“Heil! Sieg Heil!” The chorus of those who believed that the day of deliverance had arrived rang out as they waited for the man they had all come to see. The seemingly unending stream of Schutzstaffel (SS) and Sturmabteilung (SA) troops carrying torches, marched down Wilhelmstrasse to the German Chancellery cheered on by thousands of supporters. In a scene meticulously planned by Berlin Gauleiter Goebbels, a sea of burning torches cast flickering light onto the red and gold Nazi banners as the tension and excitement grew. The man that they were all waiting for appeared on the balcony before them and the biggest outpouring of adulation in German history was unleashed. It was the 30th of January 1933; the night of Hitler’s appointment to German Chancellor. How is it that this seemingly innocuous Austrian who once dreamed of becoming an artist could rise to be one of the most feared, yet revered leaders in history and how was it that the Third Reich could become one of the most formidable regimes in European history?
‘Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda. All that matters is propaganda.’
Probably the most important factor is the use of propaganda by the Nazi Party and in particular, the creation of what historian Ian Kershaw describes as the ‘Hitler myth’. The Hitler myth was carefully constructed by Reich Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and it relied on the portrayal of Hitler and how he was perceived by the voting public. In order to be appealing to the most number of people, Hitler was portrayed in a number of different ways:
- Hitler was shown to be the symbol of the German nation and the national community (Volksgemeinschaft). He was Germany personified.
- Hitler was the representation of law, order and justice. A clear example of this is the Night of the Long Knives where Hitler purged his own Party which led to a spike in his popularity.
- Hitler was the defender of German rights and the German people. Hitler would rebuild Germany’s strength and regain her honour after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles.
- Lastly, Hitler was shown to be a military genius. This was demonstrated later during the Third Reich with Hitler’s Blitzkrieg tactics and the taking of France in just 4 weeks. An example of this type of military propaganda is shown in the propaganda poster on the left. This is a painting by Hubert Lanzinger called Der Bannerträger (The Standard Bearer) from around 1935 showing Hitler in full military armour with the Nazi swastika behind him suggesting that he is ready to fight for the rights of the German people.
‘It is the worship of a national hero who has saved his country’
There are two key reasons why the Hitler myth led to the success of Nazi propaganda.
- The allure of Hitler as a leader. The propaganda posters and speeches from the time all sung Hitler’s praises and stressed his suitability and natural talent as a leader for the German people. Hitler as a leader was shown to be the saviour of Germany and had a quasi-religious allure about him. You can see an example of this in the propaganda poster below. Hitler is seen to be leading his followers, which is reminiscent of Jesus leading his disciples. The beams of light behind him also have religious connotations.
- The Nazi Party were experts at being able to exploit the existing support base for a ‘heroic leader’. Germans were looking for one leader who would unite them and return them to their former glory as one of the great powers of Europe. By associating Hitler with military prowess, religious sentiment and as the unifier of the German people, the Nazi Party were merely playing upon the support base that already existed.
‘I did not come to Hitler by accident. I was searching for him.’
However it was not just the Hitler myth itself which helped in the overall success of Nazi propaganda. The societal conditions of the time also played a major role. The German people wanted revenge for the hated Treaty of Versailles and the Nazi Party offered this. Also the Dolchstoßegende (stab in the back legend) caused tension. The belief that Germany in fact did not lose WWI rather they were stabbed in the back by the so called ‘November criminals’ was perfect ammunition for the Nazis to offer a regaining of German pride, power and status. Lastly the failing Weimar Republic was the perfect environment for Hitler to increase his own popularity. He was seen as the lesser of two evils when compared to the utter chaos that was the Weimar Republic.
To sum up, the success of Nazi propaganda was based largely on the multiple portrayals of Hitler. Historian Ian Kershaw describes this as the Hitler myth. The Nazi Party’s alibility to portray Hitler in so many different ways meant that he was appealing to a larger number of voters. However it was not just the Hitler myth which contributed to the success of Nazi propaganda. Societal conditions of the time provided the perfect atmosphere for a heroic leader to take control and the heroic leader Germany ended up with was Hitler.
- Kershaw, Ian. The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. – This is the fundamental book where Kershaw explains his theory of the Hitler Myth. This is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about the Hitler myth.
- Welch, David. Nazi Propaganda: The Power and Limitations. Kent: Croom Helm, 1983. – Welch’s book on Nazi propaganda goes a long way in explaining the use of propaganda by the Nazi Party. Along Kershaw’s book The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich, this would be one of best books discussing Nazi Propaganda.
- Bessel, Richard. Life in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. – This is a great overview of life under the Third Reich and contains one chapter specifically dedicated to the use of Nazi propaganda.
- http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/ww2era.htm – This is a fantastic archive of Nazi propaganda. There are speeches, posters, newspaper articles and brochures which are divided into various themes e.g. Anti-Semitic propaganda, war propaganda etc. It is perfect for anyone wanting to further at some of the types of propaganda distributed by the Nazi Party.