Subtle Censorship: A Gateway to Sovereignty

“Both my maternal great-grandparents immigrated to the United States,” Dr. Kara Ritzheimer began. “I grew up hearing stories about my great-grandparents from my mother. As a teenager, I traveled to Germany and met my relatives there on my great-grandmother’s side, and I’ve stayed in very close contact with them.” 

Ritzheimer is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University, where she continues research in modern European history with an emphasis in modern German history. Her interest began with the female agency she heard about in stories from her mother. While that is still of interest, her work has led her to studying censorship of “trash” or “smut” in Germany surrounding WWI. 

Her work provides some food for thought about what censorship looks like, how it can be implemented, and the harm it causes. While the world of WWI Germany is much different than the U.S. today, censorship and its threats have changed surprisingly little.

Ritzheimer contextualizes her work, explaining that prior to WWI, “trash first referred to serialized novels and then dime novels,” short stories of no more than 25 pages with bright covers, detailing the often violent or macabre adventures of characters like Sherlock Holmes and Buffalo Bill. 

After WWI, “trash often referred to publications that veered more towards the sexual – like nudist magazines – but it also included dime novels. Smut always meant more sexually explicit material,” Ritzheimer said.

Trash, Smut, and Censorship
In the early 1900s, Germany had protections for journalists and book authors for the same reason we have libel laws and first amendment rights: to ensure free speech, encourage open discourse, and regulate those in power by exposing truths that otherwise may be hidden. The tricky part is morality. Who gets to read what is published? Who gets to decide what is “acceptable” or “morally correct?” 

Ritzheimer explained that in 1905, when dime novels and early movies became popular and more widespread, critics in Germany used terminology like “trash” and “smut” to classify these lesser texts as something other than what journalists or book authors published. The goal being to argue that they “could be disposed of and no damage would come to German culture,” or that they could be censored even when other texts were protected.

Social reformers that used this terminology also used emotional appeals, “suggesting that both [dime novels and movies] posed an imminent danger to a young person’s development,” Ritzheimer said. 

“They argued that young people were impressionable, and dime novels and movies could fill their heads with terrible imagery and lead them to imitate the crimes they had read about or seen. This may have been a genuine concern, but it was a useful strategy for getting around free-press laws in Germany.” Ritzheimer outlines the “moral upper hand” the social reformers had as well as how that provided government officials a “justification for getting involved in censorship.”

Critics and social reformers had plenty of reasoning to justify the censorship, Ritzheimer explained. They said the intent in making the “trash” was to produce profit, not to positively influence the culture. This argument of intent, combined with the lasting impact of the text, which was not a positive contribution to the overall culture – coupled with the possible negative impact on children – was enough for many people to jump on the bandwagon, wanting to throw out the “trash” forever.

Many critics in Germany, and many other countries with similar types of movements, worried about working-class consumption of these ideas, Ritzheimer said. Maybe someone in the working class would see a prostitute and decide that sounded better than “honest, hard work,” maybe they would decide “it’d be easier to sometimes work doing immoral things,” Ritzheimer added.

“This was their wedge issue; in securing censorship for young people, they could reduce everyone’s exposure,” Ritzheimer explained.

By using an argument about the vulnerable youth, social reformers could censor the entire populace, deciding what people were and were not exposed to in the name of the “morally correct.”

They gathered anecdotal evidence to support their claims that youths were easily influenced. Ritzheimer said, “social reformers collected several anecdotes of juvenile offenders who had acquired a habit of reading ‘trashy’ dime novels and argued that their addiction to ‘trash’ fueled their criminality.”

When asked if these types of arguments pervade current issues, Ritzheimer answered, “in the 1990s, ‘youth protection’ was often an excuse used to justify age-ratings on video games and music. I think people still trot out the argument of ‘youth protection’ because it’s so quickly unassailable. At the moment, I’m wondering if gun-control activists can effectively use ‘youth protection’ to advance their cause.” 

“These reformers asserted that without censorship, the nation’s future was in peril. Some people probably believed that,” Ritzheimer added.

“It’s hard to know what’s really driving people,” she said. “One person may feel emotionally insecure; someone else may see a tool for rallying voters or selling an image of cultural decline.”

 During this period, Germany had a strong federalist system, meaning “it comprised several states that had their own legislatures and could pass their own laws as long as those laws didn’t conflict with the national laws or the national legislature hadn’t yet ruled on a topic,” Ritzheimer said. This caused social reformers to develop censorship laws at the state level, which snowballed into a national censorship agency that “undercut the individual states’ sovereignty.”

20th Century Germany and the U.S. Today
Regardless of the content, censorship is dismissing others as morally reprehensible and enforcing it with either social norms or government power. When that door of government censorship is opened, there is no higher power that will get to determine wrong from right. 

If we decide the Dalai Lama gets to censor content in Nepal, regardless of if he is the most loving and wonderful person in the universe, that door to censorship is still wide open for future Dalai Lamas and others who gain power, others who may have completely opposite or lacking moral compasses. 

When asked if there are any parallels between Germany and the current day, Ritzheimer had some illuminating thoughts.

“I’m certainly concerned about President Trump’s disparaging comments about the press and his use of the term ‘fake news.’ I’m also concerned about his comments on changing libel laws,” she said, “that would be a serious intrusion on free speech; it would force self-censorship on journalists and publishers for fear of litigation.”

And when there is a strong fear of litigation, there is a weaker press that either doesn’t have the funds to continually fight off lawyer fees, or who are too afraid to publish what is happening. Regardless of which side of the aisle someone sits on, a robust press helps challenge those in power, keeping them on their toes.

Changing libel laws “was a device that German authorities used in the 19th century to regulate the press without being aggressively repressive,” Ritzheimer said. She doesn’t think America will come to that due to our “deep embrace of the First Amendment and free speech,” but “we need to be on the lookout for other kinds of censorship,” she warned.

Ritzheimer noted how dependent we are on social media for our news and our viewpoints. How the sources that provide us with that information, like Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and even Google, are privately owned providers who could easily limit access to certain content – and they are, intentionally or not, according to Dr. Daniel Faltesek, an associate professor at OSU who studies how policy affects the systems within social media platforms.

“Doesn’t Twitter have the right to terminate accounts? And who decides what’s free speech, what’s hate speech, what won’t be tolerated? We’re sort of in this gray zone. And what about net neutrality?” Ritzheimer asks. See last week’s issue for an interview with Faltesek exploring his research.

And perhaps most importantly, “with the end of net neutrality,” which is already happening, “were going to be entering a world where money and algorithms will determine the content we see most easily.”

“We won’t be restricted from searching out more information, and we won’t be limited from saying things, so we won’t feel like we’ve been silenced,” she added.

“People just simply won’t see our words,” Ritzheimer stated.

And this is where we can and should learn from history. This subtle censorship, deciding what people should or should not see, is a pandora’s box. When we start censoring, it easily snowballs, eventually silencing those who need their voices most.

Ritzheimer ended with, “I think it was Antonio Gramsci who argued that hegemony is most effective when we don’t even understand it’s at work.”

“If I’m free to say anything I want to, but I’m really unable to direct that message beyond a small circle of friends, will I realize that hegemony is at work?” Ritzheimer related, in a concise statement on preaching to the choir.

The enduring question is whether or not we realize that censorship is already occurring, on a global, national, and local level. Diversity in thought and experience, while sometimes unsavory, leaves room for everyone and a protected space from those in power.

Dr. Kara Ritzheimer is currently working on a new project that focuses on girls during the Nazi movement, who used were for policy goals, being treated as assets, rather than being degraded due to their gender.

See last week’s issue for an interview with OSU’s Dr. Faltesek, exploring his research on social media.

By Kristen Edge