Hitler and his National Socialist Party weren’t the first to use propaganda in pursuit of their goals. In World War One, both the British and the Germans fabricated atrocities and attempted to portray the enemy as inhuman beasts. However, these efforts were amateurish compared to the ruthless efficiency of the propaganda machine created by the Nazis.
For the Nazis propaganda wasn’t a peripheral activity; it was central to how German society functioned and how the Nazi war effort was run. It was lavishly funded, carefully planned, and so effective that it kept the German people fighting long past the point where defeat became inevitable.
10. Goebbels’ Diary
Joseph Goebbels liked to claim his limp was the result of an injury sustained in the trenches of World War One. In reality, he’d been born with a clubfoot that saw him turned down for military service by the Imperial German Army.
This is just one example of a deception by a man who built an entire career on spreading lies and misinformation. A brilliant public speaker, a cynical manipulator of public opinion, and one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party, Goebbels was nonetheless an opponent of Adolf Hitler during the early struggle for control of the party. Hitler soon recognized Goebbels’ potential as a valuable ally and went out of his way to win him around. He succeeded completely.
His early wobble behind him, Goebbels became one of Hitler’s most devoted disciples. In 1933 he was rewarded for his loyalty and skill when Hitler made him Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. It placed him in command of the Reich’s entire cultural life, even down to what music could be listened to and which works of art could be displayed.
Goebbels’ loyalty to Hitler remained unquestioned until his suicide in the ruins of Berlin on May 1, 1945. Even as his body was being hastily burned, the propaganda machine he had created continued to threaten and cajole the German people into continuing what had become a hopeless struggle.
We now know that Goebbels had privately accepted the inevitability of defeat several months before his death. In an entry to his diary dated November 1944 he admitted that he’d already inwardly taken his leave of the world. It hadn’t prevented him from encouraging thousands more Germans to lay down their lives for a doomed cause.
9. Hitler’s Struggle (to Make Money)
In 1924 Adolf Hitler was convicted of treason following a failed attempt to overthrow the government. His crime was punishable by execution, but thanks to a sympathetic judge he was sentenced to just five years in prison. He was released after a mere nine months, during which time he was afforded spacious quarters, received hundreds of visitors, and took regular strolls in the gardens.
Hitler passed the time by dictating a book entitled Mein Kampf, which translates as My Struggle. Several sections of the book were devoted to propaganda, and Hitler argued that the masses were not capable of picking up on nuance or subtlety. He instead recommended the use of a few simple messages, which would come to be accepted as fact by means of constant repetition.
Mein Kampf itself was long-winded and tedious, even many committed Nazis struggled to wade through it, but every newlywed couple received a copy as a wedding gift from the government. This went a long way towards making Hitler the best-selling author of the twentieth century. It also made him very rich. What the German people weren’t told was that for every copy of the book the government gave away, Hitler pocketed the royalties for himself.
8. The Hitler No One Knows
On his release from prison Hitler gave up on attempting to overthrow the government by force. His new strategy was to seize power through the ballot box. He was already nationally famous as a hateful, aggressive, provocateur. For the hardcore Nazi support this was precisely why they liked him, but these characteristics were far less appealing to a wide section of the electorate.
If Hitler was going to get elected into a position of power, the Nazis needed to soften his public image. As part of this effort, in 1932 the Nazis release a book entitled The Hitler No One Knows. The book, which featured 100 photographs of Hitler captured by his official photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, attempted to rebrand him as a caring, cultured, intellectual country gentleman. It showed Hitler at rest, relaxing with his pet dogs, reading in his private library, and meeting with members of the public.
Once again Hitler received royalties from the photographs which added to what would become, by the time of his death, a vast personal fortune.
7. The Reichstag Fire
On February 27, 1933 the Reichstag building, which was home to the German parliament, went up in flames. The police apprehended a lone arsonist named Marinus van der Lubbe, but whether he was ultimately responsible is still not entirely clear.
The Nazis claimed the attack was part of a wider a communist plot to take over the country. Others believe the Nazis themselves secretly arranged for the blaze to be started in a false flag operation. The timing was at best suspiciously fortuitous, since Hitler was attempting to gather enough votes to pass the Enabling Act, which would allow him to enact laws without consulting parliament. Whatever the truth may be, the Reichstag fire proved to be a propaganda bonanza for the National Socialist Party.
Goebbels got to work whipping up hysteria over the prospect of an imminent communist coup. In the atmosphere of fear generated by Nazi propaganda Hitler was able to intimidate and arrest his political rivals. The German parliament, with most of Hitler’s opponents too terrified to even attend, duly voted itself into irrelevance. The Enabling Act was enshrined in law, and Hitler gained the powers of a dictator.
6. The Nazi Olympics
The 1936 Summer Olympics had been awarded to Germany before Hitler came to power. The rise of the Nazis led to calls for the event to be boycotted, but it ultimately went ahead with only the Soviet Union refusing to attend.
Hitler was already secretly preparing for war, but he wanted to use the Olympics to portray Germany as a prosperous, peaceful, and tolerant nation.
The Nazis, determined to dazzle the world, built a huge stadium and showered funding on the Berlin Olympics. It was the first sporting event ever to be televised, and it was the first time the Olympic torch was carried by relay from Greece.
Efforts were made to conceal the full extent of the persecution of Jews from foreign visitors. Signs banning Jews from shops were temporarily taken down, the most virulently anti-Semitic Nazi newspapers were withdrawn from sale in Berlin, and a “token Jew” was selected to compete on the German Olympic team.
While Hitler was furious that the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens emerged as the star of the show, the Berlin Olympics was a huge propaganda coup for the Nazis. All eyes had been on Germany, and many people liked what they saw.
5. The Nazi Titanic
Both Hitler and Goebbels enjoyed Hollywood blockbusters, but the German people didn’t get the opportunity to see them. American films were rarely permitted to be screened in Nazi Germany, and in 1941 it became illegal to watch them at all.
Goebbels wanted to ensure the German people were fed a cinematic diet rich in National Socialist propaganda. Over the course of its short history the Third Reich produced more than 1,000 films. One of the most ambitious of these was Titanic, which began filming in 1943 just as the tide of war began to turn against the Nazis.
Featuring a German hero who warns of disaster, and villainous British capitalists whose greed places the ship in danger, the Nazi version of the Titanic was plagued with problems and controversy.
When the director, Herbert Selpin, made comments criticizing the Nazis, Goebbels had him arrested. The next day he was found hanged in his cell. Goebbels forbade any mention of the deceased director, but he couldn’t entirely put a stop to the rumors that he had personally arranged for Selpin to be killed.
The film was finished at great expense under a new director, but it never made it to general release. By the time the film was completed Germany was coming under increasingly heavy attack from the air, and Goebbels decided a disaster movie would be all too reminiscent of real life. Some of the footage did eventually make its way to the silver screen, when it was used in the 1958 Hollywood production A Night to Remember.
4. Hitler fell for his own Propaganda
Nazi propaganda painted an image of Adolf Hitler as a world historic genius, a mastermind who was almost by definition incapable of making a mistake.
In the early days of his struggle Hitler most likely viewed such propaganda as a useful tool. Later in his career he came to believe it implicitly. Nowhere was this more disastrous for Nazi Germany than in his handling of military affairs.
The plan for the hugely successful invasion of France in 1940 was devised by Erich von Manstein, but Hitler claimed the credit for himself. Hailed by German propaganda as history’s greatest military strategist, he came to blame every setback on his generals’ failure to follow his orders. The possibility that his orders might be at fault, which they very often were, didn’t even occur to him.
In 1939 Hitler had not interfered in the military plans for the invasion of Poland. By 1944 he was attempting to micromanage history’s largest war on a multitude of fronts. German field marshals and generals in the thick of battle would routinely have their orders overruled by a man hunched over a map hundreds of miles away in Berlin. Gerd von Rundstedt, the senior German commander for the entire Western Front, later complained to his Allied captors that his authority hadn’t extended any further than changing the guards outside his headquarters.
3. Theresienstadt Ghetto
By 1944 evidence was mounting that something terrible was happening to the Jews in Hitler’s Third Reich. The Nazis were finding it difficult to conceal the evidence of the slaughter of millions of people. Even Goebbels accidentally let the truth slip. In an infamous speech in which he demanded total war, he spoke of the extermination of the Jews, before quickly correcting himself and returning to the official party line that the Jews were being relocated.
In June 1944, the Nazis allowed officials from the International Red Cross to visit Theresienstadt ghetto camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. The camp had been specially prepared to give the impression that the occupants were living in relative comfort. Red Cross officials were shown the cafes and gardens, then treated to a football match and a concert performed by the inmates.
The Red Cross returned home reporting that the Jews were being treated well, but they had been duped. Soon after their visitors had left, the SS loaded the prisoners onto trains bound for the now-notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz. Few of them lived to see the end of the war.
By 1944 Nazi Germany was facing almost certain defeat. Allied bombers pounded German cities by day and night, the Russians were an unstoppable tide advancing from the east, and the British and Americans were preparing an invasion of Western Europe.
Goebbels’ was determined to convince the German people to fight on, even if defeat seemed inevitable. With Germany desperately stretched and increasingly short of resources, he commissioned production of a film entitled Kolberg. At the time it was one of the most expensive films ever made, although quite how expensive isn’t known since the Nazis never released the figures. It is known that an astonishing 200,000 people were drafted in to serve as extras. This included 50,000 soldiers who were desperately needed elsewhere.
The film, which is set during the Napoleonic War, tells the story of the heroic defense of the Prussian town of Kolberg. Through their determination and refusal to surrender, the inhabitants defeat an overwhelmingly superior French force against all the odds. The message the film was intending to convey to the German people was not subtle.
Goebbels himself had penned much of the script, and he had no hesitation in hailing it as the greatest film of all time. However, Kolberg failed to make an impact at the box office. By the time the film was ready for release in January 1945 Germany was in ruins, and there were very few movie theatres left standing in which it could be shown.
The town of Kolberg was overrun by the advancing Russians in March 1945. There was no repetition of the successful defence portrayed in the film.
1. The Myth of the Werewolves
By early 1945 the Allies were pushing into the heart of the Reich, and German society began to break down. Food and fuel were in desperately short supply, schools and universities were closed, books were no longer being published, but the Nazi propaganda machine rolled relentlessly on.
In addition to the familiar promises of wonder weapons that would turn the tide of the war, Goebbels hit upon a new theme. Nazi propaganda spoke of a resistance organization standing ready to fight a vicious guerrilla war behind Allied lines.
This guerrilla army was known as the Werewolves, but it scarcely existed outside of Goebbels’ imagination. The German people were tired of war, and almost nothing had been put in place in terms of training or equipment. The Werewolves achieved very little, its only attack of any real note being the assassination of the mayor of Aachen.
Goebbels’ last propaganda campaign may even have backfired by causing more of Germany to fall into Soviet hands. While the Werewolf threat contributed to the Western Allies advancing more cautiously to minimize casualties, Soviet commanders had no such concerns about the lives of their own men.