Adolf Hitler, the leader or “Fuhrer” of the Nazi party, held absolute power in Germany between 1933 and 1945. From the time of his entry into politics in 1919 shortly after the end of the First World War, to his suicide in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, he relentlessly pursued two central goals: a highly aggressive policy, based on racism and hyper-nationalism, to greatly increase the territory and power of Germany and a campaign of hatred against Jews, culminating in the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust. His name has become synonymous with evil.
Hitler saw propaganda as key to his success. In 1936, at the annual Nazi rally in Nuremberg he said, “Propaganda brought us to power, propaganda has since enabled us to remain in power, and propaganda will give us the means of conquering the world.”
Propaganda needs the right conditions to be successful. After the First World War, the economic situation was dire for Germans and the country had been humiliated by its defeat and the terms imposed on it after the war. There were widespread calls in Germany for a “strong leader” to emerge as a saviour.
Nazi propaganda was always accompanied by violence and intimidation. Before they gained power - democratically - in 1933, Nazi Stormtroopers, a paramilitary force, were frequently on the streets. Once in power, the Nazis quickly set up a murderous totalitarian dictatorship, a repressive police state, and a climate of terror. However, there was no pause in their relentless propaganda – people’s hearts and minds could not be won by terror and repression alone.
Hitler set out his views on how to use propaganda in his notorious and hate-filled book Mein Kampf which he dictated in 1923 and 1924, when he was in prison and was a nobody on the lunatic fringe of the extreme right. Within a decade he had obtained supreme power in Germany.
He believed the masses could be easily manipulated by propaganda, if used properly. By propaganda, “heaven itself can be presented to the people as if it were hell, and vice versa, and the most miserable kind of life can be presented as if it were paradise.”
“[Propaganda] is a terrible weapon in the hands of those who know how to make use of it’, said the man, who more than any other was to prove this statement true.
Hitler studied the propaganda methods of others like the Italian dictator Mussolini (who himself drew inspiration from the Roman Empire), the Russian Bolshevik revolutionaries and British propaganda in the First World War.
Soon after Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, Joseph Goebbels joined the Nazi Party and later he became the Propaganda Chief. He was influenced by the work on propaganda of the American Edward Bernays and by American commercial advertising techniques. He declared he would use, “American [propaganda] methods on an American scale.”
Goebbels, like Hitler, believed that the people are easily manipulated by propaganda, “The people are mostly just a gramophone record playing back public opinion. Public opinion, in its turn, is created by the organs of public opinion such as the press, posters, radio, school, universities, and general education.”
Both Hitler and Goebbels regarded propaganda as work of prime importance that demanded trained specialists, “the most skilled brains that can be found”. Control was centralised and the work closely supervised. The details had to be got right.
Nazi propaganda necessarily changed over time. In the early years, the Nazi Party was a tiny party of no importance. Hitler wrote about his frustration, “We should have been very pleased if we were attacked or even ridiculed. But the most depressing fact was that nobody paid any attention to us whatsoever. This utter lack of interest in us caused me great mental pain at the time.”
The Nazis used a variety of propaganda techniques to get themselves noticed. They held public meetings; the posters, leaflets and huge banners were all emblazoned with the party’s symbol, the swastika. In Mein Kampf, Hitler specified that such meetings must be in the evening “when [people] easily succumb to the domination of a stronger will” and the meetings should have “the mysterious artificial dimness of the Catholic churches”.
Hitler would always speak and use violent, provocative and threatening oratory.
The “security” would be provided by the Stormtroopers, who would cause and provoke violence, which was a kind of propaganda itself. It meant the Nazis were no longer ignored. It also helped the Nazis own morale. Goebbels remarked that “blood is the best adhesive”.
Propaganda, according to Hitler and Goebbels, should be aimed at the masses, and not at intellectuals, in fact it should be aimed at the “lowest mental common denominator”. It should appeal to emotion, not reason.
Goebbels wrote in his diary,” The essence of propaganda is to keep it simple and use constant repetition.” Simplicity and repetition of words and symbols were key.
Speeches should use simple, short, sharp words, be dogmatic, and always confident. The content was typically to set “Us” against “Them”. “Us” were those Hitler considered “racially pure” Germans and Aryans. “Them” were usually the Jews or could also be Communists, Bolsheviks, Socialists, Gypsies, homosexuals or whosoever was chosen.
Hitler – of course, not restrained by any moral scruples - sought to make people fear and hate. He would lie freely. He wrote that a big lie was more likely to persuade the masses than a small lie “since [the masses] themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large scale falsehood.”
After 1933, the Nazis’ annual rallies held at Nuremberg grew to an enormous size. Rows upon rows of uniformed Nazis marched holding burning torches behind banners with swastikas. Hitler stood before an imperial backdrop. The lighting, the sounds, the colours, the music were all planned minutely. The timings had to be split-second.
The rallies were modelled on Roman times when uniformed men marched behind eagles and banners emblazoned “SPQR”. They projected power – and fear.
The Press was recognised by Hitler in Mein Kampf as the most effective form of propaganda. Accordingly, the Nazis set up or bought their own newspapers. The backing of the media empire of Alfred Hugenberg, the largest in Germany, was to play a key role in the Nazis winning power.
It was the young who were the Nazis’ greatest supporters. Even before they came to power, the Nazis set up youth groups, for boys and girls aged between 10 and 18. They all swore oaths of personal allegiance to Hitler and were told “your life belongs to the Fuhrer”. After 1933, indoctrination started for all school children.
Even pre-school children might have Nazi children’s books, games and toys. This propaganda sought to shape children’s thoughts so they would grow up to be “good Nazis”.
Nazi propaganda from the beginning promoted a “Fuhrer cult”. Hitler’s deputy’s declaration at a Nuremberg rally was typical, “The Party is Hitler. But Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler!” As historian, Ian Kershaw, points out, by 1936, “ubiquitous propaganda made the drug of the ‘Fuhrer Myth’ hard to resist.”
However, manufactured charisma is dependent on success. When the military tide turned against Germany in 1942, the Fuhrer cult weakened.
In 1933, Goebbels became Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. From now on, Nazi propaganda was almost completely uncontested, there were no dissenting voices. Listening to a foreign radio station, for example, was punishable by death.
Goebbels took control of all means of public communication, including: radio, films, newspapers, literature, music, theatre, and fine art. He had huge resources at his disposal. He intervened very actively. He would demand certain actors be hired, certain lines in films be changed. Soon after taking power, he presided over the public burning of books he considered “undesirable”.
In March 1933, Goebbels addressed the press in Berlin. He told them, “the new government no longer intends to leave people to their own devices”. The plan was, “to work on people until they accept our influence.”
Goebbels wrote in his diary, “The press is now all mine.” He could instruct them what to say. Even when he did not, they knew what was expected of them.
No one in Germany could avoid Nazi propaganda. Symbols such as the swastika were everywhere. People on meeting others would say “Heil Hitler” and perform the Hitler salute, a straight arm lifted in front of them. Many civilians wore Nazi uniforms. Even the way that soldiers marched – the aggressive goose-step – sent a clear message. And throughout the year, the Nazis promoted festivities for the people to take part in, each with its own particular Nazi ritual.
The Nazis produced cheap radios which could receive only one wavelength, which broadcast Hitler’s speeches. It was compulsory to install radios with loudspeakers in cafes and public places. It was compulsory to listen.
Under the direction and supervision of Hitler and Goebbels, the Nazis used existing propaganda techniques on an unprecedented scale, with persistence and close attention to detail. They combined propaganda with violence and intimidation. Their propaganda was relentless, continuous and impossible to escape. It was highly effective with the most terrible consequences.