Elisa Rapaport and William Schabio
During the Holocaust, the German Nazi Party (NSDAP) went to great lengths to sway millions of Germans and other Europeans with propaganda. Nazi propaganda was, like most propaganda, simplified information, usually biased and always goal-oriented, designed to shape public attitudes and behavior. Nazi propaganda was designed for mass persuasion by channeling human emotions (like fear and hope) towards the acceptance of specific Nazi party goals. These goals were represented by images and slogans promoting utopian futures or dystopian distortions. Propaganda often fueled imagined threats using stereotyped and racialized images of scapegoated groups, elaborating familiar antisemitic themes and thus misrepresenting and threatening Jewish people. In the 1920s and 1930s, uses and forms of propaganda grew as a way to promote candidates and governmental ideas. Mass media, including posters, newspapers, and radio, were successfully used for many purposes, including recruitment into the armed forces in many nations. During the Nazi Third Reich , propaganda was used both to create fear and to build public support for increasingly brutal national policies and practices (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), 2011).
Origins of propaganda
As with many modes of communication and technology, propaganda itself started as a neutral concept, but has come to be understood as having the power to cause immense harm. Originating from propagare, (Latin) which means to disseminate or propagate, propaganda refers to the spreading of information through words and images intended to persuade (Stevenson, 2010). For millennia, societies have told stories to convince people to support or oppose political ideas and leaders. Propaganda is communication with an agenda: it may be based in fact but likely also bends the truth to inspire emotional reactions, outrage, action, or allegiance.
Whether by speaking, through printed materials, or through media like books, film, and the internet, humans have sought ways to share information quickly to large numbers of people. Information-sharing includes religious doctrines and persuasion campaigns to promote certain political viewpoints — a form of communication that was not necessarily or originally deceptive. Today, the word “propaganda” usually describes intentional attempts to manipulate through misrepresentation, one-sided perspectives, or even outright lies — a practice unfortunately made more complicated and effective through social media and the internet. Concepts like “alternative facts” and “fake news” reveal active efforts to present a biased version of reality for political purposes. Internet trolls fill sites with memes designed to divide people and encourage hateful attitudes. Propaganda is powerful in many instances because it starts with a seed of truth or an issue that matters personally to its audience members, and then distorts reality by inspiring fear, revising history, or celebrating shared symbols of values like justice, freedom, and patriotism.
Propaganda surrounding World War I
It was not until the twentieth century that the term “propaganda” started carrying a more negative connotation or association, following the first World War. Early studies of mass psychology were developed in response to concerns about crowd psychology and a ‘herd instinct.’ During the Weimar Republic in Germany, (1918-32), polarized public opinion developed through a war of words and a related battle over German memory of the war, (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), 2011). German leaders attributed their nation’s loss of World War I to the messaging efforts of the British and their allies, which allegedly disheartened German troop morale (Yourman, 1939). Both Allied and Axis forces had dropped leaflets from airplanes as a tactic of psychological warfare, encouraging desertion or surrender, propaganda that psychologists later determined was only effective on those already dejected and open to the messaging (Lerner, 1971; Taylor, 1999). Nevertheless, inspired by what they recognized as the power to swing momentum towards defeat or victory, German leaders including the later-exiled general Erich Ludendorff led a campaign to cast blame on internal enemies.
A core misconception, used in Nazi propaganda, was a new version of an old antisemitic trope, that global Jewish conspirators had ‘stabbed Germany in the back,’ leading to the German loss in the war. Propaganda explained discrepancies between war outcomes and earlier but overly optimistic German wartime representations. Nazi propaganda encouraged scapegoating that blamed traitors and ‘outsiders’ associated with international geopolitics for subsequent, post-War territorial changes and large national debts required by international treaties.
Nazis rise to power
Adolf Hitler promoted German both in his actions and in his 1925 book, Mein Kampf or “My Struggle.” Nazis used the emerging methods of propaganda as tools to generate fear and to sway the opinions of mass groups of people. The term “kampf” itself was an example of propaganda, describing the “struggle” of Germans to overcome the difficulties and penalties they suffered after losing World War I, as well as the struggle of the rising Nazi party against a fictional anti-German conspiracy that included Jewish, Marxist, and capitalist interests.
When he gained power as the German chancellor in 1933, Hitler formally established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, to promote the regime by controlling all media — books, radio, movies, pamphlets, posters, and speeches. Under the leadership of Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels, a team of workers developed messages to celebrate the strengths of Germany as a nation, unify citizens behind an imminent war effort, inspire fear and anger towards “non-Aryans,” who were scapegoated as responsible for Germany’s economic problems and cultural “decline.” Propaganda marked Jews and other “social outsiders” as separate from and dangerous to the desired ideal of a racially based “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) (Fritzsche, 2008). Nazis censored content and destroyed artifacts such as books that could stimulate critical thought or resistance. Goebbels flooded mass media, including created newspapers and radio programs, with stories and images of Hitler as a strong, larger-than life hero, leading an immense and exquisitely organized military. Such appearances were not just to inspire confidence in the strength of Germany as a nation but also helped present a story that might rationalize or legitimize the Nazi regime as they outlawed and imprisoned leaders of other competing political parties. Both political and social revolutions during the early Nazi period (1933-34) were supported by propaganda (Bergen, 2016).
Tactics and Ideology
The propaganda efforts that propelled the Holocaust can be understood as a series of three stages, each building a deeper acceptance of sometimes atrocious concepts. First, a message is developed and shared to help shape beliefs, presenting goals and events through a particular perspective, such as a unified Germany. Next, communication tactics reinforce the messages, encouraging people to accept those beliefs by consistently reminding the target audience of the desired outcome. Nazi propaganda used repetition of key phrases and ideas, appealed to a sense of nationalism and respect for authority, and frequently alluded to zeitgeist (or the general cultural spirit of the times) by exploiting people’s fears. Finally, once the ideas have repeatedly dominated the messaging, the audience is instructed to act on those beliefs. In the case of the Holocaust, the mass murder of the Jewish people was enabled and rationalized by years of intensifying propaganda, along with authoritarian government and massive uses of force and violence. The role of propaganda was profound in unifying the Nazi movement through the simplicity and repetition of strategic messages, carefully designed to reach, motivate, and inculcate.
The Reich Ministry sought to control all forms of media, censoring news stories, and shaping perspectives through exaggeration. As motion pictures became a popular form of information and entertainment, films were designed to provide news updates to audiences and to help expand support for an expanding and singular German nation and its war efforts. In 1934, Hitler commissioned actress and director Leni Riefenstahl to create the film, Triumph des Willens or Triumph of the Will, to demonstrate the military power at his command. Recognized today as one of the earliest propaganda films, the project was designed with several specific goals and strategies. Hitler also sought to erase the historical record of the Brownshirts, a Nazi militia also known as the SA or Sturmabteilung or “Storm [Assault] Division,” whose intimidation of Jews and political opponents had enabled the Nazi party’s growth throughout the previous decade. While the film presents itself as a documentary of the annual meeting of the Nazi Party in the city of Nuremberg, it shows how the Nazi regime wanted to depict itself, with mass supporting crowds and no sign of disagreement or opposition.
In addition to serving as chancellor after January 1933, Hitler became president in August 1934, solidifying his authoritarian rule. On June 30, 1934, die Nacht der langen Messer or “the Night of the Long Knives,” the leaders of the SA forces were executed by the ‘SS’ or or “Protective Squad or Echelon” of the Nazi party, as Hitler consolidated his rule over both government and a unified military. The 1933 film Der Sieg des Glaubens or “The Victory of Faith” was Riefenstahl’s first effort to promote the Nazi party by documenting the 1933 Nuremberg assembly for Hitler, but it had featured Ernst Röhm, who was among the Nazi leaders who were soon after purged through execution. Despite Hitler’s command that all copies of The Victory of Faith be destroyed with the production of Triumph of the Will, a copy was found in the East German government’s archives four decades later. Replacing one visual representation of history with another, Hitler employed propaganda in this attempt to convince Germans that a known historical event had never happened.
Most of the aesthetic choices used in Triumph of the Willwere intentional, including multiple camera angles to show the size of the military force. Viewers see the excessive usage of flags, banners, and signs such as the swastika, which became synonymous with Nazi rule, along with the appearance of Hitler as a solitary and commanding, but also at times pleasant presence, and even church steeples in background communities to stir emotional connections with religious symbols. That Riefenstahl was known publicly but was not a member of government helped give the appearance that Triumph of the Will offered an unbiased glimpse at the German army, rather than the state-produced promotional spectacle it was. Unlike the notorious 1915 American silent film Birth of a Nation, which defended Klansman alongside unquestionably racist portrayals of African Americans, Triumph of the Will did not reveal blatant antisemitism but rather emphasized the image of strength and unity. It was clear at this point that such propaganda was portraying Nazi power.
Few efforts to persuade the public to embrace Nazi ideology were as successful as the Hitlerjugend or , an organization which served as a training ground for boys to become future members of the Nazi party. Officially geared towards ages 14 through 18, additional groups were established of male “youngsters” age 10 to 14 and the “League of German Girls” or Bund Deutscher Mädel, ages 10 to 18. Initially like boy scouts or clubs, Hitler youth groups gathered members together through social interactions, exercise, outdoor activities, and instruction that encouraged unity, allegiance, and nationalistic pride. Gradually, other youth groups became absorbed by the Hitler Youth initiative, including church groups where members spied and reported back what was taught. By 1934, along with other organizations that were not Nazi-sponsored or supporting, other youth groups were outlawed altogether. Gentile children were encouraged to join or face the risk of public shaming, withholding of their high school diplomas, and denial of opportunities for internships or college if they were not members, as part of the wider Nazi policy of coordination. What in 1930 included 25,000 boys had grown by 1940 to over eight million, as membership became mandatory in 1936 (Stachura, 1998). Teachers were expected to belong to the Nationalsozialistische Lehrerbund or National Socialist Teachers League (Pine, 2010).
A goal of coordination was indoctrination into Nazi culture and ideology, training youth to live their lives for the future of Germany and to reject individuals whose weakness or inferiority, they were told, threatened the success of the nation. Hitler Youth were trained with weapons and many later recruited into the war effort. Such indoctrination gave the Nazi party the opportunity to cultivate steadfast allegiance and belief in totalitarian political doctrine. The Hitler Youth was a successful platform for the Nazi propaganda that bred a new generation of soldiers. Decades after its start and following the German surrender at the end of World War II, the Hitler Youth was disbanded and illegalized in October 1945.
Central to Nazi ideology were the concepts of creating a new empire and a new era that would restore Germany to its former greatness. The image of future success entailed programs of eugenics based on the racialization of populations, the putative ‘superiority’ of ‘Aryan’ ancestry, and the consequent discrimination and denigration of other groupings.
Despite some progressive and democratic trends during the Weimar period, after decades of German monarchy and while there were multiple and competing political parties for the first time in German history (Hayes, 2017), Germany also experienced rising unemployment, debt, and reliance on foreign imports following World War I and again in the 1929 world economic crisis (van Riel and Schram 1993). Hitler and others eagerly attributed the loss of the war and subsequent economic distress to the influences of Jews corrupting German society. This distinction between “us” and “them” helped to strengthen the cohesiveness within the group of “true” Germans (the Folk). Hitler and the Nazis blamed Jewish people not only for military defeat and subsequent penalties exacted by the Versailles Treaty, but also for many subsequent economic upheavals, which affected the course of the subsequent and democratic Weimar Republic (the successor to the monarchic German Empire).
Jewish people were further associated with other aspects that the Nazis and the German far right considered as threatening or “un-German,” including liberalism, communism, and the angst of modernity. Today, it would be unimaginably immoral to suggest or enact the forced sterilization or euthanasia of certain ethnic groups, or people with disabilities or poor health, or political enemies, or people who are LGBT. Nazis did so, however, and rationalized this as work to purify the Aryan “bloodlines.” Elaborate pseudoscientific theories were popularized with propaganda; eugenic ‘actions’ were testing grounds for later ‘extermination’ in death camps like Auschwitz.
Nazi fascist believed it was necessary but not sufficient for German citizens to have national pride; Nazi power and propaganda emphasized scapegoats, obstacles and enemies to national power and pride (including people who were Slavic, lived with disabilities, LGBT, of African origin, political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, paupers and criminals). By targeting specific groups and identifying shocking reasons their presence could pose a threat, it became easier to persuade Germans to band together and behind the Nazi party’s trajectory of destruction and genocide. There were resisters of many kinds, to be sure, many of whom fought against the government, sheltered victims, fled their country or the European continent, or were themselves captured and killed. But for many the allure of the stability and prosperity Hitler promised was sufficient for carrying a Nazi party membership card. Non-members were suspect.
The propaganda promoting this movement promised German citizens success in all areas: economics, technology, education, efficiency, medicine, manufacturing, and power over other nations. ‘Pure German’ or ‘Aryan’ ancestry was exalted as superior and the key to this collective success. Public images of Germans as rulers of the world inspired nationalistic pride and a sense of impending glory and victory, an overcoming of obstacles to rebuild Germany back to world power.
Terms and language like “exterminate,” “transport to the east,” and “final solution,” played important roles in Nazi propaganda efforts, deceptively presenting extreme concepts as simple or routine administrative processes. “Extermination” is typically used to describe the elimination of non-human pests such as insects and other vermin; even the word “elimination” suggests the removal of something harmful or undesirable. When the Nazi regime discussed the ‘solutions’ that involved ‘elimination’ or ‘extermination’ of Jews, they employed deceptive euphemisms to disguise their intentions and actions. Endlösung or “the final solution to the Jewish question” was a policy developed under the guidance of Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, and other Nazi government leaders to systematically exterminate Jews throughout Europe and elsewhere beginning in 1941. The sinister and criminal meanings of such imperial language evolved in propaganda during the wartime years as the Holocaust evolved into systemic mass murder and genocide (Klemperer and Brady, 2006).
For townspeople who had lived alongside Jews for decades, embracing one another as neighbors and patrons of community businesses, many likely would not have accepted immediately the torture and death that was being planned. The Nazi propaganda machine guided mass groups of people along more gently (see Herf, 2006). Once convinced they could trust their leaders to work on their behalf towards a professed goal of greatness, the exclusion and slaughter of human beings was not captured in public language. Under Hitler and Goebbels, the Nazis seized upon and wielded doublespeak and euphemism with disastrous efficacy.
Sometimes, the language employed in propaganda is more figurative and reinforces a stereotype that has persisted through time as a widely repeated myth. Tropes are not necessarily malicious but often emerge, as euphemisms might, as a coded way of presenting an offensive or aggressive perspective. A metaphorical reference offers the cover of deniability, if the listener is willing to take the phrase literally or accept a less offensive interpretation or intention. Nazi language and propaganda are full of dehumanizing terms, referencing ‘sub-humans,’ vermin, and people ‘unworthy of living.’
Sharing horrifying stories was a form of propaganda that helped to instill the fear and hatred of Jews that persuaded millions to minimize, accept, condone, or participate in the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.
European Jews were subjected to pogroms for centuries prior to the Nazi reign of terror, inspired by several antisemitic tropes. Jewish people were cast as filthy and responsible for the plague, they were blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus, and in a particularly heinous fiction they were said to sacrifice and drink the blood of Christian children as a religious ritual, known as “blood libel.” Such beliefs demonstrate the hostility that can emerge from irrational fear of marginalized groups, especially when societal leaders share such falsehoods through propaganda. Other antisemitic tropes that persist to this day include scapegoating and accusing Jews of disloyalty, mixed allegiance, (or anti-Zionism), globalism, excessive thrift, dehumanization, and controlling the media.
Antisemitic propaganda is also used in Holocaust denial and distortion. Denial sometimes minimizes the severity of the Holocaust or expresses doubt that it occurred at all. Denial and distortion begin with meticulous efforts that Nazis took to hide their crimes: documentation in newspapers made use of doublespeak to disguise reality, some documents and evidence were destroyed at the end of the war (including some parts of death camps). Concentration camps were dismantled following liberation, leaving fields and empty buildings that veil their history. Firsthand accounts are sometimes insensitively interrogated and memories can be vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Some reports of the Holocaust were treated as atrocity stories, exaggerated, or too horrifying for some to believe.
The Holocaust required that thousands upon thousands of German leaders, doctors, lawyers, police, soldiers, and citizens were willing participants in violating the rights and lives of their neighbors. The excruciating torture that occurred under the direction of Dr. Josef Mengele and others treated prisoners worse than animals in experimentation and for little purpose other than to injure, humiliate, satisfy grotesque curiosity, and fulfill an obsession with artificially mimicking the qualities of the race. Hitler was rumored to have been of Jewish descent, a theory advanced by his personal attorney Hans Frank and incorrectly suggested by DNA studies (Sokol, 2019; Cohen, 2010). The scale of the mass murder is nearly incomprehensible: one-third of the entire Jewish population of the world at the time was murdered, along with millions more that included Poles, gypsies, Roma, Czechs, Russians, and prisoners of war.
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Fascism is a far-right political philosophy, or theory of government, that emerged in the early twentieth century. Fascism prioritizes the nation over the individual, who exists to serve the nation. While fascist movements could be found in almost every country following World War I, fascism was most successful in Italy and Germany. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The SS (or Schutzstaffel, Protection Squads) was originally established as Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit. It would later become both the elite guard of the Nazi Reich and Hitler’s executive force, prepared to carry out all security-related duties, without regard for legal restraint. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
A form of social or political philosophy in which practical elements are as prominent as theoretical ones. It is a system of ideas that aspires both to explain the world and to change it. Britannica
The Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend, or HJ) and the League of German Girls were the Nazi-organized youth movements developed to introduce children to Nazi ideology and policy and to prepare Germany’s youth for war. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
(Hebrew) An ideology and nationalist movement that espouses the establishment of, and support for a homeland for the Jewish people centered in the region of Palestine or Eretz Israel, on the basis of a long Jewish connection and attachment to that land. Wikipedia
A member of the peoples (not to be regarded as a race) speaking any of the languages of the Indo‐European (especially Indo‐Iranian) family. The idea current in the 19th century of an Aryan race was taken up by nationalistic, historical, and romantic writers, such as the French writer and social theorist Joseph‐Arthur, Comte de Gobineau (1816–82), who linked it with the theory of the essential inferiority of certain races. The term ‘Aryan race’ was later revived and used for purposes of political propaganda in Nazi Germany. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum