“I became a National Socialist because the idea of the National Community inspired me. What I had never realized was the number of Germans who were not considered worthy to belong to this community.”
—Postwar memoirs of a German woman active in Nazi youth programs
One crucial factor in creating a cohesive group is to define who is excluded from membership. Nazi propagandists contributed to the regime's policies by publicly identifying groups for exclusion, inciting hatred or cultivating indifference, and justifying their pariah status to the populace. Nazi propaganda played a crucial role in selling the myth of the “national community” to Germans who longed for unity, national pride and greatness, and a break with the rigid social stratification of the past.
But a second, more sinister aspect of the Nazi myth was that not all Germans were welcome in the new community. Propaganda helped to define who would be excluded from the new society and justified measures against the “outsiders”: Jews, Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, political dissidents, and Germans viewed as genetically inferior and harmful to “national health” (people with mental illness and intellectual or physical disabilities, epileptics, congenitally deaf and blind persons, chronic alcoholics, drug users, and others).
Exploiting pre-existing images and stereotypes, Nazi propagandists portrayed Jews as an “alien race” that fed off the host nation, poisoned its culture, seized its economy, and enslaved its workers and farmers.
This hateful depiction, although neither new nor unique to the Nazi Party, became a state-supported image. As the Nazi regime tightened control over the press and publishing after 1933, propagandists tailored messages to diverse audiences, including the many Germans who were not Nazis and who did not read the party papers.
Public displays of antisemitism in Nazi Germany took a variety of forms, from posters and newspapers to films and radio addresses. Propagandists offered more subtle antisemitic language and viewpoints for educated, middle-class Germans offended by crude caricatures. University professors and religious leaders gave antisemitic themes respectability by incorporating them into their lectures and church sermons.
Jews were not the only group excluded from the vision of the "national community." Propaganda helped to define who would be excluded from the new society and justified measures against the "outsiders": including Jews, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Germans viewed as genetically inferior and harmful to "national health" (people with mental illness and intellectual or physical disabilities, epileptics, congenitally deaf and blind persons, chronic alcoholics, drug users, and others).
Identification, Isolation, and Exclusion
Propaganda also helped lay the groundwork for the announcement of major anti-Jewish statutes at Nuremberg on September 15, 1935. The decrees followed a wave of anti-Jewish violence perpetrated by impatient Nazi Party radicals. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor prohibited marriage and extramarital sexual relations between Jews and persons of “German” or “related blood,” and the Reich Citizenship Law defined Jews as “subjects” of the state, a second-class status.
The laws affected some 450,000 “full Jews” (defined as those with four Jewish grandparents and belonging to the Jewish religion), and 250,000 others (including converted Jews and Mischlinge, those with some Jewish parentage), altogether slightly more than one percent of the German population. For months before the announcement of the “Nuremberg Laws,” the Nazi Party press aggressively incited Germans against racial pollution, with the presence of Jews in public swimming pools becoming a major theme.
Control of Cultural Institutions
Through their control of cultural institutions, such as museums, under the Reich Chamber of Culture, the Nazis created new opportunities to disseminate anti-Jewish propaganda. Most notably, an exhibition entitled “The Eternal Jew” attracted 412,300 visitors, more than 5,000 per day, during its run at the Deutsches Museum in Munich from November 1937 to January 1938. Special performances by the Bavarian State Theater, reiterating the exhibition's antisemitic themes, accompanied the exhibition. The Nazis also associated Jews with “degenerate art,” the subject of a companion exhibition in Munich seen by two million people.
One of the film's most notorious sequences compares Jews to rats that carry contagion, flood the continent, and devour precious resources. Der ewige Jude is distinctive not only for its crude, vile characterizations made worse with its gruesome footage of a Jewish ritual butcher at work slaughtering cattle, but also for its heavy emphasis on the alien nature of the East European Jew. In one of the film's sequences, “stereotypical” Polish Jews with beards are depicted as shaven clean and transformed into “western-looking” Jews. Such “unmasking” scenes aimed to show German audiences that there was no difference between Jews living in East European ghettos and those inhabiting German neighborhoods.
Der ewige Jude ends with Hitler's infamous speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939: “If international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the…victory of Jewry but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” The speech appeared to herald a radicalization of the solution to the “Jewish Question” in the coming “Final Solution,” and provided a foreshadowing of mass murder.
While most Germans disapproved of anti-Jewish violence, dislike of Jews, easily stirred up in hard times, extended far beyond the Nazi Party faithful. The majority of Germans at least passively accepted discrimination against Jews. An underground report prepared in January 1936 by an observer for German Social Democratic Party leaders in exile noted: “The feeling that the Jews are another race is today a general one.”
During periods preceding new measures against Jews, propaganda campaigns created an atmosphere tolerant of violence against Jews or exploited the violence-both calculated and spontaneous-that ensued to encourage passivity and acceptance of anti-Jewish laws and decrees as a vehicle to restore public order. Propaganda that demonized Jews also served to prepare the German population, in the context of national emergency, for harsher measures, such as mass deportations and, eventually, genocide.
Nazi Propaganda in Occupied Poland
The Nazi regime did not limit distribution of propaganda linking Jews and vermin or disease to Germany. In occupied Poland, Nazi propaganda reinforced the policy of confining Jews to ghettos by portraying them as a health threat requiring quarantine, while German policy makers created a self-fulfilling prophecy by severely limiting access by ghetto residents to food, water, and medicines.
German educational films shown to Polish school children identified “the Jew” as a carrier of lice and typhus. The governor of the Warsaw district, Ludwig Fischer, reported the distribution of “3,000 large posters, 7,000 smaller posters, and 500,000 pamphlets” to inform the Polish population of the health threat posed by the ghettoized Jews. Such fear-mongering no doubt hindered public aid to Jews in the ghettos of German-occupied Poland.