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XI. Propaganda and Public Reaction
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Overview   |   I. Building the Nazi Regime   |   II. The Nazi State   |   III. The SS and Police System   |   IV. Organized Resistance   |   V. Racial Politics   |   VI. The Military, Foreign Policy, and War   |   VII. Economy and Labor   |   VIII. Gender, Family, and Generations   |   IX. Religion   |   X. Literature, Art, and Music   |   XI. Propaganda and Public Reaction   |   XII. Region, City, and Countryside   |   XIII. Science

Nazi officials saw propaganda as a positive and necessary means to inspire solidarity among the “sound” members of the German population. In Goebbels’ conception, propaganda would lead the nation to enthusiastically unite behind the national revolution. Successful propaganda required the suppression of criticism and the elimination of information that did not conform to prevailing ideological views.

In peacetime, one use of propaganda was to prepare the nation for war. Once the war began, propaganda served not only to incite hatred of the enemy (and to encourage Germany’s military foes to be associated with the Jews), but also to immunize the nation against the strains of war. Hitler and Goebbels believed that Germany’s defeat in the First World War was not only attributable to the machinations of Marxists and Jews, but also to the collapse of public morale.

Radios were cheap and therefore common in German households, and broadcasts were an effective means of spreading propaganda, especially when talented speakers like Hitler and Goebbels took to the airwaves. But radios also posed a security problem. Although the Nazi regime had achieved full control of the domestic media long before the war broke out, foreign radio broadcasts still presented a danger. As a result, at the outset of World War II, the regime made listening to foreign radio broadcasts a crime and allowed the Gestapo to prosecute violations. The party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, tried to minimize the strain of economic sacrifices made by workers during wartime; it did so in part by playing upon socialist rhetoric and using Britain as a symbol of outworn capitalism.

Nazi propaganda about the Soviet Union required several nimble changes of course. Years of shrill anti-Bolshevism ceased shortly before Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Non-Aggression Treaty of 1939. Then, on June 22, 1941, the day that Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Goebbels informed his subordinates of a radical shift in tactics: effective immediately, reporting was to interpret the realities of war in ideological terms. Still, he was clearly concerned about the public’s response to the inconsistencies of Nazi propaganda

When the tattered remnants of the German Sixth Army surrendered (against orders) at Stalingrad at the beginning of February 1943, even Nazi ideologues had to concede that the war had entered a difficult phase. Seeking a new propaganda strategy that might gain traction, Goebbels tried to use military setbacks to call for increased sacrifice. On February 18, 1943, he delivered an exceedingly long speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin. It became his most famous. He asked whether the German public wanted “total war,” and then used a staging device to show that they did. Worthy of note are his references to British claims – a sign that a substantial number of Germans were getting their news from the BBC, despite the ban on foreign broadcasts. But another reason for emphasizing Britain, rather than the Soviet Union, was the increasing damage that British (and American) bombers were inflicting on German economic targets and cities. At a party rally on June 5, 1943, Goebbels delivered a speech wherein he explicitly tried to transform German civilian suffering into a longing for retribution that he hoped would translate into increased wartime efforts. An opinion analysis conducted by the SD suggested that the propaganda of sacrifice and revenge worked only to a certain extent. Popular confidence in Hitler remained high, but the rest of the regime and the media were no longer trusted, and the public had begun to look outside of Germany for more reliable sources of information. By late 1943, the discordance between reality and propaganda had become too great for many Germans to ignore.

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