when the authoritarian design of interaction was intended and apparent (as in Roosevelt’s radio addresses known as “Fireside Chats”), the listeners’ status was formally elevated to that of the speaker by frequent appeals and references to them as equal partners in the “conversation”. In contrast, Nazi and Bolshevik authoritarianism was dominated by a clear divergence of communicative roles between leaders and followers, egocentric leadership discourse, and rigid orchestration: even when Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler was one of many public speakers at the event, the markedly excessive greetings, constant professions of loyalty, and topical orientations of the others’ speeches clearly pointed at the leaders' centrality.
4. Lastly, the study of the leaders’ unpublished private correspondence with their followers confirmed the divisions apparent in the analysis of public communication: whereas Roosevelt’s correspondents interchangeably signalled their approval or disapproval of the President's specific actions, Stalin’s and Hitler’s correspondents professed their loyalty and asked for direct involvement in local affairs, donations of relics (autographs), and private conversations tête-à-tête. The differences between the Bolshevik and the Nazi leader seemed to reflect, if contradictorily at times, the prevalent schemes of public communication: thus Hitler’s incessant public mobility was reflected in numerous invitations to visit a specific village, while Stalin’s semi-monumental detachment and inaccessibility gave rise to multiple requests to meet him in the Kremlin. Still, the substantial differences between public correspondence of the “democratic” leader and his “totalitarian" counterparts revealed the vastly unequal levels of trust in the public environment and political system as a whole: whereas in the USA the private feedback was aimed at influencing presidential policy, in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany its major goal was to bypass deficient public communication and deal with the ruler as a person perennially in charge of all thinkable affairs.
The socio-economic impact of the project is evident in its suitability for monitoring public communication in Europe (particularly in the light of the increasing popularity of extremist and isolationist discourse resorting to communicative techniques of the early 20th century).