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What Effect Did Nazi Propaganda Have on the German People?

By Alex Grobman
(November 3, 2022)

The name Joseph Goebbels immediately evokes several responses, including politician, propagandist, and Reich Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. On March 19, 1944, he presciently proclaimed, “We have placed our stamp on this century, which will come to bear our name in the annals of history.”

Nazi ascent to power is frequently viewed as a “classic example” of the success of propaganda, which was attributed to Goebbels, explains historian David Welch. Welch adds that Goebbels believed unrelenting propaganda would be indispensable to marshal mass support for the new German state and to sustain an increased degree of identification, enthusiasm, and dedication to its “revolutionary” goals.

The notion of propaganda as the “art of persuasion,” calculated only to transform attitudes and ideas, captures one of its objectives, but frequently a partial and secondary one, as Welch claims. He said, “More often, propaganda is concerned with reinforcing existing trends and beliefs, to sharpen and focus them.” Another fundamental misunderstanding is the belief that propaganda is based primarily on lies and fabrications. It functions on a variety of “kinds of truth—the outright lie, the half-truth, the truth out of context.” To a certain extent, some view “propaganda as essentially appeasing the irrational instincts of man,” and they are correct. Yet since choices are at least partially the result of one’s “rational decisions, propaganda must appeal to the rational elements in human nature as well.” Thus, propaganda “is ethically neutral—it may be good or bad,” Welch concludes.

Responsibilities of Reich Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment

On January 30, 1933, Hitler decreed the Reich Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment would include “all those tasks which have to do with intellectual and spiritual persuasion of the nation; with publicity of the state, about culture, and about the economy; with the instruction of foreign and domestic publics about these things; and with the administration of all those institutions which serve such ends.” Welch said this included radio, national and foreign press, propaganda, film, music, theater, fine arts, politics; official ceremonies and demonstrations; national emblems; racial questions; Treaty of Versailles; opposing ideologies; youth organizations; public health and sport; eastern and border questions; national travel committee and popular education and culture. The Nazi Party, he pointed out, was the first to control the “entire cultural life of a nation.”

Goebbels, he added, understood that “a government that wishes to conduct propaganda must gather round it the most able brains in mass public influence and resort to the most modern methods to achieve this mass influence.” German historian Helmut Heiber said that soon after assuming his position, Goebbels wanted, in addition to surrounding himself with the “best brains in the field of mass manipulation,” to foster the ability of “crystallizing confused, complex and structurally involved ideas into a single expressive slogan which the division would then get across to the entire people.” In frustration with his inability to find the appropriate people to implement his vision, he was alleged to have said he could have used “a dozen Jews,” who would know “how to do the thing with the right nuances.”

In 1933, Reich Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment started with 350 employees, according to Heiber. In its prime, the ministry had a staff of approximately 1,000 housed in a palace, and in a five-story building with 500 rooms. Other offices operated in various parts of Berlin from 22 of the ministry’s own buildings and 32 they rented.

Orchestrating German Public Opinion

Welch and others have shown how Goebbels was profoundly influenced by Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” which explored how to manipulate the masses in an era of mass democracy. “I learned a lot [from Le Bon],” Goebbels explained, “especially that the rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitive. In the long run basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals.”

In the process of trying to influence the masses, “Hitler and his henchmen did not want to cower the German people as a whole into submission, but to win them over by building on popular images, cherished ideals, and long-held phobias in the country,” observed historian Robert Gellately. “Even as the Nazis ‘cleansed’ the body politic in the name of the future and perfect race, even as they grew more radical and brutal in the war years, they also aimed to create and maintain the broadest possible level of popular backing. They expended an enormous amount of energy and resources to track public opinion and to win over the people.”

In a period of mass movements, Goebbels recognized “it is no longer possible to rule people merely by resorting to a state emergency and nine o’clock curfews,” noted German historian Helmut Heiber. He viewed it naïve to dismiss any form of propaganda because of the strategy it employed: “If it attains its goal, it’s good; if it doesn’t, it’s bad.”

Restructuring the Means of Communication

If the German press, radio, and ?lm industries were going to promote the government’s ideological objectives, they had to be reorganized. Each agency would have to provide the others with government-approved themes, so the message could be disseminated through several different avenues. To expand the number of German households with radios, the Nazis pressed manufacturers to produce one of the least expensive wireless sets in all of Europe. These significantly subsidized “people’s radios” made it possible for workers to buy them, historian David Welch said. The goal was to have a set in each German home.

In 1933, one-and-a-half million sets were manufactured, Welch noted. A year later, the number increased to over six million. By the beginning of the war in Europe in September 1939, more than 70% of all homes in Germany possessed a wireless set— “the highest percentage anywhere in the world.” The limited range of the radio meant German citizens could not listen to foreign broadcasts, which were against the law in any event.

Whenever a Nazi leader was to deliver a speech or an important message was to be made, a network of “radio wardens” arranged loudspeakers in public places, factories, of?ces, schools, and eateries. When sirens were sounded, everyone was expected to cease what they were doing and listen. This was part of an attempt to have each citizen “identify with the nation.”

The press presented different challenges Welch said, which they overcame. Editors had to be found who would become censors, ensuring the content of the papers was strictly controlled with no editorial independence permitted. This would guarantee the government’s message contained a degree of uniformity throughout the country. Eher Verlag, the party’s publishing house, had to acquire either directly or indirectly the “vast majority of the German press.” And finally, there was a need for the state-run press agency (Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro) to preside over the daily press briefings and issue media directives.

Goebbels believed propaganda films could shape an individual’s opinions and beliefs, and possibly their behavior, which is why he attached such great importance to controlling German cinema. By 1942, the Third Reich had nationalized the German film industry. Between 1933 and 1945, the Germans produced 1,097 feature ?lms, of which just one-sixth were made for propaganda purposes, Welch said. Goebbels wanted propaganda that “re?ected the ambience of National Socialism” to be mixed with entertainment. This relatively limited number of clearly propaganda films was augmented with documentary ?lms and newsreels, which “captured the immediacy of events” (Deutsche Wochenschau) and became progressively more essential during the war.

The subjects that reappear in Nazi films are key to their worldview (Weltanschauung) and were selectively shown at specific times. To exploit the effectiveness of his prestigious films—Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”), the 1938 Olympiade (“Olympia”), a four-hour account of the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, “which proved an ideal vehicle for Nazi propaganda to foreign countries,” according to Welch—Goebbels permitted these full-length documentaries to be shown very sparingly.

In 1940, three anti-Semitic films were produced: Die Rothschilds, who are portrayed as merciless and callous, and who seek financial and political dominance over all of Europe; Jud Süss, which dehumanizes the Jews, shows the danger they pose to Germany since their ultimate objective, as part of an international Jewish conspiracy, is to achieve control, and a fortune for themselves and world Jewry; they are a threat to German culture, lust after German women, and can be deceitful in business and by masquerading as a gentile nobility; Der ewige Jude (“The Eternal[Wandering] Jew”). The Holocaust Encyclopedia described how the film “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.”

First shown in Berlin at the end of November 1940, the German public had enthusiastically waited to see Der ewige Jude, perhaps because of the enormous publicity campaign launched on radio and in newspapers heralding its screening, Hebrew University historian David Bankier speculated. Enthusiastic reviews from moviegoers claimed the film had been more instructive and persuasive than many anti-Semitic articles. The statistical material and maps exposing the expansion of Jewish influence throughout the world, the scene comparing Jews to rats, and the information about Jewish influence in the U.S. were particularly impressive. Some reports criticized the harshness of the film, though not its content. Coming so soon after the successful airing of the documentary Jud Süss decreased the number of people who came to watch the film, Bankier said.

British journalist Kate Connolly noted Jud Süss was conceived by Goebbels in response to the 1934 British film Jew Suss, which was “a thinly veiled plea on behalf” of the persecuted Jews in Germany. The documentary was well received in Britain and the U.S. but was banned in Vienna because of its “pro-semitic tone.”

Goebbels’ film Jud Süss highlighted the Nazi stereotypes of Jews as “crafty, untrustworthy, hooked-nosed beings.” Connolly explained that to ensure the film would be a major propaganda triumph, it premiered in 80 Berlin movie theaters simultaneously. Twenty million people in Germany watched the film. In France and Italy, the film enjoyed enormous success, where it ignited violent attacks against the Jews. SS troops and concentration camp guards were often shown the film to demonstrate the vital importance of their efforts to rid the world, once and for all, of the Jewish plague.

Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He lives in Jerusalem.

Source: Courtesy of Alex Grobman.