UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133B Homepage > 133B Book Essays Index page > Student essay
on: David Welch, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda
by David Rabie
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About David Rabie
I am a senior history major who has focused primarily on American history, but I became interested in studying German history after spending fall quarter abroad in Madrid. I visited Munich and Berlin while abroad. I had the time of my life in Munich and I found Berlin to be a history lover's paradise, with a key piece of history at every street corner. I chose to write about propaganda because it still baffles me how the Nazis were able to rise to power and maintain a stranglehold on the population, despite the terrible atrocities they were committing.
Abstract (back to top)
David Welch's book, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, discusses the various forms of propaganda the Nazis used throughout their entire regime. Welch chronicles the role of Joseph Goebbels, the mastermind behind the propaganda, and argues that Goebbels was not the genius that historians have made him out to be. Welch believes that while Goebbels was certainly successful with certain aspects of propaganda, circumstances outside of his control played a larger role in garnering support for the Nazi party and their policies. Welch is quick to hand out blame, but slower to hand out praise, preferring to ascribe Nazi success to sources other than Goebbels. Welch's argument effectively proves that many of Goebbels' successes were due partly to events outside of his control. However, Welch seems to think that Goebbels should have been able to reverse public sentiment at the most inopportune times, such as when the war started to go against the Nazis. Welch makes a compelling argument against Goebbels' genius, however, his mistake is that he began with the impression that Goebbels was a genius and that he was capable of the impossible. Welch should have approached the book without any prior beliefs about Goebbels and then gone on to evaluate his success or failure.
Essay (back to top)
David Welch attempts to stray from the conventional wisdom in his book, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, by arguing that Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda was not always successful and that several other contributing factors played equally large roles in the success of Nazism. Welch, however, does highlight Goebbels’ role in the rise of National Socialism and in helping forge an ideology for a largely submissive German populace to rally around. Welch is quick to ascribe blame to Goebbels and equally quick to hand out praise to actual events that increased support for Nazism. Drawing on hundreds of primary and secondary sources, Welch’s vast array of evidence supports his claims that Goebbels was not the sole mastermind behind Nazi success, which came to light most clearly during the war, when Goebbels was unable to reverse the public sentiment that paralleled the demise of the German military. Welch argues proficiently against giving Goebbels sole credit for the unbelievable rise of the Nazi regime, while being wise enough to dole out credit to Goebbels for his creation of the Hitler myth, his ability to drum up hatred for the Jews and for the few short-lived instances he was able to reverse public sentiment during the war simply through propaganda.
Goebbels and Hitler both agreed that propaganda was vitally important to their cause, but Hitler felt it only played a role in attaining power, not maintaining it, something Goebbels vehemently disagreed with. Hitler saw it as a means to achieve greater organization of the party, while Goebbels believed it was the best way to keep the country united. Goebbels provided great insight for future historians by writing diaries chronicling his life and his time as propaganda minister. The guiding principle behind his propaganda machine was that it “must in a sense preach to those who are already partially converted” (Welch, 9). Goebbels’ diaries convey how passionate he was about his own vocation and how he believed that he was fighting for the public good by manipulating the government’s public policy so that the public would understand it, and rally around it. Goebbels and Hitler agreed on the content of their propaganda, which Goebbels summarized by saying that it “must … always be essentially simple and repetitive,” while also appealing to people’s emotions (Welch, 20). Goebbels’ beliefs about propaganda are especially illuminating because they are still commonplace today. However, despite the modernity of his beliefs, Goebbels benefited from several external occurrences, not the least of which was the proliferation of microphones, radios and newsreels in the 1930s.
Goebbels extended his propaganda machine in every direction he could, from art and radio to the press and films. The Nazis used the idea of volksgemeinschaft, meaning community of the people, to symbolize the elimination of class divisions and political strife, as well as the resurgence of the German people under the Nazi party. The Nazis purchased newspapers and focused their content on advancing their message in a simple, crude and hyperbolic way. They accumulated increasing numbers of newspapers throughout the 1930s and by 1944 they owned 82% of all newspapers in Germany. Goebbels was not shy in his pronouncements of the power of propaganda, stating that “the press should expect to receive not simply information from the Government but also instructions” (Welch, 35). As early as 1936, the Nazis began to stifle creativity and potential sources of criticism, which started with Goebbels deciding to ban all art criticism. Soon books were being burned, films were being censored and music was being closely supervised. Welch states that the result of this suffocation of the arts was an “overwhelming cultural mediocrity that produced ‘safe,’ conventional art” (29). The Nazis went so far as to “[persuade] manufacturers to produce one of the cheapest wireless sets in Europe,” which allowed over seventy percent of households to own wireless sets by the beginning of the war (Welch, 33). When it came to films, Hitler and Goebbels were stridently opposed on the most effective means of using propaganda in film. Goebbels believed that propaganda worked best when used subtly, so he wanted his films to emphasize entertainment over message. As the face of Nazism, Hitler naturally believed that propaganda should be apparent and should inspire patriotism without hiding its intentions. The films would eventually tend to skew towards Goebbels’ line of thinking. The Nazis were relentless in their monopolization of every facet of public communication, believing that the German people should be constantly fed Nazi ideology.
Goebbels wisely believed that the German people needed a godlike figure to rally around and provide leadership, so he spent much of his effort fashioning the “Hitler Myth”. Goebbels advanced the cult-like vision of Hitler by carefully organizing rallies, marches and speeches to showcase the dynamism, discipline and organization of the Nazi party, of which Hitler was the clear leader. The Fuhrer was meant to be a towering figure who transcended party politics, maintained the stability inherent in a democracy and served as the figurehead that had been lacking since the dissolution of the monarchy. His function rested largely on stirring patriotism, establishing loyalty between citizen and country and furthering the goal of volksgemeinschaft. Goebbels claimed as one of his two greatest successes the “‘creation of the Fuhrer myth… [which gave Hitler] the halo of infallibility, with the result that many people who looked askance at the Party after 1933 had…complete confidence in Hitler [by December 1941]’” (Welch, 86). Goebbels’ stroke of genius lay in depicting Hitler as a moderate to the public, and keeping him away from the radical ideas and actions of the party. SD polls showed that the German people for the most part did not associate Hitler with the virulent antisemitism, the stifling of the press or any other dictatorial action carried out by Hitler’s party. Hitler enjoyed such enormous popularity that SD reports about some of the newsreels revealed that “people [were] very concerned for [Hitler’s] health and safety… [and were relieved] when Adolf laughed” (Welch, 94). Welch argues, however, that without concrete improvements in the daily lives of ordinary Germans, even Goebbels’ propaganda could not have maintained the popularity Hitler enjoyed. Workers “welcomed the restoration of full employment” and Hitler was credited with building the autobahns and reviving the economy (Welch, 88). Welch overly relies on the polling done by the SD, which other historians rightly point out cannot be trusted as the main piece of evidence for an argument. The image of the Hitler myth was not infallible however, and it began to crumble with the struggles of the German military during World War II.
Goebbels fully unleashed the propaganda machine in order to help unify the German people and begin the process of eliminating all the Jews. Welch argues that “the Jew was manipulated to fulfill a psychological need for Germany” (Welch, 73). Goebbels often used the press to “depict the Jew as barbaric and ‘subhuman” before antisemitic legislation was going to pass (Welch, 38). While Hitler had succeeded in severely curbing unemployment and improving infrastructure, a key function of the antisemitic propaganda was to “divert the population from the economic and social measures that the regime had promised but had failed to deliver” (Welch, 73). Germans were not necessarily complicit in the overt antisemitism espoused by the Nazi party, but they did not offer any strong protest against the Nuremberg Laws, property seizures or antisemitic publicity campaigns. Films were used to help convince German citizens that the “Jewish Question” was real and needed to be dealt with. The most notorious of all antisemitic films was Der ewige Jude (The Eternal/Wandering Jew), described by the Allied Commission after the war as “‘one of the most striking examples of direct Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda’” (Welch, 78). The film capitalized on key stereotypes about Jews at the time, such as their domination of the banking industry, their attempts to assimilate into European society and the nature of their religious rituals. The film contrasted “Jewish individualism … with the National Socialist ideal of a people’s community’… to demonstrate that Judaism was the total antithesis of the cherished values of the German cultural tradition” (Welch, 80). However, Germans expressed moderate feelings of disapproval in light of Kristallnacht, which “convinced the Nazi leadership that during the 1940s anti-Jewish propaganda would have to be intensified in order to prepare people for the future treatment of Jews in Germany” (Welch, 82). The fact that German citizens were unhappy after Kristallnacht shows that Goebbels had not completely succeeded in promoting antisemitism. It would take time, but Goebbels would eventually succeed in an unconventional sense by creating a sense of “boredom with or massive indifference to the Jewish Question” (Welch, 82). Welch attributes this indifference to a lack of protest, and support in the polls. He fails to mention the repercussions of protesting antisemitic policies or events, and the fear that went along with it. Unless Germans were united in their disapproval, speaking out against the Nazis would be an act that few could possibly have the courage for. However, considering that Jews had largely assimilated into German culture and had found their niche in certain vocations, Goebbels’ must be credited with his ability to create a consensus against the Jews.
Goebbels faced his greatest challenge in preparing the German populace for the impending war in the late 1930s, and he would prove incapable of reversing public sentiment in light of a losing cause. He used newsreels to help prepare Germans for the war, but they were largely apprehensive after their experience in World War I and the subsequent humiliation of the Versailles Treaty. Initially Goebbels’ task proved relatively easy, with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement, the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact, and the early victories by the German military. Goebbels emphasized the speed and power of the blitzkrieg attack to intimidate foreign diplomats and inspire patriotism among the German citizenry. However, Goebbels faced a much larger task in surmounting concerns of a war against Russia. Historians have surmised that the German public saw through the nonaggression pact and believed that war with Russia was inevitable. The Nazis used Bolshevism as the rationale for the invasion of Russia. Hitler said that he wanted “shots of Russian cruelty towards German prisoners to be incorporated in the newsreels so that Germans know exactly what the enemy is like” (Welch, 101). Goebbels went to great lengths to “[persuade the German populace] that they could make a personal contribution to help relieve the suffering of German troops freezing in Russia” (Welch, 102). Goebbels said that over 65 million articles of clothing had been donated in an attempt to show solidarity between the citizenry and the military. Goebbels warned Hitler against being overly optimistic when it came to predicting military victories, but Hitler egoistically ignored him, and left the Nazis looking like hypocrites.
While the German populace had not mounted much opposition to any Nazi measures, they were not stupid and they began to realize that many of the pronouncements coming from the government were not actually occurring. Thus when the Nazis lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the Battle of Stalingrad, Goebbels was left reeling with how to spin the defeat. He attempted to say that the soldiers died a heroic death by fighting until the very end. The Battle of Stalingrad marked a huge turnaround in Nazi propaganda. It allowed Goebbels to finally realize his plans to mobilize the entire German populace for war. According to Welch, Goebbels, unlike Hitler, had always believed that the only path to success lay in total mobilization, which meant that he would have to shift “propaganda strategy from the optimistic, almost arrogant claims of the previous three years” (Welch, 107). Newsreels began to reflect this change in attitude by showing female workers contributing outside of the home (Welch, 111). Hitler would never come around to Goebbels’ line of thinking, despite the slight upsurge in morale that it created among the German people. Hitler believed that the German populace should always believe that Germany was succeeding and was on the brink of victory. Not only were German citizens unprepared for war, but on the battlefield, the German army was unable to back up the vile denouncements of Bolshevism that were meant to garner support for the war. If the infallible German army could not defeat the ostensibly weak and morally corrupt Bolsheviks, then simple logic dictated that either the Nazis were inferior to the Soviets, or they were liars.
The Allied bombing that devastated Germany elicited a rash of different responses among the populace. Some historians claim that it unified everyone around a single cause, while others suggest that it slowly demoralized and terrified Germans. Goebbels forbade the press from reporting on the extent of the destruction to prevent further decreases in morale. Since Germany lacked sufficient military might to adequately retaliate against the Allied bombing campaigns, Goebbels claimed that the Nazis were on the verge of unleashing a secret miracle weapon, named Vergeltung (revenge), which would annihilate their enemies (116). The Allies took advantage of Goebbels’ declarations, illuminating for the German people the fact that the Nazis’ words did not match their deeds. The Vergeltung, a V1 rocket, “was officially announced [in June 1944] and…launched on London” (Welch, 117). The rocket proved to be anything but a panacea, however, and only further harmed Goebbels’ credibility among Germans. The most German people became disillusioned with the mass of lies they felt the newsreels were espousing, so they took to “lingering outside the cinemas until the newsreels were over…which Goebbels countered by closing cinemas during the showing of the newsreel” and essentially forcing people to watch them (Welch, 119). While that seems to be strong evidence of their disillusionment, Welch provides no backing for that statement, leaving readers to wonder what evidence he has to corroborate that fact. Goebbels went to great lengths to release one final film, Kolberg, about the Napoleonic wars in which the unlikeliest of military victories occurred because the German people stood strong. It did not reveal that the Kolbergers were eventually defeated by the French (Welch, 121). The director of the movie summarized perfectly the importance of propaganda to the Nazi regime in saying that “both Hitler and Goebbels were ‘convinced that such a film was more useful than a military victory’” (Welch, 122). Even in the last few days before his suicide, Goebbels was quoted as saying that victory was still attainable and that the crisis would be overcome (Welch, 123). Ultimately, Goebbels was unable to overcome the harsh truth that the Germans were losing the war, but he was so enveloped in his own propaganda that his last few days on the job prove that he began to believe his own lies.
Joseph Goebbels spent over a decade constructing propaganda for one of the most frighteningly successful regimes in world history. In an effort to stray from the conventional wisdom, David Welch highlights Goebbels’ failures and inabilities. His main argument however, is simply that Goebbels was not single-handedly responsible for the precipitous rise of Nazism, not that Goebbels was an abject failure. He convincingly proves his point by showing numerous factors that were outside of Goebbels’ control, and the feelings held by much of the public in light of Goebbels’ propaganda. He also shows that Goebbels was chiefly ineffective during the war, because events outside of his control were not corroborating his messages. However, ultimately, the German people elected the Nazis, which is constantly, and accurately, cited as evidence for Goebbels’ success. Welch convinces readers that Goebbels was a very important cog in the Nazi machine, who helped promote the Hitler Myth, arouse antisemitism, and most of all, create a public that was agreeable, and free of protest, to the radical policies of the Nazi party.
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/13/09)
Ehrenreich, Eric. “How Popular Were the Nazis?” H-Net Reviews in the
Humanities & Social Sciences. February, 2003. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=7197
b. Herzstein, Robert Edwin. “Review of books: Modern Europe.” American
Historical Review. December, 1994. Vol. 99 Issue 5, page 1715. (ebsco
Kershaw, Ian. “Reviews and short notices: Late Modern. History.” Journal?
February, 1994. Vol. 79 Issue 255, page 178. (ebsco
Balfour, Michael. “Book reviews: History.” International Affairs.
January, 1994. Vol. 70 Issue 1, page 156. (ebsco
Randall Bytwerk, “Nazi Propaganda (1939-1945)” (Revised: Jan. 27, 2009),
Mark Weber, “Goebbels’ Place in History” (Created: Jan-Feb, 1995), <http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v15/v15n1p18_Weber.html>.
Leonard W. Doob, “Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda” (Created: 1950),
No author, “Nazi Propaganda” (Revised: October 7, 2008), <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?ModuleId=10005202>.
David Welch, “Nazi Propaganda” (Created: Unknown), <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/nazi_propaganda_gallery.shtml>.
Books and Articles
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), <amazon
Guntram Henrik Herb, Under the Map of Germany: Nationalism and Propaganda
1918-1945 (London: Routledge, 1997), <amazon
Rolf Giesen, Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography
(Michigan: Mcfarland, 2003), <amazon
Aristotle A. Kallis, Nazi Propaganda and the Second World War
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), <amazon
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: