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 - including Lenin 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. Potemkin posterThe amazing Battleship Potemkin, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, had been immensely popular in Berlin. Of this film, Goebbels himself said:

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.

Taylor (1979)

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 Britain. In itself the popularity of Socialist and Communist film prior to the Nazi assumption of power must raise questions about the supposedly irresistible power of film propaganda.

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 approved of. Taylor (1979) quotes Albrecht's figure in Nationalsozialistische Filmpolitik of only 153 overtly political films out of the 1,094 premiered between 1932 and 1945. However, Goebbels was as well aware as Lenin of the importance of communicating propaganda via apparently non-political entertainment films.


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 Britain was filmed in Antwerp harbour so that audiences could be shown the 'invasion' as it happened. The problem with newsreels in a one-party state is that of course people went into the cinema expecting that the newsreels would contain propaganda on behalf of the party. As a result, audiences took to turning up late, coming into the cinema during the newsreel, thus ruining its intended effects. In an attempt to overcome this, Goebbels ordered that there should be a five minute break between the newsreel and the main feature. That didn't have the intended effect, though, as audiences just stayed out in the foyer until the newsreel and the break were over. Goebbels was finally obliged to order that all cinemas should be locked and stay locked as soon as the newsreel had started. Anyone who wanted to see a feature film now had no choice other than to watch the newsreel as well. Taylor (1979) describes how the captive audience, no longer able to vote with their feet, expressed their disapproval by laughing, jeering and shouting, especially during the latter stages of the war.

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' (in Taylor (1979)). Stormtroopers belonged in the streets, not the cinemas. The cinema was a place for entertainment where the audience would be propagandized without knowing it by their exposure to covert (not overt) propaganda.

We can find numerous examples of such covert propaganda in more recent films we are familiar with. For example:

  • In the sci-fi movies of the fifties we find the constantly recurring theme of aliens amongst us, indistinguishable from the rest of us and bent on taking over the world. The parallel with McCarthy's 50s witch-hunt against the Communists amongst us is clear.
  • The Star Wars movies closely parallel the USA's cold war struggle against the Soviet Union. Indeed, President Reagan himself actually used the term 'Evil Empire' to refer to the Soviet Union.
  • Michael Winner's Death Wish films argue that the criminals who commit the heinous crimes depicted set themselves outside the civilized norms of society and should therefore not benefit from society's normal application of the law - vigilante action against them therefore becomes legitimate. A film with a not dissimilar message, though more complex and subtle, is Don Siegel's Dirty Harry.
  • Old westerns which legitimate genocide in pursuit of the American Dream.

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 RiefenstahlLeni 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 Germany, some of whom, like the major expressionist poet, Gottfried Benn, and the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, were world famous and expressed their enthusiastic support for the Nazi government. Riefenstahl was known for her pre-Nazi films and the fact that she then amde films for the Nazis would no doubt have been seen by many as an endorsement, whether they actually saw her films or not.

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.

OlympiaGerman manhoodMuch more widely shown was Riefenstahl's Olympia documentary of the 1936 Olympic games, which again was remarkably innovative in both its camera technique and its editing and, like Triumph of the Will won international film prizes. The film was supported by Hitler as, just like the Olympic Games today, it was an opportunity for the host country to show itself at its best. Riefenstahl has been criticized here too for her concentration on the body beautiful, which is felt by many critics to be typical of Nazi ideology. No doubt, one could look at the shot on the left taken from the opening sequence of Olympia and find similarities between it and the picture on the right of Aryan manhood taken from Streicher's children's book in which it is contrasted with the greasy, malformed Jew. Link that with ideas about purification of the race and eugenics and of course you have something potentially very nasty. However, much to Hitler's disgust, 1936 was the year in which the American black athlete, Jesse Owen, won his stupendous victories. Riefenstahl pays as much attention to him as she does to Aryans, so it doesn't seem to me that the criticism is justified.

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 New York as its modern centre. We are 'reminded' (since it was a point constantly repeated by the NSDAP) how it was the Jews who betrayed Germany by setting up the Weimar Republic after 1918, more or less running the country for their own ends.

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.

Entertainment films

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 England in 1944 with Laurence Oliver in the title rôle. The play itself presumably fulfilled a propaganda function in Elizabethan times and it is certainly possible to see how it would have fulfilled such a function in 1944 with its presentation of English courage and tenacity as the closing stages of the war demanded every last drop of energy for the last 'big push'.

Other examples of such indirect propaganda in Germany include The Heart of a Queen, a musical version of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, which communicates anti-English propaganda through its portrayal of English cruelty to the Scots. It encourages resistance to the English through identification with the heroic figure of Mary, who, though ultimately executed, occupies the moral high ground throughout.

There were also of course straightforward war films which, in their relatively straight pro-German, anti-Allies message, may be compared with Hollywood films of the time with their stereotyped heroes and villains.

Other films performed a slightly different propaganda function, such as Olympia or von Baky's 1943 film Münchhausen about the adventures of Baron von Münchhausen. While Olympia showed the world that Germany could put on a magnificent show for the Olympics, Münchhausen showed the world that the German film industry did not lag behind Hollywood in its use of special effects.


The defeat in 1943 of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad with the loss of 146,000 men was the turning point in the war. To all intents and purposes, the Germans had lost the war and, as increasing Allied bombing raids brought the war into the very heart of Germany, Goebbels saw his major task as that of countering the Germans' war-weariness. 1943 was the year he held his spine-chilling speech in the Berlin Olympic Stadium in which he called on the German nation to commit itself to total war in response to the Allies commitment to Germany's total and unconditional surrender.

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 Kolberg which had raised a people's militia to fight a last-ditch effort against the Napoleonic forces which had rapidly over-run the major towns of the Reich. The genuine crown and orb of the Holy Roman Emperors were borrowed for use in the film and 187,000 soldiers were taken from the front to be used as extras in the film's battle scenes. The story of Kolberg's citizenry's heroic resistance well suited the Nazi idea of the Volkssturm (people's storm - the intended citizens' resistance against the occupying forces to come) in the closing stages of the war, encouraged at every turn by the propaganda machine. Goebbels had for example openly encouraged the lynching of Allied 'terror pilots' shot down over German cities; later in the war Werner Naumann, Goebbels's State Secreatary, told the story of a German youth who had begged a Canadian soldier for chocolate in pidgin English and then shot him in the gut as he reached into his pocket for sweets. This was held up to German youth as a shining example of the Volkssturm's resistance to the foreign invaders as young boys were drafted into the army. Naumann claimed that after twenty years of National Socialism, the Allies could not conceivably win, as they would be faced with unending partisan war.

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))

Related Articles:

consistency theory
social influence

Nazi 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

updated: 06/22/2003 04:17:53 © Mick Underwood