An issue of the antisemitic propaganda newspaper Der Stürmer (The Attacker) is posted on the sidewalk in Worms, Germany, in 1935. The headline above the case says, ""The Jews Are Our Misfortune.""
Lesson

The Power of Propaganda

Students analyze several examples of Nazi propaganda and consider how the Nazis used media to influence the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individual Germans.

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At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–8

Duration

Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust

Overview

About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students were introduced to the Nazis’ idea of a “national community” shaped according to their racial ideals, and the way the Nazis used laws to define and then separate those who belonged to the “national community” from those who did not. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by considering the nature of propaganda and analyzing how the Nazis used media to influence the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individuals in Germany. While the Nazis used propaganda as a tool to try to condition the German public to accept, if not actively support, all of their goals (including rearmament and war), this lesson focuses specifically on how they used propaganda to establish “in” groups and “out” groups in German society and cultivate their ideal “national community.” After carefully analyzing several propaganda images created by the Nazis, students will consider the ways in which this material influenced individuals, and they will be encouraged to consider how the effects of propaganda are more complicated than simple brainwashing.

Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

  • How did the Nazis use propaganda to influence individuals’ attitudes and actions and to cultivate public support for their idea of a “national community”?
  • How do explicit and implicit messages in the media (including television, the internet, film, radio, etc.) influence people’s beliefs, feelings, and actions? 
  • Students will analyze several examples of Nazi propaganda to determine how it communicates powerful messages about who should be included in and who should be excluded from German society.
  • Students will recognize that the effects of propaganda are more complex than simple brainwashing, and that Hitler succeeded because many German people shared some of the beliefs that were transmitted through Nazi propaganda.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 7 activities
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 1 reading
  • 2 assessments
  • 3 extension activities

Propaganda—information that is intended to persuade an audience to accept a particular idea or cause, often by using biased material or by stirring up emotions—was one of the most powerful tools the Nazis used to consolidate their power and cultivate an “Aryan national community” in the mid-1930s.

Hitler and Goebbels did not invent propaganda. The word itself was coined by the Catholic Church to describe its efforts to discredit Protestant teachings in the 1600s. Over the years, almost every nation has used propaganda to unite its people in wartime. Both sides of World War I used propaganda, for example. But the Nazis were notable for making propaganda a key element of government even before Germany went to war again. One of Hitler’s first acts as chancellor was to establish the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, demonstrating his belief that controlling information was as important as controlling the military and the economy. He appointed Joseph Goebbels as director. Through the ministry, Goebbels was able to penetrate virtually every form of German media, from newspapers, film, radio, posters, and rallies to museum exhibits and school textbooks, with Nazi propaganda.

Whether or not propaganda was truthful or tasteful was irrelevant to the Nazis. Goebbels wrote in his diary, "No one can say your propaganda is too rough, too mean; these are not criteria by which it may be characterized. It ought not be decent nor ought it be gentle or soft or humble; it ought to lead to success." Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that to achieve its purpose, propaganda must "be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away."

Some Nazi propaganda used positive images to glorify the government’s leaders and its various activities, projecting a glowing vision of the “national community.” Nazi propaganda could also be ugly and negative, creating fear and loathing by portraying those the regime considered to be enemies as dangerous and even sub-human. The Nazis’ distribution of antisemitic films, newspaper cartoons, and even children’s books aroused centuries-old prejudices against Jews (see Lesson 6) and also presented new ideas about the racial impurity of Jews. The newspaper Der Stürmer (The Attacker), published by Nazi Party member Julius Streicher, was a key outlet for antisemitic propaganda.

This lesson includes a selection of Nazi propaganda images, both “positive” and “negative.” It focuses on posters that Germans would have seen in newspapers like Der Stürmer and passed in the streets, in workplaces, and in schools. Some of these posters were advertisements for traveling exhibits—on topics like “The Eternal Jew” or the evils of communism—that were themselves examples of propaganda.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

  • The poster The Eternal Jew and other images in this lesson portray inaccurate, offensive stereotypes of Jews. Teachers have the responsibility to acknowledge that these images contain stereotypes and to prepare their students to discuss the material in a thoughtful and respectful manner.
  • Devoting time on the first day of the lesson to a whole-group analysis of The Eternal Jew provides the opportunity to set an appropriate tone for students throughout the lesson and the unit. You might set this tone by asking students to refer back to the concept maps they created for stereotype in Lesson 3: Stereotypes and "Single Stories," as well as their journal responses to Chimamanda Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story, before working with the images in this lesson.

Even with two days devoted to this lesson, it is not possible to provide students with examples of every form of Nazi propaganda. They need to understand that it pervaded every aspect of society—radio, the press, feature films and newsreels, theater, music, art exhibits, books, the school curriculum, sports, and more. Propaganda was not a separate stream of information; it was embedded in all of the existing information streams in German society.

 

While not explicitly addressed in this lesson, it is also important to note that the Nazis created propaganda for a variety of other purposes as well, most notably to encourage adulation of Hitler and, eventually, to encourage support for war.

Students will use the Crop It teaching strategy to analyze several propaganda images in this lesson. Before beginning, make sure that you have prepared cropping tools for students to use. (You might also have students create them if you think that you will have time during class.) Each tool consists of two L-shaped strips of paper (cut from the border of a blank sheet of 8 ½ x 11-inch paper), and each student will need two L-shaped cropping tools to work with.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Media literacy
  • Persuade
  • Coerce
  • Brainwash

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1

Activities

  • Explain to students that in this lesson, they will continue to examine the Nazis’ efforts to shape the German “national community” according to their racial ideals. This meant privileging “Aryans” and discriminating against those of so-called inferior races, such as Jews. In the last lesson, students looked at how the Nazis used laws to accomplish this goal. In this lesson, they will look at the way the Nazis used propaganda—through radio, the press, feature films and newsreels, theater, music, art exhibits, books, the school curriculum, sports, and more—to influence the beliefs, feelings, and actions of individuals to help further this goal.  
  • Begin by having students reflect on the power of media to persuade. Ask them to respond to the following question in their journals:
    Do you think people are generally skeptical? Or are they too willing to believe what they learn on the internet, see on television, or hear from politicians or celebrities? How do you decide whether or not to believe what you see and hear?
    You might have students discuss their responses using the Think, Pair, Share strategy, or briefly hear a few students’ thoughts as a whole group.  
  • Then tell students that when governments or politicians use media to persuade people, we often call that propaganda. In the Lesson 11 reading Shaping Public Opinion, students learned about how Hitler established the Bureau of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment in 1933 and appointed Joseph Goebbels as its leader. It is worth reviewing or reminding students of that reading and then establishing a definition for propaganda. Provide students with the following definition: 
    Propaganda: Information that is intended to persuade an audience to accept a particular idea or cause, often by using biased material or by stirring up emotions.
  • Tell students that in the activities that follow today and in the next class, they will analyze specific propaganda images used by the Nazis. If you haven’t already, take a moment to pause and set the tone for viewing the images by asking students to revisit the stereotype concept maps they created (or the one the class created together) as part of Lesson 3: Stereotypes and “Single Stories” (see Notes to Teacher).
  • Then guide students through the Crop It strategy to analyze a propaganda image together as a whole class. Post or project the image The Eternal Jew and tell students that this is a poster representing a museum exhibit in Germany in 1937 and 1938 that was titled “The Eternal Jew.”
  • Give students a few moments to simply observe the image. Then lead them through the series of instructions below, selecting one or two students to approach the image, use their cropping tool to respond to each prompt, and explain their choice. Move through the prompts one at a time, calling on different students for each prompt to allow for an array of ideas to be contributed. Use the following prompts:
    • Identify a part of the image that first caught your eye
    • Identify a part of the image that raises a question for you.
    • Identify a part of the image that is designed to make you feel rather than think.
    • Identify a part of the image that is designed to make certain individuals feel included in or excluded from the German "national community."

Remind students that propagandists meticulously pervaded all aspects of German society and used a wide range of forms of propaganda to serve particular purposes and convey specific messages. Students should assume that every detail has a purpose. Finish this activity by discussing the following questions with the class:

  • What is the message the creator of this image is sending?
  • What does the maker of this image want the viewer to feel?  
  • What does the creator of this image want the viewer to do? 

Day 2

Activities

  • Before introducing new examples of Nazi propaganda, spend a few minutes reviewing with students the key ideas from the previous day. Ask students to look back at their journal responses about the influence of media to see how their thinking might have changed as a result of analyzing the poster The Eternal Jew.
  • Alternatively, you might project the poster again and ask students to work with a partner to make a short list of strategies that the creator(s) of the image used to convey an intended message. You could solicit ideas from each pair and record a list on the board to reference later in the lesson.
  • There are three additional examples of Nazi propaganda images for students to examine in this activity using the Crop It teaching strategy that you modeled the previous day. By analyzing a collection of such images, students can see that the Nazis created some propaganda that denigrated Jews and other so-called inferior races, while they created other propaganda that glorified “Aryans.” The goal of both approaches was to influence the beliefs, feelings, and actions of individuals in Germany about who should be included and excluded from the “national community.”
  • Divide students into groups of three or four to work together at analyzing the three images in the Propaganda Posters gallery.
  • Lead students through the same series of instructions for the Crop It strategy listed in Day 1. You might project the list of prompts on the board for each group to reference as students work, or copy and paste them onto a handout for each table.
  • Depending on the amount of time you have available, have each member of each group analyze a separate image, taking notes in response to each prompt and then sharing their observations with the other members of their group. Alternatively, if you have more time to devote to this activity, you might have every student work with the same image simultaneously, discussing their thinking in their groups along the way. If you choose the second strategy, consider passing out the images one at a time so that the groups don’t rush through the process.
  • After students have analyzed all of the images, lead a class discussion in which students describe the picture that this collection of propaganda paints of the “national community” the Nazis wished to create. Consider drawing from the following questions:
    • Do you notice any themes or patterns in this group of propaganda images?
    • Based on the images you have analyzed in this lesson, how do you think the Nazis used propaganda to define the identities of individuals and groups?
    • Based on the images you have analyzed and what you have learned thus far in this unit about the rise of the Nazi Party and the Nazi Party’s platform, what can you conclude about the ideal “national community” the Nazis strove to foster? How did they use propaganda to further their goal of creating this ideal “national community”?
  • Now that students have seen and analyzed several examples of Nazi propaganda, ask them to think about the impact these forms of media might have had on the beliefs, feelings, and actions of the people who were exposed to them. It is common for students to conclude after studying propaganda that the Nazis succeeded at brainwashing the German population, but it is important to help them think carefully about this idea. The quotations in the reading The Impact of Propaganda one from a woman who lived in the Netherlands during this period and another from a contemporary scholar, can help to complicate the idea of a brainwashed populace.  
  • Give students the reading The Impact of Propaganda. Read aloud Marion Pritchard’s reflection on viewing a film at the museum exhibit “The Eternal Jew” and ask students to respond to the questions in a class discussion or with a partner. Then read aloud scholar Daniel Goldhagen’s ideas about the limits of the power of propaganda and ask students to respond to the questions in a class discussion.

On an index card or half-sheet of paper, ask students to complete an exit card using the 3-2-1 strategy format before leaving the classroom. They should address the following prompts, which you can project on the board or distribute on the cards:

  • Write down 3 things you learned about how the Nazis used propaganda to influence the way Germans defined their universe of obligation.
  • Write down 2 questions you have about Nazi propaganda or propaganda and brainwashing.
  • Write down 1 thing you learned that supported or challenged your thinking in your journal response at the beginning of the lesson about the way media can influence our beliefs and actions.

Assessment

  • Assign students to independently complete the Crop It viewing protocol that they used in this lesson with a new image. Assign students a piece of propaganda, or allow them to choose their own, and have them record their answers to the prompts outside of class. Review their work to check for the quality of their observations and the depth of their analysis of the propaganda’s purpose. There are additional examples of Nazi propaganda in the Holocaust and Human Behavior online image gallery The Impact of Propaganda.
  • Evaluate students’ responses on their exit cards to find evidence of their thinking about how propaganda influences people’s beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Look for nuance in students’ thinking that resists the notion that propaganda succeeds simply by brainwashing its audience. 

Extension Activities

  • To expose students to another form of Nazi propaganda, consider showing the short video Art as Propaganda: The Nazi Degenerate Art Exhibit (08:18). In addition to explaining the importance of this traveling 1937 exhibit, Dr. Jonathan Petropoulos also discusses the role of propaganda in the 1930s as a means of spreading the Nazis’ message and how it contributed to their rise to power.
  • Because it is important for students to view the images as they watch the short film, ask them to complete an activity based on the Connect, Extend, Challenge strategy after they have finished watching. Be sure that students are making connections with what they have learned in the prior activities in this lesson.

The film Triumph of the Will (01:44:27), directed by Leni Riefenstahl, is both a powerful work of Nazi propaganda and a landmark in the art of filmmaking. It portrays the massive 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, and it includes scenes that strongly suggest the Nazi vision for “national community.” Consider showing students a clip from the film, such as the opening scene of Hitler’s arrival at and parade through Nuremberg (00:00–09:15) or the Nazi Youth Encampment (13:40–18:05). You can use the Close Viewing Protocol to guide your students through a more thorough examination of the film and how it attempts to communicate its messages.

It is worth engaging students in a reflection on and analysis of propaganda in our society today. The following questions can help start the discussion:

  • Can you think of examples of propaganda in society today?
  • How is propaganda similar to advertising? How is it different?
  • How do you think such propaganda influences the attitudes and actions of people today?
  • Is there a difference between the impact of propaganda in a democracy that has a free press and an open marketplace of ideas and the impact of propaganda in a dictatorship with fewer non-governmental sources of information?

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