December 14, 2018

The Nazi PR machine

One of the great mysteries of history is how a country as civilized as Germany was persuaded to embrace a man as coarse and cruel as Adolf Hitler. The answer, according to Nicholas O’Shaughnessy, is marketing.

“The Nazi regime should be viewed and understood as the most comprehensive public relations operation in history,” O’Shaughnessy writes in “Selling Hitler: Propaganda & the Nazi Brand” (Hurst Publishers), a fresh, surprising and important look at a neglected aspect of the history of Nazi Germany. “In early 1920 Hitler became the tiny party’s propaganda director and it is clearly significant that he began his trade not as a leader but as a PR man.”

Significantly, O’Shaughnessy is not a historian. Rather, he is a professor of communication at the Queen Mary University of London, where he specializes in the study of political marketing. He insists that ideology alone is not enough to explain the excesses of Nazi Germany: “[T]he unique nihilism of the [20th] century arose from the union of propaganda and ideology.” And he insists that Hitler himself, rather than Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, was the mastermind of Nazi marketing: “An ideologue of propaganda to the core, he believed this was the best way to gain and retain power.”

As it happened, Hitler was proven right when the time came to ask ordinary Germans — “Hitler’s willing executioners,” as Daniel Goldhagen famously puts it — to murder men, women, children and babies by the millions, at first with gunshots to the back of the head and later with gas chambers and crematoria. It is exactly here that Germany, once regarded as a pinnacle of Western civilization, eagerly transformed itself into an engine of torture and slaughter.

“Propaganda can … reinterpret and re-imagine the culture in such a way that people believe themselves to be doing what is authentic or moral,” O’Shaughnessy explains. “Thus at the crucial point, 1942, the beginning of the Holocaust, Germans had been subject to several years of toxic anti-Semitic propaganda, and, preceding this, an entire decade or more of propaganda-driven celebration of the con-cept of national exceptionalism.”

Even a concentration camp could be made to serve the propaganda of the Third Reich. Theresienstadt, for example, was “the PR-savvy concentration camp,” the author writes, “an idealized world of sunny inmates pursuing sports and cultural pursuits … fresh, sanitized, ostensibly not evil at all.” Such symbolism was a matter of engagement and fascination for Hitler, whose “personal diktat ordinated the symbolic realm in its entirety.” O’Shaughnessy reveals, for example, that Hitler himself took a hand in designing the pillboxes and bunkers that stood along Germany’s border with France.

O’Shaughnessy boldly deconstructs the Nazi propaganda machine and its vast output — “Hitlerite evangelism,” as the author puts it. The relentless effort ranged from the distribution of leaflets and posters to the staging of elaborately produced mass rallies like the one depicted in “Triumph of the Will,” a “brilliant fabrication in celluloid.” Cheap radios were distributed by the propaganda ministry so the masses would not miss the official propaganda broadcasts. Thus did the Nazis create what the author astutely describes as “an acclamatory state, government by declamatory rhetoric, which reflected and connected to the popular will.”

The Nazi genius for stage management extended into the streets of Germany. “The Nazis were expert at mood control, creating public actualities which were apparently spontaneous or authentic but were in fact completely fabricated,” the author writes. (Kristallnacht is one good example.) Indeed, no place in Germany was beyond the reach of the propaganda regime. Hitler himself recognized that “meeting and marching places” were more important than “cultic spaces” in the Nazi enterprise: “We have not mystic groves,” Hitler insisted, “but rather the sports grounds and the sports fields.”

To his credit, O’Shaughnessy insists that the consumers of propaganda bear a degree of responsibility for swallowing the lies they are fed. “The Third Reich represents the evolution of a partnership between masses and demagogue,” he writes, “a partnership in wishful thinking in which the masses were self-deluded as well as other-deluded.” To put it another way, the author argues that the Nazis did not simply put an entire nation under mass hypnosis; rather, they carefully composed a symphony of hatred and violence, and they succeeded in striking a sympathetic chord with their audience. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”