The name Joseph Goebbels immediately evokes a number of responses including politician, propagandist and Reich Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. On March 19, 1944, he presciently proclaimed, “We have placed our stamp on this century, which will come to bear our name in the annals of history.”
Nazi ascent to power is frequently viewed as a “classic example” of the success of propaganda, which was attributed to Goebbels, explains historian David Welch. Welch adds that Goebbels believed unrelenting propaganda would be indispensable in order to marshal mass support for the new German state, and to sustain an increased degree of identification, enthusiasm and dedication to its “revolutionary” goals.
The notion of propaganda as the “art of persuasion,” calculated only to transform attitudes and ideas, captures one of its objectives, but frequently a partial and secondary one, as Welch claims. He said, “More often, propaganda is concerned with reinforcing existing trends and beliefs, to sharpen and focus them.” Another fundamental misunderstanding is the belief that propaganda is based primarily on lies and fabrications. In reality, it functions on a variety of “kinds of truth—the outright lie, the half-truth, the truth out of context.” To a certain extent, some view “propaganda as essentially appeasing the irrational instincts of man,” and they are correct. Yet since choices are at least partially the result of one’s “rational decisions, propaganda must appeal to the rational elements in human nature as well.” Thus, propaganda “is ethically neutral—it may be good or bad,” Welch concludes.
Responsibilities of Reich Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment
On January 30, 1933, Hitler decreed the Reich Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment would include “all those tasks which have to do with intellectual and spiritual persuasion of the nation; with publicity of the state, about culture, and about the economy; with the instruction of foreign and domestic publics about these things; and with the administration of all those institutions which serve such ends.” Welch said this included radio, national and foreign press, propaganda, film, music, theater, fine arts, politics; official ceremonies and demonstrations; national emblems; racial questions; Treaty of Versailles; opposing ideologies; youth organizations; public health and sport; eastern and border questions; national travel committee and popular education and culture. The Nazi party, he pointed out, was the first to control the “entire cultural life of a nation.”
Goebbels, he added, understood that “a government that wishes to conduct propaganda must gather round it the most able brains in mass public influence and resort to the most modern methods to achieve this mass influence .” German historian Helmut Heiber said that soon after assuming his position, Goebbels wanted, in addition to surrounding himself with the “best brains in the field of mass manipulation,” to foster the ability of “crystallizing confused, complex and structurally involved ideas into a single expressive slogan which the division would then get across to the entire people.” In frustration with his inability to find the appropriate people to implement his vision, he was alleged to have said he could have used “a dozen Jews,” who would know “how to do the thing with the right nuances.”
In 1933, Reich Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment started with 350 employees according to Heiber. In its prime, the ministry had a staff of approximately 1,000 housed in a palace, and in a five-story building with 500 rooms. Other offices operated in various parts of Berlin from 22 of the ministry’s own buildings and 32 they rented.
‘Orchestrating German Public Opinion’
Welch and others have shown how Goebbels was profoundly influenced by Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” which explored how to manipulate the masses in an era of mass democracy. “I learned a lot [from Le Bon],” Goebbels explained, “especially that the rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitive. In the long run basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals.”
In the process of trying to influence the masses, “Hitler and his henchmen did not want to cower the German people as a whole into submission, but to win them over by building on popular images, cherished ideals, and long-held phobias in the country,” observed historian Robert Gellately. “Even as the Nazis ‘cleansed’ the body politic in the name of the future and perfect race, even as they grew more radical and brutal in the war years, they also aimed to create and maintain the broadest possible level of popular backing. They expended an enormous amount of energy and resources to track public opinion and to win over the people.”
In a period of mass movements, Goebbels recognized “it is no longer possible to rule people merely by resorting to a state emergency and nine o’clock curfews,” noted German historian Helmut Heiber. He viewed it naïve to dismiss any form of propaganda because of the strategy it employed: “If it attains its goal, it’s good; if it doesn’t, it’s bad.”
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He lives in Jerusalem.