Propaganda can be understood as the coordinated attempt to influence public opinion through the use of the media. The word propaganda is derived from the Latin propagare, to propagate or spread, and generally propaganda tries to spread ideologies or belief systems. It is frequently used by political parties and governments to encourage people to accept a political viewpoint. As opposed to providing impartial information, propaganda presents facts selectively. This amounts to lying by omission – misleading people by leaving certain facts out. Another technique involves using loaded messages to produce an emotional response, rather than a rational one. Above all, propaganda can be used as a form of political warfare.
Propaganda was used by the Nazi Party during Adolf Hitler's leadership of Germany (1933–45). Propaganda was crucial for acquiring and maintaining power, and for implementing Nazi policies. Hitler devoted two chapters of his book Mein Kampf (1925-6) to the use of propaganda. He claimed that he had learnt the value of propaganda as a German infantryman in the First World War, where he had been exposed to very effective British propaganda. Hitler writes:
Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed.
The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another.
The great majority of a nation is so feminine in its character and outlook that its thought and conduct are ruled by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning.
These statements demonstrate Hitler’s contempt for his audience. He describes the public as a ‘vacillating crowd’: he viewed them as simple-minded people, child-like and easily swayed. Propaganda has to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which means it has to be simplistic. He also describes the public as ‘feminine’ and associates femininity with intellectual weakness.
When he came to power, Hitler appointed Dr. Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) as Reich Minister of Propaganda. He became the ultimate spin doctor, the arch manipulator of public opinion. It was Goebbels who orchestrated the burning of books the Nazis disapproved of, mainly those by left-wing or Jewish authors. Of course, burning books is an act of barbarism.
The Reich was a totalitarian regime, meaning that the Nazi Party exerted total control over all aspects of life, including the media. News was simply an organ of propaganda. Hitler told his generals, ‘I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn't matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.’ Goebbels controlled the arts and media in Germany. He developed what has been called the Big Lie technique of propaganda, which is based on the principle that an audacious lie, if repeated enough times, will be believed by the masses.
What lies was Goebbels purveying? The Nazi regime was anti-Semitic: they had an irrational hatred of Jews, whom they blamed for Germany’s economic collapse after the First World War. Goebbels used the media to demonise Jews. Posters, films and cartoons attacked the Jewish community. For example, a Nazi propaganda newspaper called Der Stürmer told Germans that Jews kidnapped small children before Passover because ‘Jews need the blood of a Christian child, maybe, to mix in with their Matzah.’
Poster art was a mainstay of the Nazi propaganda effort. Posters used racial caricatures to portray Jews as subhuman. This is an Anti-Semitic illustration of a Jew offering gold coins with one hand, but holding a whip in the other. He has the Soviet Union hidden under his arm. This was suggesting that Jews were deceitful and treacherous, and that they were in league with Communism . This was a tool for turning Germans against the Jews. The image exaggerates the facial features to portray Jews as physically degenerate.
This is an election poster from July 1932. It shows a heroic German worker, enlightened by National Socialism, towering over his opponents. The Swastika has been represented as a giant architectural edifice, an indestructible monument of the regime. The skyline is made up of industrial buildings, implying that industry is making Nazi Germany strong. One of the figures is a Marxist, symbolized by the red cap. A Jew is whispering in his ear. Behind them is a Communist youth with a bloody knife and a banner that states ‘Beat the Fascists, Civil War, Class Struggle.’
The Nazis produced many films to promote their views. There was a film called The Eternal Jew, which was an anti-Semitic tract. The poster features the same racial caricatures. The Nazis even made westerns, drawing on a staple of Hollywood cinema but infusing it with Nazi ideology.
The most famous Nazi film was Triumph of the Will (1934) by the female director Leni Riefenstahl. This chronicles the Nazi Rally in Nuremberg. It takes place in the colossal Nuremberg arena designed by Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer. Uniformed party members march in ordered ranks and Hitler presides above like a demagogue. The troops parade with flaming torches in a pseudo-medieval spectacle.
After war broke out, Nazi propaganda focussed on the enemy. Allied pilots were depicted as cowardly murderers. In particular, Americans pilots were portrayed as gangsters in the style of Al Capone. At the same time, Nazi propaganda tried to alienate American and British forces from each other. These are calling cards aimed at British soldiers, suggesting that American GIs stationed in Britain were having sex with British women. This was a very devious way of sewing dissent.