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Nazi Propaganda in Germany, 1939-45. Did the Campaigns Bolster or Undermine Popular Antisemitism?

Essay 2011 14 Seiten

Geschichte Europa - Deutschland - Nationalsozialismus, II. Weltkrieg



Did the antisemitic policy of the National Socialist regime succeed because it was anchored in deeply rooted anti-Jewish sentiments which permeated all classes of the German population?[1] This rather simple question posed by David Bankier, one among many historians of the Third Reich who have been unable to satisfactorily resolve this issue, raises a whole host of complexities which come to dominate any examination of the impact of antisemitic propaganda upon the German population. Have historians, such as Yehuda Bauer, been too willing to assert that Nazi propaganda targeted and subsequently radicalized a pre-existing bedrock of latent antisemitism among the German people?[2] Such assertions would seem to substantiate Frank Bajohr’s suggestion that antisemitic propaganda functioned within the framework of National Socialist rule as a ‘dictatorship of bottom-up consent’, a Zustimmungsdiktatur which was firmly rooted in the German population’s growing responsiveness to the leadership of the Third Reich.[3] However, the validity of Bajohr’s claim is somewhat undermined by contemporary evidence of the German population’s reactions to antisemitic measures, particularly in SD reports, which frequently reflect Jeffrey Herf’s argument of “a radical Nazi minority operating in a society with a less radical but broad antisemitic consensus, a consensus broad enough to render people indifferent [...]”.[4] Such indifference must be viewed in terms of a situation whereby the collective concerns, and collective opinion, of the German population were suitably divorced from the abstracted and de-historicized idea of ‘the Jew’ propagandized by the Nazi leadership throughout the war to render the German population desensitized to the plight of the Jews.[5]

Yehuda Bauer argues that “by the mid-thirties most sections of German society had adopted the discourse of Nazi ideology with its radical and radicalizing anti-Semitic contents”, engaging willingly in the purge of the German Jewry from German society (particularly in the cultural and economic arenas).[6] For example, the Nazi leadership advocated a cultural policy, as forwarded by Richard Strauss (President of the Reichskulturkammer), to rid ‘the new Germany’ of the degenerate culture of Judaism, propagandizing an ideological message of purification and cleansing (Sauberung), a message visible in Hans Ziegler’s Entartete Musik exhibition in Düsseldorf (May, 1938).[7] However, Steinweis argues that Germans in the cultural arena accepted a ‘Faustian trade-off’ whereby material security was ensured for the (non-Jewish) majority at the expense of the (Jewish) civil minority, clearly positing that German adherence to the Nazi cultural policy of purification was influenced less by antisemitic concerns that more overt self-interest.[8] Indeed, as a report of 5 July, 1935 from the State Police Office in Aachen noted, ‘National Socialist convictions played a secondary role. Envy of competitors was more the driving force’.[9] Similarly, the 1930s witnessed the rise of denunciations, which reached unimaginable dimension according to Christl Wickert, and was presented in the files of the NSDAP and the Gestapo as affirming popular support for antisemitic measures.[10] In a 1939 memo, the British vice-consul in Hamburg wrote that non-Jewish Germans were ‘firmly convinced of the necessity for ridding Germany of the last Jew’.[11] Yet one cannot draw such a simplistic causal link between popular antisemitism and the lack of opposition, often manifesting itself in relative silence, of the German population towards the purge of Jewish elements in the 1930s. Wickert suggests that antisemitism was not the determining factor in denunciations of German Jews, that in fact the German population were, once again, motivated more by self-interest to resolve feuds with neighbours or tenants, knowing that denunciations often led to removal by the Gestapo.[12] It thus seems that the German population, in these earlier years, were not so radicalised by the racially-dominated ideological rhetoric advocated by the Nazi leadership. Rather, it seems that during the 1930s, the German population combined collective indifference to the widespread removal of Jewish elements in German society with individual concerns for self-interest and opportunism, as the Police report from Aachen reveals, a trend that does not create the impression of an axiomatic popular antisemitism. Indeed, it appears that the primary concerns of the German population were rather divorced from the ideological racial rhetoric of the Nazi regime in the 1930s, and that antisemitism certainly did not form the foundation of the formation of popular opinion, a trend that is evident in the popular psyche also during the war years.

Marlis Steinert argues that the ‘withdrawal into privacy’ that defined popular attitudes towards the Jewish Question (and hence popular reception of antisemitic propaganda) 1939-45 was triggered by the German population’s increasing focus on the military situation.[13] In this sense, the regime’s radical antisemitic propaganda fell on deaf ears. The Swedish ambassador to Anthony Eden noted in late 1941 that ‘[a] visitor to Berlin is struck by the lack of correspondence between the imposing and widely spread propaganda ... and, on the other hand, the complete apathy displayed by the people, who were entirely absorbed by the material difficulties of every-day life’.[14] Such palpable apathy, rather tellingly, was widespread among Berlin’s population at exactly the point at which the Nazi leadership was stepping up their antisemitic propaganda campaign, following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. As Ian Kershaw argues, at a time when ‘momentous developments’ were taking place in Russia, the Jewish Question was of no more than marginal importance in the formation of popular opinion in Germany.[15] By mid-1943, with the increasing domestic pressures of the war taking their toll on the German population, such apathy toward the Jewish Question was becoming even more widespread, as an SD report of July 26, 1943 reflects, stating that the apathy of the population was caused by the ‘now almost daily losses of life through enemy bombers in the west and north’.[16] Similarly, Rudolf Semmler, an aide to Joseph Goebbels, recorded in his diary in August 16, 1943 that ‘[l]ast week 16 out of 150 letters protested against the reappearance of the Jewish Question in press and wireless. God knows, they said, we have other things to worry about than a campaign of abuse against the Jews’.[17] These two sources clearly reflect an observable correlation between the increasing pressures of war, by mid-1943, and a distinct lack of interest in the antisemitic agenda of the Nazi regime. Indeed, Semmler’s diary reveals the extent of such a claim, with sixteen of 150 letters suggesting indifference to Nazi antisemitic propaganda, a significant number considering the evident subjugation of the issue to more pressing concerns at this juncture (as in the 1930s). The root of the palpable marginalization of antisemitism in the formation of popular opinion, as illustrated above, is that as antisemitism was certainly not as central in the popular psyche as it was in the racial ideology propagandized by the Nazi leadership. Indeed, as Marlis Steinert argues, “[i]n the response by the German people to Hitler and his Weltanschauung, anti-Semitism hardly played the key role which it unquestionably did in Hitler’s ideology”.[18] As such, in theory at least, the German population would not be as radicalised by antisemitic propaganda as the Nazi leadership intended, an attestation that certainly gains credence in the examination of the impact of antisemitic film propaganda upon the German population, and perhaps more tellingly, the popular response to, and internalization of, the abstraction of the Jewish Question became fundamental to Nazi propaganda throughout the war years.

Two antisemitic propaganda films released in 1940, Jew Süss and Der ewige Jude, reflect the impact of antisemitic film propaganda upon the formation of popular opinion.[19] Whereas Jew Süss was the sixth most popular film released in Germany 1940-2, grossing 6.2 million reichsmarks, Der ewige Jude (notorious for its ritual slaughter scene) was, according to David Culbert, “a case study in how not to make an effective anti-Semitic statement”.[20] Fritz Hippler, director of Der ewige Jude, records in his memoirs how Goebbels had thought a person with ‘a proper attitude toward the Jewish Question would react: for example ‘at the ritual slaughter scene, he held his hands over his face’.[21] Indeed, an essay (1940) published in the NSDAP’s monthly for propagandists, Unser Wille und Weg, suggests that ‘[t]his film with its persuasive power must be shown everywhere where anti-Semitism is still questioned’.[22] Clearly, the film reflected the radical antisemitic message, for example the film compares the Jews to a horde of rats preying on a host nation, with which the Nazi regime wished to indoctrinate the German population. However, an SD report of January 20, 1941 records that the film was largely avoided by German audiences due to ‘[t]he repulsive nature of the material and, in particular, the ritual slaughter scene’.[23] The film’s failure to trigger Goebbels’ desired antisemitic response among German audiences is indicative of the shortcomings of the film as effective propaganda, and importantly, is representative of a divergence between the radical antisemitism of the Propaganda Minister and that of the German people. In stark contrast to Der ewige Jude, the popular response to Jew Süss is more suggestive of popular antisemitic sentiments, an SD report of November 28, 1940 recording that ‘[in] all parts of the Reich, the film ... continues to receive an extraordinarily favourable response’;[24] another SD report recording that: ‘the events on screen are so realistic that audiences are constantly provoked to comment and shouting ... ‘Filthy Jewboy!’’.[25] Yet, in contrast to Hippler’s radical antisemitic documentary-film, the more conservative Jew Süss presented to the German public an antisemitic message in a film with “an exciting plot containing requisite amounts of typical escapist fare – sex and violence”.[26] Indeed, considering that antisemitism functioned on the periphery in the formation of popular opinion, Culbert’s argument is perhaps indicative that it was the cinematic merits of Jew Süss which triggered its widespread popular acclamation, rather than the potency of its antisemitic message. Although Jew Süss certainly elicited a favourable response, a comparison of the two films reveals the limits of Nazi propaganda in publicising a radical antisemitic message in a more serious documentary form to a palpably reluctant segment of the German population. Indeed, as Culbert argues, Jew Süss at best intensified generally held attitudes, failing to indoctrinate the audience with the more radical ideology contained in Der ewige Jude.[27] Thus, whereas the pressures of war, to an extent, subjugated antisemitism to a secondary concern in the popular psyche, it seems that Nazi antisemitic film propaganda again operated apart from the palpable formation of popular opinion, where the more radical aspects of antisemitism which were espoused by the Nazi regime failed to target the areas of less radical antisemitism that may indeed have existed among a large proportion of the German population.


[1] David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism (Oxford, 1992), p. 121.

[2] See: Yehuda Bauer, ‘Overall Explanations, German Society and the Jews or: Some Thoughts about Context’ in David Bankier (ed.) Probing the Depths of German Antisemitism: German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 1933-1941 (New York, 1999), pp. 3-18.

[3] Frank Bajohr, ‘The "Folk Community" and the Persecution of the Jews: German Society under National Socialist Dictatorship, 1933–1945’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 20, Number 2, (Fall, 2006), p. 183.

[4] Jeffrey Herf, ‘The “Jewish War”: Goebbels and the Antisemitic Campaigns of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 19 (Spring, 2005), p. 53.

[5] The Nazi leadership in this sense refers to the primary authors of antisemitic propaganda (1939-45), particularly Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Julius Streicher.

[6] Bauer, ‘Overall Explanations, German Society and the Jews’, p. 12.

[7] As quoted in: Alan E. Steinweis, ‘Cultural Eugenics: Social Policy, Economic Reform, and the Purge of Jews from German Cultural Life’ in Glenn R. Cuomo (ed.) National Socialist Cultural Policy (Basingstoke, 1995), p. 26; and Albrecht Dumling, ‘The Target of Racial Purity: The “Degenerate Music” Exhibition in Dusseldorf, 1938’ in R. Etlin (ed.) Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich (Chicago, 2002), pp. 57-8. [7] Steinweis, ‘Cultural Eugenics’, p. 32.

[8] Steinweis, ‘Cultural Eugenics’, p. 32.

[9] As quoted in: Bajohr, ‘The "Folk Community" and the Persecution of the Jews’, p. 192.

[10] Christl Wickert, ‘Popular Attitudes to National Socialist Antisemitism: Denunciations for ‘Insidious Offenses’ and ‘Racial Ignominy’ in David Bankier (ed.) Probing the Depths of German Antisemitism: German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 1933-1941 (New York, 1999), p. 282.

[11] As quoted in: Bajohr, ‘The "Folk Community" and the Persecution of the Jews’, pp. 196-7

[12] Wickert, ‘Popular Attitudes to National Socialist Antisemitism’, pp. 294-5.

[13] Marlis G. Steinert, Hitler’s War and the Germans (Athens, 1977), p. 136.

[14] As quoted in: Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution, pp. 142-3.

[15] Ian Kershaw, ‘German Popular Opinion and the ‘Jewish Question’, 1939-1943: Some Further Reflections in Ian Kershaw (ed.) Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution (Jerusalem, c.2008), p, 212.

[16] As quoted in: Steinert, Hitler’s War and the Germans, p. 143.

[17] Rudolf Semmler, Goebbels – the man next to Hitler (London, 1947), p. 99.

[18] Steinert, Hitler’s War and the Germans, p. 147.

[19] David Welch argues that these two films, alongside a third, Die Rothschilds (1940) , were intended to prepare the German people for the Final Solution. See: David Welch, ‘Nazi Film Policy: Control, Ideology and Propaganda’ in Glenn R. Cuomo (ed.) National Socialist Cultural Policy (Basingstoke, 1995), p. 111.

[20] David Culbert, ‘The Impact of Anti-Semitic Film Propaganda on German Audiences: Jew-Suss and The Wandering Jew (1940)’ in R. Etlin (ed.) Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich (Chicago, 2002), p. 153.

[21] As quoted in: Ibid., p. 149.

[22] ‘The Eternal Jew: The Film of a 2000-Year Rat Migration’, Unser Wille und Weg, 10 (1940), pp. 54-55.

[23] As quoted in: Culbert, ‘The Impact of Anti-Semitic Film Propaganda on German Audiences’, p. 152.

[24] As quoted in: Ibid., p. 147.

[25] As quoted in: Ibid., p. 147.

[26] As quoted in: Ibid., p. 154.

[27] As quoted in: Ibid., p. 154.


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Titel: Nazi Propaganda in Germany, 1939-45. Did the Campaigns Bolster or Undermine Popular Antisemitism?