'State of Deception' at Holocaust Museum: Deconstructing Nazi Propaganda

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's new show focuses on the tactics the Nazi party used to gain and maintain power in Germany.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

After touring the newly liberated Nazi concentration camp at Ohrdruf, Germany, in 1945, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said that he made his very public visit "to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.' "

Those words are chiseled on the wall of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has just opened a major new exhibition devoted to propaganda. Eisenhower's intuition that propaganda, which made the Holocaust possible, might also be used to deny its existence remains prescient. Just last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel blasted the Catholic Church for rehabilitating the disgraced bishop, Richard Williamson, who has publicly questioned essential and accepted facts about the Nazi genocide.

In many ways, "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda" feels like an introduction to Holocaust Museum 2.0. The $3.2 million exhibition is one of the largest and most ambitious in years, and certainly the most technologically slick in recent memory. By taking on the subject of propaganda, the museum is taking on the whole of the Nazi project, retelling the story of Hitler's rise to prominence, his consolidation of power, his ideology and his wars, and the aftermath, including a substantial look at how propaganda and genocide remain linked in places such as Rwanda.

One item on display, a large painting of the young Hitler speaking to a small, rapt audience, is titled "In the Beginning Was the Word." That biblical reference would make a good subtitle to "State of Deception," which covers much of the same ground as the museum's permanent collection, while more explicitly emphasizing the degree to which propaganda was the very fiber of the whole Nazi project.

It's also a subject of ongoing debate in our own political culture, where politicians routinely resort to the same techniques -- simplification, vilification, message branding -- that the Nazis relied on seven decades ago.

In her preface to the exhibition catalogue, museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield is particularly concerned about how new media might revive ideas and tactics that should have been thoroughly discredited in the rubble of conquered Germany. "The haters and propagandists have new tools in this age of the Internet, and at the same time consumers of information seem less equipped to handle the massive amount of unmediated information confronting them daily," she writes.

The exhibition acknowledges and includes substantial amounts of the dark phantasmagoria of propaganda we know so well: Hitler and Goebbels hectoring huge crowds, swastika banners hanging from stark, neoclassical buildings and crude anti-Semitic posters, movies and books. But curator Steven Luckert pulls back from the high-water mark of Nazi power in the early years of World War II to look instead at origins of its imagery in World War I, when the United States and its allies trafficked in jarring, anti-German propaganda. He traces propaganda through the bitter end of the Third Reich and its aftermath, when the victorious allies dismantled the old propaganda regime while using some of its methods to de-Nazify conquered Germany.

Lessons emerge. In many ways, Nazi propaganda was a perverse dialogue with Nazi opponents (at home and abroad) and with the German people. It could be as subtle as it was crass, and there were feedback mechanisms to ensure that failed messages or techniques were examined and improved. Nazis used sophisticated niche messaging, especially during their rise to power in the early 1930s, tailoring ideology to different interest groups. They were keenly aware of their competitors in other parties during the same period, and often out-maneuvered them. And they understood the many facets of propaganda, from its positive powers -- to instill a sense of unity and purpose in a beleaguered population -- to its slow, corrosive power to foster indifference and, finally, hatred.

One of the most jarring images of the exhibition is an elegant and austere 1932 poster showing Hitler's face hovering like a disembodied mask against a dark background, with a single word -- "Hitler" -- written underneath in sans-serif type. Luckert says the poster was withheld until the final weeks of the 1932 elections so that its stark simplicity would contrast with the colorful and cluttered campaign posters of competing parties.

It is a reminder that Hitler was the monstrous child of democracy. Although he never won a majority of votes in Germany, his power grew through the effective manipulation of the democratic process.

"Hitler ├╝ber Deutschland," a brilliant propaganda stunt advertised in a 1932 pamphlet, anticipated the final days of American political contests. Using planes rented from Lufthansa, Hitler crisscrossed the country, speaking to nearly a million people. The poster promotes the campaign, showing a three-engine plane spewing little swastikas over the country. The imagery and the tour itself emphasized something essential to Hitler's appeal: Despite his ideology's hatred, he knew that he must present himself as a politician who transcended the usual petty divisions of a fractured society. He was a pan-German candidate.

That didn't last. Within days of being named chancellor in late January 1933, Hitler began placing constraints on his opponents and the press. The swiftness with which he consolidated the powers of communication was breathtaking, as are the depth and penetration of his messaging techniques. The exhibition includes toy soldiers in brown shirts and Nazi armbands; games such as "Jews Out!," played on a board ringed with an old, medieval city wall, and "Radio Sende Spiel," which encouraged players to avoid enemy or foreign radio stations; and children's books such as "The Poisonous Mushroom," which showed a Jewish caricature rendered as blue-headed toadstool.

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