Words Became Weapons in Hitler’s Savvy Propaganda Machine
The 88-year-old white supremacist accused of firing a rifle in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, killing the guard who reportedly tried to help the elderly man in, never got near the current exhibition “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” below the entrance to the museum.
But James W. von Brunn was both a living illustration of propaganda in action — he wrote articles and books on everything from Holocaust denial to neo-Nazi dogma — and the power of propaganda to infect others beyond the destruction of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
The horrible tragedy was in fact a shocking reminder that the museum itself is not just about history and remembrance, but about the reality of evil that persists today.
One of the most recurring questions that’s often asked about the Holocaust — the systematic murder of more than 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime — is the almost shopworn query that asks how a nation that produced men and women of genius and works of high culture from Beethoven to Mozart could succumb to and participate in such evil acts, as if somehow the entire German people had been bewitched or hypnotized.
“State of Deception” provides some clues and hard-to-avoid answers by examining in stark detail the role of propaganda in the rise of Hitler and the Nazis to power, in their control over the state and its people, in their fever-pitch demonizing of Jews, pursuit of war and lebensraum, and even in their against-all-reason self-destruction.
Propaganda, in the hands of the Nazis, was a tool to persuade Germans to accept racial policies against Jews (and other undesirables such as gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and just about anyone who didn’t belong to the “Aryan race”). Propaganda, skillfully executed as well as any modern electoral campaign — along with street brawling, murder and violent intimidation — helped the Nazis gain a majority in the Reichstag parliament and eventual power. Propaganda isolated Jews, while at the same time creating a myth-driven world of national inclusion in which workers, women, soldiers, educators and children all had a role to play.
The exhibition is a scholarly, systematic and dramatic account of the origins of Nazi propaganda and its uses, methods and lessons from World War I allied efforts. In its own way, it is a potent addendum to the main historic exhibition chronicling the Holocaust that is the focus of the museum.
The exhibition ranges from World War I through the aftermath of World War II, and focuses on different themes such as “Making a Leader,” “Rallying the People,” “Defining the Enemy,” “Indoctrinating the Youth,” “Writing the News,” “Deceiving the Public” and “Assessing Guilt.”
At its most basic, it’s a graphically illustrated history lesson. Hitler, and his eventual communication henchman Joseph Goebbels, understood the power of propaganda as a tool of both persuasion and control. The targets were already in place after World War I: a climate of defeat, economic ruin, the Versailles Treaty, and persistent and often virulent anti-Semitism in Europe. To that rich material, the Nazis added technology, the use of radio, sloganeering, dramatic posters and spectacular political rallies that laid the groundwork for the steppingstones that followed.
The Nuremberg Laws excised Jews from public life, making abuses against them legal. The Reichstag fire, said to have been set by the Nazis themselves, allowed them to eliminate opposing political parties. The Nuremberg Rallies and the 1936 Olympics were skillfully presented as a spectacle of national strength and pride, repeated in films made by Leni Riefenstahl. And the creation of enemies allowed for the construction of concentration camps, with the first attempt to euthanize mentally retarded children eventually leading straight to the gates of Auschwitz.
The Nazi use of propaganda became a kind of cultural flood were opposing voices could hardly ever be heard and those that did break through were quickly silenced.
That’s the history in this exhibition. The artifacts, the real thing if you will, have the power to frighten, shock and make the heart race. You can hear throughout the exhibition the hard, raspy voice of Hitler on the radio, or see in one particular section a room bathed in Nazi red, with giant photographs of idyllic German youths being exhorted to victory by Hitler.
You can also see the ugly film posters of “The Eternal Jew,” starring Emil Jannings, striking political posters and paintings that made a heroic figure of Hitler, images of Kristallnacht and the burning of books in a huge national bonfire, and a multitude of Swastikas, cabaret signs and other tattered remains of a culture twisted beyond recognition.
These visceral reminders still have the power to hurt. Propaganda, in the hands of people who understood it all too well, emerges as a kind of poison that takes over the body politic. “Propaganda,” Hitler wrote in “Mein Kampf” in 1924 “is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.” He was at least right about that.
“State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” runs through December 2011 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW. For more information, please call (202) 488-0400 or visit www.ushmm.org.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.