How Hitler's Propaganda Machine Worked

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: Jane, we've got a pretty hot button issue to talk about today - propaganda. And propaganda isn't just, "I want you," posters featuring Uncle Sam. It has a dark side, too.

Jane McGrath: That's right. It does have a dark side. I think it's most known for back in World War II with Hitler and his propaganda machine. But we're going to take a step back first and talk about the origin of propaganda, which dates back to about 1622. The Catholic Church, Pope Gregory XV started the congregation of propaganda. And at the time, it's not a hot button word. It just meant he wanted to convert back people who had convert to Protestantism from the reformation at that time.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So it was a type of missionary work, really. And you may not think that missionary work is synonymous with propaganda, but when you take the term propaganda and look at it in a nutshell, you can see that it does fall into the big umbrella. And essentially, propaganda is a type of media - whether it's print or broadcast - that's used to convey a message to persuade someone to do something. And it could be good or it could be bad. When you're trying to convince someone to act in a way that would benefit himself or herself then you could say that that propaganda isn't too harmful. But if you're trying to disseminate information that's one-sided and you're not sharing all the facts - and ultimately if you persuade a person to act a certain way that's going to be detrimental to him or her, then you've got a case of bad propaganda.

Jane McGrath: And if we're dancing around the issue of what exactly is propaganda, it's because it is such a widely disputed definition. Scholars dedicate their academic lives to defining propaganda, so we have to take this talk with a grain of salt. What is propaganda? Its different things to different people!

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and we know that origins of propaganda may stretch back as far as Biblical times when an Assyrian king actually used fear propaganda, which is a type that we'll get into in a second, to wage the surrender of the kingdom of Judah. And there are some scholars who say that Caesar may have used propaganda to bolster his reputation. So ultimately, Jane is going to get into an interesting story about propaganda. But before we can get there, we're going to cover some basics so that you guys can have a better, more scholarly, understanding of what propaganda is. And I think that a good place to start, just to get you guys thinking about that, is to tell you about a few different types of groups that use propaganda today. So think about the last anti-smoking commercial you saw, or a safe driving campaign, or maybe some of you out there are high schoolers and there's someone who comes right before senior prom and brings a smashed up car into the quad that someone who was driving drunk got into an accident with. This is propaganda. It's a visual technique; it's an oral technique - something to convince you to act a certain way. And it's not just anti-something groups, it's businesses, political groups, governmental organizations, political candidates - certainly, all of you out there heard a radio ad or saw a television spot before the November elections. It's everywhere.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, we're coming right off of this time where were just inundated with these political messages. Commercials every two seconds for this or that candidate - all of this is propaganda. And you're right to mention, we usually think of propaganda as the political messages. But of course everything from anti smoking ads to anti drinking ads - etcetera!

Candace Gibson: And don't confuse propaganda with advertisement. You have to think about who's disseminating the message to you, who is trying to get you to act in a certain way. And we'll get into a couple of different ways you can tell advertisements from propaganda. So now let's talk about some different techniques that people use for propaganda.

Jane McGrath: The first one that's usually associated with propaganda is called name-calling.

Candace Gibson: And that's exactly what it sounds like, you guys.

Jane McGrath: It is. It's basically from the schoolyard when you used to call someone a name. And basically, people say that you can do this or people usually do do this when they want to take the focus off of themselves and they don't want to answer a question directly. They don't have a very good argument to return with, so they just turn it on their opponent and call them something like a hypocrite or a traitor.

Candace Gibson: And it's very effective. And to hearken back again to the November elections and the campaign, we saw a lot of name-calling surrounding Barack Obama because it was really easy to throw terms into the mix - like he's a terrorist or he's an Arab or a Muslim - these are some of the terms that people used to name call him. And a lot of people who were calling him these names did it out of fear, or essentially miseducation of who he really was. It's a cheap and easy and direct way to get the side rallied against someone.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's right. And you bring us to another version, or another method, for using propaganda, which is fear. And you can see this a lot - not to say one way or another about global warming - but global warming proponents who want us to start paying attention to the issue will use fear in terms of saying, "Look what will happen to our society, the planet in general, if we don't act." All different kinds of movements use the force of fear to get people to come to their side.

Candace Gibson: And that leads to another good one - well, not a good one, necessarily, but one that's analogous to it - and that's the bandwagon technique. And the idea is that you convince someone, "Well, everybody else is on this side, don't you want to be on this side, too?" And it plays on the human emotion to not want to be left alone in the dust. So if you know everyone is going to vote a certain way, or everyone you know believes in global warming, then why not jump on the bandwagon and you be part of it, too?

Jane McGrath: And the idea of wanting to be like everyone else brings us to another one that we call plain folks, where elite lofty politicians can try to identify with the average ordinary person by making him or herself seem like they're just ordinary.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And if you guys remember and earlier podcast we did about Eva Peron, we mentioned that she spent a lot of her time going around Argentina kissing babies, cutting ribbons at grand openings, and things like that. Politicians around the world use this technique because it's a way to be a part of the mass. How many pictures have you seen of people running for President, or people who are President - oh, I don't know, jogging to McDonald's for breakfast or lounging on a fishing boat. It's a really good way to keep in touch with the common man when you're not exactly common.

Jane McGrath: And another method kind of related to that is the idea of transfer, which is taking a symbol or something that most people like and transferring it to your own cause. Correct me if I'm wrong, Candace, but I associate this with the bloody shirt method in terms of calling on emotions that people already have with one thing - like the death of a hero or something like that. And bringing it over to their own side and saying; "If you feel anything for this fallen hero, then you have to join our side!"

Candace Gibson: Oh, definitely. I think that is applicable. Or any time you see - again, we keep coming back to political office, but it's just such a salient point. Anytime you see a political figure's face in front of an American flag or an eagle, you get that sense that they're aligned with a symbol that we have a lot of trust and history with.

Jane McGrath: If you have patriotism, you'll identify.

Candace Gibson: Patriotism, exactly. And that brings us to a final technique that we're going to discuss, and that is glittering generalities and use of words like patriotism, liberty, dream, and family. The idea of these very scintillating sweet little messages and terms that you can throw around in context with the person's name, makes it seem like that person is criticism proof. If you say that so and so is a family man and he believes in patriotism, well how could he be bad. But if you say Adolf Hitler is a family man and he certainly has a dream, we know at least retrospectively his dream wasn't such a good idea.

Jane McGrath: And that brings us to the most popular, or the most famous, propaganda machine run by Hitler. He actually eliminated propaganda from the other side. That's one to do it, to just get rid of everything that's contrary to what you believe - cut the people off from their access to that information. And he actually had a minister of propaganda in Joseph Goebbels. And he ran the National Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. And Goebbels basically ran all media. He ran news, radio, literature, movies - you name it. There's a famous one called Triumph of the Will. He actually even banned jazz, or at least he tried to because the music itself seemed to individualistic and he wanted to bring people in line, which I didn't know before. That was a very interesting fact. He was very cunning. Even when Germany lost a battle and things didn't look so great, he didn't even falsify information. He didn't want to seem like someone who was covering up. He would just draw historical parallels to drive up some spirit, and sometimes he would actually say, "Germany has a secret weapon. Don't worry. Everything's going to be all right." So Goebbels is one of the most famous, and he was very effective, too. Just the whole hype over Hitler and the idea that Hitler would be bringing Germany back as a world power really worked, and an essential part of Hitler's whole regime.

Candace Gibson: Definitely. And I think that the Nazis took a cue from the success of propaganda in World War I, and really made propaganda a vital component of their campaign. And as far as I understand, they dispelled all information that would cast th e Nazis in an unfavorable light. And they did things like selling radios at rock bottom prices so that everyone could have a medium through which to hear the Nazi message. There were silent films made showing the Nazis at work. And Hitler was made to appear larger than life, really, and godlike. He was everywhere. He was a very pervasive part of the war. And on the other side, if you were with the Allies, you could see that it worked pretty well to use Hitler in a way to motivate people back home to act in favor of the war. Say you were trying to ration - there were a couple of U.S. World War II posters that said things like, "Waste helps the enemy." Or they were trying to get people to conserve fuel by carpooling and so there was this one poster of a guy in a -

Jane McGrath: This is my favorite.

Candace Gibson: - kicky little car, and he's got this ghost of a figure next to him - which is clearly supposed to be Hitler. And the line reads, "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler."

Jane McGrath: That's awesome.

Candace Gibson: And another one of my favorite ones was trying to encourage women to get a wartime job while the men were away. So it shows this very glamorous looking woman looking very forlorn and staring into the distance. And the line on that one reads, "Longing won't bring him home any sooner. Get a war job." And propaganda like that makes you feel good because you look back and you remember when and you can imagine that people were really bucking up and working hard to feel patriotic and get the country through the war. And I think that's one of the reasons that propaganda like that today is an art form. We can look at it as a piece of art and study the color and the way that the figures are drawn, and how art is used versus photography. And we see photography being used in propaganda from this time, too, especially when the masterminds behind the propaganda wanted a really visceral image to really drive the fact home that people were dying out there. And so you can look back at World War II propaganda and see different levels of seriousness and appeal to people, trying to get people involved.

Jane McGrath: It's interesting you mentioned art. That's one thing I find really interesting about propaganda. It calls back to an earlier podcast we did on Rosie the Riveter. They brought in Norman Rockwell to paint a very famous image of Rosie. But also, you look at art in terms of literature which I find interesting. You take a look at Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance - one of the most famous pieces of anti-slavery propaganda. And books like Marx's Communist Manifesto obviously are -

Candace Gibson: Or even Mein Kampf.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, incredibly influential. And actually I was going to say about Marx - later Marxists that came after Karl Marx actually defined propaganda as the reasoned use of historical and scientific arguments to indoctrinate the educated public. And they contrasted this to what they called agitation. Agitation to them was using half-truths and underhanded ways to exploit the uneducated. And I find this an interesting differentiation, but also they came to the conclusion that they needed to use both of these things in order to succeed at all. And they put it together - they actually called it agitprop. But it was interesting that they knew that they needed to go after the educated and the uneducated through underhanded means in order to succeed at all.

Candace Gibson: That's smart, because you can get the uneducated people on your side using techniques like the bandwagon method or glittering generalities, but if you're going to go after college educated people who pride themselves on being independent thinkers and being able to think above the average man, you're going to need a more surreptitious means, or else you're going to have to appeal to ideological precepts that no one can argue with. And you brought up Uncle Tom's Cabin, and I read that back in grad school. And if you look at the style of prose and level of vocabulary used, it's pretty basic. Anyone could get through that book, any level of reader. It's really long, but you can get through it. It's written very simplistically. And there's something very beautiful about it, too, and it's certainly a touching story. But it's meant for any reader. And it brings to mind the idea of - it's Speech Communication 101 - a pathos appeal or an ethos appeal. Are you appealing to someone's emotions or are you appealing to someone's ethics? And I think it takes two different types of intelligence to relate there. And it helps if you've got both. But if you're trying to get a wider audience, I think an emotional appeal is usually the quickest way. And that's when you see people like anti-abortion protestors standing on the street corner holding up a sign of a fetus or an arm that's sort of gory, that really gets you right then and there.

Jane McGrath: Sure. And it's interesting. If we're going to convey anything in this discussion of propaganda, I think it's the idea that propaganda can come in so many different forms and for so many different purposes. I know one topic that you're interested in, Candace, is the idea of the cult of Jonestown. The article we have on site actually mentions drinking the Kool-Aid. And that comes from this cult of convincing people to drink poison out of propaganda. And that's pretty effective.

Candace Gibson: It's amazing what people can be convinced to do if words are spun and messages are spun in just the right way. At least in the United States, we should be very grateful for the fact that back in 2005 the George W. Bush Administration signed into law the Stop Government Propaganda Now Bill. Essentially, this bill made it unlawful for TV reporters to take money to spin a story, and also any message that are disseminated have to clearly state who's funding them. And the idea is that government funds can't be allocated to pay for propaganda.

Jane McGrath: And this came out of some scandals, I think, of governmental agencies paying TV reporters to actually skew messages towards what they wanted to convey to the people.

Candace Gibson: And so we're really lucky. I know that in China, the people who live there aren't quite as lucky. The government, back in 2007, the public security ministry hired nearly 30,000 people to oversee electronic activity. And these are online forums, and the Internet is a largely unmonitored source of propaganda. And it's a double-edged sword because, while the Internet can be helpful for you to research both sides of the story to see who's trying to get you to think what, it also is a really big sunder of these confusing propaganda type messages. But in China, when people are browsing online, the government had these two cartoon police caricatures created that would pop up every now and then to remind people that their activity was being tracked. And so not only would you be made to feel that you weren't free to educate yourself and to research both sides of the story, but it's known that people over there can't trust necessarily all the statistics that come from the government. There was one case where heavy rains one summer had flooded parts of different villages and towns, and there were a lot of deaths from drowning. And the government released a statement that only 30 or so people had died. And that clearly wasn't the case, because a grocery store had been flooded and at least 100 people had died in that disaster. So once the flood waters had receded and people could see the corpses floating everywhere, it was clear that the government had lied. So again, we should be grateful for our freedoms and also be very responsible and think about who's sending a message and what point is that person trying to get across? Who's paying them? So buck up, you guys, and do your research.

Jane McGrath: And it's interesting that you say it's a double-edged sword having the Internet. It's horrible, of course, that China would suppress the information from the Internet, but at the same time when we have more options, people tend to only go to those places where they know their own already established opinions are going to be reinforced. And so you take - if you think that some news channels lean towards the left and some lean towards the right, the idea that people fear is that people who are more towards the left will only listen to the leftist stations and people towards the right will only listen to the right. And nobody's ever going to get a moderately objective story. And so that is one drawback to having the Internet and so many variety of sources of information.

Candace Gibson: Right. I agree. Variety can be bad as well as it can be good. And I know that was an issue that even came up with the 2008 elections. There were a lot of criticisms thrown out against the media for not being objective and portraying the two presidential candidates, and even leading up the Democratic National Convention, the portrayal of Obama and Clinton respectively and how things turned out there. So a lot of hubbub! And I think that this year, especially - and even during the first 100 days of the administration, the media's really going to be called to task to be fair and to be objective. I think it's easy when you have a young president in office who has such a beautiful family and who's capable of such great things - and the country's going through a hard time. I think it's easy to sway one way and to give out excited hopeful messages. But you can't overlook the facts. So it'll be interesting to see what happens. And as always, when you guys are reading your newspapers and reading your Internet news sources and listening to the news on the radio and TV, just be careful and think for yourselves. And be sure to visit our website to get more information on propaganda and some other historical figures that we've discussed on

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