How Nazi propaganda encouraged the masses to co-produce a false reality.

The Nazis’ Propaganda Trick: Invite the Public to Help Create an Alternate Reality

The Nazis’ Propaganda Trick: Invite the Public to Help Create an Alternate Reality

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March 14 2017 11:59 AM

How Hitler Conquered Germany

The Nazi propaganda machine exploited ordinary Germans by encouraging them to be co-producers of a false reality.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images, AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN and German Federal Archives/Wikipedia.
Joseph Goebbels, head of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Jules Streicher, founder and publisher of Der Stürmer newspaper, and some propaganda.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images, AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN and German Federal Archives/Wikipedia.

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Adapted from Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy. Published by C. Hurst & Co.


Historian Karl Dietrich Bracher argued that the success of Nazi ideology can only be understood via the role of propaganda in the Third Reich. The Nazis’ modern techniques of opinion-formation in order to create a “truly religio-psychological phenomenon”1 made the propaganda especially powerful.

This is not to deny the role of coercion in the Nazi regime; this was a totalitarian state after all. During the ballot campaign in the spring of 1936, for instance—an “election” for the Reichstag and referendum on the Rhine remilitarization—all Germans were instructed to listen to Hitler’s speech from the Krupp arms factory at Essen.2 A typical press announcement of the time read: “The district party headquarters has ordered that all factory owners, department stores, offices, shops, pubs, and blocks of flats put up loudspeakers before the broadcast of the Führer’s speech so that the whole workforce and all national comrades can participate fully in the broadcast.”3 The near 100 percent result was of course an entirely manipulated one.

Yet while external compliance can be commanded, internal belief is an assent freely given. Joseph Goebbels, the appointed minister of propaganda of Nazi Germany, once said: “There are two ways to make a revolution. You can blast your enemy with machine guns until he acknowledges the superiority of those holding the machine guns. That is one way. Or you can transform the nation through a revolution of the spirit …4

Propaganda was the operational method of the Third Reich, the idea that projected the ideology. Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, told the Nuremberg Tribunal “that what distinguished the Third Reich from all previous dictatorships was its use of all the means of communication to sustain itself and to deprive its objects of the power of independent thought.”5 Hitler was a magician of illusion. The cultural historian Piers Brendon has described propaganda as the “gospel” of Nazism and notes that Goebbels “liked to say that Jesus Christ has been a master of propaganda and that the propagandist must be the man with the greatest knowledge of souls.”


Hitler enacted a theory of persuasion which he first promulgated in Mein Kampf. It is difficult to think of “great” historical leaders—dictators, war lords, kings, and their like—who theorized about the integuments of power or abstracted from this an idea of psychological process. A Caesar might write a De Bello Gallico, and though there are also various other memoirists, they offer little in the way of a theory of persuasion per se.

Hitler was different. Mein Kampf is an incontinent bulk crammed with reflections, ruminations, biographical extracts and frenzied speculations. But, within its seething mass, there is a complete manual of propaganda, one which is focused, concise, harsh and pragmatic. Hitler’s great insight, which makes him unique among historical actors, was the recognition that violence and propaganda could and should be an integrated phenomenon. War and its articulation should not be disentangled since they were interdependent. The Nazis claimed “we did not lose the war because artillery gave out but because the weapons of our minds did not fire.”6

The Third Reich represents the evolution of a partnership between masses and demagogue, a co-production—for example, the invitation to believe the idea that the Jews had simply been removed to external work camps, and not murdered. What the Nazis were really saying was that their truth lay deeper than their lies and that their lies were merely a permissible methodology since the end always justified the means. In historian Aristotle Kallis’ view, the identification of propaganda with falsification is misleading: Propaganda is a form of truth “reshaped through the lens of regime intentions.”7 From the perspective of the Reich, the Nazis were selling German truth rather than British falsehood.8

The idea of people willingly misled offends our notion of man as rational. A more accurate representation of the psychology of the Third Reich would be to conceive of a partnership in wishful thinking in which the masses were self-deluded as well as other-deluded. Persuasion in such cases offers an idea of solidarity and the target of that persuasion is more co-conspirator than victim, an invitation to share in the creation of a hyperbolic fiction.9 Successful persuasion in business, media, or government, does not make the error of asking for belief. It makes no pretense of objectivity. The notion of persuasion as “manipulative” evokes a passive recipient and a hypodermic or stimulus-response form; but a more sophisticated idea is that of an invocation to partnership.10


Thus, the Third Reich was the emanation of a collective as well as an individual’s imagination. Submersible parts of the ideology, such as the antagonism to religion, the euthanasia campaign, the massacre of Jews, could all have been discovered by the determined enquirer. One theory advanced as an explanation of this is that of group narcissism, which is described by historian and psychologist Jay Y. Gonen as one of the most important sources of human aggression: “In a world that is seen through a narcissistic tunnel vision, only oneself or one’s group has any rights.”11

The purpose of Nazi propaganda was not to brainwash ordinary Germans, and it was not intended to deceive the masses even though it did enable the movement to gain new recruits. The principal objective, according to historian Neil Gregor, was “to absorb the individual into a mass of like-minded people, and the purpose of the ‘suggestion’ was not to deceive but to articulate that which the crowd already believed.”12

The essence of the Nazi propaganda method was repetition. Goebbels argued that the skill of British propagandists during the Great War resided in the fact that they used just a few powerful slogans and kept repeating them.13 Historian Baruch Gitlis has argued that: “Wherever the German turned, he met his most ‘dangerous enemy,’ the Jew,”14 and that “while he walked in the street he encountered posters and slogans against the Jews at every square, on every wall and billboard. Even graffiti greeted the German at the entrance to his dwelling: ‘Wake up Germany, Judah must rot!’”

The message penetrated the barriers of inattention through the massive insistence on its replication. Goebbels was a proponent of the “repeated exposure effect.” The mass mind was dull and sluggish, and for ideas to take root, they had to be constantly re-seeded: recognition, comprehension, retention, and conviction are different stages in the cognitive process, and repetition can facilitate them. It is important to remember, therefore, that what Nazi propaganda also offered was the dubious benefit of sensory exhaustion. The citizen was not a target to be persuaded so much as a victim to be conquered, ravished even. They wanted internal commitment, not just external compliance.


Another core part of Nazi grand theory was the dethronement of reason and the celebration of emotion. Nazism felt rather than thought, and therefore the nature of its propaganda appeal was also to feeling rather than thinking. The mobilization of emotion lay at the heart of everything the Nazis did; propaganda’s operational formula. For Goebbels, the role of the propagandist was to express in words what his audience felt in their hearts.15

For this reason, propaganda had to be primitive, appealing to what Hitler described as man’s inner Schweinehund (“pig dog,” thereby a sort of deprecatory idiom for one’s inner self).16 Typically brutally “either- or,” the propaganda appealed to the audience’s primitive desire for simplification, thus: “There are ... only two possibilities: either the victory of the Aryan side or its annihilation and the victory of the Jews.”17 The Nazis believed a formulaic propaganda methodology must be applied even at the cost of alienating the sophisticated. Nazi theorist and proponent of propaganda Walther Schulze-Wechsungen wrote:

“Many a one laughed at the propaganda of the NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers' Party] in the past from a position of superiority. It is true that we had only one thing to say, and we yelled and screamed and propagandized it again and again with a stubbornness that drove the ‘wise’ to desperation. We proclaimed it with such simplicity that they thought it absurd and almost childish. They did not understand that repetition is the precursor to success and simplicity is the key to the emotional and mental world of the masses. We wanted to appeal to the intuitive world of the great masses, not the understanding of the intellectuals.18

According to Goebbels, what was distinctive about the Nazis was “the ability to see into the soul of the people and to speak the language of the man in the street.”19 The propagandist was an artist who “sensed the secret vibrations of the people.”20 What distinguished European fascism above all was its discovery of new ways, a methodology, of speaking to the working class. The fascists were not ashamed of mass media and marketing, understood the cultures of consumerism, and recognized the role these now played in the lives of the masses; media was a new language with which the masses were now familiar, including its styles, forms, and assumptions. Fascists were at ease in this exciting new world and recognized that it could be exploited for political purposes, both as a source of methods and as a new kind of culture with a different set of governing assumptions.


The propagandists did not have it all their own way and we are much mistaken if we imagine Nazi Germany to have been a nation only of fanatics. There were the convinced, the semi-convinced, and the doubters; one could in fact have been in all three categories through the lifetime of the Reich. The Nazis were the most electorally successful of all Europe’s fascist parties, yet they never garnered more than 37 percent of the vote.21

They also recognized the limitations of propaganda in that it is predicated on political results. As Schulze-Wechsungen noted, “It is clear that even the best propaganda cannot conceal constant political failures.”22 Then there was the acknowledged tedium of much of the propaganda. Nazi Germany had inherited (perhaps) the most creative film industry in the world, and yet American journalist and wartime correspondent William Shirer, for example, remembered the hissing of German films. Eric Rentschler, an authority on Nazi cinema, asked, “But how was one to explain repeated instances of derisive laughter at melodramas and films that hardly set out to be funny?”; in Rentschler’s view, out of sync laughter is a potential terrorist in the dark, someone who refuses to let the film cast its spell.23


Morale ultimately deteriorated when victories did not materialize into victory. Another criticism, well-articulated by Harold Nicolson MP, was that German propaganda brought short-term impact at the cost of long-term credibility:

“The German propaganda method is based upon seizing immediate advantages with complete disregard of the truth or of their credit. Our method is the slower and more long-term method of establishing confidence. For the moment, the Goebbels method is the more successful. In the end ours will prove decisive.24

Many were still with Hitler right until the end of the war (Germany had to be re-conquered, sometimes street by street), and even beyond the end—there were those guiltless of many war crimes who chose to follow him into the oblivion of suicide. All of this is merely to demonstrate that Nazi propaganda was not invincible and that the Reich could miscalculate because the ideology was, in the end, monstrous. As to whether all this persuasion was causal or merely decorative, I have advocated a perspective: Events are seldom inherently deterministic and they have to be “sold,” their meanings made vivid, via all the gathered powers of eloquence or pictography—whether by Marat in the French Revolution, Lenin in the Russian, or Churchill in 1940.

Hitler understood, as few others had ever done, the need for the serial creation of enemies. He was a political entrepreneur possessed of the truly devastating insight that all recent enemies could eventually merge into the one super-enemy, the Jews. Here was an intuitive understanding of how self-definition is achieved through other-rejection, that solidarity, identity, and community are in essence gained at the expense of others and appeals based on the brotherhood of man (as, in a sense, even Communism did) would always ultimately fail. His construction of tribal passion could arouse the emotions and therefore render people vulnerable to any kind of visionary persuasion or invocation to epic quest.

Nazism did not ask for belief but for surrender—not through coercion, primarily, but by assaulting consciousness. The essential aim was the extinction of independent thought via images that would now think for you. Yet the seeming ease with which Germans “went along” with, or ostensibly ignored, the true frauds continues to astonish.

Adapted from Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy with permission from C. Hurst & Co. Copyright © 2016 by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy.

1. Karl Bracher, The German Dictatorship, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,


2. W.J. West, Truth Betrayed, London: Gerald Duckworth, 1987.

3. Ibid.

4. Hilmar Hoffmann, The Triumph of Propaganda, Oxford: Berghahn, 1996.

5. Ward Rutherford, Hitler’s Propaganda Machine, London: Bison, 1978.

6. Corey Ross, Media and the Making of Modern Germany, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

7. Aristotle A. Kallis, Propaganda and the Second World War, Basingstoke: Palgrave

Macmillan, 2000.

8. G. Stark, Modern Political Propaganda, Munich: Verlag Frz Eher Nachf, 1930,

Calvin College German Propaganda Archive.

9. Nicholas J. O’Shaughnessy, Politics and Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Seduction,

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

10. Ibid.

11. Jay Y. Gonen, The Roots of Nazi Psychology, Lexington: University Press of

Kentucky, 2000.

12. Neil Gregor, How to Read Hitler, London: Granta, 2005.

13. Joseph Goebbels, “Children with their Hands Chopped off,” Munich: NSDAP,

1941, Calvin College German Propaganda Archive.

14. Baruch Gitlis, Cinema of Hate, Bnei Brak: Alpha Communication, 1996.

15. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, London: Allen Lane, 2004.

16. Stanley Newcourt-Nowodworski, Black Propaganda in the Second World War,

Stroud: Sutton, 2005.

17. Bracher, German Dictatorship.

18. Walther Schulze-Wechsungen, “Political Propaganda,” Unser Wille und Weg, 4

(1934), Calvin College German Propaganda Archive.

19. Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, New York: Overlook, 2004.

20. Rutherford, Hitler’s Propaganda.

21. Paxton, Anatomy.

22. Schulze-Wechsungen, “Political.”

23. Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Press, 1996.

24. Harold Nicolson, Diaries: The War Years 1939–45, New York: Atheneum, 1967

(entry from 29 May 1941).

Nicholas O’Shaughnessy is a professor of communications at Queen Mary, University of London.