The Power of Nazi Propaganda
"Propaganda is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert."
-Adolf Hitler, 1924
During the course of two decades, Nazi propagandists skillfully used their “terrible weapon” to win broad voter support in Germany’s young democracy, implement radical programs under the party’s dictatorship, and justify war and mass murder.
State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda examines how the Nazis sought to manipulate public opinion in order to attain their goals, the end result of which was a war that cost the lives of some 55 million people, including the systematic murder of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children in the Holocaust.
is biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior.
Its power depends on
• means of communication
• audience receptivity
• uses truths, half-truths, or lies
• omits information selectively
• simplifies complex issues or ideas
• plays on emotions
• advertises a cause
• attacks opponents
• targets desired audiences
THE NAZI PARTY—FROM OBSCURITY TO PROMINENCE
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party) emerged from the turmoil that followed Germany’s defeat in World War I. During its first ten years, the Nazi Party and its extreme nationalistic, racist, and antisemitic platform attracted relatively few adherents in the country’s newly founded democratic republic. Before 1929, it was a negligible factor in German politics.
Democracy in Germany virtually collapsed when the Great Depression struck in 1929. Disagreements over economic policies rapidly polarized politics between left and right. Millions of Germans found the simple and concrete messages of Nazi propaganda appealing in times of economic hardship and political instability, and they abandoned centrist mainstream parties to support Adolf Hitler. In summer 1932, the Nazi Party won nearly 40 percent of the seats in the German parliament (Reichstag) and became the largest political party in the legislature. While the Nazis never succeeded in winning a majority of voters to its cause, its meteoric rise from obscurity to prominence was an unparalleled feat.
ADOLF HITLER: PROPAGANDIST AND PUBLIC IMAGE
The Nazi Party’s success in the final years of the German republic was due in significant part to the appeal of its leader, Adolf Hitler, and its political messages. The Austrian-born Hitler joined the party in September 1919 at age 30 and quickly rose through its ranks, becoming its first director of propaganda. His skills as a public speaker increased the party’s profile and attracted new members. Thousands of listeners came to hear Hitler’s fiery speeches denouncing the young German republic, blaming Germany’s Jews for the nation’s problems, and condemning the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) that had compelled Germany to admit guilt for causing World War I, surrender territory, and pay massive reparations to the victorious Allied powers.
Although Hitler relinquished his position as propaganda director in 1926, his ideas about political messaging continued to influence Nazi strategy until 1945.
THE NAZI BANNER: FORGING A TRADEMARK
In 1920, Hitler designed the Nazi flag with the old German imperial colors of black, white, and red, and set in its center a figure known in German as a hakenkreuz—“hooked cross.” The cross, found in cultures worldwide, was closely linked to the ancient “Aryan” culture of India, where it was called the swastika and represented good luck. The visually arresting banner, Hitler believed, had to epitomize the party’s struggle and highlight its mission to protect Germany’s “superior” “Aryan” race against the dangers of Jews and other “inferior” peoples.
Though other right-wing antisemitic groups had used the swastika before, Hitler’s adoption of it resulted in a unique trademark for the Nazi Party. With time, it became an enduring symbol of hate.
ELECTION CAMPAIGNS: TARGETING AUDIENCES
To prepare for its electoral campaigns, the Nazi Party conducted grassroots public opinion research to probe the needs, hopes, and fears of blue- and white-collar workers, the middle class, women, farmers, and youth. Nazi propagandists then carefully tailored their messages accordingly and hired professional graphic artists to create eye-catching posters with appealing slogans that were posted in well-trafficked areas.
Numerous Nazi-owned newspapers also disseminated campaign messages and party ideology. In this way, the Nazis succeeded in broadening its constituency and siphoning off support from their competitors.
Nazi propaganda sought support for the party from all Germans regardless of region, class, or religion—except Jews. Defined by Nazi ideology to be a separate and alien “race,” Jews were not welcome and became targets for vicious political attacks.
ELECTION CAMPAIGNS: SEEKING THE PRESIDENCY
The political paralysis brought on by the Great Depression coupled with the dramatic increase in the Nazi Party’s popularity paved the way for Hitler to run for the German presidency in spring 1932. The propaganda campaign, which employed a variety of modern marketing techniques, portrayed Hitler as a strong and determined leader and appealed to the millions of Germans left unemployed and destitute by the Great Depression.
In both the initial election and subsequent run-off vote, Hitler came in second to the incumbent president, Paul von Hindenburg, though his tally rose from 30 percent to 37 percent of the total vote. Despite losing the election, Hitler and the Nazi Party gained political influence in the faltering German democracy.
In a novel move that electrified audiences, the Nazi Party chartered airplanes from Lufthansa, the German airline, to transport Hitler from city to city in the 1932 presidential election. In his airborne campaigns, Hitler spoke at almost 200 rallies to some 10 to 14 million people. His main opponent, the elderly President Paul von Hindenburg, made only one national radio address and relatively few public speeches.
WHY DID MANY GERMANS BUY INTO NAZI PROPAGANDA?
With the onset of the Great Depression, millions of Germans abandoned their previous political allegiances to vote for the Nazi Party. Bad economic times, coupled with the inability of Germany’s political parties to form a viable coalition government, led to widespread voter dissatisfaction. Many voters turned to Hitler out of fear of impoverishment and revolutionary communism. Farmers responded to Nazi promises to save their homesteads. Hitler’s extreme nationalism resonated with many audiences, including young Germans who wanted to restore Germany’s lost territories and military might.
The Nazi Party’s antisemitism appealed to right-wing radicals, but not to all of Hitler’s supporters. Regional Nazi groups gauged local public interest in the “Jewish Question” and tailored their propaganda accordingly. The Nazis’ antisemitic platform may not have gained the party huge mass support, but neither did it frighten off large numbers of voters either. They were willing to overlook its anti-Jewish ideology and racism.
Propaganda helped increase the popular appeal of the Nazi Party, but a backroom political deal, not electoral politics, made Hitler the head of government—chancellor—on January 30, 1933. Associates of President Hindenburg erroneously hoped to use the Nazi leader’s mass base to bolster their own political careers and achieve stability by securing a parliamentary majority in the next election. To control Hitler and restrain his party’s extremism, a coalition government was established, composed primarily of German conservative politicians and only three Nazi members. These plans proved to be ineffective, and Hitler soon outmaneuvered his watchdogs.
TYRANNY AND PROPAGANDA IN NAZI GERMANY
Soon after becoming chancellor, Hitler used the power of the state and the party’s paramilitary units, the SA and SS, to intimidate, brutalize, and persecute political opponents. In less than six months, Germany’s democracy was destroyed. The government was transformed into a one-party dictatorship, and basic civil rights—such as the freedoms of expression, press, and assembly—were suspended. Police authorities established concentration camps to imprison those deemed to be “enemies of the state,” and the regime immediately began implementing anti-Jewish policies.
Nazi propaganda in the Third Reich served a rather different function than in the German republic. With all other political parties outlawed and a dictatorial regime in place, the Nazi Party no longer had to contest elections. Instead, the regime’s propagandists concentrated on winning over the 60 percent of Germans who had not supported Hitler and on building national consensus for Hitler’s domestic and foreign policies.
THE WEAPONS OF DICTATORSHIP: CONTROLLING THE MEDIA
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany was a world leader in mass communications. It produced more newspapers than any other European nation, and it was a pioneer in the development of both radio and television. Its internationally acclaimed film industry ranked among the world’s largest.
Within months of Hitler becoming chancellor, the Nazi regime destroyed the country’s free press. It shut down hundreds of opposition newspapers, forcibly transferred Jewish-owned publishing houses to non-Jews, and secretly took over established periodicals. Daily directives from the government’s new Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda dictated what could or what could not be published under punishment of reprimand, loss of position, or imprisonment. Oversight of radio, film, newsreels, theater, and music fell directly to the Propaganda Ministry, which used these media to sell Nazi ideology.
FORGING UNITY AND ALLEGIANCE: THE HITLER CULT
After January 1933, Nazi propagandists transformed Hitler from party leader into the personification of the “new” German nation and posted his likeness everywhere. They carefully cultivated his public image to radiate strength and a single-minded devotion to Germany. He was depicted as a young, dynamic, and gifted statesman who was rescuing the nation from political divisiveness and bringing stability, creating jobs, and restoring German self-confidence.
Germans were expected to pay allegiance to Der Führer—the Leader—in quasi-religious demonstrations of the raised-arm Nazi salute and the greeting “Heil Hitler!” Such public displays of faith in Hitler were intended to strengthen the bonds of national unity. Non-compliance signaled dissension, and criticism of the regime and its leaders were grounds for imprisonment.
FOR THE FUTURE: INDOCTRINATING YOUTH
From the 1920s onward, the Nazi Party targeted German youth and educators as especially important audiences for its propaganda messages. Its organizations for youth, university students, and teachers emphasized that the party was a dynamic, disciplined, forward-looking, and hopeful movement. By January 1933 the Nazi Party had recruited tens of thousands of students along with thousands of young teachers.
Once in power, the Nazis purged Jews and individuals deemed politically unreliable from the civil service, which included the public school and university teachers. Independent youth organizations were prohibited or dissolved in the 1930s, and membership in the Hitler Youth was made mandatory for all “Aryan” Germans between the ages of 10 and 18 in 1939.
The goal of education in the Third Reich was not to encourage independent thinking but to inculcate students with Nazi ideology. Classroom and Hitler Youth instruction aimed to produce obedient, self-sacrificing Germans who would be willing to die for Führer and Fatherland.
THE ‘NATIONAL COMMUNITY’
A cornerstone of Nazi propaganda was the ideal of the “national community” (Volksgemeinschaft), an organic union of all “Aryan” Germans. Nazi propagandists continually stressed that the new Germany would have no class, religious, or regional differences, and the political strife and dissension that characterized the Weimar parliamentary democracy would end. Through collective work, Germans would rebuild the shattered economy. In theory, neither birth nor economic status would be obstacles to social, military, or political advancement.
The vision of the “national community” enjoyed genuine mass appeal, but it masked persecution. Many Germans, swayed by the “positive” allure of unity, overlooked the glaring inequalities and abuses in the Third Reich.
PROPAGANDA AND PERSECUTION
While Nazi propaganda sold the ideal of the “national community” to Germans, the regime made it increasingly clear that not all Germans would be permitted to participate in the new community. The Nazis denied admittance to some on the grounds of “race,” which included Jews, African Germans, and Roma (Gypsies), or because of undesirable “biological” traits such as physical or mental disabilities. Others were excluded because of their politics or their behavior, such as male homosexuals, social non-conformists, or individuals deemed to be “work-shy.” An “Aryan” German could change his or her politics or behavior and gain entry, but those denied because of “race” or biology were categorically and unequivocally excluded.
Nazi propagandists contributed to the success of the regime’s policies of exclusion by publicly identifying the unwanted groups, justifying their pariah status, and inciting active hatred or, at a minimum, cultivating indifference toward those who did not belong.
The Nuremberg Laws
On September 15, 1935, the German parliament issued several laws that provided the legal basis for the exclusion of Jews from German society. These so-called Nuremberg Laws, named for the city in which they were announced, prohibited marriages and sexual relations between Jews and Germans and restricted eligibility for citizenship in the Third Reich to “Aryans,” thereby relegating Jews to second-class status.
Subsequent decrees stipulated in law that a Jew was anyone with three or more grandparents of the Jewish faith and defined two categories of “mixed-breeds” (Mischlinge), the offspring of Jewish and non-Jewish parents. The Nazi government eventually applied the Nuremberg Laws to Roma (Gypsies) and African Germans.
ANTI-JEWISH PROPAGANDA AND NAZI POLICY
From 1933 to 1939, Nazi Germany officially pursued openly anti-Jewish policies that evolved from segregation to forced emigration. In support of these goals, Nazi propagandists played on existing negative stereotypes and denounced Jews as an “alien,” “parasitic” presence responsible for Germany’s cultural, political, and economic “degeneration.” To Nazi minds, “the Jews” represented the polar opposite of the culturally creative “Aryan” Germans. Only their removal would permit the Third Reich to thrive.
While many Germans shunned this propaganda, just as most disapproved of the increasing anti-Jewish violence, dislike of Jews extended far beyond Nazi Party stalwarts. The majority of Germans at least passively accepted the discrimination against Jews.
Peddling Antisemitic Propaganda
Between 1923 and 1945, Julius Streicher edited and directed a weekly tabloid, Der Stürmer, the most rabidly antisemitic newspaper in Germany. Streicher, a former schoolteacher turned Nazi activist who proudly promoted himself as the world’s premier “Jew-baiter,” published lurid, false tales of Jewish “ritual murder,” sex crimes, and financial malfeasance. During the Weimar Republic, Jewish organizations and outraged politicians frequently sued Der Stürmer and Streicher because of the despicable and libelous claims. Following the Nazi takeover, the fortunes of the paper and its editor skyrocketed. Weekly circulation increased from 14,000 in 1927 to almost 500,000 in 1935 and was even distributed outside of Germany.
Though many Germans and even some Nazi propagandists found the one-topic newspaper offensive, Der Stürmer successfully disseminated vicious antisemitism to people who were not Nazis and who did not read the party papers.
PROPAGANDA IN THE CONTEXT OF WAR
Just as propaganda served a critical role in shaping the Nazis’ domestic plans for a new Germany, it became an integral weapon in Hitler’s expansionist military strategy. Persuading Germans less than a generation away from the fighting of World War I to take up arms again meant disguising military aggression as necessary. Nazi propagandists continually emphasized that the nation’s enemies had instigated the war, victimized Germany, and were planning to enslave or destroy the German people. They also prepared Germans to accept increased hardships at home and to shut their eyes to brutalities against the peoples of occupied territories. While many Germans doubted these arguments, the penalties for dissidence, defiance, and military desertion were severe.
Public confidence in the Nazi Party rapidly diminished as hopes of final victory fell after 1943. Faith in Hitler, however, remained surprisingly strong. Even in the final months of the war, when German military deaths rose to 450,000 per month, Nazi Germany continued to wage war and terror. In the end, its propaganda could not stave off defeat, and its key advocates, Hitler and Goebbels, committed suicide in the ruins of Berlin.
NAZI PROPAGANDA AND THE GENOCIDE OF THE JEWS
As success in war brought millions of conquered Jews into German control, Nazi anti-Jewish policy shifted radically from expulsion to murder. The regime’s Ministry of Propaganda facilitated this evolution by promoting the image of a mythic “Jewish enemy” that aimed at world domination and the enslavement of the non-Jewish population. Echoing Hitler, Nazi propagandists blamed the Jews for starting the war and demanded drastic action to save Germany and civilization from annihilation. They did not incite Germans to personally murder their Jewish neighbors; rather they encouraged the populace to not interfere while the state carried out measures to protect the nation from the “Jewish enemy.”
Nazi propagandists did not dictate anti-Jewish policy, but they helped to create the climate of indifference, hate, and fear that made possible the systematic mass murder of six million European Jews.
Mjölnir [Hans Schweitzer], poster for the film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal or Wandering Jew), directed by Fritz Hippler, 1940
As part of its heightened wartime attack on Jews, the Ministry of Propaganda turned to motion pictures as a medium for antisemitic messages. Der ewige Jude, directed by the head of the Propaganda Ministry’s Film Division, was billed as a “documentary on world Jewry” that aimed at unmasking the alleged pernicious influence of the “parasitic” Jewish “race” on German society. Despite Goebbels’s efforts to promote it, the film was a box office failure.
POPULAR REACTIONS TO NAZI HATE PROPAGANDA
Official and underground reports revealed that public opinion toward Nazi antisemitic propaganda often varied and shifted unexpectedly. In summer 1941, German newsreels and the press repeatedly identified Jews as the perpetrators of Soviet atrocities, and crowds in movie theaters called for more radical treatment of Jews and expressed joy at reprisals against Soviet Jews.
A few weeks later, however, many Germans openly sympathized with their Jewish neighbors following orders to wear on their outer clothing a yellow Star of David with the word Jude (Jew). The public marking, implemented earlier in German-occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, was intended to foster antisemitism and further the segregation of the Jewish population. Angry at the negative public response to the order, Goebbels coupled a new antisemitic campaign to a police edict to punish Germans who behaved in a friendly manner towards Jews.
PURGING GERMANY OF PROPAGANDA
Long before the war ended in May 1945, the Allies vowed to destroy German militarism and Nazism. At their postwar Potsdam Conference (July–August 1945), the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France—each occupying a portion of a Germany in ruins—laid down the fundamental principles for Germany’s “denazification”: disarmament and reeducation.
The Nazi Party and all of its affiliates were immediately dissolved and banned forever in order to “prevent all Nazi and militaristic activity or propaganda.” Over the next several years, the Allied Control Council, the government of occupation, issued directives aimed at purging Germany of Nazism. Libraries, bookshops, publishing houses, schools, and universities were ordered to turn over for destruction all materials containing Nazi propaganda. The Allied Control Council further directed that all posters, statues, monuments, street signs, and emblems that glorified the Nazi Party be completely destroyed, and it outlawed creating any such objects in the future.
Julius Streicher, the editor of the antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer, was found guilty of “crimes against humanity” by the International Military Tribunal, and hanged. In its conviction, the IMT ruled that Streicher’s articles in Der Stürmer calling for the “annihilation of the Jewish race,” written when he knew of the mass killings of Europe’s Jews, constituted a direct and criminal incitement to murder.
Prosecuting Propagandists at Nuremberg
In October 1945, an International Military Tribunal established by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union indicted 24 German officials as major Nazi war criminals; 21 men stood trial in Nuremberg. Two defendants faced prosecution for their propaganda activities: Julius Streicher, editor of the antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer, and Hans Fritzsche, chief of the Broadcasting Division of the Propaganda Ministry. Both were charged with “crimes against humanity” for inciting the hatred that aided the persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews. Their cases marked the first international judicial action against propagandists for provoking murderous crimes.
Responses to Dangerous Propaganda since Nuremberg
The Holocaust and other Nazi crimes shocked the world’s conscience and triggered an ongoing discussion on how to best combat harmful forms of speech. The conviction of Julius Streicher and acquittal of Hans Fritzsche at the International Military Tribunal set international legal precedents that still influence the prosecution of individuals charged with “incitement to genocide,” a crime under international law established by the United Nations-sponsored Genocide Convention (1948). Some countries, including Germany and France, have criminalized Nazi propaganda as well as speech aimed at inflaming national, religious, ethnic, or racial hatred. The United States, by contrast, forbids laws that would limit the freedom of speech and press—including the use of the Nazi swastika and antisemitic images and rhetoric.
State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda was underwritten in part by grants from The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation and Katherine M. and Leo S. Ullman with additional support from the Lester Robbins and Sheila Johnson Robbins Traveling and Special Exhibitions Fund established in 1990.
EXHIBITION DESIGN AND PRODUCTION
LaymanDesign, Glenview, Ill.
Cortina Productions, McLean, Va.
Dokumentationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstandes, Vienna
Bulgarska Nacionalna Filmoteka, Sofia
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München
Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin
Deutsches Fotothek der Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden
Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin
Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart
Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt
Historisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg
Stadtarchiv Wartburgstadt Eisenach
Stiftung Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv, Wiesbaden
Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo, Munich
Transit Film GmbH, Munich
20th Century Fox of Germany, Frankfurt am Main
Ullstein Bild, Berlin
Yildiz Film, Munich
Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Western Galilee
Yad Vashem Photo Archives, Jerusalem
Institut Pamięci Narodowej, Warsaw
Rossiisky Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Kinematography, Krasnogorsk
Lebrecht Music and Arts, London
AJC Center for Jewish Research, New York
Art Resource, New York
Corbis, New York
Getty Images, New York
Granger Collection, New York
International Historic Films, Inc., Chicago, Ill.
Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, Calif.
Julian Bryan Archive, New York
Killer Tracks Production Music, Santa Monica, Calif.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.
National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia
U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.
The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Fla.