Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hitler's propaganda

I am reproducing the article from the WSJ in full below because it is generally accurate as far as it goes. I was slightly amused by the comment that the exhibition the author is reviewing doesn't say much about the reactions of the German people. Since Hitler was virtually worshipped by many Germans that is of course a tactful omission. The "variety of positive appeals" that Hitler used are also far from fully detailed. That socialism was one of them could not of course be mentioned. I and many historians agree, however that "the German populace was ultimately more indifferent to the fate of European Jews than rabidly interested in their destruction". Hitler's view of the Jews was fairly incidental to his overall appeal to Germans. After all, practically everyone was antisemitic to some degree in those days. Even the man who eventually declared war on Hitler -- Neville Chamberlain -- had some antisemitic views.

The statement below that the Nazis could never "win a majority in free elections" is misleading, however. In elections where there are more than two major parties, winning an outright majority of the vote is rare for anyone. Mrs Thatcher, for instance, once had large parliamentary majorities in Britain but she never went anywhere near getting a majority of the popular vote. Britain's centrist Liberal party siphons off too many voters from both Right and Left for ANY British party to have much chance of gaining an absolute majority. So Hitler's electoral achievements were actually quite good in the context of the Germany of his day. He led the party with the largest number of votes and that normally entitles a party to govern in Europe (and also in Canada, for that matter)

There is quite a good slideshow of Nazi political posters attached to the article -- though it helps if you understand German. I reproduce below one Nazi poster that I had not seen before. It is fairly crass so was probably not very effective. I reproduce some of what were probably the more effective ones here. My own much fuller account of Hitler's motives and modus operandi is here

After the fatal shooting last month of a security guard by a white supremacist, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's entrance was garlanded by a makeshift memorial of flowers, candles and condolence notes. The memorial has since been cleared away, but a visit to "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda," on the reverberations of hate speech, still packs an extra charge.

"State of Deception"-a special exhibition rich in content but somewhat cramped in design-follows the Nazi propaganda effort from its inception through its dismantling after World War II. With photo murals crowded with labels, vintage newsreels captioned with American newspaper headlines and oral-history interviews, the show raises questions about the links between propaganda and action. It offers insight into Nazi planning and aims. And it explores, in a fragmentary way, the German public's response to Nazi efforts at manipulation.

Vicious caricatures of Jews, both foreshadowing and facilitating the Holocaust, are the most familiar detritus of Hitler's propaganda machine. But "State of Deception" reminds us that the Nazis also employed a variety of positive appeals to rally support for dictatorship and European conquest.

Details and images nuance our picture of the times. One of the show's first images, for example, is a 1932 campaign poster with Hitler's face floating eerily against a black background, a design that evokes celebrity portraiture. The poster is book-ended later in the show by a postwar, red-on-black, anti-Nazi poster depicting Nazism as a skeletal death's head-an apparent reference to both mass murder and the insignia of SS concentration-camp guards.

Hitler drew inspiration from effective World War I propaganda denouncing the Germans as barbaric "Huns." One World War I poster-featuring an apelike figure, representing Germany, carrying a lovely maiden-was appropriated by a September 1939 Nazi poster to remind Germans of "the old hatred." The regime would later argue that rumors about the gassing of Jews were akin to the fabricated tales of German atrocities during World War I.

The Nazi message first resonated in the 1920s and early 1930s against a backdrop of the Weimar Republic's economic and social disarray. Even then, the Nazis, while preaching national unity, targeted appeals to different constituencies. Posters urged women to "save the German family" from unemployment and asked students to become "the F�hrer's propagandists." Anti-Semitic screeds were ratcheted up or down, depending on the audience.

"State of Deception" offers enticing glimpses of the regime's myth-making apparatus. A painting by Hermann Otto Hoyer is suggestively titled "In the Beginning Was the Word" and shows Hitler enthralling a group of converts during the 1920s. Another, by Hubert Lanzinger, depicts Hitler as a medieval knight on horseback and carrying a swastika flag.

A series of black-and-white photographs by official photographer Heinrich Hoffman captures Hitler rehearsing the dramatic poses and gestures that would become his oratorical trademark. Later, we can watch a clip of Hitler rousing a crowd with an emotional fervor that no longer seems spontaneous.

Once Hitler attained the chancellorship in 1933, he made the party's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, minister of the Orwellian-sounding Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. "Enlightenment," of course, meant book-burnings and increasingly tight Nazi control over all forms of communication and entertainment. Goebbels, we learn, sought to supplement ideological appeals with mass entertainment designed to cement the new German community.

The seductions of Nazi ritual had a certain allure even for Jewish children. Peter Feigl, who greeted Hitler jubilantly with the rest of the Austrian population during the 1938 Anschluss, was dismayed that he couldn't participate in Hitler Youth groups, with their compelling martial music and uniforms. "All this is fascinating and hypnotizing for a young kid," he explains in a video clip from a 1995 interview.

The exhibition doesn't chart German reaction to Nazi propaganda in any detail, but it does argue that not every initiative was equally successful. The nasty anti-Semitic stereotypes of the 1940 pseudodocumentary "The Eternal Jew"-likening Jews to vermin-attracted few viewers. By contrast, Veit Harlan's 1940 feature film, "The Jew S�ss," a portrait of a corrupt 18th-century Jewish court financier, was a huge hit-thanks, we're told, to its strong storytelling and production values.

The Nazi propaganda machine even extended into the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. Scenes from "The F�hrer Gives the Jews a Town," shot at the Theresienstadt ghetto and transit camp near Prague, feature seemingly happy, well-fed Jewish children-shortly before their transport to Auschwitz.

The now-infamous 1944 documentary, never distributed, capitalized on the ghetto's beautification for an earlier visit by the International and Danish Red Cross. Their reports demonstrated that the Nazis could bamboozle even a foreign audience. The exhibition offers excerpts of an astonishing 1979 interview, conducted by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, in which International Red Cross representative Maurice Rossel appears to blame Theresienstadt's "prominent" Jewish residents for helping to foster the delusion of normality.

"State of Deception" adopts the view that, on the whole, the German populace was ultimately more indifferent to the fate of European Jews than rabidly interested in their destruction. It also stresses the limitations of Nazi propaganda, which could neither win the Nazis a majority in free elections nor prevent their eventual defeat.

After the war, Allied forces tried to root out the physical residue of Nazism, from street signs to school books, and try some of its surviving propagandists for crimes against humanity.

In Germany today, advocating Nazi ideology is illegal. But in the U.S. and elsewhere, balancing free speech with the desire to silence partisans of hate crimes and genocide remains a vital and troubling concern. The exhibition ends, appropriately, with this dilemma clarified but not entirely resolved.


Friday, July 10, 2009


There is a new article out in the NYT on the research of Russell Fazio, work which I mentioned late last year under the same heading as that which I have used above. Fazio studies college students who are unlucky enough to be assigned a roommate of a different race -- in the bright-eyed but now hoary hope that living with a black will make you like blacks more. The theory (generally called the "contact hypothesis") goes back to the 1940s and I summarize most of the early research on it here. As I think most readers would expect, the facts give little support to the theory. The theory is based on the view that blacks are just the same as whites, only browner -- and if you believe that you will believe anything.

Needless to say, Fazio finds what many others before him have found -- that most whites thrown together with blacks very rapidly want out. Those who do stick it out, however, seem to have more positive attitudes towards blacks at the end of the experience. In the usual logically-deprived reasoning that seems to pervade the sciences that I know something about (psychology, sociology, medicine and climate science) Fazio just assumes he knows what is the cause of that improvement. One of the first things you learn in Statistics 101 (I used to teach introductory statistics at university level) is that "correlation does not prove causation" -- but an awful lot of scientists seem not to have done a statistics course. Fazio somehow seems to think the improved attitudes observed in some students confirms his "contact hypothesis". But what does it really prove? It COULD prove that it is only when blacks "act white" that whites can live with them and that those whites who live with such blacks are relieved to find that such blacks do exist. Much more likely, however, is that the whites who stick it out are more politically correct and know what to say when Fazio questions them. Students are very good at giving their professors the answers that their professors want. That's how most of them get their degrees.

So if anyone thinks that Fazio has found anything useful towards improving race relations, all I can say is I admire your optimism but not your reasoning power. I was amused, however, by the finding that living with Asians tended to make you dislike Asians. Given Asian superiority in all sorts of academically relevant ways, I don't find that surprising at all! And it does in fact reinforce the most usual finding from "contact hypothesis" research: That getting to know other races makes you like them LESS.

I was amused also by this sentence from one of the other researchers quoted: “Just having diversity in classrooms doesn’t do anything to increase interracial friendships”. That does rather undermine the whole rationale of having "diversity" on campus, it seems to me!