Private Rumours as a Public Sphere in Nazi-Occupied Poland

By Izabela Paszko (@IzabelaPaszko)

It is commonly assumed that the public sphere is a specific kind of common ground for group discourse, confrontation of opinions and expression of one’s own views. The nature of this sphere as one made up of many voices and actors means that it carries the risk of false, unconfirmed and manipulated content entering the information bloodstream. The events of recent years, such as the global pandemic or the war in Ukraine, indicate that despite the existence of reliable information channels and the ability to verify sources, rumours and fake news pollute the information ecosystem and pose a serious threat to social life.

If in the present day unverified information can spread so rapidly and effectively across the public, then in historical conditions in which access to information is technologically and politically limited, the question of the spread of information is a question of the basic principles of interpersonal communication. As it turns out, however, some of these principles, which were applicable just under a hundred years ago, remain relevant to understanding the spread of information today.

Trust. In spite of changes in the conditions of information transfer and technology, trust in the source stays invariably behind the effective and rapid circulation of news. In the perspective of the study of informal communication during the Second World War, privately shared information often received more attention than official news channels. In the face of the dominant propaganda content, informally obtained news, even the least plausible, was more likely to be listened to as long as a reliable source was invoked. Eyewitness accounts and testimonies of direct participants of the described events were particularly valuable. The German authorities, aware of the credibility of such testimony, decided to carry out a wide-ranging propaganda campaign against the Bolsheviks when news of the discovery of the mass graves of Polish officers in the forests near Katyn became public in April 1943.  The German propaganda action not only highlighted the barbarity of the perpetrators, but criticised the policies of their opponents as a whole. Moreover, the German side facilitated trips to Katyn for foreign reporters, and Wehrmacht soldiers stationed in the vicinity of the mass graves were offered visits to the site of the genocide. It was believed that the shocking sight would not only boost the morale of the soldiers and unite them against the enemy, but would also be described in letters sent to their families. What is more, the eyewitness accounts of the events, in this case those of soldiers, were passed on by the addressees of the letter to the next of kin – neighbours and acquaintances. In the meantime, the official news channels had to take care of the “resonance” of the content written by young men.

Relevance. Another important factor for a thriving circulation of information is a suitable target group. Content which is not relevant to the specific audience runs into a dead end. Without spontaneous updates and interpretations, ” imported” content dies a natural death. The characteristics of the interested groups may vary with regard to age (e.g. rumours of conscription to the Wehrmacht by consecutive age groups), gender, professional group and ethnicity. Yet information about the war effort was uniform and generalised for everyone. For this reason, such news and rumours, produced on a daily basis, were of the greatest interest during the Second World War. However, as the example of the rumour from the area around Teschen (annexed to Nazi Germany during the Second World War) shows, unverified news with little impact (and interest) can affect the stability of an entire region; in September 1940, a rumour emerged that Polish farmers who did not speak German would not be able to participate in the regular sale of their goods. The result of this rumour was a shortage in the supply of potatoes and other crops, which were already scarce on the food market.[1]

Time. All forms of informal communication based on oral communication are subject to the factor of time. Rumours and unverified information can become outdated even before they reach a wide audience. In the case of the period of the greatest armed conflict of the last century, rumours were also carried by people on the move: soldiers or travellers.  In this way (appropriately modified to current conditions) rumours could “survive” in various, even distant places. As for the sheer longevity of rumours – street chats concerning the date of the end of the war enjoyed a relatively short “life-span”. In occupied Poland, street sayings predicting the end of the war kept people’s spirits up, and their time horizon was mainly limited to a period of a few months. And when one prediction failed and the war continued, historical analogies were immediately sought, or “ancient” prophecies were “discovered”. Thus the prophecy of Teresa Neumann about the defeat of Hitler after 100 days was widely believed, and when the words prophesied here did not prove true, it was repeated around town that the war would end “when the chestnuts bloom” (spring 1940).[2] The longevity of rumours and street sayings could also be curbed in a simple and obvious way: by the appearance of a denying rumour.

Atemporality. While some rumours “died out” never to reappear, other survived in a slightly altered form, e.g. urban legends. Already existing forms of street folklore were also the main canvases for rumours. In June 1942, a rumour circulated in occupied Warsaw that the Germans were taking blood from children caught on the street for the wounded soldiers.[3] While this rumour was not confirmed by reliable sources, it can be traced back to superstitious tales associated with the so-called “blood libels”, which ascribed ritual murders and the transfusion of Christian blood to Jews. Interestingly, in post-war Poland, the urban legend of kidnappings for some unspecified purpose took on a more concrete form. According to the modern version, a black Volga (a model of a Soviet-made car) was supposed to roam the streets of Polish cities, kidnapping children and collecting blood for leukaemia-stricken (and rich) Germans. The infamous legend of the ‘Black Volga’ has returned in a renewed form at the beginning of the present century. According to the newest variant, the black BMW was to be used for kidnapping and harvesting internal organs. While the setting of the rumour was transformed and adapted to modern requirements, its core remained unchanged.

All the indications suggest that rumour and fake news as a product of social life and the communication taking place within it belong to structures of long duration. In spite of the development of modern technologies and changes in topics, rumours persist in society and due to modern high-speed technology their reach is significantly widened.

For researchers from the social and cultural sciences, rumours are an interesting subject for the study of everyday life, communication and social interactions. Access to social media and other media of communication (including rumours, urban legends and satire), makes it possible to follow the life cycle of news in the public sphere and to observe the reactions of the society. In the case of rumour and other forms of oral communication in the perspective of historical research, however, the range of tools available to researchers is considerably reduced. This by no means that the identification of rumours is impossible. An analysis of the contemporary press, ego documents, oral testimonies or police reports, with the application of a certain filter of sensitivity and attentiveness, can yield interesting results. The literature on gossip and communication from a historical and interdisciplinary perspective is also helpful in this research. The works of Gordon Allport and Leo Postman, Robert Knapp, Franz Dröge, Jean-Noel Kapferer, Hans-Joachim Neubauer or Tamotsu Shibutani belong to the canon of literature that could guide the research. Contemporary research, for example by Lindsay Porter or Luise White, also adds a fresh perspective, while the contemporary political situation and its spheres of communication provide even more inspiration for further research.

[This article is based on the outcomes of research funded by the Leibniz Association under its Leibniz Junior Research Groups scheme, project number J47/2018]


[1] (Former object number) WAP Katowice, RK 4215, k. 64, Lagebericht von Teschen, 12.09.1940, in: Wacław Długoborski, ed., Położenie Ludności w Rejencji Katowickiej w Latach 1939-1945. Wybór Źródeł i Opracowanie, vol. XI, Dokumenta Occupationis (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni, 1983), 20–21.

[2] Biblioteka Uniwersytecka w Poznaniu, Stanisław Ruchta, 6505, 14.

[3] Franciszek Wyszyński, Dzienniki z lat 1941-1944, ed. Jan Grabowski and Zbigniew R. Grabowski, 1 edition (Warszawa: Centrum Badań Nad Zagładą Żydów, 2007), 114.

Image Credit: Photgraph from 1943, by the Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, in the collection ‘Wydawnictwo Prasowe Kraków-Warszawa’. Public domain, original available at https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/en/jednostka/-/jednostka/5918901

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