Revisiting the power of Nazi propaganda

A new Holocaust Museum exhibit provides unique insight into one of the world's most devastating ad campaigns

Published February 3, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

        (Kunstbibliothek Berlin/BPK, Berlin/Art Resource, New York)
(Kunstbibliothek Berlin/BPK, Berlin/Art Resource, New York)

This article originally appeared on Imprint.

[caption id="attachment_250961" align="alignleft" width="188" caption="The People Vote Slate 1, National Socialists -- 1932 -- Willi Engelhardt, artist. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C."][/caption]

What is the role of the printed word and image in collectively inciting societies to brand certain members and groups as evil, and to convince the citizenry to condone -- if not incite -- murder?

During a recent visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I was reeducated in the power of branding -- especially as applied to poster design -- at the special exhibition, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda, which demonstrates how the Nazi party used carefully crafted messages, advertising and design techniques, and then-new technologies (radio, television, film) to sway millions with its vision for a new Germany. As described in its press release, “The exhibition presents posters, photographs, artifacts, and film documenting the propaganda in the Nazi effort to achieve and consolidate power and drive the world into a war that cost some 55 million lives, including 6 million Jews, in the Holocaust. The legacy of this era continues today, influencing debates about hate speech and the dangers of propaganda in democratic societies, as well as efforts to prevent and punish the crime of genocide.”

I came away with one overriding question: Has any other organization of any kind, before or after, done a better job of using all the elements of branding and mass communication -- symbol, headlines and slogans, color scheme, typography, imagery -- to transmit its messages and mold public opinion?

[caption id="attachment_250861" align="alignnone" width="460" caption="Cover of "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda," book by Steven Luckert and Susan Bachrach of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The cover image is from a poster for the film “S.A. Mann Brand,” 1933. Credit: Kunstbibliothek Berlin/BPK, Berlin/Art Resource, New York. Book designed by Laura Lindgren."][/caption]

To look into all of this more deeply, away from the crowds that clogged the passages of the maze-like exhibit, I bought the book. Like the exhibit, the book opens by defining propaganda as “the dissemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior,” and is laid out in four main sections:

1919-1933: Propaganda for Votes and Power: A vision of national unity and promise of future prosperity for Germany glorified Hitler, recruited adherents, and helped transform the Nazi Party from an obscure extremist organization into Germany’s largest political party.

[caption id="attachment_250871" align="alignnone" width="460" caption="Workers, Awaken -- 1932. This election poster shows the German worker, enlightened through National Socialism, towering over his opponents. A Jew is portrayed whispering in the ear of a Marxist, symbolized by the red cap. Behind them, a communist youth with a bloody knife carries a banner that states “Beat the Fascists, Civil War, Class Struggle.” Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_250901" align="alignnone" width="460" caption="Hitler über Deutschland (Hitler over Germany) -- 1932. Cover image from Nazi Party political pamphlet that detailed Hitler’s election campaign for president. Josef Berchtold, artist. Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Randall Bytwerk"][/caption]

1933-1939: Propaganda and Persecution in the Racial State: Propaganda fueled the flames of hate by blaming the Jews and others for Germany’s economic woes and depicting them as a threat to racial purity and national health, making legislative measures against Jews (seizure of property and businesses, banishment from many professions, closure of schools, etc.) appear to be in the best interest of the public.

[caption id="attachment_250911" align="alignnone" width="460" caption="Poster for the film “Der ewige Jude” (The Eternal or Wandering Jew) -- 1940. As part of its wartime attack on Jews, the Ministry of Propaganda used motion pictures as a medium for antisemitic messages. This film was billed as a documentary on world Jewry aimed at unmasking the alleged pernicious influence of the “parasitic Jewish"][/caption]

1939-1945: Propaganda for War and Mass Murder: Posters, pamphlets, newspapers, radio broadcasts, films, school curricula, even toys and board games justified war by creating a potent image of the enemy and fostering a climate of acquiescence to the mass murder of Jews and others (including gypsies, homosexuals and people with disabilities) viewed as undesirable by the Nazi state.

[caption id="attachment_250931" align="alignnone" width="460" caption="“Behind the enemy powers: the Jew” -- 1942. Nazi propagandists frequently depicted the Jew as a conspirator plotting world domination by acting behind the scenes in nations at war with Germany. This caricature represents the Jewish financier manipulating the Allies: Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Hanisch, artist. Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Gift of Helmut Eschwege"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_250941" align="alignnone" width="460" caption="“He is to blame for the war!” -- 1943. The Nazis sought to provoke hatred of Jews by transforming the perception of them from ordinary neighbor into enemy guilty of warmongering and betraying Germany from within. Mjölnir [Hans Schweitzer, artist. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C."]"][/caption]In all these materials, the integrity of the logo, the swastika, is never compromised, though it is depicted in a number of versions, including 3-D, as architecture and sculpture, in a pattern, as a symbol for a location on a map. The illustrations are powerful and compelling. The typography is nationalistic and bold, when related to Germany, with Fraktur and Kabel, often in hand-lettered versions, predominating. When related to Jews, scripts and fake Hebrew are used. The color scheme is strong and consistent: red, black, gold, tan.

Thankfully, after 1945, it was all dismantled*. As explained in part 4, “1945-Present: Propaganda on Trial,” after the Allied victory came the de-Nazification of Germany. Not only were war criminals brought to trial, statues of Hitler were removed, street names changed, information about the concentration camps documented and publicized, broadsides and films reinforced the concept of collective guilt on the part of the German public. And in the wake of the Holocaust international laws were passed criminalizing incitement to genocide, most notably in a 2003 verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in which three Hutu Rwandans, a publisher and two talk-radio hosts, were convicted of “direct and public incitement for genocide” -- the murder of half a million members of the Tutsi minority.

The exhibit and the book ask as many questions as they answer. For example, “What is the best way to expose and counter deceptive messages?” and “What limits should there be on speech and what are the costs of exposing them?”

According to the exhibit's curator and author of the book, Steven Luckert, Ph.D., the public is seeking answers. “From the time of its opening on January 30, 2009 through the end of 2011 nearly 1.3 million people visited the State of Deception exhibition, making it our most popular special exhibition since the museum opened in 1993,” he stated via e-mail. “We are planning to launch a traveling version in 2013. The online version of the exhibition will continue to remain on the museum website, and we will probably increase the number of articles on Nazi propaganda currently available.”

Like other museums on the National Mall (Air and Space Museum, African Art Museum and Smithsonian Institution), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is free and open to the public almost every day of the year. The State of Deception exhibition will be on display through September 2012. See the Plan a Visit page for details.

* Note: The Nazi propaganda machine may have been dismantled after 1945, but the imagery keeps rearing its ugly head. In the last few months, swastikas were painted on libraries and synagogues in Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, Connecticut, California and Washington state.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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