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Why We Need to Study Nazi Propaganda

Today’s Extremists Use Proven Techniques To Win Followers and Spread Hate

Propaganda posters used to promote the Nazi Party and its antisemitic agenda.
Propaganda posters used to promote the Nazi Party and its antisemitic agenda. —All posters US Holocaust Memorial Museum unless otherwise noted. Row one: (first from left) Library of Congress; (fourth from left) Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt; (fifth from left) Hoover Institution Archives. Row two: (third and fourth from left) Muzeum Okregowe w Rzeszowie; (fifth from left) Courtesy of Randall Bytwerk. Row three: (first from left) Hoover Institution Archives; (fourth from left) Library of Congress; (fifth from left) Muzeum Okregowe w Rzeszowie.

By Dr. Steven Luckert

In the early 1920s, long before he became a household name in German politics, Adolf Hitler visited a collector of political posters in Munich. He went there to learn how the United States, Great Britain, and France designed their propaganda against Germany in World War I. He believed that the still-insignificant Nazi Party could draw lessons from it.

The Nazis perfected their techniques of political advertising in a democracy, where they had to compete against a multitude of parties vying for a majority. Using these skills, Hitler’s movement emerged from the beer halls of Munich to become, in just a few years, the largest political party represented in the German parliament.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Americans, such as famed Hollywood director Frank Capra, studied Nazi propaganda to create potent anti-fascist messages. During World War II, these messages helped to mobilize the United States to combat Nazi Germany.

Today, studying Nazi propaganda can help us counter dangerous speech that undermines democratic values, demonizes groups, and facilitates mass atrocities and genocide.

At the recent openings of our traveling exhibition State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda* in Paris and Los Angeles, students, teachers, and other visitors said that now, more than ever, we need this exhibition to start national conversations about the power and perils of propaganda in our own time. Extremist groups, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State to neo-Nazis, use the Internet and social media to spread their ideas and recruit members around the globe. And youth are the most at risk.

Tools To Persuade the Masses

While 2016 is not 1933, looking back at how the Nazis used propaganda and the latest technologies to sway millions of people and to facilitate their radical goals may help us confront problems today.

The Nazi Party revolutionized political messaging in Germany, drawing upon advertising techniques and new technologies to win over audiences. Its innovative approaches to propaganda and insights into mass psychology continue to be applied today by populist and extremist organizations. Learning how the Nazis used propaganda and why audiences responded positively to their messages can help prepare democratic societies to better resist and counter dangerous speech.

The Nazi Party emerged out of the revolution and chaos after World War I, merely one of many extremist parties in Germany. But in a few short years it went from political insignificance to prominence. Nazi representation in the 500-member German parliament rose from 12 seats in 1928 to 230 seats in 1932. This was a feat unparalleled in German or world history. The Nazis accomplished this by communicating carefully crafted messages that appealed to a German people devastated by the Great Depression and disillusioned with the status quo. They played on popular fears of communism and pledged to end reparations payments forced on Germany by the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. Many voters deserted mainstream political parties to throw their support to political outsiders, who tapped into their fears and sold a vision of hope, unity, and prosperity.

To garner such mass appeal, Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and others had to persuade millions of ordinary Germans to give them a chance. The Nazis drew on successful messaging techniques employed by Socialists, Communists, Italian Fascists, and even American propagandists in World War I. Building upon this pioneering work, they created a brand for the Nazi Party that differentiated it from 30 other political rivals. Hitler crafted an image of himself as an unknown soldier, a common man, who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a national leader. It was a new narrative in German politics.

Equally innovative was Hitler’s design of the Nazi flag, a black swastika emblazoned on a background of red and white. It amounted to a logo for his movement, rare for a political party at the time. Few logos have had such success in gaining immediate or long-lasting visual recognition.

Hitler understood that he had to appeal to all segments of society, so the Nazi Party promoted the idea that it alone could unify the nation and speak on behalf of all Germans, regardless of class, region, or religion. Jews were perceived as an alien “race,” not a religious group and not part of the “true” German nation. The Nazi Party negatively branded its political rivals as special interest groups who cared only about their narrow constituencies.

Appealing to all Germans required skillful communications strategies to retain the party’s extremists, while reaching out to mainstream voters. Although the Nazis never abandoned their antisemitic platform, they understood from their audience research that anti-Jewish rhetoric did not appeal to all segments of the German population or resonate in all areas of Germany. When Hitler ran for the German presidency in 1932, he refrained from antisemitic rants because he was interested in gathering as many votes as possible. Instead of confronting Nazi antisemitism and racism, many Germans just preferred to overlook these ugly aspects of the party’s ideology.

Grassroots Organizing

To Germans far and wide, Nazi propagandists employed the latest technologies, film, recordings, and eventually radio. Such novel tools attracted audiences, much as social media does today. But the Nazis realized, as does ISIS, that the party had to establish a human connection to the targeted audiences. Nazi propagandists encouraged members to invite a friend to a rally or meeting, and then suggested the new recruits invite their friends. Through such contacts, the Nazis built up a huge grassroots organization that mobilized its base during electoral campaigns.

While the Nazi Party never attained a majority in any free German election, its mass support convinced German President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler chancellor. Once in power, the Nazis eradicated German democracy in a few short months. In his first 100 days, Hitler abrogated the civil rights of all Germans, set up concentration camps, and initiated anti-Jewish legislation and policies. Germany went from a state with more than 30 political parties to a one-party dictatorship. This cleared the path for world war and the Holocaust.

Today, as we are again confronting the rise of extremism in society, it is vitally important that we learn from Holocaust history. Propaganda works only when there is a receptive audience to its messages and a lack of voices countering this dangerous speech. Making young people aware of the power of propaganda and the horrible consequences of unchecked hatred is an urgent need in today’s world if we hope to inoculate our societies from the virus of extremism.

Dr. Steven Luckert is senior program curator in Digital Learning and New Media in the Museum’s William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education.

* This exhibition was underwritten in part by grants from Katharine M. and Leo S. Ullman and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, with additional support from the Lester Robbins and Sheila Johnson Robbins Traveling and Special Exhibitions Fund, established in 1990, and Dr. and Mrs. Sol Center.

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