How effective was Nazi propaganda 1933-1945?
Propaganda was recognized by Hitler and his men as an important tool for the success of a regime. As Goebbels said in 1934, “Propaganda was our sharpest weapon in conquering the state, and remains our sharpest weapon in maintaining and building up the state.” Practically, propaganda was aimed at winning support for policies and keeping the population contented. Yet more than that, it was aimed to indoctrinate the nation to believe in a ‘people’s community’ and to ‘mobilize the spirit’. Goebbels wanted to create ‘one single public opinion’ that was committed to the regime, yet the effect of propaganda varied across different social groups, and changed over time. Some such as Welch thought the youth was particularly receptive to the regime, while Mason suggests that the working class was more resistant to propaganda. Moreover, effectiveness changed over time, most evidently reflected by the turning points in 1939 when war broke out and in 1943 with the defeat in Stalingrad. Propaganda could be said to be the most successful from 1933 to 1936, while the focus had to be shifted to prepare the nation in the years leading up to the war, and faith in the regime collapsed by 1945 as people realized the looming defeat. More importantly, the use of terror and coercion poses a challenge to the effectiveness of propaganda in generating genuine and active support instead of terrorizing the population into passive submissiveness. Ultimately, the effectiveness of propaganda lay in its ability to build on existing prejudices rather than create new beliefs, and in creating the ‘Hitler Myth’ (Kershaw) that focused on the cult of Hitler himself rather than the Nazi Party as a whole. However, it can also be argued that the regime lived on people’s passive conformity and acceptance rather than genuine commitment, and that the success of the regime was partially due to practical economic stability the state provided rather than the effectiveness of propaganda. Under Nazism, propaganda came in different forms and projected different ideas onto its people, and effectiveness varied depending on whether propaganda was building on already existing traditional prejudices. The state controlled media to a large degree as it held everyone involved in cultural activity accountable for their creativity. When Hitler cam into power in 1933, there were 4700 newspapers, 3% of which was controlled by the NSDP. Near the end of the war by 1944, there were 997 newspapers, 82% of which was controlled by the NSDP.
Provisions were made for cheap radios which could not pick up foreign broadcasts, and between 1932 to 1939 the number of families with radios rose from 25% to 70%, making Hitler’s speeches readily accessible to the German population. Goebbels described radio as “the spiritual weapon of the totalitarian state”, and all news broadcasts came through the Nazi Office of Propaganda. These forms of propaganda were the most well-received by the German people, probably because indoctrination was tactically infused with daily information rather than being obvious and repulsing the public. Other forms, such as films and the arts, had to be handled with care to avoid the risk of generating uneasiness. Films that exaggerated in glorifying Hitler or anti-semitic propaganda turned out to be a disaster, while more subtle ways to infuse similar ideas with light entertainment were much more successful. Ultimately, films and the arts were utilized by the state more to gain support and popularity through providing entertainment rather than to indoctrinate the people with Nazism. Similarly, propaganda that came in the form of posters focused on building on existing traditional beliefs the German people held. This could be found among posters promoting women as a sign of fertility and strength, and that the perfect family should be one of blue eyes and blonde hair, emphasizing on the pure and superior Aryan race where everyone’s duties lay in serving the regime. This belief is not one that has been forced upon the people, but is a reinforcement of a common existing value; one that existed long before Hitler came into power, and one that the people were more than comfortable to agree with. Put in Hitler’s words, “the goal of female education must invariably be the future mother.” As Welch pointed out, there is a widely held misconception that propaganda implies nothing less than the art of persuasion, which serves only to change attitudes and ideas.
This is undoubtedly one of its aims, but often a limited and subordinate one. More often, propaganda is concerned with reinforcing existing trends and beliefs, to sharpen and focus them, and this is where Nazi propaganda could be said to be the most effective. Nazi propaganda had varying effects across social classes, and while Mason suggests that the working class was more resistant to indoctrination, he agrees with Welch that the youth was an easy target in the spectrum across society, hence the effectiveness of propaganda can not be evaluated by these two groups alone. Among the working class were those that still held their belief in Marxism, but were perhaps unwilling to sacrifice for it. Resistance came in different forms, and some were in opposition groups that exercised their discontent through collective pressure on employers or Nazi organizations by a slow-down in production or taking sick-leaves. It was a refusal of the working class to fully subordinate itself to the Nazi system, yet there was little to show that they were politically opposed to the regime. This could be due to the use of terror and coercion by the state, and could hence show that even though the working class showed passive acceptance towards Nazism, there was never an active sense of commitment, and that propaganda was largely ineffective on the working class. On the other hand, for the vast mass of German youth, propaganda was most successful in indoctrinating ideas, especially those of a ‘national community’. The state can be said to have aimed propaganda at the youth with “the intention of enveloping the individual at every stage of development within a single organization by subjecting him to a planned course of indoctrination” (Welch). Although Kershaw, in his detailed analysis of Bavaria, has persuasively argued that the ‘national community’ idea had little impact in changing behavioural patterns, it is undeniable that those who had been born during the regime were subject to the most effective forms of propaganda that is difficult to reject. Nursery and primary school teachers preached the regime as a form of propaganda that comes from below, and Nazi organizations offered youth comradeship and a pioneering role in rejecting Marxism and glorifying Hitler. As Hans Schemm, the leader of the Nazi Teachers’ League put it, ‘those who have youth on their side control the future.’ However, limitations in the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda can be seen among young, evident through the arguably short-lived excitement the ‘Hitler Myth’ was able to conjure. For the young men and women who had outgrown indoctrination at school, rallies were exciting events that provided a social opportunity for them to meet new people and break away from parental control. Rallies were a vehicle for Hitler’s personal cult, and other than aiming at strengthening commitment, it was a chance for young men and women to experience the charismatic magnetism Hitler possessed.
However, it is impossible to ignore the possibility that attendance was due to a desire to have fun more than a genuine commitment to the regime. During a rally that lasted over a 5 day period, 900 fifteen to eighteen year old girls out of 100,000 members got pregnant. While it is undeniable that at the start Hitler possessed an engaging charisma that attracted the active support and commitment of people through propaganda, it is possible that from 1935 onwards, rallies grew increasingly repetitive, and the effect it had on young people grew more and more limited. Accounts have been made by the journalist Gibbs that grown men and women soon grew to be indifferent to Hitler’s speeches as they carried on with what they were doing while Hitler made his speech, and no one listened to what he said. Hence, it could be argued that as the initial excitement of having a strong and outspoken leader passed, what was left among the vast German majority was a sense of indifference and passive acceptance of the regime. Moreover, popularity of the regime could also be due the tangible economic and social stability Nazism was able to provide. Welch interestingly pointed out that there is an “entirely erroneous conviction that propaganda consists only of lies and falsehood. In fact it operates with many different kinds of truth – the outright lie, the half truth, the truth out of context.” It is undeniable that the German economy had been stronger than ever in the years leading up to the Second World War, and although the economy had already began to improve before the Nazis came into power, it was ultimately the Nazi state that was able to provide the stability and prosperity that the German people wanted. Between 1932 to 1935, the average wage increased by 10 times, showing evidence that the regime was able to earn the support of its people, and rightfully so. A strong economy and strict discipline provided a sense of security for the German people, and for many sections of the community, such as those who were formerly unemployed, the Nazi regime was not necessarily a radical restructuring of society involving fundamental social change, but rather an acceptable insurance policy against the Marxist alternative.
This shows that the gap between image and reality was perhaps not as wide as it is conventionally thought to be, and that propaganda focusing on the successes of the regime is built on a factual and believable foundation. Hence, it is not the effect of propaganda itself, but the pillars supporting propaganda’s claims that gained support and popularity for the regime. However, the gap between Nazi Propaganda and social reality began to grew when the war began to turn against Hitler in the winter of 1941 to 1942. Historians such as Kershaw believes that propaganda was effective only when public support for the Nazi regime was strong. He notes that when the Wehrmacht was strong and successful in war, “propaganda had a relatively easy task.” Anticipating Germany’s expansion as a major world power, propaganda set out to mobilize the nation into a ‘fighting community’ for war, as shown by a slogan during the period that said, ‘Today Germany, tomorrow the world.’ In addition to the ‘Hitler Myth’, the hardening of the message of the propaganda after the defeat in Stalingrad in 1943 had a definite effect on the German populace initially that stirred them to continue fighting the Russians. There was a delay before military reverses had noticeable effect on Hitler’s popularity, hence although the standing of his Party dropped considerably, Hitler’s personal standing remained remarkably high. However, the catastrophe of Stalingrad eventually irreversibly undermined public trust in Goebbels and the propaganda ministry, and faith in the regime collapsed by 1944 due to the gap between image and reality.
However, other historians have pointed out that particular elements of the propaganda succeeded, sometimes brilliantly, throughout the war within the army. Fritz and Wette both note that the anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic propaganda on the Eastern Front effectively influenced soldiers fighting against the Red Army. Although Fritz’s evidence is largely from the early parts of the campaign when morale was still high, Wette is able to evaluate the effects of propaganda on the troops and determined that it was not only effective, but effective throughout the war on the Eastern Front. While opinions on the effectiveness of propaganda during the war is mixed, it is safe to say that once it failed to appropriately reflect reality, it was no longer effective. Lastly, the widespread use of terror and coercion in the absence of law and order that allowed the SS to seize people and property at will should never be ignored when evaluating the effectiveness propaganda. The pervasive fear of violence should undoubtedly inhibited the forces of opposition, and it was paired brilliantly with the positive propaganda of Nazi society presented in the mass-media to generate a public opinion of acceptance and consensus. Yet, although terror was always at the back of such a consensus and represented fear rather than support, terror alone could not have maintained Nazi consent and acceptance over 12 years. “By persuading people that the Party’s policies were either right or, at worst, a necessary evil, Nazi propaganda was normally sufficient to achieve at least passive support for the regime”(Welch). When the Nazis came into power in 1933, Goebbels claimed that the success was public confirmation that a “positive verdict that the people had passed on our propaganda methods.” Similar to Goebbels’ claim, Gellately argues that the German people were not only aware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but they also played an integral part in participating and upholding the system. By showing evidence that information on concentration camps and anti-semitic activities were proudly broadcasted and printed on newspapers, Gellately tries to show that the support for the Nazi regime was not only a well-informed one, but a committed and active one as well. However, most historians would agree that propaganda was only effective in guaranteeing passive support for the regime.
It may not have been recognized as a true ‘people’s community’ in the way it was eulogized by propaganda, but it was tolerable to wide sections of the German people by turning large sections of the population into passive consumers. In conclusion, while propaganda was ineffective in indoctrinating a genuinely committed and active people, it was effective to a large extent in generating a passive consensus to accept the regime. Although it has its limitations in reaching across social groups and maintaining consensus as the war progressed, it was impressive that the Nazi regime was able to hold onto power for 12 years and breed a young generation that had been genuinely supportive of the state. Furthermore, although the use of terror and coercion does to an extent undermine the effectiveness of propaganda when it is evaluated on its own, propaganda was undoubtedly effective in gaining support through strengthening existing values and prejudices, and the regime was successful in manipulating these values to their own disposal, and also in elevating its economic successes to the people in return for acceptance.