The Power of Propaganda in Nazi Germany
When the word “evil” comes to mind, one evil regime sticks out, a regime run by one of the most chilling figures of the twentieth century: Adolf Hitler. Hitler and his Nazi party essentially took over most of Europe during World War Two. The overall tally of the Nazi’s victims is believed to be over eleven million people, but this number applies to those who died in labor, concentration, and death camps alone. The actual number of victims is much higher. Victims were gassed, starved, tortured, shot, murdered, and slaughtered like animals in an overwhelming massacre that has left a dark stain over Western Europe for decades.
It would have been impossible for that many people to have been systematically murdered by the government without the common population knowing. Hitler was elected in to power back in 1933 and was beloved by many for years before the Second World War even started. It is easy to shake one’s head in disbelief and think that there is no way anyone could have let a regime so evil come to power, especially not in our enlightened and democratic modern times, yet it is true. The Nazis, like so many other people in the past, found one of their greatest weapons came from the power of images and words. Their chilling propaganda brainwashed thousands of people and as a result destroyed millions of lives.
Words as Weapons
The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines propaganda as: “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.” For many years, propaganda was the most valuable weapon in the Nazi party’s arsenal. The people of Germany, and later many countries across Europe, were inundated with posters, warnings, photographs, signs, billboards, radio broadcasts, and speeches, all of which contained the same message: the Nazis will save Germany from its true enemies. Who was the enemy? The Nazis considered anyone that did not hold the same political beliefs as them as an enemy. However, most of the time their propaganda singled out one scapegoat above all others: the Jews.
The Nazis did not simply embellish and exaggerate the truth in their propaganda. No, they straight out lied. Their statements about how Germany was at the time and how it should be, and who is the blame for all of it, are now obviously seen as completely false. Today we have the benefit of hindsight, but everyone living in Germany in the early 1930’s could never have imagined what was to come.
At the time, many people in Germany loved Hitler. He knew how to work a crowd and the crowd soon became devoted to him. He had to find someone to blame for all of Germany’s problems, so Hitler picked the easy targets: the minorities. How did he convince enough people to hate these minorities? By propaganda, of course.
Hitler’s propaganda was spread over Germany and later the rest of Europe. He and his Nazi party used radio broadcasts, posters, pamphlets, textbooks, science experiments (which the Nazis manipulated to their advantage) all to prove their beliefs that minorities and undesirables like Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, Communists, Slavs, Poles, and others were lesser humans than pure-blooded “Aryans” like himself.
Phase 1: Making Hitler Look Good
The first round of propaganda consisted of posters that declared Hitler a hero and the Nazi party as a helpful hand for the mistreated people of Germany. For one propaganda poster, the Nazis used a drawing of a muscular man (the typical representation of the ideal Aryan male), sporting the caption “Work, Freedom, Bread” as a way of advertising for Hitler’s National Socialist Party (aka the Nazi party). This poster’s caption “Work, Freedom, Bread” referenced the idea that their party would improve Germany by helping people find work, give them the freedom that had been stripped from them since the end of World War One, and that they, the Nazi party, would feed the people of Germany, so that the country would be as great a nation as it once was. Another propaganda poster declared Hitler to be Germany’s “Last Hope.” Other propaganda posters showed Nazi party members giving German citizens gifts, while in other posters Nazis were portrayed as kind citizens, helping wounded veterans These positive images, which would have been posted everywhere, boosted people’s opinions of the Nazi party and Hitler. This over-exposure to positive accounts of Hitler and the Nazi party would be enough to sway the people of Germany.
Phase 2: Making Germans Look Good
The second round of Nazi propaganda centered on setting standards for how a proper German citizen should behave. The most popular subjects of this form of Nazi propaganda were mothers and their children. Beautiful blonde women and their adorable kids became the focal point of many posters as Hitler emphasized the importance of family. Good Germans were portrayed in propaganda through staged photos of happy families made up of beautiful people, while representations of Jewish families were crude, depicting the men as fat and hairy while the women were drawn to be ugly and gaudy. If you are continually exposed to images that portray one type of person as good and beautiful and another type of person as lazy and ugly, your opinion will be swayed by these visuals, whether you like it or not. So was the case in Germany.
Children and young adults were influenced by this propaganda more than anyone else. As early as 1932, a children’s textbook taught young children how to count by using drawings of tanks, canons, and soldiers. This textbook would have been read by seven-year-olds. Just imagine the horrible influence images like these would have had over their young, malleable, naive minds. The book The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures, published by Louis Weber, mentions that the Nazi party targeted children for even more propaganda by publishing picture books filled with anti-semetic language and drawings (Weber 100).
Adolf Hitler turned himself in to an icon for Germans and became a father figure for young German children. He liked to have staged photographs taken of him spending time with children or with animals. In one such photograph he can be seen gently stroking a deer, which would have endeared him (no pun intended) to young children. If this man loves animals then how can he be bad?
Several years later when Hitler invaded Austria, he threw a big party for the citizens of Vienna on his birthday, complete with parades and a large cake for children to eat. The cake’s icing took the form of a giant swastika, not that the children noticed, since all they cared about was free cake.
Young people had to join clubs sponsored by the Nazi Party, the most popular of which was the Hitler Youth. If you did not join, then your parents were given an official document where the child and the parent would have to sign their names, write their address, and place of work so that everyone would know of their decision. This was an easy way to target nay-sayers and shame them. Just imagine how even more effective this would have been if the Nazis had access to today’s social media.
Phase 3: The Making of a Genocide
Once Hitler roped in enough people and brainwashed them to share his twisted beliefs, he found that it was time to use propaganda to stir up fear and hatred for those who were not Nazis, people like the Jews and other undesirables. This was his final wave of propaganda, a way to announce his hatred publically for all to see. Signs and propaganda posters started to pop up which labeled “Jews as our [Germany’s] misfortune,” others told Jews to leave the country and return to where they came from, and more still blamed the nation’s problems on Jews. In one particularly memorable poster, Jews were blamed for the miseries of farm life. Another spread the lie that Jews were descendants of the devil.
The Holocaust Chronicle points out several examples of Nazi propaganda found in newspapers, one example is of a political cartoon that portrayed the Jewish population as a spider, tangling Europe in its web (Weber 316). Nazis also distributed even more propaganda through radio broadcasts, ensuring that German citizens had radios to access this propaganda (Weber 142). Hitler entrusted Joseph Goebbles as the head of his Ministry of Propaganda. Goebbles then helped create a slew of propaganda films and documentaries that celebrated the Nazi party and demeaned undesirables like the Jews.
The Nazis, emboldened by the popularity of their propaganda, created laws, which restricted what Jewish people could do. Jews were forbidden from entering certain parks and were unable to shop at non-Jewish-owned stores. Stores owned by Jews were decorated with graffiti and anti-semetic drawings so everyone would know the religious affiliation of the store’s owner. Gentiles were shamed if they were caught in a Jewish-owned shop. A poster appeared in one Germany town publically listing the names and addresses of women who still bought from Jewish shops as a way of shaming them in to submission. A large dark mark struck through the list, the equivalent of a giant “X.” Everyone who saw the poster would know to never buy from a Jewish-owned shop again.
These propaganda posters each pose a striking image that is rather chilling today. Germans and “Aryan men” are portrayed as hulking, muscular, beautiful figures of perfection, while Jews are depicted as fat, ugly, and less than human.
These propaganda posters surrounded the German people everywhere they went. The message was unavoidable, so it took root in people’s brains like a deadly disease, growing and growing until such hatred seemed normal. This propaganda helped the Nazis rise to power and this propaganda eventually helped them murder millions of people while most of Germany, and later parts of Western Europe, watched silently, agreeing with their actions.
Holocaust Chronicle, The: A History in Words and Pictures. Ed. Louis Weber. New York: Publications International, 2003. 70-100. Print.
“Propaganda.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Web.