U.S. Holocaust museum’s traveling exhibit sheds new light on Nazi propaganda

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: The book cover of "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda," written by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum curators Steven Luckert and Susan Bachrach. The book is part of the Museum’s initiative on propaganda, which also includes an exhibition and a website. The cover image is from a poster for the 1933 film "S.A.-Mann Brand." Credit: Kunstbibliothek Berlin/BPK, Berlin/Art Resource, New York.

An ongoing traveling exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum challenges visitors to think about their responsibilities as consumers of information and how they can confront harmful messaging today. 

“State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” is on display at Phoenix’s Burton Barr Central Library through June 1, before it moves on to Kansas City (at the National Archives, presented by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, from June 24-Oct. 25) and St. Louis (at the Missouri History Museum, from April 11-Sept. 7, 2015).

Curated by Steve Luckert, the exhibit examines how Nazi propaganda shaped German society and prepared the population to accept, support or participate in persecution, war, and the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

The exhibit, which Luckert says took a number of years to develop, showcases rarely seen artifacts including posters, a German gramophone, Hitler’s first recorded speech, a brail copy of “Mein Kampf” (Hitler’s autobiography), and German radios. 

How did the Nazis get their message out to new audiences? 

“In 1932 the Nazis issued 78 records,” Luckert, who also wrote a companion book for the exhibit, tells JNS.org. “One had Adolph Hitler’s speech appealing to the German nation. What is quite interesting about the Nazis is their fascination with the technology of the time. How do you attract people? They were pioneers in the use of film. They used the records to attract people. They would play them through loudspeakers on trucks. People would hear the music or the speeches and this would attract them and the Nazis would distribute their propaganda to them.”

Luckert says the Nazis used these methods to attract more and more people, and once they came into power, they gained access to radio and film. 

“The Nazis were the first country to introduce regular television broadcasting,” he notes.

Adolf Hitler wrote in 1924 that propaganda “is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.” During the subsequent two decades, Nazi leaders showed the world how to use that tool in powerful new ways.

The Nazi Party developed a sophisticated propaganda machine that deftly spread lies about its political opponents, Jews, and the need to justify war. But Nazi propaganda was more complex than that. For the Nazis to achieve power and pursue their racial policies and expansionist war efforts, a much more nuanced picture had to be painted—one that would appeal to broad swaths of the population, not just a fanatical extreme.

“State of Deception” draws visitors into a rich multimedia environment that illustrates the insidious allure of much of the Nazis’ propaganda. 

“Adolf Hitler was an avid student of propaganda and borrowed techniques from the Allies in World War I, his Socialist and Communist rivals, the Italian Fascist Party, as well as modern advertising,” Luckert says. “Drawing upon these models, he successfully marketed the Nazi Party, its ideology, and himself to the German people.” 

Click photo to download. Caption: This July 1932 election poster shows the German worker, enlightened through National Socialism, towering over his opponents. It reads "We Workers Have Awakened. We're Voting National Socialist." Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The exhibition reveals how shortly after World War I, the Nazi Party began to transform itself from an obscure, extremist group into the largest political party in democratic Germany. Early on, Hitler recognized how propaganda, combined with the use of terror, could help his radical party gain mass support and votes. He personally adapted the ancient symbol of the swastika and the emotive colors of red, black, and white to create the movement’s flag. In doing so, Hitler established a potent visual identity that has branded the Nazi Party ever since. 

“The swastika is found in a number of cultures around the world,” explains Luckert. “It is found in ancient India, Iraq, China, Africa, Native American culture, even in some ancient Jewish synagogues. It is a symbol that has been found all over the world and it means something different in a number of those cultures. Other extreme nationalist groups in Germany had used them. But Hitler took that symbol and combined it with those three colors to produce that flag, which he created in 1920.” 

Those three colors, Luckert says, were the colors of the old German imperial flag, so they resonated with people who remembered with fondness the old empire. 

“Hitler also understood that red was powerful, it was the color the communists and socialists used in their flag,” Luckert adds. “This became the logo of the Nazi party that became indelibly linked to the party. In some ways, it was quite pioneering because most political parties did not have a symbol. In using it the way they did they were able to brand themselves.”

According to Karl Kendall, deputy director of the Phoenix Public Library system, people went home surprised after viewing the exhibit at the Burton Barr Central Library branch.

Click photo to download. Caption: A poster for the 1940 film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal or Wandering Jew), directed by Fritz Hippler, the head of the German Propaganda Ministry’s Film Division. The film—billed as a “documentary on world Jewry” that aimed at unmasking the alleged pernicious influence of the “parasitic” Jewish “race” on German society—was a box office failure. Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum via Museum für Deutsche Geschichte.

“People who have visited the exhibit are surprised at the level of control that the Nazis had over the media, and how that total control made it easier for them to manipulate the populace,” Kendall tells JNS.org. “The customers I spoke with found the exhibit to be powerful and informative, and have expressed their gratitude that the exhibit is free to the public. One customer wrote a note saying, ‘I’m proud to live in a city with such a wonderful resource that understands the importance of making others aware of how hate can be manifested by simply appealing to our senses and weaknesses.’” 

Kendall also notes how “deftly the Nazis were able to change their messages to achieve their intended goals.” 

After seizing power, the Nazi Party took over all communications in Germany. It marshaled the state’s resources to consolidate power and relentlessly promote its vision of a “racially pure” and utopian Germany that needed to defend itself from those who would destroy it. Jews were cast as the primary enemies, but others—including Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people with mental and physical disabilities—were also portrayed as threats to the “national community.” 

As Germany pushed the world into war, Nazi propaganda rationalized Germany’s territorial expansion as self-defense. Jews were depicted as agents of disease and corruption. The Nazis’ actions against them, in Germany and occupied countries, were promoted as necessary measures to protect the population at large.  

“The exhibit has a lot of audio-visual elements,” Luckert says. “We created cinematic overviews for each of the historical areas so that people get an overview of political and economic events of that time period. We also have an interactive film and some oral testimony.”

Kendall says the exhibit has contemporary relevance.

“Between 24-hour news, the Internet, and social media, we are bombarded with more messages than ever before,” he says. “An exhibit such as ‘State of Deception’ will make people stop and think about the validity of the information they are receiving.”

Luckert encourages visitors to the exhibit to reflect on propaganda and what ends it is used for, especially when it is used to create a climate of hatred. 

“In a democracy where the Nazis had to compete against 30 other political parties, they were able to sell their message to people who would not have normally voted for them,” he says. “The Nazis were a party that went from political obscurity to political prominence in just a couple of years. No political party in Germany had ever done that. No political party in the world had ever done that.” 

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Posted on March 19, 2014 and filed under Holocaust, Features, Special Sections.