World War II (Germany)

In September 1939 the Nazi regime faced the challenge for which it had been preparing since its takeover of power, namely, a major war. Much of Adolf Hitler’s (18891945) popularity after he came to power rested on his achievements in foreign policy. A recurring theme in Nazi propaganda before 1939 was that Hitler was a man of peace, but that he was determined to recover German territories “lost” as a result of the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Providing foreign-policy propaganda could highlight the achievements of revisionism without German bloodshed. It was relatively easy then to build consensus that favored overturning the humiliating postwar peace settlements. Much of the responsibility for ensuring that this occurred lay with the Reichsministerium fur Volksaufklarung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda [RMVP]), whose minister was Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945).

Enormous vertical red banners, at the time of a Nazi Party rally, Nuremberg, September 1934, seen in Leni RifenstahVs propaganda film Triumph of the Will.

Enormous vertical red banners, at the time of a Nazi Party rally, Nuremberg, September 1934, seen in Leni RifenstahVs propaganda film Triumph of the Will.

However, there was a basic contradiction between propaganda that presented Hitler as a “man of peace” and an ideology that was inexorably linked to struggle and war. Obsessed by territorial expansion in the east, in November 1937 Hitler confided to his military leaders at the Hossbach Conference that “Germany’s problems could only be solved by means of force”. Accordingly, the RMVP began preparing the nation for war by claiming that the latter was unavoidable and was being forced upon Germany. Anticipating Germany’s expansion as a major world power, the propaganda apparatus had to prepare the nation psychologically and to mobilize it into a “fighting community.” An ominous slogan of the period proclaimed: “Today Germany, tomorrow the world.”

To achieve these goals the propaganda machine was faced with two main tasks: to persuade the nation that the war needed to be fought and to convince the German people that the war could and would be won. The exigencies of war demanded of Goebbels a more intense concern with the tactics of propaganda and greater flexibility to respond to changing military situations. His directive entitled “Guidelines for the Execution of NSDAP Propaganda,” issued at the outbreak of war, outlined the means he expected his staff to employ in disseminating propaganda. This included radio and newspapers, films, posters, mass meetings, illustrated lectures, and Mundpropaganda (“whisper” or word-of-mouth propaganda). During the course of the war four major propaganda campaigns emerged, all of which were dictated by changing military fortunes: (1) the Blitzkrieg, (2) the Russian campaign, (3) total war and the need for strengthening morale, and (4) promises of retaliation or revenge (Vergeltung).

Goebbels’s immediate task, once war had been declared, was to counteract the negative opinions held by the population at home. From September 1939 to December 1941 this proved relatively easy in the wake of a succession of stunning German Blitzkrieg victories. Propaganda was able to advertise military victories and to create the expectation of new ones. Thus, during the period of lightning strikes in Poland, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and France, German belief in an early termination of the war was strengthened by a concerted propaganda campaign, which was able to persuade the population that Germany’s actions were a preemptive response to the aggressive intentions of her enemies.

Having decided to invade Russia on 22 June 1941, by the beginning of 1942 Hitler had begun to lose control of the military situation. Between 1942 and 1945, with Germany facing increasing setbacks, government propaganda emphasized the threat posed by the “subhuman” Bolshevik hordes from the

Nazi Party rally, Nuremberg, September 1934.

Nazi Party rally, Nuremberg, September 1934.

East and presented the Reich as the defender of European civilization. A constant theme was “encirclement.” Propaganda claimed that Germany was the victim of a conspiracy between a Bolshevik Russia and a plutocratic Britain, orchestrated by Jews who dominated both states. As the situation deteriorated, propaganda increasingly emphasized the terrible fate that would await the German people if the Bolsheviks proved successful.

Russian resistance proved tougher than the Nazis had expected. From 1942 onward Nazi propagandists were forced to shift their focus from the initial euphoria of the Blitzkrieg victories to account for a rapidly deteriorating military situation. The impact of the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad on the morale of the German people cannot be overestimated. It affected their attitude toward the war and created a crisis of confidence in the regime among broad sections of the population.

Goebbels adopted a stance of frankness and realism by proclaiming “total war,” demanding the complete mobilization of Germany’s human resources for the war effort. During the period 1943-1945, Nazi propaganda encouraged the population to believe that Germany was developing secret weapons capable of transforming the military situation.

In the final years of the war, the notion of retaliation or revenge by means of these “miracle” weapons played a crucial role in sustaining morale. The promise of revenge was widely seen as a panacea for all of Germany’s troubles. However, dejection set in once it became apparent that the new weapons would not bring the war to an end. The concept of “total war” had attempted to mobilize the home front and elicit a fanaticism to fight to the death against Bolshevism. The promise of retaliation was the Nazis’ last-ditch effort to guarantee future victory. It was a promise that could not be kept. Belief in retaliation and other propaganda cliches had worn thin for quite some time.

In the final year of the war, Goebbels attempted to resurrect the Fuhrer cult by depicting Hitler as a latter-day Frederick the Great, ultimately triumphant in the face of adversity. In the face of the gathering Russian occupation of Germany, this absurd image represented an alarming flight from reality that no amount of propaganda could sustain. The “Hitler myth” could not survive the military reverses and was on the verge of extinction—as was the Third Reich.

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