Propaganda was the operational method of the Third Reich, the idea that projected the ideology. Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, told the Nuremberg Tribunal “that what distinguished the Third Reich from all previous dictatorships was its use of all the means of communication to sustain itself and to deprive its objects of the power of independent thought.”
The Third Reich represents the evolution of a partnership between masses and demagogue, a co-production—for example, the invitation to believe the idea that the Jews had simply been removed to external work camps, and not murdered. What the Nazis were really saying was that their truth lay deeper than their lies and that their lies were merely a permissible methodology since the end always justified the means.
The idea of people willingly misled offends our notion of man as rational. A more accurate representation of the psychology of the Third Reich would be to conceive of a partnership in wishful thinking in which the masses were self-deluded as well as other-deluded. Persuasion in such cases offers an idea of solidarity and the target of that persuasion is more co-conspirator than victim, an invitation to share in the creation of a hyperbolic fiction. The notion of persuasion as “manipulative” evokes a passive recipient and a hypodermic or stimulus-response form; but a more sophisticated idea is that of an invocation to partnership.
Thus, the Third Reich was the emanation of a collective as well as an individual’s imagination. Submersible parts of the ideology, such as the antagonism to religion, the euthanasia campaign, the massacre of Jews, could all have been discovered by the determined enquirer. One theory advanced as an explanation of this is that of group narcissism, which is described by historian and psychologist Jay Y. Gonen as one of the most important sources of human aggression: “In a world that is seen through a narcissistic tunnel vision, only oneself or one’s group has any rights.”
The purpose of Nazi propaganda was not to brainwash ordinary Germans, and it was not intended to deceive the masses even though it did enable the movement to gain new recruits. The principal objective, according to historian Neil Gregor, was “to absorb the individual into a mass of like-minded people, and the purpose of the ‘suggestion’ was not to deceive but to articulate that which the crowd already believed.”
The essence of the Nazi propaganda method was repetition. Goebbels argued that the skill of British propagandists during the Great War resided in the fact that they used just a few powerful slogans and kept repeating them. Goebbels was a proponent of the “repeated exposure effect.” The mass mind was dull and sluggish, and for ideas to take root, they had to be constantly re-seeded: recognition, comprehension, retention, and conviction are different stages in the cognitive process, and repetition can facilitate them. It is important to remember, therefore, that what Nazi propaganda also offered was the dubious benefit of sensory exhaustion. The citizen was not a target to be persuaded so much as a victim to be conquered, ravished even. They wanted internal commitment, not just external compliance.
Another core part of Nazi grand theory was the dethronement of reason and the celebration of emotion. Nazism felt rather than thought, and therefore the nature of its propaganda appeal was also to feeling rather than thinking. The mobilization of emotion lay at the heart of everything the Nazis did; propaganda’s operational formula. For Goebbels, the role of the propagandist was to express in words what his audience felt in their hearts.
For this reason, propaganda had to be primitive, appealing to what Hitler described as man’s inner Schweinehund (“pig dog,” thereby a sort of deprecatory idiom for one’s inner self). Typically brutally “either- or,” the propaganda appealed to the audience’s primitive desire for simplification, thus: “There are … only two possibilities: either the victory of the Aryan side or its annihilation and the victory of the Jews.” The Nazis believed a formulaic propaganda methodology must be applied even at the cost of alienating the sophisticated. Nazi theorist and proponent of propaganda Walther Schulze-Wechsungen wrote:
“Many a one laughed at the propaganda of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) in the past from a position of superiority. It is true that we had only one thing to say, and we yelled and screamed and propagandized it again and again with a stubbornness that drove the ‘wise’ to desperation. We proclaimed it with such simplicity that they thought it absurd and almost childish. They did not understand that repetition is the precursor to success and simplicity is the key to the emotional and mental world of the masses. We wanted to appeal to the intuitive world of the great masses, not the understanding of the intellectuals.”
According to Goebbels, what was distinctive about the Nazis was “the ability to see into the soul of the people and to speak the language of the man in the street.” What distinguished European fascism above all was its discovery of new ways, a methodology, of speaking to the working class. The fascists were not ashamed of mass media and marketing, understood the cultures of consumerism, and recognized the role these now played in the lives of the masses; media was a new language with which the masses were now familiar, including its styles, forms, and assumptions. Fascists were at ease in this exciting new world and recognized that it could be exploited for political purposes, both as a source of methods and as a new kind of culture with a different set of governing assumptions.
The propagandists did not have it all their own way and we are much mistaken if we imagine Nazi Germany to have been a nation only of fanatics. There were the convinced, the semi-convinced, and the doubters; one could in fact have been in all three categories through the lifetime of the Reich. The Nazis were the most electorally successful of all Europe’s fascist parties, yet they never garnered more than 37 percent of the vote.
Hitler understood, as few others had ever done, the need for the serial creation of enemies. He was a political entrepreneur possessed of the truly devastating insight that all recent enemies could eventually merge into the one super-enemy, the Jews. Here was an intuitive understanding of how self-definition is achieved through other-rejection, that solidarity, identity, and community are in essence gained at the expense of others and appeals based on the brotherhood of man (as, in a sense, even Communism did) would always ultimately fail. His construction of tribal passion could arouse the emotions and therefore render people vulnerable to any kind of visionary persuasion or invocation to epic quest.
Nazism did not ask for belief but for surrender—not through coercion, primarily, but by assaulting consciousness. The essential aim was the extinction of independent thought via images that would now think for you. Yet the seeming ease with which Germans “went along” with, or ostensibly ignored, the true frauds continues to astonish.
Adapted from Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy. Published by C. Hurst & Co.