Hitler was the prime mover in the propaganda regimen of the Third Reich, its editor and its first author, at the center of the propaganda process. Many historians perhaps unwittingly imply a propaganda order where Goebbels was the brilliant practitioner and dictator. This was never true except perhaps in the final year or so of the war. But Hitler was in no sense an innovator—the ideas were always second-hand and even the symbols themselves had a pre-existing life as nationalist icons or signs from earlier ideologies, or as images and rituals borrowed from the Italian Fascism of Benito Mussolini. Hitler’s expertise was as a synthesizer, fashioning from the accumulated mass of forms and ideas, the historic debris and labyrinths and byways of the German mind, a modern and ravishing éclat articulated through deftly managed symbols and rituals.
Persuasion is the underlying mechanism behind great historical events, and persuasiveness is a common possession of event-making men and women. It was said of Pericles that “a kind of persuasion played on his lips.” This remains a feature, or perhaps a curse, of our present age. Al Qaeda, for example, often popularly imagined to be an organization (although an unconventional one), can more properly be conceived as a kind of cyberspace advertising agency, and only if this is recognized does both the tenacity and the impact of al Qaeda become intelligible. It does not command officer corps, or fighting legions; it exists only as a nexus of incitement.
Hitler possessed fateful insight into the rhetorically constructed nature of human actors and their persuasability, and it is this that makes him unique among historical performers. He recognized, as few others did, that persuasion in politics could never be merely one tool among others; not a political skill but the political skill. Nobody was born a Nazi; they became so by a process of argument, and the experience of the Reich makes this broader case for our persuasibility: that the Reich tripped over one of the fundamental characteristics of our humanity. All regimes have employed persuasion, but no regime has ever turned persuasion into its governing philosophy. Yet the historical narrative since those days has taught us that the Third Reich was not merely an experiment but an anticipatory account. And a harbinger of what was to come, more tentatively, in the political world of the later 20th and the 21st century; when the artifice of myth, symbol, and rhetoric had become once again central to the activity of political struggle.
If we judge the Nazis’ standard of propaganda and its appeal through the prism of Der Stürmer, or the three anti-Semitic films of 1940, we seriously misrepresent both its effectiveness and the credulity of its German targets. The assumption we often make is that the weight of the Nazi case—for what they offered, was in the end, an argument—represented an appeal to mere fanaticism and prejudice. Not so. Their critique of Anglo-Saxon capitalism and big business rang true then, and it does so today. More generally, their entire rejection of modernity illuminated the deficiencies in the condition of modernity such as the isolation of the individual, the fragmentation of community, the appeals to rationality alone as the basis for a civic order, and failure to engage the emotional or the mystical, or to discover symbolic and ritual forms to express our governing ideals. The great parades were one way of achieving this illusion of communality and social solidarity; rigid angularity, patterns of marching boots, were a balletic enactment of the values of the regime, insistent, organized, hard. In general, also the Nazis were alive to the danger of materialism; hence the “spiritual” protestations of Nazi propaganda. What they offered was the facsimile of a religion, mumbo-jumbo, an evocation of metaphysical concepts like eternity. They recognized above all the power of ritual and the necessity for it, the bankruptcy of a society founded on science and reason, equality and materialism, the yearning for a point of ignition, for transcendence.
The Nazis also knew that effective propaganda needs some inner core of plausibility to work, a recurrent theme of this text. The Communist menace, for example, the threatened extinction of the bourgeoisie (who in Germany were a huge group), could be made very credible; red scare was an easy thing to run—one did not need to be a Nazi to believe it. Thus concentration camps might become acceptable because so many of their early inmates were German Communists. The murderousness of Bolshevism was well understood by the German middle class, as was the belief that they were its targets; therefore an atmosphere of existential threat was easy to foment because there was an existential threat. If everything Hitler had ever said was lying, drivel, and slander, or fantasy, then the Nazi Party would have got nowhere. But, no matter how hyperbolic the ranting, it was never entirely devoid of truth. The Germans had had a direct experience of Communism in the death throes of the First World War and also as prisoners of war in Russia. Their fears of it cannot therefore simply be dismissed as paranoia or McCarthyite hysteria.
But Hitler was, also, a practitioner of the classic politics as well as of a new kind of political art. He was a politician and did many of the things which politicians have always done, and thus the lack of a clear program when running for election, the vagueness and indeterminacy of the Nazi promise, is hardly something unique to the Nazis; these are the standard practices of political parties in democracies. Nazis were almost entirely tactical.
The Nazis stand before the bar of history as representing a nullification (of every value), and a revelation (of humanity’s infinite capacity for inhumanity). Yet it is their paradox that the core of the propaganda appeal was never thus, their adherents perceived the state perhaps as ruthless but seldom as perversely cruel, for it came clothed in the garb of self-righteousness. No regime was more sanctimonious than the Nazis, their humbug, their proclamations of morality or appeals to ideas of self-sacrifice. And at a certain level they were believed; their constant shrill assertions of civic decency, the invocations to social solidarity, could neutralize the peripheral vision of the dark side of the regime. The Nazis represented, in large and hyperactive form, a version of the politics of grievance, the mobilization of an ostensible minority psychosis which has been so much of the grand political narrative since. Part of the pose was anti-plutocracy, a vibrant source of Nazi rhetoric—“world competition necessitates cooperation between European states to maintain their living standard,” and so on. There was a very real sentimentality in all of this, an indulgence and indeed hysteria quite at variance with the implicit Nazi claim to be the bearers of the culture of old Prussia with its associated norms of austerity, restraint, and emotional forbearance. The Reich was none of those things.
Reprinted from Selling Hitler: Propaganda & the Nazi Brand with permission from C. Hurst & Co. Copyright © 2016 by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy.
Nicholas O‘Shaughnessy (PhD) is Professor of Communication at Queen Mary, University of London. He studied at Cambridge, Oxford and Columbia universities and among his many publications are The Marketing Power Of Emotion (OUP) and The Phenomenon of Political Marketing (Macmillan).