February 22, 2019

Nazi propaganda and the forging of hate

An effective sales pitch reaches all audiences, and the Nazis knew it.

That’s why, amid the memorabilia on display in the traveling exhibition “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda,” posters and banners, flags and newspapers, are mixed with a child’s board game, knives and pins given to members of Hitler Youth groups and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” printed in Braille. 

“The Nazi Party began a chain of niche marketing, directing propaganda toward students, toward women, toward farmers,” said Steven Luckert, curator of the free exhibition at the Los Angeles Central Library through Aug. 21. “You open up this edition of ‘Mein Kampf,’ and there’s a swastika in Braille. The Nazis were even targeting their message to the blind, saying, ‘We understand your plight. You have been excluded from the German community, and we want to bring you back.’ ”

Presented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Los Angeles Public Library, the multimedia exhibition charts how, shortly after the end of World War I, the Nazi Party transformed itself from a fringe extremist group into German’s largest political power. Through a sophisticated propaganda machine, the Nazis spread lies about political opponents, promoted anti-Semitic messages and ultimately tried to justify the need for war. 

In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler famously called propaganda “a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert,” and, according to exhibition researchers, his party proved to be expert propagandists through both subtle and overt methods. Luckert, curator of the permanent collection at USHMM, pointed out a 1932 campaign photograph of Hitler’s face shot by his official photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. It used shadowing similar to techniques used to shoot movie stars, over a black background. The poster, he said, would have stood out opposite the brightly colored posters of his political opponents.  

Amid the aftermath of World War I and the during Great Depression, Luckert said, the Nazi Party tapped into citizen dissatisfaction and used amorphous phrases and vague promises to gain support. The party grew from winning 12 seats in the German parliamentary elections in 1928 to 107 in 1930. By 1932, the party had 232 seats. 

All the while, it was calculated in its strategy, including how it did — and didn’t — invoke anti-Semitism.

“They learned from a number of local groups that anti-Semitism didn’t play well with those audiences, so they didn’t use it,” Luckert said. “When Hitler ran for president of Germany in 1932, he gave a speech in which he lays out his program. There’s not one reference to the Jews. He does that not because he’s not anti-Semitic, but he knows that he can get more votes by having a broader appeal, and that anti-Semitism could be divisive.”

“State of Deception” drew more than 1.7 million visitors during its initial run through 2012 at USHMM in Washington, D.C. This smaller version of the exhibit has been traveling the country and will be at the downtown branch of the L.A. Public Library into the summer.

More than 30 middle school, high school and college classes signed up for tours before the exhibition even opened; experiences like those help expose newer audiences across the country to the museum, according to museum officials. And that’s just the beginning. 

“There are online resources. If you bring your class here, it doesn’t just stop when you leave,” said Steven Klappholz, director of USHMM’s western regional office. “This is the national United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and we want to make sure that we are servicing the entire country. If you live in Calabasas, our goal is to make the museum as relevant to you as if you lived in Arlington, Va.”

On a recent Tuesday morning shortly before the exhibition’s March 10 opening, Luckert led a group of 15 students from Otis College of Art and Design. Pausing in front of a Volksempfänger “People’s Receiver” radio, Luckert explained that the devices were manufactured cheaply by the Nazi propaganda machine so working-class citizens could have easy access to party speeches as well as targeted music and programming for young people and housewives. 

“They even had something close to ‘American Idol,’ ” Luckert said. “You can get across subtle propaganda messages, but the Nazis also found that people responded better to a message after listening to music like this. It worked, and this is something that propagandists today argue still works.” 

The Otis students were part of an undergraduate class titled “Movies That Matter,” involving watching Holocaust-themed films such as Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning “The Pianist.” The “State of Deception” exhibition fed into the class’ unit on anti-Semitism, according to instructor Perri Chasin.

“I want them to question the media that they see,” Chasin said. “Right now, we’re going into an election period, and I think it’s really important that they listen carefully, that they understand what the message is and who the messenger is. As global citizens, it’s important for them for to understand that as artists, they have a responsibility and this is part of their responsibility.”

Sophomore Rachel Halemanu, who also saw the exhibition in Washington, D.C., said this more condensed version was easier to process. 

“There’s a lot of information, and it’s easier for us to get a grasp on what they’re trying to say here,” Halemanu said. “We’re focusing on the media and it’s really interesting to see how media can influence our perception on different subjects.” 

The tour of the exhibition by the Otis students included a bonus: a visit with actor Robert Clary, the former “Hogan’s Heroes” star who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. A Holocaust survivor, Clary spent more than 20 years working with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and giving talks about his experience throughout the United States and Canada.

On the lecture circuit and now, Clary gives a markedly different message than what the Nazis were espousing in prewar Europe.

“Be better human beings. Don’t hate each other. Don’t be too greedy and help other people,” Clary told the Journal. “It’s a very hard thing to do, but it’s not impossible.”