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How Did the Nazis Use Language to Shape Public Opinion?

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Propaganda—information that is intended to persuade an audience to accept a particular idea or cause, often by using biased material or by stirring up emotions—was one of the most powerful tools the Nazis used to consolidate their power and cultivate an “Aryan national community” in the mid-1930s. Hitler and Goebbels did not invent propaganda. The word itself was coined by the Catholic Church to describe its efforts to discredit Protestant teachings in the 1600s. Over the years, almost every nation has used propaganda to unite its people in wartime.

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He knew that words and images uttered repeatedly and deliberately, regardless of truthfulness, become accepted and part of the way people think and perceive others. This can be used to ignite prejudices, paint individuals and groups, initiate opportunistic greed and other anti-social tendencies, transform dissent into hatred, and even turn citizen against citizen

Hitler discovered that as long as he could control what media people accepted that he could write the message. In other words it was unimportant as to the truthfulness of what was said, and more important that the people listening had faith in the media presenting the message.Hitler proved that controlling information was even more important than controlling the military and the economy. His Josef Goebbels was clear, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Hitler wanted to control every sector of German society - including film, radio, posters, rallies and textbooks. What he could not control he trivialized. Today Hitler would want to control news talk radio, at least one television national news outlet, alt right news outlets, blogs, political rallies, Twitter, Facebook and an army of fake news online shares. He believed that it was “good fortune for governments that people do not think.” Information he offered about his policies was sketchy and in some cases inept, but what he did was based on the idea that most individuals are conformists who do not think for themselves. One of the Nazi tricks of the trade was to manipulate public opinion through distortions, euphemisms, name-calling, fear, social pressure (you are either for us or against us) and denigrating minorities. If information reported by the press was anti-Nazi, even though true, bona fide and indisputable, the Nazi machine would rail against the reported information. The Nazi machine would, repeatedly, say the information was not true, and do so ad nauseam until there was doubt in people’s minds. And it would still continue until people felt the information was false or the Nazis wouldn’t still be railing against it. By repeatedly hammering words, phrases and ideas into a citizen’s thinking and by making it part of the culture, the propaganda becomes part of the language. Then no one stops to question the ideas and from where they originate.

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Hitler and his henchmen did not want to cower the German people as a whole into submission, but to win them over by building on popular images, cherished ideals, and long held phobias in the country. . . . [The Nazis] aimed to create and maintain the broadest possible level of popular backing. They expended an enormous amount of energy and resources to track public opinion and to win over people

The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda played a key role in the Nazis’ efforts to cultivate favorable public opinion (Doris Bergen, 2015). Propaganda is biased or misleading information that is used to influence public opinion. Hitler created the new ministry on March 13, 1933, and put Joseph Goebbels in charge. It was his job “not just to present the regime and its policies in a positive light, but to generate the impression that the entire German people enthusiastically endorsed everything it did.” To generate excitement and enthusiasm for the Nazi Party and for Hitler himself, Goebbels and his ministry created new festivals and holidays, such as the celebration of Hitler’s birthday on April 20. They changed street names and other public signage to erase reminders of the Weimar Republic. They organized party rallies and dramatic torch-lit parades to demonstrate public support. Writing in 1939, journalist Sebastian Haffner described these demonstrations and recalled the effect they had on many Germans.Goebbels and his ministry also set out to coordinate every form of expression in Germany—from music to radio programs to textbooks, artwork, newspapers, and even sermons—crafting language and imagery carefully to praise Nazi policies and Hitler himself, and to demonize those the Nazis considered enemies. While the ministry’s work included censoring much German art and media, the Nazis also created an environment in which many artists, newspaper editors, and filmmakers censored themselves in order to gain favor with the regime, avoid punishment, or escape the Nazis’ attention altogether (Robert Gellately, 2001).

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As shown above, given tremendous leeway by Hitler, and utilizing modern techniques and technologies, Goebbels quickly set out an ambitious agenda to indoctrinate the German people in Nazi ideology and to influence the behavior of the entire society. The principles of Nazism, including the antisemitism at the core of much of its dogma, were incorporated into nearly every newspaper, radio broadcast, and film produced in the Third Reich. These carefully-crafted messages were designed to mobilize the German population to support all Nazi military and social efforts, including the deportation of Jews and others to concentration camps.

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Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), vii.

Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power (New York: Penguin, 2005), 121.

Doris Bergen to Facing History and Ourselves, comment on draft manuscript, December 23, 2015.

Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 29–31.

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