- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

When Sandra Schulberg started perusing the mountain of short films that played across Western Europe as part of the Marshall Plan for postwar reconstruction, it was a kind of personal exploration. Her father, the producer Stuart Schulberg (brother of “On the Waterfront” scenarist Budd Schulberg), for a time was head of the Marshall Plan film division in Paris.

Then she discovered something: The movies, often brilliant in their context, are still relevant.

As in Europe after World War II, American policy-makers are once again hoping civil societies emerge from the rubble of dictatorships — this time in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now, as then, the process of democratization has collided headlong with a rival ideology. Then, it was Stalinism. Today, it’s Islamo-fascism in the Middle East.

“I think these films have a great deal to offer,” says Ms. Schulberg, U.S. project director and co-curator of “Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan, 1948-1953,” a 25-movie series that begins April 15 at the Goethe-Institut as part of Filmfest DC.

“Selling Democracy,” which has been on a national tour since last fall, has given Americans their first look at the Marshall Plan pictures. Before Congress reformed the relevant laws in 1990, the federal government was prohibited from using taxpayers’ money to propagandize its own citizens.

“I’m not saying they’re a blueprint, but these films offer a very good look at how democratization was done at another time,” Ms. Schulberg says. “Some of the exact same issues we’re dealing with today were dealt with before — intelligently.”

Propaganda efforts in Iraq and the Middle East have so far yielded little in the way of affection for American occupiers or trust in American intentions. Charlotte Beers, a former advertising executive, briefly spearheaded a State Department-sponsored ad campaign called Shared Values, which showed Muslims living happily, prosperously and persecution-free in the United States.

As Roger Cohen, author of “Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo,” observed in the New York Times, “These were videos whose main characters were in America, not the region concerned, and whose main message was the extolling of American values and society.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the campaign failed, with some Arab countries refusing to air the ads. Miss Beers quit after less than two years.

Most of the Marshall Plan films — more than 250 in all — were produced natively in countries such as France, Italy and Germany. Ms. Schulberg says the films — like the Marshall Plan itself — taught a vital lesson to Europeans. They explicitly emphasized — and implicitly embodied — each country’s responsibility for its own destiny. They presented American financial aid as supplementary to local energies and talents, not as charity.

Crucially, Ms. Schulberg says, Marshall Plan aid — more than $90 billion in today’s money — went to American companies, which shipped tangible goods such as fuel, fertilizer, food and machinery to Europeans. The Europeans received a material helping hand, but the onus of rebuilding their countries and national reconciliation fell squarely on them.

“It really imposed on Europeans the mandate to unite themselves,” she says. “There was a concept of autonomy and respect for the recipient nations.”

The parallels between then and now are inexact, to be sure. Continental Europe was already Western in orientation and was no stranger to liberal democracy. And the United States didn’t occupy Europe — except for West Germany immediately following the war — as it has Iraq.

However, Iraq does have its squabbling ethnicities and a history of exposure to Western commercial culture greater than the Arab norm.

The emphasis of the early films is hope in the future, a common European destiny forged in mutually beneficial trade and commerce. As Soviet expansionism posed an ever-greater threat — especially after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 — the films took on a darker hue. The British “Without Fear,” a striking animation piece soaked in blood-red, warns eloquently of the dangers of statism.

“Hunger,” produced during the pre-Marshall period of de-Nazification by the Office of Military Government/U.S. (OMGUS) in Berlin, essentially told Germans, “Don’t feel sorry for yourselves; people are starving all over Europe.” Its narrator delivers the stern slogan that in war “calories are casualties, too, just like men.”

It was tough medicine, and Germans wanted none of it. OMGUS authorities withdrew the movie because of German protests.

“Me and Mr. Marshall,” perhaps the definitive selection of the series, stars a young German named Hans Fischer. He does what seems like immiserating work: picking at rocks at the bottom of a 386-foot mine shaft.

“Age 26,” he says. “Profession: optimist.” The young Mr. Fischer then goes on to explain, in simple, clear prose, why the Marshall Plan is essential for keeping Europe afloat.

“Aquila,” a beautiful little neorealistic melodrama, follows a desperate Italian peasant struggling to put food on his family’s table. Then, shipments roll in from the Adriatic Sea, carrying cargo emblazoned with the letters “ERP” (European Recovery Program, the official designation of the Marshall Plan). A refinery springs up in the countryside, and ordinary Italians revel in the hum and thrum of industry.

Jobs, food, security, a peaceful future: This is what Iraqis want, and that’s what the Marshall Plan films sold.

A signal difference between now and then, of course, is the degree to which the American artistic community is united in the goal of “selling democracy.” It was then. It’s not now. Frank Capra and John Huston have no modern counterparts.

No matter how flat-footed American propaganda efforts are today, that’s probably the greatest pity.

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