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How Significant was Nazi Propaganda in Maintaining Hitler in Power in the Years 1933-39

The appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany in 1933 should, in theory, have been nothing more than merely a change of administration. However, from the start of their ‘seizure of power,’ the Nazis were prepared to apply this power in ‘revolutionary’ ways. (Fest, 1974, p.373). In the elections of 1933 that resulted in Hitler’s chancellorship, the Nazi party only managed to gain 43.9% of the vote. Yet, by 1939, they had the support of the majority of the German population.

There has been much debate during the last fifty years, questioning how Nazism managed not only to have initially attained their power but also how they managed to maintain this power and so effortlessly and rapidly gain the support from the majority of the German people (Fest, 1974, p.374). Many factors have been used to explain Hitler’s maintenance of power from 1933-39, and the significance of propaganda has often been given much of the credit for this. William Shirer, who lived and worked in the Third Reich during the first half of its existence, wrote that no one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land could conceive how difficult it is to escape the…consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. (Shirer, 1962, p.248)

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However, this essay will attempt to show that whilst the significance of propaganda in maintaining Hitler in power cannot be underestimated; it is not all-pervasive; even Goebbel’s “full bag of tricks could not turn black into white” (Kershaw, 1991, p.89). For propaganda to succeed, it could, perhaps, be argued that it must have been able to exploit and ‘interpret’ existing political values and exploit Hitler’s successes in both domestic and foreign policy. Moreover, underlying all of these arguments is the existence of terror and repression within the regime which cannot be ignored if attempting to ask why Hitler was able to maintain power from 1933-39.

Following the Nazi ‘seizure of power’ in 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the newly formed Ministry of Propaganda head, stressed how important it was to control propaganda centrally. He said It is not enough for people to be more or less reconciled to our regime to be persuaded to adopt a neutral attitude toward us. Rather, we want to work on people until they have capitulated to us until they grasp ideologically that what is happening in Germany today must be accepted and accepted. (Lee, 1998, p.33)

According to David Welch, Goebbels attempted to do this through four propaganda themes. Firstly appeal to national unity and attempt to promote the idea of a ‘people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft); secondly, attempt to establish a ‘F�hrer cult’ (F�hrerprinzip); thirdly, closely linked with the idea of a ‘people’s community’ was the idea of a need to establish racial purity, and finally, propaganda would be used to direct hatred towards the Jews and the Bolsheviks (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.52). Whilst all of these aims have a significant part to play when attempting to answer why Hitler was able to maintain his power; it is, perhaps, through Goebbels use of his ‘propaganda machine’ in an attempt to create the notions of ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ and ‘F�hrerprinzip,’ that one can best establish how significant propaganda actually was in maintaining Hitler in power.

‘Volksgemeinschaft’ was a primary goal of propaganda and involved attempting to restructure German society through re-educating the public and replacing existing loyalties such as class and religion with a heightened national awareness (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.52). Slogans such as “One People! One Reich! One F�hrer!” would be used in an attempt to manufacture feelings of the ‘community before the individual,’ to transform feelings of alienation in a time of industrialization and class conflict into one of a sense of belonging to a ‘pure’ German community (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.53). Throughout the period 1933-39, propaganda was used to indoctrinate the idea of ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ into the German society, and this ideology was often at the root of many of the changes introduced by the Nazis.

The abolishment of the Trade Unions is a good example of this. Under the previous, Weimar constitution, workers were entitled to hold membership in a Trade Union. The Nazis, however, saw Trade Unions as a ‘vehicle of class struggle’ (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.55) and by 1933 had replaced them with the German Labour Front (DAF). This based a system of labour on the concept of a ‘plant community’ where The employer works in a factory as leader of the plant, together with employees and workers who constitute his retinue, to further the aims of the plant and for the common benefit of the nation and state. (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, pp.54-55)

Here, propaganda was clearly used in an attempt to gain support, or at worst acquiescence, to the abolition of the Trade Unions, claiming that the DAF was a ‘symbol of the nation’ (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.55). The Nazis also used propaganda to appeal to the emotions of the German people when introducing labour camps, forcing people to work. Slogans such as ‘work enable’ and ‘labour liberates’ were used in an attempt to explain why these changes were happening and, therefore, perhaps, reduce opposition maintaining Hitler in power (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.56). Some historians, such as Ian Kershaw, argue that propaganda relating to the idea of ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ actually had little influence in maintaining support for Hitler (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.58)and some such as Tim Mason, would even go as far as saying that it was in fact an “unmitigated failure.” (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.57)

However, Welch believes that whilst not fully indoctrinating people into the idea of ‘Volksgemeinschaft,’ the propaganda did create a heightened national awareness, sufficient to secure a degree of stability (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.58) Nevertheless, it must be said that propaganda was generally less effective when it was attempting to manufacture totally new values, than when it played and built on existing social and political values; especially when it could exploit the expectations and disappointments of the Weimar Republic and the traumas of war as it did when attempting to create the ‘Hitler Myth.’ (Kershaw, 1991, p.89)

Stephen Lee tells us that the main reason for positive support during the Third Reich was due to the popularity of Hitler, who had no equivalent during the Weimar years (Lee, 1998, p.49). Arguably, the creation of the ‘Hitler myth’ was, perhaps, one of the most achievements of the ‘propaganda machine.’ Indeed, Goebbels’ own view was that the “creation and consolidation of extraordinary bonds of loyalty to Hitler, surpassing any ‘normal’ level of trust in political leadership” was his most notable political success (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.185). First, however, one must consider to what extent propaganda was responsible for creating the ‘Hitler myth.’ Ian Kershaw believes that the ‘Hitler myth’ was, in fact, “as much a creation of the masses as it was imposed on them” (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.185).

However, there is much to suggest that propaganda did have a significant part to play in creating the ‘Hitler myth’ which, perhaps, “bridged the gap between…the need for uplift, security and a positive outlook for the future and…the disillusionment of everyday life in the Third Reich.” (Peukert, 1987, p.73) As mentioned, propaganda had its most notable success when building on existing social and political values and exploiting the expectations and disappointments of the Weimar Republic. This is precisely what the Nazi propaganda did in its attempts to create the ‘Hitler myth.’ Much of the propaganda was designed to strike a chord with the widespread disillusionment with institutions, political parties and leaders of the Weimar Republic (Lee, 1998, p.49).

The ‘F�hrerprinzip’ was based on the idea that to destroy the old privileged and class-ridden society of the Weimar Republic and replace it with an ethically pure and socially harmonious ‘national community,’ that a special personality was needed (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.83); this person must have the power and will to actualize ‘Volksgemeinschaft.’ It is, perhaps, in successfully achieving the goal of creating a ‘F�hrerprinzip,’ that some historians such as Kershaw, have acknowledged that Nazi propaganda was highly effective. According to Kershaw, it not only portrayed Hitler as another party leader but as the party leader for whom Germany had been waiting. (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.185)

Nevertheless, although many believe that it is the creation of the ‘Hitler myth’ which is the “most important theme in cementing Nazi propaganda together” (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.83), the intensity of the ‘Hitler myth’ cannot simply be seen as entirely the result of Nazi propaganda. Had such an artificial construct has created such hysteria, it would, according to Peukert, “have shattered on making an impact with real experiences or real disappointments.” (Peukert, 1987, p.75) Kershaw goes on to say that even Goebbels’ “full bag of tricks could not turn black into white” (Kershaw, 1991, p.89) and that much of Hitler’s popularity derived from the scale of his achievements after 1933 in both the domestic and foreign sphere. (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.186) It is these ‘successes’ to which we will now turn our attention.

C.W. Guillebaud, a Cambridge Economist, emphasized the economic successes achieved during the Third Reich, such as solving the economic stagnation and problems of mass unemployment, as a cause for Hitler’s maintenance of power. (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.59). For example, figures show that compared to 1933 when over one-third of the population was unemployed, by 1939, only 74 thousand people were unemployed and that there were over 1 million job vacancies. This is a massive achievement on the part of the regime. Moreover, although Guillebaud says there was a ‘cynical book-keeping manoeuvre’ in spring 1933 which wiped 1 million off the unemployment register, by autumn 1933, there was real work creation. (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.59).

It must be said that many of these jobs were created in ‘labour camps.’ Still, nevertheless, a considerable number of people were ‘offered’ tasks and jobs, which, perhaps, boosted their self-esteem and offered opportunities for promotion (Peukert, 1987, p.72). Moreover, the economy also experienced an economic ‘boom.’ This was partly due to Hitler’s rearmament programme and partly due to an increase in industrialization through programmes such as building the Autobahns. Still, nevertheless, GNP rose from 58 thousand million in 1932 to 93 thousand million by 1937. (Peukert, 1987, p.69). However, although it could be argued that the ‘successes’ were enough on their own to guarantee Hitler in power, one cannot ignore how propaganda exploited these successes.

Even where there was some opposition from industrial workers, who saw the economic ‘miracle’ in terms of increased working hours and reduced wages, they still welcomed the restoration of full employment and the economic upturn as portrayed in the propaganda. (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.88) Propaganda also played an important role in convincing many workers that the economic ‘miracle’ was a direct result of Hitler’s leadership. Propaganda was used to promote a wide range of workers’ ‘schemes’ created by Hitler to highlight the successes of the new economy and, perhaps, enhance the idea of ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ and the necessity of Hitler to achieve this.

Schemes such as ‘Beauty of Labour’ were designed to promote better working practices for Germans and the idea that conditions were going to improve in the workplace. Other schemes such as the ‘Strength Through Joy’ scheme organized leisure activities for the German labour force. Not only did this promise to give many workers new opportunities previously unavailable to them, such as weekend trips, Mediterranean cruises or the possibility of buying a ‘people’s car’ (Volkswagen) through new saving schemes; it also cleverly distracted workers from their loss of rights such as Trade Union membership and lower wages (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.57). Some historians, however, believe that these schemes were unsuccessful.

Tim Mason, for example, argues that the ‘Strength Through Joy’ campaign was only a “qualified success amongst workers because only the better off could avoid excursions.”(Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.189). Furthermore, he writes that propaganda aimed at highlighting reduced employment, perhaps, had more impact “amongst those not directly affected, than amongst workers forced into back-breaking work.” (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, pp.188-9) Nevertheless, although there were, perhaps, wide discrepancies between the Third Reich images of the economy as portrayed in the propaganda and the actual achievements of the regime through campaigns such as ‘Strength through Joy,’ what the propaganda was able to do was convince many that the economic ‘miracle’ was a sign that things were getting better. (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.52).

Therefore, although it could be argued, perhaps, that there were many problems and inconveniences which could have provoked a reaction from the masses, due to clever propaganda, the overall balance was positive (Peukert, 1987, p.69). Moreover, the propaganda was also successful in convincing the ‘man in the street’ that the ‘economic miracle’ was a positive achievement of Hitler’s. (Peukert, 1987, p.70) Many historians have accounted for much of Hitler’s popularity from his achievements in foreign policy. Indeed, much is to be said about Hitler’s foreign policy successes, certainly before 1938. According to Welch, from 1936, when Hitler’s troops re-occupied the de-militarised Rhineland, until 1938 when they annexed the Sudetenland, Hitler won support from all sections of the community. (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, pp.88-9).

Moreover, he was able to carry out these foreign policy coups peacefully and without recourse to war. (The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.88) This was a recurring theme in Nazi propaganda. (Lee, 1998, p.50). Arguably, Nazi propaganda had a relatively easy task in the foreign policy arena, certainly until 1938, as it was able to play on the pre-existing consensus that Germany had been maltreated following the end of World War 1. (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.186). This, together with the idea of ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ enabled propaganda to centre around two facts; firstly that Hitler was righting the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles, and secondly that he was attempting to unite all German-speaking people within a ‘greater Germany’ (Peukert, 1987, p.68). However, it was not only the physical gains made in important foreign policy, so were Hitler’s methods. (Peukert, 1987, p.68)

Foreign policy propaganda portrayed Hitler as a man of peace, able to recover Germany’s ‘lost’ territories, thereby restoring greatness to Germany and doing so without bloodshed. (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.88). This strengthened the idea of the ‘Hitler myth.’ Furthermore, the F�hrer appeared to offer the strength of leadership and a desire for success. In the previous ten years, uncertainty and disillusionment during the Weimar Republic had not been met. This led to Hitler receiving “unparalleled popularity and prestige.”(Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.189). The effectiveness of propaganda in maintaining Hitler in power can, perhaps, be seen in the summer of 1938 when the feelings of the German public border-lined panic, and some would even argue, an unwillingness to fight in the expected forthcoming war (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.186).

Even under these circumstances, propaganda persuaded the majority of the public that war was unavoidable and that it had been forced on the Government (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.186). When considering propaganda in terms of exploiting foreign policy successes, one cannot ignore the fact that whilst propaganda was a useful tool, particularly in promoting the ‘F�hrer myth’ through foreign policy propaganda, Hitler did achieve many real successes, particularly until 1938. One area where it appears that propaganda was successful was promoting the idea of Hitler as a man of peace. This is particularly interesting when considering another reason why, perhaps, Hitler maintained power, the use of terror and repression.

Although much of Hitler’s popularity and lack of opposition, perhaps derived from his domestic and foreign policy ‘successes’ and the creation of the ‘Hitler Myth,’ it is not enough to fully explain why Hitler was able to maintain his power. To understand this, one must examine the impact of Nazi repression and the use of terror within the regime. Regardless of the many reasons outlined previously, one cannot ignore the fact that, quite simply, there were no opposing political parties in Germany. Within the first six months of Hitler’s ‘seizure of power,’ constitutional changes not only removed any possibility of voting for established opposition but also removed that opposition and also the possibility of setting up new forms of opposition; to do so would have been regarded as not only disloyal but also as treason. (Lee, 1998, p.50).

The removal of opposition was often done through violence, as was the case in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ when the leaders of the SA were brutally murdered. Jeremy Noakes wrote that “the ‘seizure of power’ was anything but peaceful.” (Geary, 1993, p.38). During the initial terror campaign following the seizure of power Geary tells us that KPD and SPD buildings were raided…party members were beaten up…’wild’ concentration camps were set up…where Communists and Social Democrats were sometimes tortured and murdered. (Geary, 1993, p.38) Furthermore, political opponents and Jews were ‘removed’ from the civil service and independent political parties and pressure groups were dissolved and declared illegal. (Geary, 1993, p.39). However, this repression and terror were constitutionally legal.

Following the Reichstag fire, which the Nazis cleverly exploited to signal a possible communist threat, emergency ‘Reichstag Fire’ decrees were passed, which allowed Hitler to suspend freedom of press and speech legally. This, together with the Enabling Act of March 1933, which allowed Hitler to rule without the need for authorization from the Reichstag, gave Hitler the power to rule as a dictator. Moreover, following the ‘Reichstag Fire decrees,’ the media had been taken over by the Nazis, which gave them the power to “apply negative censorship in whatever form it considered necessary and, more constructively, to shape the development of culture at all levels” (Lee, 1998, p.33). Therefore, some historians would argue that to say Hitler’s power rested purely on ‘totalitarian terror’ is, perhaps, only a partial truth. (Kershaw, 1991, p.62).

Moreover, some would argue that terror, in some instances, was actually approved to a degree as it was seen as necessary for the restoration of order. (Peukert, 1987, p.76). This can be seen particularly clearly following the ‘Night of the Long Knives,’ when although many people were brutally murdered, Hitler emerged as ‘practically a hero.’ (Lee, 1998, p.50) By using propaganda, he was cleverly portrayed to be acting with a ‘firm hand’ considered necessary to ensure that order would be enforced to achieve a better Germany. (Peukert, 1987, p.71) Furthermore, whilst Hitler clearly used violence as a means of repression following the ‘seizure of power,’ Kershaw tells us that he was not a constant over time. (Kershaw, 1991, p.63). He says that the numbers in concentration camps after the initial terror surge fell for some years, with numbers not rising again until 1938/9.

Kershaw then says that the terror and repression were also highly selective, aimed only at people associated with Left Wing parties or at an ‘unloved’ tiny majority such as Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, beggars and other ‘anti-social elements.’ (Kershaw, 1991, pp.62-4). In conclusion, whilst the significance of propaganda cannot be ignored when considering how Hitler was able to maintain power from 1933-39, it would be an “oversimplification to think of the German public as a ‘tabula rasa’ upon which the regime drew whatever picture it wished” (Welch, The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda, 1995, p.51) Without concrete achievements, propaganda alone would not have been able to sustain the positive image of Hitler.

Arguably, much of Hitler’s popularity, perhaps, came from the scale of both his domestic achievements and his many foreign policy successes after 1933. There are those, however, who would argue that Hitler’s maintenance of power was possible because the “opposition was crushed, broken, cowed and neutralized through unprecedented and unmitigated levels of repression by the Nazi state” (Kershaw, 1991, p.75) and therefore that the “weakness of the opposition [was] the strength of the regime.”(Kershaw, 1991, p.65). Nevertheless, the basic consent for Hitler lay, perhaps, due to one of Goebbels’ most significant successes.

Through the use of propaganda and the creation of the ‘Hitler myth,’ it was possible to separate Hitler from the increasingly negative image of the Nazi party (Welch, Nazi Propaganda, 1983, p.185) and the positive image of Hitler was then used to counterbalance the use of terror. Indeed, Emil Lederer, a contemporary observer, argued that winning over the masses was not merely more important than brutality as a means of control but was the “necessary pre-requisite for the use of terror.”(Hiden et al., 1983, p.53)

Bibliography

  • J Fest (1974) Hitler (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
  • D Geary (1993) Hitler and Nazism (Routledge)
  • J Hiden & J Farquharson (1983) Explaining Hitler’s Germany (Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd, 1989 end)
  • I Kershaw (1991) Hitler ( Longman)
  • S Lee (1998) Hitler and Nazi Germany (Routledge)
  • D Peukert (1987) Inside Nazi Germany (B.T. Batsford Ltd)
  • W Shirer (1962) The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (The Reprint Society Ltd)
  • D Welch (1983) Nazi Propaganda (Croom Helm Ltd)
  • D Welch (1995) The Third Reich – Politics and Propaganda (Routledge)

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