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What Effect Did Nazi Propaganda Have on the German People?

Part III: Quantifying Public Reaction

“Propaganda is widely considered to have been a decisive factor in mobilizing massive support for the [Nazi] regime,” observed Hebrew University historian David Bankier. In his attempt to determine the “practical limitations of Nazi propaganda,” and tracing the Jewish theme within the overall context, he examined an extensive number of resources. They included reports from the Gestapo; district governors in Prussia and Bavaria (which covered most of the Reich); regional and national reports of the SD (the security service of the SS); the German Socialist Party (Sopade) in exile; and many underground publications.

Whether one accepts the reliability of these accounts, Bankier said, does not matter. “This was the picture presented to the regime by officials active in its decision-making process.”

It should not be surprising that the leaders of the Third Reich would be very interested in knowing the public sentiment in the country, in order to assess the effectiveness of their policies. Yet, this did not suggest they would eagerly accept the results of these reports. Bankier said the primary cause for this response was clear: All of the reporting indicated an image that contrasted with the “myth of a ‘total state’ embodying a monolithic ‘racial community.’”

Who Read the Surveys?

There is sufficient proof, Bankier found, that the leaders of the German security apparatus were sufficiently persuaded by this information to base their decisions on the reports. This involved a number of leading figures in the Nazi leadership. One was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). Later, he controlled the Gestapo, Criminal Police and SD. Other government agencies asked for the surveys to create appropriate policies in their own areas. In his role as ideological educator for party members, Alfred Rosenberg was one of those as well. He was particularly interested to gauge how his anti-Church policies were being perceived.

The Ministry of Justice used SD discoveries to determine their own response. When the SD reported that a local court in Klagenfurt, in southern Bavaria, issued a moderate sentence to homosexuals, the Ministry interceded by imposing a harsher penalty. In 1940, when the SD informed the Ministry that the public was displeased that Jews were still permitted to inherit from Germans, they changed the law so that could not happen in the future.

The Ministers of Labor and Economics also read the SD reports to keep apprised of the attitudes in their spheres of influence, in order to know how to respond accordingly. The Ministry of Propaganda evinced the most interest in the surveys. Without honest and objective information about the public’s response to the cinema, radio programs and press, Goebbels knew he could not achieve his goal of influencing the masses.

Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler read the surveys, especially those from the SD, with interest, while remaining ambivalent about them, like other Nazi leaders. He rejected the portrayal of the public’s attitude since it clashed with the Nazi “myth of national unity.” After reports from all over the country related how a speech by Hitler received harsh criticism, Himmler claimed that those who penned the statements were exploiting the opportunity to express their own defeatist views and absence of fidelity.

Did Hitler Read the SD Reports?

Bankier is convinced the information reached Hitler. In 1936, reports from either the Gestapo or the SD stated the current temperament in the country was negative. After Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s military adjutant in the 1930s, read a few lines to Hitler (who had no patience to read the report himself), Hitler responded: “The mood of the public is not negative. I know better. Those reports are what cause the worsening of the mood. I forbid any presentation of this kind to me in the future.”

In March 1942, after receiving information about the decline in morale, he wrote a handwritten comment: “If the situation were what people say, we would have long lost everything. The true mood of the nation lies much deeper and is based on inner strength. If this were not the case, we could not explain the nation’s achievements.”

Despite Hitler’s refusal to acknowledge that he considered public opinion in making decisions, Bankier shows that one of the factors that determined when he would implement his policy initiatives and prompt his resolve “towards radicalization was his perception of this defeatist mood.”

‘The Limits of Mass Mobilization’

In order to reenergize the population to ensure they did not lose enthusiasm for the objectives of the Third Reich, the party leadership instituted continuous rallies, marches, indoctrination evenings and other community-wide ceremonies. Instead of galvanizing the masses, the years of “consciousness-raising” produced fatigue and apathy “as early as the summer of 1934,” Bankier discovered. Participation in party assemblies resulted in increasing apathy, even in areas where the Nazis enjoyed mass political backing.

A significant amount of material about whom the Nazis called “the better circles”—the bourgeois and intellectuals—was preserved, allowing historians to understand their responses. In August 1934, in Trier, a southwestern German city, the Gestapo reported a substantial decrease in the area of the more comfortable people joining the party. From other Gestapo stations, the author of the report said it would seem this sector of the population was increasingly disengaging from political activity. Similar findings were reported in May 1935.

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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