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What Effect Did Nazi Propaganda Have on the German People?

How did the Germans react to Nazi propaganda in the press, since, as in all totalitarian regimes, the press plays a critical part in the “political socialization” of the masses? During the early years, there was serious competition between church journals and the party press, despite pressure from the government for the journals to adhere to a uniform message. For those “who could read between the lines,” the late Holocaust historian David Bankier noted, church journals provided another source of information. This alternative to Nazi propaganda became necessary, because not long after Hitler assumed power, the German public had reached “a saturation point … and thereafter [it] went into decline: it was not long before a trend of outright rejection became manifest.”

A credibility gap continued to widen between those who rejected Nazi propaganda and the regime. A September-October 1934 report from the Rhine province (the Rhineland) stated, “The press and radio are not considered reliable.” In response to the distrust of the press, the public stopped reading a number of newspapers. Others depended on church periodicals or the foreign press, both of which experienced a significant increase in circulation. The inability to obtain large quantities of foreign newspapers, which were purchased as soon as they appeared, meant friends, relatives and acquaintances shared the papers until they became unreadable, Bankier said.

In recognition of the influence of the church, Joseph Goebbels organized malicious and highly offensive campaigns against the Catholic Church in 1935 and 1936 and again in the spring of 1937, observed German historian Helmut Heiber. In his confrontation with the church, Goebbels called them “the breeding places of perverse sexuality.” In his attack against the priests and monks, he accused them of homosexuality and violating foreign exchange laws. “The whole campaign missed the target,” Heiber explained. When Goebbels viscously maligned the Jews, “antisemitism was nothing new. But when it hit the [20 million] Catholics, a substantial portion of the population got up in arms.”

The virulent attacks by Goebbels against the Catholic Church produced considerable indignation among Christians. Nevertheless, they hardly expressed their objections officially. Those who did voice their reservations publicly, like Michael Cardinal Ritter von Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich, were unique, Bankier said. Yet foreign observers were correct that while these concerns signified “opposition to the Nazis and their methods,” which were often viewed as “brutal and vulgar,” it did not “necessarily” mean “feelings in favor of the Jews.” Those who were embarrassed with the situation learned to withdraw into nonpolitical solitude.

Author and professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen pointed out that Cardinal Faulhaber was quite vocal in protesting against Hitler’s euthanasia program during the second half of 1940. Then the cardinal declared, “I have deemed it my duty of conscience to speak out in this ethico-legal, nonpolitical question, for as a Catholic bishop I may not remain silent when the preservation of the moral foundations of all public order is at stake.”

“For Cardinal Faulhaber, was the mass murder of the Jews not an assault on the ‘moral foundations of all public order’?” Goldhagen asks. “Why did the bishops not believe that protesting on behalf of the mentally ill and other victims of this [euthanasia] program of mass murder would only hasten their deaths, as the Pope and the bishops are now alleged to have believed would have happened to Jews if they had defended them? Why did the German bishops’ unqualified ‘duty of conscience to speak out’ against mass murder not apply when the victims were Jews?”

Opposition in Perspective

When the racial principle was applied to the army, the public did not respond, because the military organization remained intact with only 70 officers having to be removed. The few who did protest, Bankier said, opposed the military subordination to the party, not to racial ideology.

“We rarely find rejection of Nazi antisemitism on ethical principles, or indignation based on humanitarian values,” he explained. Declarations of support with the oppressed Jews “were quite exceptional.” The real reason Germans would refuse party requests or appeals, the motivation, which was generally stated in official reports, was quite clear: “Very rarely did they exceed utilitarianism or self-interest.”

Image and Reality’ in Perspective

In analyzing the disaffection with particular parts of the political and social scene, it is important to emphasize a couple of points. The criticism was not directed against the National Socialist system itself. Whatever faults were expressed, they were not translated into any practical demonstration of defiance, and the regime was not threatened or contested in any way. To be sure, “vast numbers” of Germans identified with Nazi ideology, Bankier declared. Radical Nazis only claimed the government was not preceding fast enough in implementing the “Nazi revolution.” They responded to what they perceived as political stagnation and ideological inertia, and were eager to reawaken the revolutionary fervor. The regime “subordinated these elements to its political objective,” out of concern that the developing activism jeopardized the “very basis of the social and political order.”

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