A Clockwork Nightmare
Dr. Thomas F. Thibeault
By K. A. M.
It could never happen here. The rise of National Socialism in Germany led to war and genocide on an unprecedented scale. A nation of 80 million people put their trust in a charismatic leader, who created a totalitarian regime and then led them to ruin.
However improbable it may seem, the type of evolution in Germany from democracy to dictatorship in the 1930's is still quite possible today. We have more in common with Germany after the First World War than may be apparent at first glance. Like the Weimar Republic of postwar Germany, our government is in gridlock; hampered by a strained relationship between our government and the people it is supposed to serve. As the recent economic crisis in Japan demonstrates, the world economy is even more interdependent than during the economic collapse in 1929, which set the stage for political change. While the control of information was a key factor in the hold Hitler kept on Germany, legislators in Washington are currently discussing the role of government in restricting access and policing content of the Internet. Our citizens are as frustrated with our government today as the citizens of the Weimar Republic once were, and both peoples share the desire of a leader to trust and believe in.
The ability of any leader to govern is based on the consent of the people, gained and then maintained by public approval. When Hitler became Chancellor of the Weimar Republic of Germany, he seized the opportunity to control public perception by first restricting the people's access to information, and then submitting them to an ongoing propaganda campaign. This paper will examine some of the techniques used before and during the reign of the Third Reich to manipulate the public towards Hitler's goals for
Germany, and in doing so, illustrate that under the right circumstances, the betrayal of a people by its government is not a lesson in old history, but a warning that it can happen anywhere.
Section I. 1923-1933: The Rise to Power
It was apparent from the beginning that Hitler recognized the importance of propaganda. In Goebbels and National Socialist Propaganda 1925-1945, author Ernest Bramsted quotes Hitler's early conclusions on the subject: "The first task of Propaganda is to win people over for the later organization...The second task of Propaganda is the undermining of the existing order..."(pg.27). Application of these ideas can be seen in some of Hitler's choices on his road to power. By deciding on the swastika as the symbol of the NSDAP, he made his group more recognizable and set it apart from the other political factions in Germany at the time. The Volkischer Beobachter and Der Angriff, newspapers controlld by the NSDAP, gave Hitler media access to the public, and the means to get his messages to a national audience. The paramilitary organ of the party, the Sturmabteilung, or SA, took to the streets, lending both physical and political credibility to the National Socialist cause. The greatest commercial for the party was Hitler himself, whose dynamic personality and oratory skills projected his message of decisive leadership to a country restless for action.
The effect of Hitler's machinations was striking. From the time of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 and subsequent trial, when Hitler first received national attention, the party continued to grow in size and strength. By 1932, as a minority in the Reichstag, the National Socialists were powerful enough to further discredit the Weimar Republic by obstruction of its policies. By 1933, Hitler became leader of the government. Both Propaganda tasks had been accomplished. He had won over enough people to undermine the current government, and then to take it for himself. His next step would be to consolidate his power, and to institutionalize the means to keep it.
Section II. 1933-1935: The Consolidation of Power
It was Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels who would have the primary responsibility for the institutionalization of the new order. William Shirer recalls in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich the jubilation Goebbels felt at the prospect: "Now it will be easy...we can call on all the resources of the state...we shall stage a masterpiece of Propaganda..."(pg.265).
For Goebbels, the key to the long-term goals of the National Socialists was first gaining command all means of public access to information. This degree of control would only be possible to obtain under the pretext of some national emergency. Whether by design or sheer good fortune, Goebbels got his chance when the Reichstag caught fire under suspicious circumstances less than a month after Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor. Blamed on the socialists, the incident was used as an excuse for a sequence of events that enabled the National Socialists and Hitler to dominate the state. Over the next two years all political parties except for the National Socialists were banned, all forms of communication came under state control, and no organization in Germany could continue to exist without government sanction. This process was the Gliechschaltung, meaning unification or coordination.
A specific example of this state control over public access to information was their suppression of the press. In The Captive Press in the Third Reich, Oron Hall devotes a chapter to the Amann Ordinances, specifically drawn up in 1935 to clarify the relationship between the written media and the state: "...The press is an instrument of the National
Socialist state..."(pg.171). Paper publishers were given 90 days to "...cleanse themselves...and develop a positive and cooperative attitude toward the ideology and practices of the National Socialist state... "(pg.171). By making the press answerable legally to the state for content, effective control of information passed to the state, and Goebbels now had the means to further manipulate the public on a national scale without fear of contradiction.
Section III. 1934-1939: The Indoctrination of the Masses
Goebbels felt the battle for the minds of the people had not been won simply because they had allowed the creation of the Third Reich. Curt Reiss, in Joseph Goebbels: A Biography, offers this support of the Minister's reasoning:
The majority of Germans were all for Hitler. But how long would they follow the Fuhrer with unwavering loyalty? There must be ways and means to keep the people in line and at the same time in good humor. That was the real reason for the existence of the Propaganda Ministry, the first of its kind created not for the duration of a war but for the duration of a regime, then estimated to last for a thousand years. (pg.103).
Naturally, there had always been an ideological aspect to the National Socialist Party, but it had been largely subordinated to the realities of gaining power. Now, with the control of the state firmly in hand, the focus of state propaganda shifted from political control to full indoctrination. Hitler had already laid out his plans for the German people in the 1920's when he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle). He called for a strong Germany, living space for the German volk, and to fight against the influence of the Jews and Bolsheviks, who he believed were undermining the destiny of Germany. Following Hitler's maxim that propaganda should be kept simple to understand and direct, Goebbels simplified these goals into slogans for public consumption. Reiss neatly summarizes how four of the main slogans of the period mirrored Hitler's intent: "Germany Awake!", "The Jews are our Misfortune", "People without Space", and "Blood and Soil" (pg.107). According to Reiss, the number and frequency of these slogans increased to the point that "...the Germans became proportionally farther removed from reality and began to live in Dr. Goebbels's own reality of total propaganda." (pg.141).
Another aspect of this infusion of National Socialist ideology was the pomp and pageantry that came to be associated with the prewar years. Mass rallies were staged, glorifying the accomplishments and sense of purpose of the new regime. In Triumph of the Will, author Linda Deutschmann discusses the film of the same name, made at the Party Rally at Nuremberg in 1934. Produced by Leni Riefenstahl on Hitler's orders, the movie is a classic of symbolism. Its purpose was to foster the emerging cult of personality surrounding Adolf Hitler. According to Deutschmann, Hitler is made to appear to be "...a reincarnation of All-Father Odin whom the ancient aryans heard raging with his hosts over the virgin forests." (pg.32). The rally and film are meticulously choreographed to portray Hitler as this god-like figure, the savior of the German people. Great emphasis is given to Hitler's oratory skills, and his unique ability to make the listener feel that he was being spoken to personally. As one onlooker recalled,
this voice is like a presence, like a shield, like a magnet, like a bright shining star in the dark. Each time I hear this voice, I say in my heart, that all this cannot be without a divine basis. So much faith, so many deeds, so much effort. (pg.124)
Released in 1936, the motion picture ran for a minimum of four weeks in every major German city. It conveyed its meaning well: "...and like Goebbels incessant propaganda, it helped to manufacture and sustain Hitler's position as supernaturally empowered Leader." (pg.11).
Despite the success of the Riefenstahl film, Goebbels and Hitler disagreed on the best way to continue to motivate the people in their support of the regime. Goebbels preferred to use Hitler sparingly, and to use a more subtler approach in his propaganda. Newsreels were employed to trumpet the successes of the Reich, or to turn setbacks into achievements in the minds of the people. Purely propagandist films would generally prove to be box office failures. Involving himself increasingly in cinema production, Goebbels hit upon the idea of disguising his messages in full-length features designed to entertain and indoctrinate at the same time.
This balance between propaganda and entertainment was precarious at times. Two of these films in particular demonstrate the intent of the regime to desensitize the public to their own humanity while dehumanizing certain types of people. Robert Herzstein explains how this was done in The War that Hitler Won. In "I Accuse", a husband goes on trial for the mercy killing of his wife. A physician, acting as a defense witness, testifies that he would have done the same thing. According to Herzstein, "No one was portrayed as a hero or a villain, although audiences left the theater feeling sympathy for the accused and his action. Eliciting this reaction was precisely the aim of the regime..."(pg.308). Not widely known at the time was that the state was using euthanasia laws to kill not only the sick and dying, but those considered genetically or mentally inferior. This film suggested that people killed in this manner were being put out of their misery, and that state-sponsored euthanasia was therefore both humane and just.
Herzsteins other example is "The Eternal Jew". The graphic nature of the film, included at Hitler's insistence and meant to intensify the message, was actually counterproductive. It portrayed people of Jewish blood as "...lower than vermin, creatures akin to the rat, money-mad bits of filth devoid of all higher values, corrupters of the world." (Pg.309). Actual footage of hordes of rats was used to reinforce the idea of Jews as a lower form of animal: "...they carry disease...and move about in groups" (309). Clearly the message of this film is that like rats, Jews are something to be rid of.
The public backlash at the purely propagandist nature of "The Eternal Jew" convinced Goebbels of the soundness of his reasoning. Use newsreels for news, tailored to the regime's needs. Films should be primarily entertainment, with their ideologically content intact, but tactfully submerged within. With the outbreak of war, Goebbels would turn away from direct indoctrination in film, preferring to distract the public with period pieces or historical allegories.
Section IV. 1939-1945: The War Years
For the first two years of the war Hitler retained the almost total support of the German people. The decisiveness of the Polish and French campaigns reinforced the aura of Hitler's infallibility at home while instigating the myth of the "German Superman" abroad. As the war dragged on however, it became increasingly difficult for Goebbels to explain away German setbacks. At the beginning of hostilities Goebbels had intensified his poster campaign. After each military victory new placards were hung in the town squares, alongside huge maps for the public. Herzstein points out that "...during the late summer of 1942...orders went out to remove the maps because people were standing around discussing how much territory the Germans had lost." (pg.211). The German Postal Service was also utilized in an effort to maintain Hitler's hold on the minds of the people. Letters were stamped with cancellation slogans such as "With the Fuhrer to Victory" and "Fuhrer, Give us our Orders!" (pg.214). Sensing he was losing his grasp on the people, Goebbels launched a campaign against rumor-mongering in 1943. Between 1943-1944, millions of leaflets were distributed to the population, in an attempt to divert them from speculation and to put their minds back on serving the Leader. By 1945, a word of mouth disinformation program, the Mundpropaganda, was being used throughout the Reich to provide and disseminate counter-rumors. It was apparent to all but the most fanatical of followers that Hitler, as well as Goebbels, had betrayed the trust of the public.
Section V: Mistakes and Consequences
Goebbels had made two mistakes that ultimately cost him his hold on the populace. According to Alexander George in Propaganda Analysis, the first mistake was in the means of controlling the media: "...it was entirely one-way communication...not a face to face situation...There is no concurrent reaction from the audience...which permits the speaker to see...where his intended meanings need clarification...to achieve intended results..."(pg.19). Once the trust of the people had been initially gained, a dialogue would have been more effective in maintaining that trust than a harangue. The other mistake was the decision not to tell the truth when the war started going badly. Propaganda "...may be able to hide certain negative developments and minimize others, but in the long run...cannot change the course of developments or hide the truth indefinitely."(pg.226).
The consequence of these errors was the loss of credibility. The constant barrage of propaganda, instead of a dialogue with the German people, became less effective over time and depleted the reservoir of public trust so carefully stored. When the war started to go badly, the dam cracked and then burst, as more and more people began to discern the contradiction between propaganda fantasy and German defeat. By war's end, only the most fanatical or most naive of the public still believed Dr. Goebbels's version of reality.
Section VI: Conclusion
The control of the flow of information and the use of propaganda was instrumental in the gaining and then keeping of political power by the National Socialist movement. Hitler became Chancellor of the Weimar Republic by using propaganda to first win followers to his cause, and then undermine the existing government. After Hindenburg's death, a suspicious fire in the National Assembly was used as a pretext for granting Hitler emergency powers, which he used to dismantle the Republic and assume dictatorial powers in Germany. With these powers, he suppressed opposition and gained state control of the media and access to information. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, used this control to institutionalize these changes, prepare the nation for war, and deify Hitler. Some of his propaganda methods included the use of ideological slogans, newsreels, and films. As the Reich began to suffer military setbacks, Goebbels began a propaganda campaign against rumor-mongering, meant to refocus the attention of the population on Hitler and their duty. When this failed, a program of disinformation, the Mundpropaganda, was used to spread counter-rumors favorable to the regime. By wars end, failure to have both a two-way dialogue with the people and tell the truth about the war led to an erosion of faith in the regime, and the loosening of the grip propaganda had on the minds of the people. Without the goodwill gained by propaganda techniques, this subversion of the people's trust, The Third Reich and its deeds would not have been possible.
Was this subversion of a people an event unique in history, or something that could happen again? It would be ethnocentric in the least and arrogant in the extreme to think that people today are more intelligent or civilized than the average German in the 1930's. At the beginning of this class, in one of his first lectures, Professor Thibeault identified the conditions necessary for the creation of a regime like the Third Reich as an economic crisis and a charismatic leader. Many symptoms of those conditions are with us today. The nations of Japan, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Mexico, and Russia are in economic crisis, and are all have right-wing elements calling for political change. There are currently totalitarian regimes in China, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Another characteristic of Hitler's Germany, genocide, or "ethnic cleansing" is practiced in the former Yugoslavia, parts of Africa, and until recently against the Kurds in Iraq.
A national emergency, real or created, could have the same consequences in America today that the Reichstag Fire had in Germany in 1933. Suppose that the Oklahoma Bombing had instead been the bombing of the nation's capital? With many members of the government and innocent bystanders dead, would the majority of Americans deny the right of the President to declare a national emergency? Once freely given, that kind of power is difficult to take away, even in a democracy. That power could be used to suppress the media in the interest of "national security", and perpetuate the crises indefinitely.
As to the role of propaganda, it would be remiss to not first acknowledge the degree of manipulation inherent in our society today. Political ads, media "spin doctors", even television commercials are examples of different forms of propaganda. With government control of the media in an emergency, the task would be much easier. Suppose the President attributed the aforementioned bombing to Saddam Hussein. It would seem likely that even if Iraq denied responsibility, evidence could be fabricated and a majority of Americans would support or benignly neglect the idea of war. Subsequent propaganda could be extremely effective in such circumstances.
The potential for the subversion of the public trust remains with us today. It is an unfortunate truth that the promises or actual intent of a potential leader cannot be
certified until he is elected. The fact that the German people supported Hitler despite the negative aspects of his philosophy is indicative of the dire conditions in Germany, and the ability of the National Socialists to manipulate public opinion. Many symptoms of the circumstances that allowed Hitler his opportunity are with us in the world today. Under similar circumstances, a people could put there trust in such a man again, even in America.
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