A series of photographs depicts Hitler practicing before a speech, his hands shooting above his head, and his face working into a fiery froth, packing menace into a small frame. It’s enough simply to see him; hearing him is almost beside the point.
Hitler meticulously plotted almost every detail of the Nazi publicity campaign, and his careful work still hasn’t lost its power. His sophisticated propagandists were some of the most successful marketers in history, helping his party take political control of Germany and eventually selling a war and a genocide to a public that could have said no.
That work is the subject of a new exhibit, State of Deception: Power of Nazi Propaganda, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It opened last month and will be on view until December 2011.
Some of it is familiar history — the ugly depictions of Jews, the meticulous genealogy of the Nuremburg Laws. But curator Steven Luckert expands beyond that, examining German reactions to Allied World War I propaganda, showcasing how the Nazis carefully targeted the political campaigns that brought them to power and looking beyond the conclusion of the war to how propagandists were dealt with on the world stage.
It’s a worthwhile effort, given how central propaganda was to the Nazi strategy. Hitler, after all, began as the party’s propaganda director. He personally designed the red banner with the central white-haloed swastika, something that trumpets into the exhibition hall with its hooked promises of destruction, both menacing and overshadowing the curatorial message.
But the materials are also a striking reminder that the Holocaust didn’t emerge preformed, a fait accompli . History did not have to emerge as it did. Much of the exhibit shows the Nazis trying to achieve a particular end, whether that be election or international legitimacy or domestic support for war. The need to convince implies a chance of failure, something not always conveyed in Holocaust histories.
Posters for the 1932 election, for example, aren’t always filled with antisemitic furor: Some target bellies with promises of bread; others target patriotism by playing up Hitler’s wartime service. Most striking of those campaign posters, and indeed of the entire exhibition, is one that’s nothing more than a stark, disembodied head of the future Führer above the word “Hitler.” What serene confidence in the power of a single individual to address the complex hopes of a country in deep depression — and a cautionary tale, perhaps, for modern political campaigns that progressively simplify messages until they, too, become reliant on the force of personality over reality.
Also instructive were the directives given to newspapers in the days leading up to the invasion of Poland that began the war. One such communiqué, written at the very end of August 1939, told editors, “Don’t write about the flood of peace proposals and offers of negotiation, at least not all the details.” That’s juxtaposed with the following day’s headline, blaring news that Polish batteries had attacked a German Cabinet official’s plane.
It would have been nice to see more space given over to the processes behind the propaganda, and not just to be bombarded with the end result. The process is addressed briefly, here and there, and receives its most complete treatment buried within a touch screen display that details how the atrocities of Kristallnacht were downplayed by the propaganda ministry. Space given over to familiar history — much of which can be found upstairs, in the permanent exhibition — could have been better used on this.
That would have also quieted the distracting newsreels sprinkled throughout the halls, which merely rehash chronologies of events and clash sonically with other film shorts, bombastic music and speeches. If the attempt was to reproduce a Germany in which the Nazi message was absolutely ubiquitous, both visually and aurally, then the curators have achieved their purpose.
The final few rooms are spent on the fate of propaganda after the war. Allied forces tried and executed men such as Julius Streicher, publisher of the rabidly antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer, defining a line between acceptable free speech and criminal incitement to murder. Western forces also used propaganda of their own to try to convince Germans of the failings of Nazism, sometimes treading closely to the imagery used by that failed party. The coda to the exhibit — a few placards about genocide and propaganda in Rwanda and the language of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — feels like an afterthought, though the question it addresses, whether mere words are prosecutable even before killing takes place, is an important one.
State of Deception puts in context a subject so central to the Nazi Party that one can forget its broader aims. Skip the noise and the newsreels, but brace yourself for the history of a campaign that, more than 60 years after it plunged into oblivion, still has the power to wound.
Michael Birnbaum is a reporter at The Washington Post who has written about postwar German-Jewish history.