The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda
Facing History & Ourselves
Reading

Shaping Public Opinion (UK)

Read about the far-reaching efforts of Joseph Goebbels and the Ministry of Propaganda to generate enthusiasm for the Nazi party.

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English — UK
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This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

As the Nazis eliminated civil liberties in Germany and opened the first concentration camps to imprison ‘enemies of the state’, they were also trying to win public approval for their government. According to historian Robert Gellately,

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. . . . [The Nazis] 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 people. 1

The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda played a key role in the Nazis’ efforts to cultivate favourable public opinion. Propaganda is biased or misleading information that is used to influence public opinion. Hitler created the new ministry on 13 March 1933, and put Joseph Goebbels in charge. It was his job "not just to present the regime and its policies in a positive light, but to generate the impression that the entire German people enthusiastically endorsed everything it did.” 2

To generate excitement and enthusiasm for the Nazi Party and for Hitler himself, Goebbels and his ministry created new festivals and holidays, such as the celebration of Hitler’s birthday. They changed street names and other public signage to erase reminders of the Weimar Republic. They organised party rallies and dramatic torchlit parades to demonstrate public support.

Writing in 1939, journalist Sebastian Haffner described these demonstrations and recalled the effect they had on many Germans.

[O]ne was permanently occupied and distracted by an unending sequence of celebrations, ceremonies, and national festivities. It started with a huge victory celebration before the elections on March 4 [see reading, Outlawing the Opposition] . . . There were mass parades, fireworks, drums, bands, and flags all over Germany, Hitler’s voice over thousands of loudspeakers, oaths and vows—all before it was even certain that the elections might not be a setback for the Nazis, which indeed they were. These elections, the last that were ever held in prewar Germany, brought the Nazis only 44 percent of the votes (in the previous elections they had achieved 37 percent). The majority was still against the Nazis.

A week later, Hindenberg abolished the Weimar national flag, which was replaced by the swastika banner and a black, white, and red “temporary national flag.” There were daily parades, mass meetings, declarations of gratitude for the liberation of the nation, military music from dawn to dusk, awards ceremonies for heroes, the dedication of flags. . . . Hitler swearing loyalty to something or other for the nth time, bells tolling, a solemn procession to church by the members of the Reichstag, a military parade, swords lowered in salute, children waving flags, and a torchlight parade. 

The colossal emptiness and lack of meaning of these never-ending events was by no means unintentional. The population should become used to cheering and jubilation, even when there was no visible reason for it. . . . Better to celebrate, howl with the wolves, “Heil, Heil!” Besides, people began to enjoy doing so. The weather in March 1933 was glorious. Was it not wonderful to celebrate in the spring sunshine, in squares decked with flags? To merge with the festive crowds and listen to high-sounding patriotic speeches, about freedom and fatherland, exaltation and holy vows? 3

Goebbels and his ministry also set out to coordinate every form of expression in Germany – from music to radio programmes to textbooks, artwork, newspapers, and even sermons – crafting language and imagery carefully to praise Nazi policies and Hitler himself, and to demonise those who the Nazis considered enemies. While the ministry’s work included censoring much German art and media, the Nazis also created an environment in which many artists, newspaper editors, and film-makers censored themselves in order to gain favour with the regime, avoid punishment, or escape the Nazis’ attention altogether. 4

Connection Questions

  1. Why do you think that public opinion was important to the Nazis? How did they go about winning support from the German public?
  2. Historian Doris Bergen writes, “It must have been a lonely and terrifying experience to be on the outside of a torchlight march looking in. What chance would one feel one had against that monolith of power?” 5 Compare and contrast Bergen’s statement with Sebastian Haffner’s description of how Nazi demonstrations affected Germans. What emotions did the Nazis’ public demonstrations generate in members of the German public? Which emotions were useful to the Nazis in building acceptance and support for their regime?
  3. How did the Nazis use language to shape public opinion? How did they try to influence what Germans thought about, remembered, or forgot through their choice of words? What part did the truth play in these efforts?
  4. What do the results of the March 5, 1933, elections tell you about the Nazis’ popularity in the first weeks of Hitler's chancellorship? According to Haffner, how did the Nazis attempt to influence the outcome of the elections?
  5. How do the actions and opinions of your peer group influence your own actions and opinions? How can you tell the difference between when people are “going along with the crowd” and when they really believe in what they do and say?
  • 1Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), vii.
  • 2Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power (New York: Penguin, 2005), 121.
  • 3Sebastian Haffner, “Street-Level Coercion,” in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. Peter Hayes (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 122, excerpt from Defying Hitler: A Memoir, trans. Oliver Pretzel (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), 128–29.
  • 4Doris Bergen to Facing History and Ourselves, comment on draft manuscript, December 23, 2015.
  • 5Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 67. Reproduced by permission from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “Shaping Public Opinion (UK)”, last updated August 2, 2016.

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