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What Effect Did Nazi Propaganda Have on the German People?

Part II: Restructuring the Means of communication

If the German press, radio and film industries were going to promote the government’s ideological objectives, they had to be reorganized. Each agency would have to provide the others with government-approved themes, so the message could be disseminated through a number of different avenues. To expand the number of German households with radios, the Nazis pressed manufacturers to produce one of the least expensive wireless sets in all of Europe. These significantly subsidized “people’s radios” made it possible for workers to buy them, historian David Welch said. The goal was to have a set in each German home.

In 1933, one-and-a-half million sets were manufactured, Welch noted. A year later, the number increased to over six million. By the beginning of the war in Europe in September 1939, more than 70% of all homes in Germany possessed a wireless set— “the highest percentage anywhere in the world.” The limited range of the radio meant German citizens could not listen to foreign broadcasts, which were against the law in any event.

Whenever a Nazi leader was to deliver a speech or an important message was to be made, a network of “radio wardens” arranged loudspeakers in public places, factories, offices, schools and eateries. When sirens were sounded, everyone was expected to cease what they were doing and listen. This was part of an attempt to have each citizen “identify with the nation.”

The press presented different challenges Welch said, which they overcame. Editors had to be found who would become censors, ensuring the content of the papers were strictly controlled with no editorial independence permitted. This would guarantee the government’s message contained a degree of uniformity throughout the country. Eher Verlag, the party’s publishing house, had to acquire either directly or indirectly the “vast majority of the German press.” And finally, there was a need for the state-run press agency (Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro) to preside over the daily press briefings and issue media directives.

Goebbels believed propaganda films could shape an individual’s opinions and beliefs, and possibly their behavior, which is why he attached such great importance to controlling German cinema. By 1942, the Third Reich had nationalized the German film industry. Between 1933 and 1945, the Germans produced 1,097 feature films, of which just one-sixth were made for propaganda purposes, Welch said. Goebbels wanted propaganda that “reflected the ambience of National Socialism” to be mixed with entertainment. This relatively limited number of clearly propaganda films was augmented with documentary films and newsreels, which “captured the immediacy of events” (Deutsche Wochenschau), and became progressively more essential during the war.

The subjects that reappear in Nazi films are key to their world view (Weltanschauung) and were selectively shown at specific times. To exploit the effectiveness of his prestigious films—Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film “Triumph des Willens” (“Triumph of the Will”), the 1938 “Olympiade” (“Olympia”), a four-hour account of the 1938 Olympic Games held in Berlin, “which proved an ideal vehicle for Nazi propaganda to foreign countries,” according to Welch—Goebbels permitted these full-length documentaries to be shown very sparingly.

In 1940, three antisemitic films were produced: “Die Rothschilds,” who are portrayed as merciless and callous, and who seek financial and political dominance over all of Europe; “Jud Süss,” which dehumanizes the Jews, shows the danger they pose to the Germany since their ultimate objective, as part of an international Jewish conspiracy, is to achieve control, fortune for themselves and world Jewry; they are a threat to German culture, lust after German women, and can be deceitful in business and by masquerading as a gentile nobility; “Der ewige Jude” (“The Eternal[Wandering] Jew”). The Holocaust Encyclopedia described how the film “compares Jews to rats that carry contagion, flood the continent, and devour precious resources. ‘Der ewige Jude’ is distinctive not only for its crude, vile characterizations made worse with its gruesome footage of a Jewish ritual butcher at work slaughtering cattle, but also for its heavy emphasis on the alien nature of the East European Jew.”

First shown in Berlin at the end of November 1940, the German public had enthusiastically waited to see “Der ewige Jude,” perhaps because of the enormous publicity campaign launched on radio and in newspapers heralding its screening, Hebrew University historian David Bankier speculated. Enthusiastic reviews from moviegoers claimed the film had been more instructive and persuasive than many antisemitic articles. The statistical material and maps exposing the expansion of Jewish influence throughout the world, the scene comparing Jews to rats, and the information about Jewish influence in the U.S. were particularly impressive. Some reports criticized the harshness of the film, though not its content. Coming so soon after the successful airing of the documentary “Jud Süss” decreased the number of people who came to watch the film, Bankier said.

British journalist Kate Connolly noted “Jud Süss” was conceived by Goebbels in response to the 1934 British film “Jew Suss,” which was “a thinly veiled plea on behalf” of the persecuted Jews in Germany. The documentary was well received in Britain and the U.S., but was banned in Vienna because of its “pro-semitic tone.”

Goebels’ film “Jud Süss” highlighted the Nazi stereotypes of Jews as “crafty, untrustworthy, hooked-nosed beings.” Connolly explained that to ensure the film would be a major propaganda triumph, it premiered in 80 Berlin movie theaters simultaneously. Twenty million people in Germany watched the film. In France and Italy, the film enjoyed enormous success, where it ignited violent attacks against the Jews. SS troops and concentration camp guards were often shown the film to demonstrate the vital importance of their efforts to rid the world, once and for all, of the Jewish plague.


Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He lives in Jerusalem.

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