Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (or National Socialist German Worker’s Party) created in the Third Reich the most extreme and terrifying example of a totalitarian regime the world has ever seen. It is often wondered quite how a sophisticated and highly developed 20th century nation was politically overpowered by the Nazis. One answer, and a major factor in the Nazi’s effectiveness as a political force, was that not only did they ruthlessly deploy violence against dissidence, but they also utterly mastered the art of propaganda, fabricating a national ideology around their twisted beliefs. Here we take a look at some of their most evil and insidiously effective propaganda techniques.
1. The Fuhrer
Of all the propaganda weapons that the Nazi held at their disposal, perhaps the most effective and enduring was the cult of the Fuhrer – Adolf Hitler himself. Praised by contemporaries, allies and foes alike as a charismatic and powerful speaker, Hitler had an ability to break down arguments to their most simple terms and could move crowds on a level of emotion rather than intellect. He also cultivated his public image to an obsessive degree, ensuring that it lay at the heart of all things in the Nazi state. It is difficult, almost impossible, to imagine the Nazi tragedy without Adolf Hitler at its core.
2. Music and Opera – Absorbing high culture
According to Hitler, the three ‘good’ composers that represented everything admirable about German music were Ludvig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner and Richard Wagner. Of these, Wagner’s is the music most inextricably linked with Nazi Germany. While Wagner clearly held some contentious views, in particular towards Jews (he published an essay in 1850 entitled ‘Judaism in Music’, accusing Jews of ‘poisoning’ popular culture), the Nazis took the parts of his work that they liked and suppressed the rest. In particular, they appropriated the romanticism and stirring essence for an idealized German past in Parsifal, and Der Ring das Nibelungen figured strongly in the Nazis’ propaganda plans, reinforcing the national myth they had manufactured, and opening a whole new propaganda front.
3. Mythology, Folktales and Religion – Focus on a national myth
Mythology and folktales were extremely important to the Nazi’s idea of ‘volk’ and tradition. The party’s views on religion were complex, and in Hitler’s case, fairly confused, but they recognized the power of religious imagery and occultist symbology. Christian imagery was often evoked in the artwork of propaganda, as were Teutonic gods and goddesses. These efforts were intended to reinforce the idea of an ancient German national culture, bolstering the Nazis’ extreme nationalism. More peculiarly, eastern spirituality also interested senior officials, and in 1938 the Nazis made an official visit to Tibet. This may have been prompted by the Nazi’s belief in Thule – a sort of Nazi Atlantis, which was purported to be the starting point for the ‘Aryan’ peoples.
4. Anti-Communist Propaganda – Demonizing political opposition
The Communist Party and international Marxism were seen as dangerous opponents to Nazi Germany, both at home and abroad. Once again propaganda was an effective means of attacking communist ideology and the Soviet state. Films often portrayed communists as vulnerable and brainwashed, while posters declared the supremacy of the German people over their Soviet counterparts. Early on in his career Hitler equated Jews with Communists and loathed them with almost equal fervor.
5. Mein Kampf – Mythologizing the party
Adolf Hitler began work on his sprawling semi auto-biography Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’) while imprisoned after the failed Munich Putsch. Combining elements of his own life with political ideology and violent racial arguments, the book was unsurprisingly (and still is) a controversial work. Playing on the death of 16 party members in the failed coup, the Nazis invented a myth around the event which they would continue to play on throughout their time in power. From the publication of Mein Kampf in 1925 and especially during Hitler’s time in power, the book was incredibly successful, and 10 million copies had been produced by the end of the war. However, not everyone was enthused. One of Hitler’s closest foreign political allies, Benito Mussolini, described it as ‘a boring tome that I have never been able to read.’
6. Newspapers – Controlling the press
Newspapers have always been a powerful means of influencing thought and opinion. The most notorious of the Nazi newspapers was Der Sturmer (‘The Attacker’). Although separate from the official party regime and Goering’s own departments (he actually forbade it from his offices), it was a major part of the propaganda war. Published by Julius Streicher, its tabloid style, rabid anti-semitism and obscene content won it favor with other party officials. Hitler himself praised its effectiveness in speaking to the ‘man on the street’ and was said to ‘read it with pleasure, from first page to last.’
7. Film and Cinema – Controlling the social sphere
While the party entered German homes, it also entered the social sphere, controlling what people would pay to go and see. A Department of Film was set up in 1933 with the expressed aim of “spreading the National Socialist world view to the entire German people.” Primarily it did this by holding film shows, a frequent and popular occurrence in German cities and towns. Hitler and Goebbels were both fascinated by the medium and regularly showed films in their own homes. Two of the most famous examples of Nazi cinema are Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which documents the Nuremburg rally of 1934, and 1940’s The Wandering Jew, a documentary style attack on the Jewish people.
8. Radio – Controlling mass media
The radio broadcast was recognized by the Nazis as one of the most important propaganda tools in their arsenal. In 1933, their Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, called radio the ‘eighth great power’ and predicted that it “will be for the 20th century what the press was to the nineteenth.” He initiated a scheme whereby the German government subsidized the production and sale of cheap radio sets – the Volksempfanger, or ‘people’s receiver’ – limited in range to local German and Austrian stations. This placed the party’s voice in every home in the country. By the start of the war, nearly the entire nation had fallen under the radio’s spell and was bombarded with speeches and ‘news’ designed to brainwash the population.
9. Anti-Semitism – Scapegoating of minorities
Following the devastating outcome of WWI and the Wall Street of Crash of 1929, Germany was in a precarious economic position, with hundreds of thousands out of work. To explain this, the Nazis blamed the Jews. The Nazi Party accused them of being a parasitic race that attached itself to capitalist nations to destabilize the economy and culture of their ‘host’ nation. Hitler’s own fanatical anti-semitism became even more pronounced in party policy after the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. By blaming a minority racial group for all of the country’s ills, the Nazis created a set of scapegoats who could be blamed at every opportunity for almost anything. In posters, art, cartoons and film, the Jews were equated with rats and caricatured as hook nosed misers, stealing money from the honest ‘Aryan’ German workers.
10. Posters – Using symbolic imagery
Hitler and his leaders understood the power of propaganda in conveying the party line, and poster art was often at the heart of the publicity machine. Both at home and in occupied territory, posters were a powerful means to simply communicate the main Nazi policies, through simplified and metaphorical imagery. At home, posters often focused on boosting the morale of production workers, telling them ‘You are the Front!’ Abroad, the posters offered a romanticized ideal of the Nazi Party as a force for good, often employing religious imagery which represented Hitler as a liberating hero.