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"Nazi Propaganda through Cinema"

Book Essay on: David Welch,
Propaganda and the German Cinema,
1933 – 1945

(New York: Oxford UP, 1983), 288 pages

by Justin Franklin
March 19, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

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About Justin Franklin


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Essay (back to top)

Propaganda through cinema in the Third Reich was an extremely effective tool in gaining support for Hitler’s ideology among the German populace. Welch supports this argument in several ways and shows evidence that cinema was produced in the 1930s and 1940s in ways that made it successful in gaining the acceptance of Hitler’s ideologies. Films and Nnewsreels were manipulated, but they were entertaining enough to give the propaganda an almost subliminal effect on the target audience (Welch 6 & 7).

Prior to 1933, the Nazi party had little to do with the film industry within Germany. There was a small awareness of the power that film propaganda may hold, but it was not being used. The 1927 Nuremberg party rally was the first film produced by the NSDAP (National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei). It was financed by the party leadership in Munich and began the trend for every party rally to be filmed in the years to come. The Nazis were still not convinced of the necessity to take over the film industry and refused to provide the financing for distribution (Welch 6 & 7).

The National Socialist Party had set up a structure of leadership by having its members involved in many sectors of the public sphere in Germany. During the 1920s, the National Socialist had begun this involvement which made an easy transition for Nazi control in the 1930s. By 1933, the German film industry, as well as small cinema owners, found themselves in a struggle to maintain financing for German cinema. This gave the Nazis an unfair advantage on March 18, 1933 when the board of the Cinema Owners Association was left no option but to resign due to bankruptcy. Previously, the Nazis had one of their own leaders, Adolf Engl, elected to head the German Cinema Association. When the association resigned, Engl and the NSDAP had full control of the film industry (Welch 11).

Joseph Goebbels, who had been building up the party and controlling the capital for film distribution since 1926, was elected Reich Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichs-ministerium fur Volksaufklarung und Propaganda-RMVP) on March 13, 1933. Goebbels formed the Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer-RKK) in September of 1933. The RKK was to enforce the ideology into the German way of life and control all sectors of media. The German film industry was now limited in all its freedom. “The German film industry had to be ‘cleansed’ like all other aspects of German life. This process was called Entjudung (removal of Jews)” (98). The Gleichschaltung period had been a convenient time for ridding Jews and anyone else deemed unworthy by the National Socialist from German cultural existence. One of the sectors of the RKK was the Reich Film Chamber (Reichsfilmkammer – RFK). By establishing the RFK, Jews were removed from all aspects of cultural life in Germany. If individuals were to be film makers in Germany during the 1930s, they must become a member of the RFK, and they must also be of pure blood or according to Welch, “the Ideal perfect being.” In other words, no Jews could be part of the film industry in any aspect. By the mid 1930s, the Nazis began to use cinema to promote propaganda and Hitler’s ideology for the perfect German society (Welch 7, 79, 98, 99).

In 1936, anti-Semitic film magazines were being published by the NSDAP in an attempt to promote hatred against the Jews and to blame the Jews for the decline of German culture. Also, in 1936, all forms of criticism of art were prohibited, and the only type of response to films was a review in which critics could only give a plot summary. One of Hitler’s strategies was to use all forms of media to influence his audience and gain acceptance by the German community. In 1933 Hitler stated:

In relation to the political decontamination of our public life, the government will embark upon a systematic campaign to restore the nation’s moral and material health. The whole educational system, theatre, film, literature, the press, and broadcasting--all these will be used as a means to this end. They will be harnessed to help preserve the eternal values which are part of the integral nature of our people (39).

Hitler and Goebbels encouraged creativity and artistic expression, but done so in a way that was incorporated into Hitler’s ideology. German art was to begin from a clean slate and invoke creativity that would embrace the new German society. Goebbels’ ideas began to stray form Hitler’s in the notion of artistic freedom. Goebbels felt that German art should still be a somewhat free form of expression. In 1937, Goebbels said:

Modern German art’s task is not to dramatize the Party program, but to give poetic and artistic shape to the huge spiritual impulses within us. The political renaissance must definitely have spiritual and cultural foundations. Therefore it is important to create a new basis for the life of German art (40).

Hitler addresses his ideas and the roles of propaganda in his book, Mein Kampf, within the chapter ‘War Propaganda.’ His ideas consisted of aiming at a particular target audience, particularly the lower class and those who were less intelligent. Using a number of techniques in media propaganda, such as “easily learned slogans which then had to be repeated many times (41),” Hitler could use propaganda to persuade a large target audience. Even though Goebbels agreed with Hitler’s technique in using propaganda on the less intelligent audience, they came to another difference of opinion concerning when propaganda should be used.

Once Hitler and the Nazi party had achieved political power, there was no longer a need for propaganda in Hitler’s view. In Mein Kampf, Hitler expresses this view and believed that propaganda would take away the organization that was necessary to maintain power. Hitler wanted to have members, not followers, and propaganda produced followers. Goebbels believed just the opposite and reinforced the idea that propaganda was necessary to maintain support of and commitment to Hitler’s ideologies. Through Goebbels’ and Hitler’s influences during the 1930s, German films expressed high levels of art and propaganda. Goebbels maintained a strong influence during his reign in office, and, between 1933 and 1945, one-sixth of the 1,097 films produced contained a high content of propaganda and political influence (Welch 42).

In 1933 three feature films were produced by the Nazi party in an attempt to praise the Party. The films were SA-Mann Brand, Hitlerjunge Quex, and Hans Westmar. The point of these films was not necessarily to be filled with Nazi propaganda but to glorify three specific martyrs to idolize and to admire. These individuals were the Unknown SA mann, the Unknown Hitler youth, and Horst Wessel. The technique behind using these martyrs with a fictional background and storyline was to help the audience identify and sympathize with the characters. While the audience was identifying with the characters, Hitler’s propaganda and ideologies were incorporated within the fictional storyline. These three films produced in 1933 were, in fact, made strictly for propaganda use only and expressed very little artistic freedom, even though the public may have believed that these were just another series of films at the local cinema. In 1935 and 1936, actors were required to provide evidence of their racial background, and any non-Aryan actors were banned from starring in German films. A party organization made certain that the attitudes and ideas, in addition to racial background of actors, directors, producers, and writers coincide with Hitler’s ideology (Welch 48, 96).

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, The National Socialist Party took a variety of approaches to successfully influence their audience with feature films. One approach was in the release of Sensationsprozess Casilla (The Sensational Trial of Cassilla, 1939), a film that scrutinized America and the American way of life. It also was made to undermine the America’s attempt to support the British in its war efforts. Another influential film with a unique approach to its propaganda technique was Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil, 1933). In this fake documentary film, the emphasis was put on the importance and strengths of the pure blood and master race, which was a crucial aspect of Hitler’s ideology. In this film, a fictional past was created to make the audience believe in Germanic traditions upon which the Nazi revolution was based. It was through these traditions that there was any hope of conquering any struggle through which Germany was going. It made viewers believe that Nazi ideology was the only way of returning to Germany’s great superior traditions. This film was shown primarily in party meetings and lectures. This was an early attempt for the NSDAP to engrave the Germanic superior stereotype in its core audience (Welch 95, 96).

The other type of propaganda used in cinema that was most popular in 1940 was the use of newsreels to show the war in surrounding countries. Goebbles began his control over the newsreel companies in 1939, and, on November 21, 1940, Deutsche Wochenschau GmbH was founded. Immediately, all other newsreel companies were non-existent, and Goebbels had absolute authority on the content being shown. The German public enjoyed watching these in their local cinemas, and, between 1938 and 1940, ticket sales doubled. The German people were unaware at the time that the content being showed was actually being manipulated in favor of the Nazi Party. According to Welch, this was a technique used to fool the audience into believing a fictional story was historically accurate and another method used to incorporate propaganda into the local cinema. Goebbels declared in 1939:

Deutsche Wochenschau bears little relevance to the weekly newsreels up until now. It has a totally different structure both in terms of its content and form. It must be seen as a new type of cinematic creation under the personal influence of the Propaganda Minister. Its producers achieve every week a new, exciting compilation of the war experience (195).

Goebbels was pleased to lead this operation because it gave him the opportunity to use his artistic ability by editing the newsreels to favor Germany in the war. Some clips were cut out, and others merged together to glorify Germany and to make the other European countries, such as Poland, look evil and a threat to Germany. Manipulating newsreels was quite effective, but Hitler needed a more powerful form of propaganda to gain complete patronage from the Germans (Welch 194, 195, 197).

The most effective influence that cinema in the Third Reich had on its audience was to incorporate the idea of good and evil. Hitler gave the reasons to hate, but now he needed to explain who to hate. Propaganda in cinema now glorified hate and murder to achieve Germany’s goals and finalize the country’s superior race. Stereotypes were created against classes, races, and other ideologies that did not coincide with Hitler’s. An example of this is propaganda is in the film Jud Süss (Jew Suss, 1940). Directed by Veit Harlan, this film distorted the original novel from which the script was written, and proposed Jews as a threat. It also clearly defined the stereotype between the Aryan race and Jews. This film ‘personifies’ the Jew in disguise, and, in the final scene, a Jew is shown raping an innocent young woman. This film was produced in a way that disguised it as a blockbuster film and was a great success at the box office. This effective use of propaganda in cinema was used throughout the war and was shown to have the largest influence on its audience (Welch 235, 239, 293).

The existence of Nazi propaganda in cinema was a subtle but major success in Hitler’s take-over. By cinema being a relatively new form of media and entertainment, it was the perfect way to put subtle messages of Hitler’s ideologies into the mind-set of the German audience. World War II and Hitler’s reign of power truly began in the 1920s when the National Socialist Party put its members in all areas of the public sphere. Through this, Hitler eventually was able to gain all control of the media and political messages, thus making propaganda in cinema possible. This useful technique could not have been achieved without the hard work, artistic ability and education of Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels used every means possible not to hide propaganda in cinema but to make it interesting and entertaining enough to be able to keep the ideologies incorporated within visible and apparent. German cinema goers were constantly getting these messages of Hitler’s propaganda, but these messages were cleverly disguised as entertainment. Even though Hitler was convinced that propaganda was no longer needed once he was in power, Welch proves Hitler wrong in his ideas because propaganda was still used in cinema throughout the duration of the war until 1945. The constant subtle messages being seen repeatedly had a tremendous effect on the German public and helped Hitler and the Nazi Party take power over Germany and lead Europe into World War II.

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Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

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