Mass media: Political propaganda and persuasion
The Propaganda of the Third Reich
The Nazis' Use of Film
Most of the Nazi film
footage you will come across in any documentaries about the Nazis or about
propaganda was shot after the Nazis came to power. We
may well often have a false impression of the importance of film in the Nazis'
success, simply because the television programmes we watch about the Nazis need
footage. Quite simply, there was no Nazi cinema before 1933. There are those -
and Goebbels themselves - who believed film to be a
uniquely powerful propaganda medium (today, their priority would no doubt be
television). The political cinema which had been most widespread prior to the
Nazi take-over had been Socialist and Communist cinema, in other words from the
opposite end of the political spectrum to the Nazis. The amazing Battleship
Potemkin, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, had been immensely popular in
It is a fantastically well made film and displays considerable cinematic artistry. The decisive factor is its orientation. Someone with no firm ideological belief could be turned into a Bolshevik by this film. This proves that a political outlook can be very well contained in a work of art and that even the worst outlook can be conveyed if this is done through the medium of an outstanding work of art.
Indeed, Battleship Potemkin was considered so
powerful that members of the German army were not allowed to see it and it was
in fact banned in
Goebbels' intended use of film
Goebbels therefore did not intend to use film in the struggle for power; rather, once power was achieved, he intended to use film to effect a nationwide commitment to Nazi ideology. Rather than relying on force of arms and the population's compliance, he sought to use film to bring about the active consent of the people.
In July 1993 the Reich Film Chamber was established and was
incorporated into the Reich Culture Chamber by September of the same year. It
then became compulsory for all workers in the film industry to join, except
non-Aryans, who were excluded. In 1934
the Cinema Law of 1920 was amended so that the censorship bodies could ban any
film that threatened to undermine National Socialism. By mid-1935 censorship
was under Goebbels's direct control and cinemas were
encouraged through a subsidy system to show films which the Party particularly
Much of Goebbels' overtly political propaganda was concentrated in
the cinema newsreels, especially during the war. He was aware of the
desirability of realism, which is not necessarily the same as reality. For
example, the planned German invasion of
This hardly seems to support the common view of Goebbels as the consummate master of propaganda. The only way he can get his newsreels seen is to lock his audiences in. This also runs counter to the view we have expressed on occasion that the hypodermic needle view of audiences being injected with media messages can be a reasonably accurate representation in those circumstances where there is central control of the media and all competing messages are excluded. Of course, as the war wore on and death and destruction were brought ever more frequently right to the audiences at home, the optimistic messages of the official propaganda would have been contradicted by people's direct, lived experience.
Goebbels' view of the propaganda function of entertainment
Unlike Hitler, Goebbels was none too keen on overtly propagandistic films.
As he put it, 'propaganda becomes ineffective the moment we are aware of it'
We can find numerous examples of such covert propaganda in more recent films we are familiar with. For example:
Thus Goebbels' films would be entertaining family dramas, costume dramas, comedies, representations of German history and so on, but all set within the ideological framework of Nazism. In fact, however, Nazi cinema is most famous for two films which fall far outside Goebbels's concept of the ideal propaganda. It is those two films which we shall consider first:
Triumph of the Will
Triumph of the Will was directed by Leni Riefenstahl, a well-known film actress who had also made her own films before the Nazis came to power. It was Hitler personally who pressed her to make this film of the 1934 Reichsparteitag (party conference) in Nürnberg. If you have ever seen any television programme about Nazi propaganda or politics, then you have almost certainly seen some sequences from Triumph of the Will. (To view the clip, please click here.) The film is a superb example of documentary cinematic art and of film propaganda. Riefenstahl developed a number of new techniques specifically for this film. I find it hard to resist the film's powerful attraction. The deification of the Führer is led up to by stunning camera work and painstaking and inspired editing transmitting a feeling of constant movement and dynamism from the very first sequence which follows Hitler's plane as it descends through the clouds towards Nürnberg. The film develops almost musically as it transmits its message of an entire nation awakening. If you want to feel the major themes of Nazi ideology - loyalty, strength, unity, Germanness, the great German past, youth, revolution and, above all, the deification of the Führer, who comes to incorporate each one of these themes - then this is the film you should see.
To an extent also,
with the production of this film we see an example of the technique of
'Testimonial', identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis as one of
the main propaganda techniques. This technique is widely used in advertising.
The more independent the source of the testimonial the better - for example,
the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Robert Mark, was very successful
in endorsing Goodyear car tyres. Goebbels was very
keen to enlist the support of artists and intellectuals for the régime. This was certainly not easy for him as most had
left the country and the régime constantly attacked
both intellectuals and artists. Nevertheless, many did remain in
Perhaps the most significant problem faced by modern viewers of this film is that we know we are in the presence of great art, but art at the service of one of the most abhorrent ideologies there has ever been. For Riefenstahl herself, the making of this film was a great personal tragedy after the war, as she never again was able to make a film. Her claim was that she was merely making a documentary. Her critics reply that she was glorifying Nazism and was herself a committed Nazi, which she disputes.
It is interesting that this film, or at least numerous clips of it, are, for most of us, the very epitome of Nazi film propaganda when, in fact, at the time it was released, although it was popular in some of the major cities, it did not become popular with a wider audience and was therefore hardly ever used as propaganda, thus justifying Goebbels' reservations about openly propagandistic film.
Much more widely shown
The Wandering Jew
The Wandering Jew, directed by Fritz Hippler in 1940 is an overtly propagandistic film, with, from what I have seen of it, no artistic merit at all. It adopts an objective and dispassionate tone, appropriate to the 'racial science' of the Nazis. Here we see yet another example of 'Transfer', one of the techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The film attempts to transfer to Nazi racism some of the respect and awe in which modern science is held. At the outset we are shown what we are asured is genuine footage from the Polish ghettoes, scenes of the filthy, unhygienic conditions in which Jews live. We are told that they are tradesmen and money dealers because they are work-shy and disinclined to engage in any useful work. We are shown scenes of Jews put to work by the German authorities as they clumsily attempt to handle shovels and other tools. What we are not told, of course, is that the ghetto is filthy and unhygienic because that is where the Nazis have herded all the Jews together; we are not told that they are incapable of physical labour because they are malnourished.
We see films of rats swarming through sewers as the commentary tells us that the Jewish wanderings throughout history are just like the rat's spreading disease wherever it goes. This links to the claim, supported by 'statisitics', that the Jews are responsible for a huge amount of international crime, entirely disproportionate to their number in the community.
We are then shown
shots of 'traditional' Jews with their long hair and beards, skull
caps and kaftans and each shot fades into a shot of the same man with
'European' hairstyle and clothes. The commentary underlines how difficult it is
to spot the Jews in our midst, an almost invisible threat to the health of
Aryans. We are told how the Jews have established
themselves as an international world power, with
The climactic sequence of this attack is film of the ritual slaughter of an animal, a sequence considered so shocking by the authorities that women were not admitted to performances of the version which included the sequence. The film ends with the decrees promulgated by the NSDAP government outlawing ritual slaughter and dealing with the problem of the Jews themselves. The film closes with Hitler's speech to the Reichstag in 1939, followed by shots of young, blond Germans silhouetted against the sky.
It's perhaps worth mentioning that the film at no point recommends, or even hints at, the extermination of Jews. Euphemism is a typical propaganda technique and, although it is not typical of Nazi rhetoric, it does seem to have been typical of the way the leaders referred to the 'final solution' to the 'Jewish problem'. Given that after 1933 Hitler's Mein Kampf, full of racist venom, was made very widely available surprisingly, given that one of the favourite rallying cries of the SA (Stormtroopers) was 'Deutschland, erwache; Juda verrecke' (Germany awake; death to the Jews), given that the Nürnberg race laws were promulgated in 1935 and given that all of this ran into very little opposition, such sensitivity is surprising. As late as 1943 in his speech at the Berliner Sportpalast, Goebbels swiftly corrected himself when he almost used the word 'ausrotten' (exterminate), quickly changing it to 'ausschalten' (which translates roughly as 'neutralize'). Euphemism remains a standard propaganda technique: the bombing of Vietnamese villages was known as 'disassembly', an unprovoked attack is a 'pre-emptive strike', killed civilians are 'collateral damage', murder is 'executive action' and, of course, all War Departments are now Ministries of Defence.
We see in this film also an example of the dehumanization of the enemy. The scientific, neutral tone speaks of 'the Jew', rarely of 'Jews' and each Jew we see is just another manifestation of the Jew, not a person in his or her own right. The filth in which they live, their strange, alien practices, especially ritual slaughter, also contribute to their dehumanization. The same tactic is followed in propaganda today. For example, before the Gulf War the demonization of Saddam Hussein was constant and the propaganda coup of the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter telling how she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers ripping Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators and flinging them to the floor was crucial in gaining Congress's support for the war. It later turned out to have been an invention.
More typical of the
type of film which Goebbels considered appropriate
vehicles for propaganda were the costume dramas which centred on the great
Prussian leader figures such as Frederick the Great and Bismarck, as well as
other great Germans, such as the philosopher and physician Paracelsus (a film
directed by the great Pabst) or the poet Schiller. Such films may be compared with Henry V filmed in
Other examples of such
indirect propaganda in
There were also of
course straightforward war films which, in their
relatively straight pro-German, anti-Allies message, may be compared with
Other films performed
a slightly different propaganda function, such as
The defeat in 1943 of
the German Sixth Army at
In film, Kolberg was the most important propaganda effort of
the closing stages of the war. It was based on the true story of the town of
It is just this optimistic spirit that Kolberg was intended to encourage, not unlike the British production of Henry V. The film's two heroes are Nettelbeck, Kolberg's Mayor, and Gneisenau, the leader of the Prussian soldiers. A crucial scene is when Nettelbeck realizes that his commitment has to be total:
We won't let go even if we have to dig ourselves into the earth with our fingertips; we won't let go of our town. No, they'll have to chop our hands off one by one or beat us to death one after another. They can't force such shame on an old man like me that we should give our town up to Napoleon. I promised our King: rather be buried under the ruins than surrender, Gneisenau! ... Now I'm going to do it. Today I'll do it. We mustn't give up, Gneisenau!
That's what I was waiting to hear from you, Nettelbeck. Now we can die together.
The closing image of the film shows us Gneisenau's image against a sea of fluttering banners as he proclaims that 'the people are rising up for the coming battle of nations ... from the ashes and the rubble there will rise, like a phoenix, a new people and a new Reich!' (Taylor (1979))
and East German Propaganda Archive (Calvin College)
Propaganda links at Andrew Johnson's Mania Web
Phillip Taylor's links to Information Warfare resources
Propaganda and Psychological Warfare Studies
Propaganda Analysis Home Page