Lesson 11
Duration:
1 class period

The Nazis in Power: Propaganda and Conformity

Overview

To deepen your understanding of the ideas in this lesson, read Chapter 6 of Holocaust and Human Behavior.

In this lesson, students will analyze several examples of Nazi propaganda in order to identify the messages that permeated German society, and to consider the impact these messages might have had on the actions and attitudes of German children, women, and men. The activity in this lesson is also intended to help students learn how to analyze propaganda through identifying the messenger, the message, and the audience of particular images. As students practice interpreting images, they develop a useful skill not only for understanding history, but also for understanding the images that surround them today. Helping students recognize the power of propaganda and giving them the tools to decode images are important steps in developing a fundamental skill for today’s citizens: media literacy.

Learning Goals

The purpose of this lesson is to help students:

Reflect on these guiding questions:

  • What is propaganda?
  • How did the Nazis use propaganda? What messages were they trying to send?
  • How do you think Nazi propaganda impacted the attitudes and actions of Germans in the 1930s?
  • What are examples of propaganda in society today? How do you think this propaganda impacts the attitudes and actions of people today?

Practice these interdisciplinary skills:

  • Analyzing images
  • Analyzing language

Deepen understanding of these key terms:

  • Propaganda
  • Conformity
  • Media
  • Message, messenger, audience

Context

Propaganda is defined as ideas that are spread (through various media) for the purpose of influencing opinion. This term is often used to refer to material that is used for or against a specific political agenda. Hitler and the Nazis were known for their ability to create extensive and varied forms of propaganda, with words and images carefully chosen and deliberately used to give life to old antisemitic prejudices, elicit opportunistic tendencies, quench dissent, and turn neighbor against neighbor. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote, “[F]rom the child’s primer down to the last newspaper, every theater and every movie house, every advertising pillar and every billboard must be pressed into the service sub- jected of this one great mission. . . .”1 By establishing the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda as one of his first acts as chancellor, Hitler demonstrated his belief that controlling information was as important as controlling the military and the economy. He appointed Josef Goebbels to direct this department. Goebbels’s strategy as Propaganda  Minister was guided by the maxim, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”2 He penetrated virtually every sector of German society, from film, radio, posters, and rallies to school textbooks with Nazi propaganda about the dominance of the Aryan people and the threat posed by the Jews.

Hitler is known for saying, “What good fortune for governments that people do not think,”3  and his policies were based on the premise that most individuals are conformists who do not think for themselves. Hitler and Nazi officials believed it was possible to manipulate public opinion by using propaganda techniques including euphemisms, name-calling, fear, and “bandwagon” (you are either for us or against us).  For example, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda changed the words used in the army, replacing the word “work” with “service to Führer and folk” and “worker” with “soldier of labor.” Writer Max von der Grün recalls the impact these euphemisms had on him during his service in the German army:

It is easy to understand that if, for whatever reasons, these words are hammered into a person’s brain every day, they soon become a part of his language, and he does not necessarily stop and think about where they come from and why they were coined in the first place.4

The scenario described by Max von der Grün exemplifies how the Nazis’ effective use of propaganda shut down Germans’ capacity for thoughtful deliberation about the information around them. Demonstrating his commitment to shutting down critical thinking in Germany, Hitler instructed Nazi Party officials to hold rallies in the evening, warning, “Never try to convert a crowd to your point of view in the morning sun. Instead the dim lights are useful—especially the evening when people are tired, their powers of resistance are low, and their complete ‘emotional capitulation’ is easy to achieve.”5 Horst Krueger admitted that many residents of his town of Eichkamp were skeptical of Hitler when he first came to power. But he remembers how even those who were not able to attend rallies in the big cities were eventually caught up in the spirit they evoked, explaining, “the citizens of Eichkamp were eager to give themselves over to intoxication and rapture. They were weaponless.”6  The Nazis’ distribution of antisemitic films, newspaper cartoons, and even children’s books roused centuries-old prejudices against Jews and presented new ideas about the racial impurity of Jews. Therefore, when the Nazis began implementing policies against Jews, from the Nuremberg laws which stripped them of citizenship rights to isolating Jews into ghettos, many in the German public were already predisposed against this group of people and thus unlikely to stand up for the rights of their former neighbors. 

Many have remarked on the effectiveness of Hitler’s use of information to manipulate public opinion. After his visit to Munich during the 1936 Olympic Games, David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister of Britain, wrote:

Whatever one may think of his methods—and  they are certainly not those of a parliamentary country—there can be no doubt that he has achieved a marvelous transformation in the spirit of the people, in their attitude towards each other, and in their social and economic outlook . . . not a word of criticism or disapproval have I heard of Hitler.7

Scholars, such as professor of philosophy George Sabine, describe Hitler as a leader who “manipulates the people as an artist molds clay.”8 Ultimately, the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda reveals as much about the content and strategies involved in producing this information as it does about the audience that received it. When exploring this history with students it is important to look at propaganda not only through the lens of its creators (the messengers), but also through the lens of its audience. Hitler and other Nazi leaders could advance their racist agenda because most members of the German public believed the lies they spread about Jews. From studying Nazi Germany we learn how individuals, especially young people, are vulnerable to believing myths and lies when they are not encouraged to critically analyze the world around them and make informed judgments based on evidence.

According to the Center for Media Literacy, “Media Literacy is the ability to access, ana- lyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.”9 The Nazi education system dis- couraged media literacy. Students were not taught how to develop their own ideas about the images and messages that permeated life during the Third Reich because the success of Hitler’s dictatorship depended on the youth believing the lies disseminated  by the Nazi Party. And, for the most part, the Nazis succeeded in these efforts. Testimonies of German youth reveal that they mostly accepted what they heard and saw as the truth, without evaluating the accuracy of the statements or the harm these messages inflicted on vulnerable groups, especially Jews.

The success of Nazi propaganda in influencing the minds and hearts of many Germans, especially German youth, demonstrates the dangers that can befall a society whose citizens are not able to make informed judgments about the media around them. By helping students develop the habit of asking questions such as, “What is the intended purpose of the text? What message is being expressed? How do I know if this information is true?” and the ability to answer these questions, we nurture their growth as responsible citizens who are less likely to be manipulated by malicious propaganda. It is also critical for students to learn to evaluate the ethical dimensions of propaganda. Studying Nazi propaganda reveals that the effective use of information to persuade the public is not the same as the responsible dissemination of ideas. Many forms of media (i.e., advertising, political campaign speeches, public service announcements) are produced with the purpose of persuading public opinion, and might be classified as propaganda. Yet, should all propaganda—all information that uses emotion or misleading claims to persuade an audience—be considered unethical, even propaganda aimed at causes we support? What criteria should we use to evaluate the ethical use of information? In the twenty-first century, when most of us have increasing access to a wide range of information, it is especially important for students to be equipped with the ability not only to comprehend ideas, but to evaluate this information from a moral and intellectual perspective. 

Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior.

Materials

Activities

Opener

In this lesson, students will explore how the Nazis used images and language to influence the attitudes and actions of the German people. One way to begin this lesson is to ask students what they might do if they wanted to convince someone—friends, parents, teachers, etc.—of an idea. What strategies might they use? What kinds of words would they employ?

Another way to introduce this topic to students, while also reviewing content from the previous lesson, is to ask students to look at the names the Nazis gave to the laws they analyzed during Lesson 9.

For example, the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” sends a message of improvement; it does not suggest that the law mandates firing people, even if they are doing good work, just because they belong to a particular group. Ask students to imagine that the law was called the “Law for the Discrimination against Civil Service Workers Who Happen To Be Jews, Communists  or Other Individuals We Just Don’t Like” or the “Law for Firing Competent Doctors, Teachers, Judges, and City Employees Who Do Not Belong to the Nazi Party.” Ask students to consider the different message these new names send and how individuals might have responded to the law differently with these new titles.

Then, you can give students an opportunity to do this same exercise with a partner. Post the names of the following laws on the board:

  • Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor
  • Reich Citizenship Laws
  • Law for the Protection of Hereditary Health
  • Law Against the Establishment of Parties
  • Law Concerning the Hitler Youth

Ask pairs to select one of these laws and then answer the following questions:

  • What messages does the name of this law send?
  • If you were going to name the same law, what might you call it?
  • What different message might that new name send?

Allow time for volunteers to share their responses. Then, ask students why they think the Nazis selected these particular names for their laws. Often students understand that Nazis selected names that they thought would gather the most support for their policies. So, they wanted to highlight the ideas they thought would appeal to the German people while hiding the parts that they thought might raise concerns.

Main Activities

During the main activity, students will analyze three examples of Nazi propaganda distributed during the 1930s. Before they begin this exercise, help students define the word propaganda. Below are several definitions of propaganda you might share with students to help them think about the different meanings of this word. You could ask students which definition/s best describe the practice of naming laws in Nazi Germany.

Definitions of Propaganda

  1. The spreading of ideas for the purpose of helping or harming an insti- tution, a cause, or a person10
  2. Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to pro- mote a political cause or point of view11
  3. A manipulation designed to lead you to a simplistic conclusion rather than a carefully considered one12
  4. The deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions [thoughts], and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist13

At this point, you might want to remind students that within the first few months  of being appointed Chancellor, Hitler created a Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The United States federal government, like many nations, has ministries (or departments) of defense, treasury, and education, but does not have a department of propaganda. You might give students the opportunity to consider what the director of a Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda might do? They could write about this question in their journals and/or discuss it with a partner. Under the Nazis, Josef Goebbels, the director of this ministry, attempted to control every piece of information the German public was exposed to—from school textbooks to films to newspapers to the language used by soldiers.

In this lesson, students will analyze three examples of German propaganda: two posters and a page from a children’s book. There are several ways you could structure students’ analysis of propaganda. We suggest that you do the first image together as a whole class so that you can model how to answer questions with specific evidence. Use the following process to continue to analyze images as a whole class, or you might have students analyze the other images in small groups or independently.

Proecss for Analyzing Images

  1. Step One: Description
    • Describe what you see in as much detail as possible. List information about images, colors, lines, placement of objects on the page, etc.
  2. Step Two: Identification
    • Record basic information about the image. What do you know about it? Who created it? When? Who do you think was the intended audience? In what format or media was it distrib- uted (for example, as a poster, a book, a film, an advertisement in a newspaper, etc.)?
  3. Step Three: Interpretation
    • Based on what you know about this image, what message do you think the creator of this piece intends to express?
  4. Step Four: Evaluation
    • Does this image utilize lies or misleading information to express its message? If so, how? In your opinion, does this image express a positive or a negative message? Explain.

One important point for students to take away from this exercise is that propaganda is designed to express an intended message to a particular audience. The effectiveness of the text depends on how the messenger (creator) was able to use words, pictures, color, and composition to communicate this message. After students interpret the meaning of the images, it is important that they evaluate them from an ethical standpoint. Just because a piece of propaganda is effective, that does not mean that the text is fair or ethical. Often effective propaganda, including Nazi propaganda, uses lies or misleading information to convey ideas. Also, Nazi propaganda is considered unethical by most historians because it was designed to inflict harm. One way you might have students evaluate these images is to ask them to explain which image they believe is the most harmful. As students share their answers, you can begin to tease out qualities that make some examples of propaganda more unethical than others. Finally, you might end this analysis by having students reflect on the following questions: Based on what you know about how the Nazis used propaganda, what do you think that Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazi leaders believed about how humans react to media (images, newspaper articles, television, blogs, etc.)? Do you think they believed that most people are critical thinkers, capable of making their own judgments? Why or why not? Do you agree with their ideas about how people respond to media? Explain your answer.

Follow Through (in class or at home)

After seeing a Nazi propaganda film called The Eternal Jew, a graduate student named Marion Pritchard14 said:

I had attended it with a group of friends . . . some Jewish, some gentile [non-Jewish]. It was so cruel . . . that we could not believe anybody would have taken it seriously, or find it convincing. But the next day one of the gentiles [non-Jews] said that she was ashamed to admit that the movie had affected her. That although it strengthened her resolve to oppose the German regime, the film had succeeded in making her see Jews as “them.” And that of course was true for all of us. The Germans had driven a wedge in what was one of the most integrated communities in Europe.15

You might end this lesson by sharing this quotation with students and asking them to reflect on how they think propaganda might have influenced their lives. Questions you might use to prompt students’ journal writing include: Have you ever felt like Marion Pritchard? After seeing a movie or an advertisement or listening to a song, have you ever felt like a message about individuals or groups might stick with you, even though you knew the message is not true?

Extensions

After students have studied Nazi propaganda, give them the opportunity to think about propaganda in their own lives. Students are surrounded by advertisements and other media that are intended to influence public opinion, and it is a useful skill for them to be able to interpret and evaluate these texts and images. You can ask them to consider how a group to which they belong (gender, race, age, religion, neighborhood, school, nation, etc.) is represented  by the media (by a song, a newspaper article, advertisements, etc.). Students can share a specific example, either found on the Internet, in magazines, or on television, and then discuss whether or not they think this example should be defined as propaganda, based on the definitions they developed in class. Students could also organize these examples on a continuum from most ethical to least ethical. Finally, it might be especially illuminating to include an example of propaganda with a positive message, such as a public service announcement for recycling or voting. Then you can have students analyze these images using the same four-step process they used during this lesson.

The German Propaganda Archive posts other examples of propaganda, including speeches, posters, and political cartoons. You can search their collection for other images to use during this lesson or for students to analyze for homework.

Sources & Notes

[1] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), 632–33.

[2] “Goebbels and ‘The Big Lie,’” Jewish Virtual Library website, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/goebbelslie.html (accessed January 13, 2009).

[3] Mfonobong Nsehe, The Adolf Hitler Book: Essays, Speeches, and Quotations from Adolf Hitler (Seattle: CreateSpace, 2008), 474.

[4] Max von der Grün, Howl Like the Wolves: Growing Up in Nazi Germany (New York: William Morrow, 1980), 76.

[5] Margot Stern Strom, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 1994), 215.

[6] Horst Krüger, A Crack in the Wall: Growing Up Under Hitler (New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1982), 17

[7] David Lloyd George, “I Talked to Hitler,” Daily Express (London), 17 November, 1936.

[8] George Sabine, History of Political Theory (London: G. Harrap, 1950), 884.

[9] “Media Literacy: A Definition . . . And More,” Center for Media Literacy website, http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/rr2def.php (accessed January 13, 2009).

[10] Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, “propaganda,”  (accessed January 13, 2009).

[11] Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “propaganda,” as quoted on Media Literacy Clearinghouse website, http://www.frankwbaker.com/progaganda.htm (accessed January 13, 2009).

[12] Dr. Anthony Pratkanis as quoted in Daniel Goleman, “Voters Assailed by Unfair Persuasion,” New York Times, October 27, 1992, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE6DCI33AF934A15753CIA9649582608&sec=&spon=&partner=permalink&exprod-permalink
(accessed January 13, 2009).

[13] Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion, as quoted on Medial Literacy Clearinghouse website, (accessed January 13, 2009).

[14] Despite  these feelings, Marion Pritchard protected the lives of at least 150 Dutch Jews during World War II, risking her own life and safety to do so.

[15] Marion Pritchard as quoted in The Courage to Care, ed. Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 28.

New Edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior

We've released a new digital edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior. We're working on updating all of our content to reflect the new resources and scholarship. For now, some content on this page may reference the previous edition.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.