Author, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy discusses how the Nazis pursued propaganda as the totality of government.

By Elena Walsh Ferré and Grace Lovins
04/29/2022 • 04:19 PM EST

Author and historian, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy discusses how the Nazi regime incorporated propaganda into every facet of governing and public consciousness. He details how the Third Reich took propaganda to saturation levels never before and never since witnessed in human history. He also points to past propaganda literacy efforts in the U.S. and the renewed need for critical thinking education to address the modern-day onslaught of propaganda.

0:00: Elena Walsh Ferre:

With us today, we have professor emeritus of communication at Queen Mary, University of London, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy. He's the author of many seminal books on political persuasion and propaganda, such as Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand. And most recently Marketing The Third Reich: Persuasion, Packaging and Propaganda. And he is here today to talk to us about propaganda specifically in the area of Nazi Germany, but also how it may reflect on our current politics. Professor O'Shaughnessy, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:27: Nicholas O'Shaughnessy:

Thank you so much for inviting me.

0:30: Elena Walsh Ferre:

So let's begin with Nazi Germany. In your book, Selling Hitler: Propaganda, and the Nazi Brand, you say that the Nazis pursued propaganda, not just as a tool, as an instrument of government, but also as a totality. Can you elaborate on this?

0:43: Nicholas O'Shaughnessy:

Well, I'd like to begin first by showing you a document. It's actually a book and it illustrates my point. It's made by a publisher called Michael Batty, and it's created simply out of debris his father collected on a single day of a single battle, in the second world war, the Battle of Monte Cassino. This debris is psychological artillery. It's the literature fired by the Germans at the four armies besieging Monte Cassino. That is the Polish, the Indian, the British, and American. And it's quite extraordinary that you can do that. In other words, here is a regime which saw propaganda as psychological artillery, as a battlefield weapon. So although many regimes from Napoleon to Stalin have used propaganda and used it extensively, no regime I can think of, and this is the fascination, and has actually used propaganda as the medium of government. This is my claim, the medium of government.

If you take, of course, the fatal battle, the Battle of Stalingrad, why did they even fight it there? Because the city had Stalin's name. It was a propaganda objective. And in fact it was that which destroyed them. But everywhere you look, we go way, way beyond the normal constraints of propaganda. They actually had an entire division of soldiers, totally devoted to propaganda, as cameramen, as photographers, as journalists. No regime ever did that. They actually had groups to spread rumors, groups to spread graffiti. They used horoscopes. Never before has the idea of propaganda been so pushed. They made sure that every German had a radio just about, within nine months of achieving power and what they pushed out was already saturation levels of propaganda, to the extent of actively changing the meaning of the German language in order to colonize the human mind.

It's in many ways, quite Orwellian. So one could of course speak forever about what they did and how they did it. It's the shared gigantic scale of the operation and the way it emanated from a particular philosophy of persuasion, a particular view of the art of government as being, in the core of it as being persuasion. This colonization, if you like of the human mind, I can see nothing like it. Clearly Stalin and the communists did, but they used coercion much, much more. Part of the success of Nazi Germany was that the Gestapo was not a large institution. Why do you need a lot of ..., if you can get neighbors to betray each other? And this is the point, if you actually take over their minds in this kind of way, then everything else follows, including the Holocaust and all of that.

4:03: Elena Walsh Ferre:

In Nazi Germany, both Hitler and Goebbels were perhaps the most artful purveyors of propaganda, but how did they differ in their approach?

4:11: Nicholas O'Shaughnessy:

Well, I think this is of fundamental importance. The relationship really was that Goebbels was the subcontractor. It was Hitler who was the propagandist. People think of Goebbels as the evil genius. And he was, he was quite a remarkable manipulator of human consciousness, but the key decisions were being made by Hitler himself. Hitler was editing colleague speeches. He was there on the mountain top editing the news reels, giving out the press line, intervening in film. Goebbels took his cue from Hitler and died in the bunker with him. They both committed suicide. But it really was Hitler who said when you invade Russia, you must show the mutilated corpses of German soldiers on the news reel. And changes at that kind of level, as well as macro-level changes, he actually, it was Hitler who chose the symbol system, the swastika, he spent hours in Munich Public Library pouring over old texts to find symbol systems and so forth.

He had a kind of intuitive understanding, which really derived from his experience of the first world war, about how propaganda could supercharge events and give a regime kind of dynamism and hold on the popular mind, like no other has since possessed in all of history. Remember that the German regime continued to function to the very end. Even if the population were becoming skeptical by 1944, the army wasn't. The army remained gripped in this illusion. Quite extraordinary that it could have that degree of grip. And really a lot of the reason for this is propaganda. Plus of course, what we haven't mentioned so far, but the most important thing, the way it projected the charisma of Adolph Hitler.

6:16: Grace Lovens:

And in your book, Selling Hitler, you've written that Nazi propaganda offered the dubious benefit of sensory exhaustion. The citizen was not a target to be persuaded so much as a victim to be conquered. Can you paint us a picture of what you mean by sensory exhaustion and how Nazi propaganda was not necessarily about persuasion?

6:35: Nicholas O'Shaughnessy:

Yes, I think they, if you like, numbed human consciousness by the sheer power and ubiquity and saturation of their onslaught, but remember they were imaginative enough to use many roads in. You have obviously the posters, the press, the exaltations, the speeches, the live rallies, but really although I kind of suggest that the individual was brow-beaten in Nazi Germany. The individuals also seduced, the Latin word "seducere" leading to oneself. To that end, they had a vast entertainment complex. They had the great world cinema in the 1920s in Weimar, the Weimar cinema. And they were able to mobilize entertainment for the purposes of propaganda in essentially non-didactic ways. In other words, they learned, and they are fast learners after the first year in part, you can't be didactic. You have to seduce people, you have to hide the propaganda message in the sugared confection of costume drama and action movies and dance numbers and so forth.

There's even the extraordinary tale of Zarah Leander, who is the woman actress star of Nazi Germany. And she was Swedish. She was very tall and broad-shouldered, so in one of her great epics, The Great Love (Die Grosse Liebe), which was 1940, 41, and had 20 million viewers, she had as a backing chorus members of the lead standout, Adolph Hitler's private bodyguard SS regiment, dressed in tight fitting sequined skirts. Not because it was a drag show. He would've looked ridiculous otherwise. They had these tall men dressed as women to give the impression it was a backing chorus of females, but if you look carefully, you can see their adam's apples. So if they're, in other words, prepared for the special effect to do anything, even put the SS in drag, you can see how important these values were to them. They were the values at the heart of the regime.

9:03: Grace Lovens:

And as a historian, what are some of the key lessons we can learn from studying Nazi propaganda?

9:09: Nicholas O'Shaughnessy:

I think the key lesson is critical thinking. In other words, we have an elaborate education system, but we're not taught critical thinking skills. We are victims if you like ideology, which is reinforced by the internet, because you have all these bubbles where we just talk to like-minded people. The best thing we could possibly do, and America tried this before the second World War, the propaganda analysis movement deviced toolkits, and exercises, much else, for schools and colleges. And it was a big, big thing because the creators of the propaganda analysis movement felt that America was not only vulnerable to Hitler and Nazi propaganda, but also internal demagogues like the famous radio priest, Father, Charles Coughlin of the Church of The Little Flower, who was a right wing zealot. And also corporate propaganda in schools, which they're also very worried about.

But the propaganda analysis movement was dissolved after Pearl Harbor and its members then joined the American propaganda effort. Although I should say in relation to World War II, that in 1943,  Life magazine produced an extraordinary edition claiming that the Germans were winning the propaganda war. And they went into great detail about why they thought this was so, and they were internally somewhat peevish because they thought with Hollywood and all the amazing... and Madison avenue, why the hell did the Nazis seem to be winning the propaganda war? But I think in the end, the point is critical thinking. If you actually persuade... And the problem with that is that critical thinking has to be politically neutral. So the examples you would give kids would come from the left liberal as well as the right. In other words, all sides make propaganda. And therefore if you are training kids to detect it, they have to be aware of its ubiquity. But I do think that critical thinking skills are not taught and that if we were better critical thinkers, we would be less vulnerable to the absolute saturation levels of propaganda, which we received today as Germans did under the Third Reich.

11:45: Elena Walsh Ferre:

So on the topic of Donald Trump, which you've spoken about, how does he fit into the evolution of propaganda as we know it?

11:53: Nicholas O'Shaughnessy:

Well, you raised... I mean this is really very, very interesting. And let me say instantly, I'm not pro him at all. I think there were a lot of bien pensant (orthodox) thought has gone wrong is seeing him as just a crude thug. There is actually a huge amount of art in what he does, and in order to understand why he has so much power, we have to look at the artfulness of what he does. And I would say the first thing is entertainment. Really this is the most important thing you can say about Trump. That he emerged in effect obviously long-term, from the real estate world of New York. But in the short-term, he was ... the apprentice. And he was a great American par brand, but it went beneath the radar screen. I think the second point is that he's revived an old medium, namely the mass rally. Of course that's most associated with Hitler, and Hitler weaponized aircraft to be able to address five different rallies every day in his "Hitler over Germany" campaign.

But Trump has bought back the rally. Everyone thought today, everything is television, it's all online and so forth. The earliest medium, you think of Demosthenes speaking to the ancient Greeks in the forum or what have you, or, or the Agora actually. So how amazing for it to come back from the ancient and the Roman world, to our world today. And you have to credit him with that insight, that he did that But it's all part of the entertainment package. You get the live entertainment of Donald Trump. He's not just on your screen, you're at his rally. So in that sense, he brought back an anachronism. But in the other sense, what he did, which is remarkable for someone his age, is embrace the latest social media, namely Twitter, and make it his own. Trump's use of Twitter is now the subject of many a learned academic volume. I've got one behind me. He is an extraordinary subject. But there you go. I mean, in other words, he embraced the oldest and the newest medium and created some kind of meta synthesis between them.

And finally, what he did is create an alternative reality. People use this word, fake news, especially him. You could see it as a form of projection. It was his favorite term, but it's more than that. It's the creation of a complete alternative reality. When you look at, for example, at his attempt to buy Greenland from Denmark. When you ask yourself what is going on here, it's extraordinary really. It's a completely coherent alternative reality. It's a kind of fantasy landscape, which he invites people to join. And they do.

15:01: Grace Lovens:

As a historian of propaganda and mass persuasion. How much progress have we made in becoming less vulnerable to these forces that were used so effectively in Nazi Germany?

15:10: Nicholas O'Shaughnessy:

Well thank you so much for that question. The tragedy is we haven't, we've regressed. I mean, in my youth, I thought there was a kind of, if you like rationality about public discourse. You had a very limited number of television channels, of course, but you also had a huge number of newspapers. And those newspapers had lots of reporters in all the countries of the world. The newspaper on the table was a daily event and everyone read newspapers. Now this is certainly information, which was arbitered by the elite, but it did seem to make for a public life which was less hysterical. I shouldn't exaggerate too much. You have the fact, for example, of McCarthyism in the 1950s, you have the phenomenon of Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. So although I say these things it's possible to romanticize the past as well. The difference is really saturation and self-production, mass communication, mass production for mass consumption.

So it's really the level of intensity. And the consequences I said earlier has not necessarily been a people who are more gullible. It's simply a people who believe nothing. They believe nothing that's said. And really, if you go back to the philosophy of this, asking whether a particular proposition is true, can be asking a very difficult question. We know that in a court of law, the test is beyond reasonable doubt, but there's so much which can be subject to reasonable doubt. And there is so much obfuscation. I remember 12 years ago, I was talking to a professor of epidemiology at my university, and he was saying that the tuberculosis problem in London was of epidemic proportions, but they're not using the word epidemic, so as not to cast aspersions on particular social groups, namely migrants. Now that was an interesting point because it did reveal that they weren't perhaps being entirely honest. And so the right wing discourse of elites is saying that we have these conspiratorial manipulative elites. The real truth is that manipulation occurs everywhere. And you can't really get away from it.

But what we face today is a skeptical public. It's not actually a public who are rabidly and hysterically conspirator theorists, or anything like that. They just don't believe anything anymore. They would take something like climate change. You deduce the evidence, and then you have the climate deniers, and what the public is left with is neither disbelief nor belief, but doubt, skepticism. This is the great problem we face, in fact. It's lack of faith. It's incredulity. It's public skepticism. And this is what the industrial levels of propaganda we produce today have actually ended in.

18:39: Elena Walsh Ferre:

Well, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to author historian and prominent expert in the field of propaganda and political messaging, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy. Professor O'Shaughnessy, thank you so much for joining us today.

18:52: Nicholas O'Shaughnessy:

Thank you so much. Speaking to you here from London on quite a cold evening, it's been an absolute delight and a treat. Thank you.