Modern history





‘The revolution we have made’, declared Joseph Goebbels, on 15 November 1933, ‘is a total one. It has encompassed every area of public life and fundamentally restructured them all. It has completely changed and reshaped people’s relationship to each other, to the state, and questions of existence.’ This was, he went on, a ‘revolution from below’, driven on by the people, because, he said, it had brought about ‘the transformation of the German nation into one people’. Becoming one people meant establishing a unity of spirit across the nation, for, as Goebbels had already announced in March: ‘On 30 January the era of individualism finally died . . . The individual will be replaced by the community of the people.’ ‘Revolutions’, he added, ‘never confine themselves to the purely political sphere. From there they reach out to cover all other areas of human social existence. The economy and culture, science and scholarship, and art are not protected from their impact.’ There could be no neutrals in this process: no one could stand aside under false claims of objectivity, or art for art’s sake. For, he declared: ‘Art is no absolute concept, it only gains life from the life of the people.’ Thus: ‘There is no art without political bias.’1

The revolution of which Goebbels was speaking was not a social or economic revolution along the lines of the French Revolution of 1789 or the Russian Revolution of 1917. Nor was it a revolution of permanent upheaval such as Röhm and the stormtroopers had seemed to envisage before they were crushed in 1934. It was a cultural revolution. It envisaged the deepening and strengthening of the Nazis’ conquest of political power through the conversion of the whole German people to their way of thinking. Not 37 per cent of the people, as Goebbels said on 25 March 1933, referring to the highest proportion of the vote the Nazis had ever succeeded in winning in a free German election, but 100 per cent of the people must be behind them.2 It was to this end that Hitler had created a new Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda on 13 March 1933 and put Goebbels himself into the Ministry, with a seat in the cabinet.3 On 25 March, Goebbels defined the Ministry’s task as the ‘spiritual mobilization’ of the German people in a permanent re-creation of the spirit of popular enthusiasm that had, so the Nazis claimed, galvanized the German people on the outbreak of war in 1914. The Nazis’ belief in the positive power of propaganda also owed a great deal to the experience of the First World War, when, they felt, the British had succeeded in purveying damaging myths about Germany. Goebbels’s Ministry, staffed by young, committed Nazi ideologues, sought 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. Of all the things that made the Third Reich a modern dictatorship, its incessant demand for popular legitimation was one of the most striking. The regime put itself almost from the very start in a state of permanent plebiscitary consultation of the masses. It went to immense trouble to ensure that every aspect of this consultation delivered a resounding and virtually unanimous endorsement of its actions, its policies and above all, its Leader. Even if it knew, as it must have done, that this endorsement was in reality far from genuine, the mere appearance of constantly renewed mass enthusiasm for the Third Reich and hysterical mass adulation of its Leader would surely have an effect in persuading many otherwise sceptical or neutral Germans to swim with the tide of popular opinion. It would also intimidate opponents of the regime into silence and inaction by persuading them that their aim of gaining the support of their fellow citizens was a hopelessly unrealistic one.4

Goebbels was quite open about the fact that this popular legitimation of the Third Reich was manipulated by the regime. It was the Propaganda Ministry’s job to co-ordinate and run the entire public presentation of the regime and its policies. ‘All that goes on behind the backcloth’, he said, ‘belongs to stage management.’5 This included ceremonies and rituals such as the torchlit parades held to mark the appointment of Hitler as Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933, the formal state opening of the Reichstag at Potsdam on 21 March 1933, the annual Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg every autumn, the ‘Day of National Labour’ on 1 May, and much more besides. New holidays and festivals were added to the traditional calendar, including Hitler’s birthday on 20 April and the commemoration of the 1923 putsch on 9 November. All over Germany, street names were altered to remove suddenly unwanted, or inconvenient, reminders of the democratic past and to celebrate Hitler, or other leading Nazis, or sacrificial heroes of the movement such as Horst Wessel, after whom the working-class district of Friedrichshain in Berlin was now called. A street was also renamed in Hamburg after the seventeen-year-old Otto Blöcker, a member of the Hitler Youth shot in an armed Communist raid on a local branch headquarters of the Nazi Party on 26 February 1933.6 There were many similar examples.

But it was Hitler who was celebrated above all else. The cult of Hitler had already reached major proportions within the Party by the early 1930s, but now it was propagated in the nation with the full resources of the state and projected not just in words and images, but also in countless small, symbolic ways.7 From March 1933 onwards, towns rushed to appoint Hitler an honorary citizen. In almost every town across Germany the main square was renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz by the end of 1933. Already on 20 April 1933 the Leader’s forty-fourth birthday saw flags and banners in every German town, garlands hung outside houses in villages all over the land, shop windows carrying special displays to mark the occasion and even public transport decorated with celebratory bunting. Parades and torchlit processions brought the celebrations into the streets, while the churches held special services to wish the Leader well. Goebbels’s propaganda machine pumped out rhetoric comparing Hitler to Bismarck, while the Bavarian Minister of Education, Hans Schemm, went still further, describing him as ‘the artist and master-builder whom the Lord God has given to us’, creating ‘a new face of Germany’ that gave the people its ‘final shape’ after ‘the events of two thousand years’: ‘In the personality of Hitler, a millionfold longing of the German people has become reality.’8 Posters and magazine illustrations, newsreels and films proclaimed Hitler as the man from the trenches, with the common touch, not only a many-sided genius with a sense of destiny, but also a humble, even simple human being who had few needs, spurned wealth and display, was kind to children and animals and dealt compassionately with old comrades fallen on hard times. Soldier, artist, worker, ruler, statesman, he was portrayed as a man with whom all sectors of German society could identify. Many ordinary Germans were overwhelmed by the scale and intensity of this propaganda. The emotion that overcame Luise Solmitz when she stood on the street awaiting Hitler’s arrival in her home town of Hamburg was typical: ‘I shall never forget the moment when he drove past us in his brown uniform, performing the Hitler salute in his own personal way . . . the enthusiasm [of the crowd] blazed up to the heavens . . .’ She went home, trying to digest the ‘great moments I had just lived through’.9

The embedding of the Hitler cult in everyday life was nowhere more obvious than in the introduction of the German greeting - ‘Hail, Hitler! (Heil Hitler)’ - to be used on all official correspondence by state employees from 13 July 1933. It was reinforced by the Hitler salute, the upstretched right arm, sometimes accompanied by the barking-out of the same German greeting, which was also compulsory, this time for all citizens, when the national anthem or the Horst Wessel Song were being sung. ‘Anyone not wishing to come under suspicion of behaving in a consciously negative fashion will therefore render the Hitler greeting’, the decree proclaimed.10 Such rituals not only cemented the formal solidarity of the regime’s supporters but also isolated those who stood apart from the regime. And they gave a further boost to Hitler’s standing.11 After the death of Hindenburg and the subsequent plebiscite on the headship of state on 19 August 1934, accompanied by the slogan ‘Hitler for Germany - the whole of Germany for Hitler’, the Leader-cult knew no more limits. Goebbels’s rapid propaganda spin on the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ only won the Leader more backing, as the man who had supposedly saved Germany from disorder yet again, crushed excessive ambition amongst the Party ‘big-shots’ and restored decency and morality to the Nazi movement.12 From now on, whatever popular criticism there was of the regime was likely to be directed against Hitler’s satraps; the Leader himself was largely immune.13

The Hitler cult achieved its grandest stage-management yet at the Party Rally held in Nuremberg in 1934, the second to be held under the new regime. Five hundred trains carried a quarter of a million people to a specially built railway station. A vast city of tents was constructed to house the participants, and gargantuan quantities of supplies were brought in to feed and water them. At the Rally itself, an elaborate series of rituals commenced. Extending over a whole week, it celebrated the unity of the movement after the alarums and excursions of the preceding summer. Outside the city, on the huge Zeppelin Field, the serried ranks of hundreds of thousands of uniformed brownshirts, SS men and Nazi Party activists took part in ritual exchanges with their Leader. ‘Hail, my men,’ he would shout, and a hundred thousand voices would answer back in unison: ‘Hail, my Leader.’ Speeches, choruses and march-pasts gave way after dusk to torchlit parades and dramatically choreographed ceremonies, with over a hundred searchlights beaming up into the sky, enclosing participants and spectators in what the British ambassador described as a ‘cathedral of ice’. Spotlights in the arena picked out thirty thousand red, black and white swastika standards as their bearers moved through the brownshirted ranks. At the most hushed moment of the ritual, the ‘blood-banner’, the flag carried in the beer-hall putsch of 1923, was ceremonially rededicated and touched on the new flags to pass on to them its nimbus of violent struggle and bloody sacrifice for the cause.14

The American correspondent William L. Shirer, attending his first Nazi Party Rally, was suitably impressed. ‘I’m beginning to comprehend, I think, some of the reasons for Hitler’s astonishing success,’ he confided to his diary on 5 September 1934:

Borrowing a chapter from the Roman church, he is restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans. This morning’s opening meeting in the Luitpold Hall on the outskirts of Nuremberg was more than a gorgeous show; it also had something of the mysticism and religious fervour of an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral.

As Hitler entered, followed by his entourage, walking slowly down the centre aisle, ‘thirty thousand hands were raised in salute’. Standing on the podium beneath the ‘blood-flag’, Hess read out the names of those killed in the 1923 putsch, and silent tribute was paid. ‘In such an atmosphere’, wrote Shirer, ‘no wonder, then, that every word dropped by Hitler seemed like an inspired Word from on high.’ Shirer saw for himself the emotion that Hitler’s presence could inspire amongst his supporters, as the Leader rode into Nuremberg from the nearby airfield on the eve of the Rally in an open-topped car, greeting with raised hand the shouting crowds lining the old city’s streets. Shirer went on:

I got caught in a mob of ten thousand hysterics who jammed the moat in front of Hitler’s hotel, shouting: ‘We want our Leader.’ I was a little shocked at the faces, especially those of the women, when Hitler finally appeared on the balcony for a moment. They reminded me of the crazed expressions I saw once in the back country of Louisiana on the faces of some Holy Rollers who were about to hit the trail. They looked up at him as if he were a Messiah, their faces transformed into something positively inhuman. If he had remained in sight for more than a few moments, I think many of the women would have swooned from excitement.15

One ‘great pageant’ followed another, wrote Shirer, culminating in a mock battle fought by army units on the Zeppelin Field. The whole event closed with a seemingly endless march-past of military and paramilitary units through the streets, giving Shirer a strong impression of the ‘sheer disciplined strength’ of the Germans under the Nazi regime. To convey a choreographed image of new-found spiritual unity through a series of gargantuan displays of huge masses of men moving and marching in unison, arranged four-square in rank and file, or standing patiently in huge geometrical blocks on the field, was the primary purpose of the Rally; and it was Hitler and Goebbels’s intention to convey it not just to Germany, but to the world.16

It was in pursuit of this aim that Hitler had indeed arranged for the entire 1934 Rally to be filmed, commissioning a young actress and film director, Leni Riefenstahl, to do the job, and issuing orders that she should be provided with all the resources she needed to carry it out. With thirty cameras at her disposal, operated by sixteen cameramen, each with an assistant, and four sound-equipment trucks, Riefenstahl made a documentary like none before it. A crew of 120 deployed new techniques such as telephoto lenses and wide-angle photography to achieve an effect that many found mesmerizing when the film was released in 1935 under the title - chosen by Hitler himself - of Triumph of the Will. The ‘will’ in question was, as Riefenstahl later explained, not only that of the German people but also and above all that of Hitler, whom her cameras almost invariably portrayed alone, descending through the clouds into Nuremberg in his aeroplane; standing in his open car as it drove through the city to the cheers of the crowds lining the streets; stopping to accept a bouquet from a small girl; speaking to his followers against a backdrop of empty sky; ritually touching the new Party banners with the ‘blood-flag’; and finally, in the Luitpold Hall, working himself up into a frenzy in a speech that had the crowd shouting repeated unison cries of ‘Hail, Victory’ like the worshippers in a revivalist chapel, and Rudolf Hess, his face glowing with fanatical devotion, shouting: ‘The Party is Hitler! But Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler! Hitler! Hail, Victory! (Sieg, heil!)’17

Triumph of the Will was striking for its monumentalism and its presentation of vast, disciplined masses moving in perfect co-ordination as if they were one body, not thousands. The light relief it presented through interludes of young brownshirts indulging in rough masculine horseplay elided into the glorification of the male body, as much a product of Riefenstahl’s own predilections as it was an expression of Nazi ideology, as they stripped off their clothes to jump into a nearby lake. All of this concealed a less glorious reality of drunkenness, brawling, mayhem and murder that went on behind the scenes.18 But Riefenstahl’s film altered reality in more subtle ways than this, not only depicting the events of the Rally in a different order from the one in which they took place, but also, backed by Hitler’s licence to interfere in proceedings as she wished, rehearsing and staging some of them deliberately for cinematic effect. Some scenes, indeed, only made sense when seen from the camera’s eye. One of the film’s most breathtaking moments, as Hitler paced slowly up the broad, blank aisle between the still, silent ranks of more than 100,000 uniformed paramilitaries, with Himmler and the new brownshirt leader Lutze following, to lay a wreath in memory of the movement’s dead, cannot have made a visible impact on more than a handful of those taking part. In the final stages of the film, the screen was filled with columns of marching stormtroopers and black-shirted, steel-helmeted SS men, leaving audiences no room for doubt not just about the disciplined co-ordination of the German masses, but also, more ominously, about the primacy of military models in their organization. Presented as a documentary, it was a propaganda film designed to convince Germany and the world of the power, strength and determination of the German people under Hitler’s leadership.19 This was the only film made in the Third Reich about Hitler; it said all that needed to be said, and did not need to be followed by another. It was released in March 1935 to widespread acclaim, not only at home but also abroad. It won the National Film Prize, presented to Riefenstahl by Joseph Goebbels, who described it as ‘a magnificent cinematic vision of the Führer’, and was also awarded the Gold Medal at the Venice Film festival in 1935 and the Grand Prize at the Paris Film Festival in 1937. It continued to be shown in cinemas, and, though banned in Germany after the war, remains one of the great classics of documentary propaganda of the twentieth century. 20

Ironically, Triumph of the Will had originally been commissioned and shot in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Reich Propaganda Minister following the failure of a first attempt by Riefenstahl the year before, filmed under the title Triumph of Faith. Riefenstahl was not a Nazi Party member, indeed she never became one, and Goebbels resented the fact that she had been directly commissioned by Hitler, bypassing what he regarded as the proper channels for works of propaganda.21 Moreover, Triumph of the Willwent against every precept that Goebbels had ordered the film industry to observe. Addressing representatives of the film industry on 28 March 1933, Goebbels condemned crude propaganda films that were ‘out of touch with the spirit of the times’: ‘The new movement does not exhaust itself with parade-ground marching and blowing trumpets,’ he said. Praising the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin, he declared that ‘it is not only a film’s convictions that make it good, but also the abilities of the people making it’. Films had to conform to the new spirit of the age, he said, but they also had to cater to popular taste.22 Propaganda, Goebbels said, was most effective when it was indirect:

That is the secret of propaganda: to permeate the person it aims to grasp, without his even noticing that he is being permeated. Of course propaganda has a purpose, but the purpose must be concealed with such cleverness and virtuosity that the person on whom this purpose is to be carried out doesn’t notice it at all .23

In pursuit of this policy, Goebbels sanctioned, perhaps even wrote, a scathing review of an early Nazi film set in the early 1930s, SA-Man Brand, with its crude, fictional and obviously propagandistic depiction of a sixteen-year-old working-class schoolboy who defied his Social Democrat father to join the brownshirts, is victimized at work with the collusion of the Jewish-dominated trade union and is eventually shot dead by Communists, a martyr for the Nazi cause. Goebbels considered the film unlikely to win over any new adherents to the Nazi cause: it was addressed to the already converted. In October he sharply criticized another film glorifying the life and death of the brownshirt Horst Wessel, shot dead by a Communist in 1930. The film told a similar story to SA-Man Brand, but with a far stronger antisemitic content. It portrayed the Communists who eventually killed the hero as dupes of Jewish criminals and intellectuals. Goebbels declared that the film was not equal to Wessel’s memory. ‘We National Socialists’, he said, ‘see no value in our SA marching on the stage or screen; their place is on the streets. Such an ostensible show of National Socialist ideology is no substitute for real art.’24

On the morning of the Horst Wessel film’s première, which was to have been attended by a wide variety of prominent figures in Berlin society, including the Hohenzollern Crown Prince, eldest son of the last Kaiser and a noted supporter of the Nazis, Goebbels issued a formal prohibition on its screening. His high-handed action aroused a furious reaction from the film’s backers. These included Putzi Hanfstaengl, one of Hitler’s old friends, who had composed the music for the film and had personally raised a good deal of the money needed to finance it. Complaining in person to Hitler and Goebbels, Hanfstaengl eventually managed to get enough support in the Party hierarchy to have the ban reversed, though only under the condition that the film’s title was changed to Hans Westmar: One of Many. In this guise, the film won widespread approbation in the press and public, who rose to their feet in many cinemas as the Horst Wessel Song rang out in the final scene.25 But Goebbels had made his point. The row convinced Hitler that the Propaganda Minister should have more effective control over the film industry in future. And he used it to ensure that straightforward propaganda films of this kind, which might have been popular amongst committed ‘Old Fighters’, but were no longer appropriate to the period when the Nazi Party had consolidated its rule, were not made again.26


The 1930s were a golden age of cinema worldwide, with the advent of sound and in some films colour too. Audiences in Germany increased, with the average number of visits per person per year almost doubling from four to nearly eight between 1932-3 and 1937-8, and tickets sold increasing over the same period from 240 million to almost 400 million a year.27 Many leading film stars and directors had emigrated from Germany in the early-to-mid-1930s, some, like Marlene Dietrich, following the lure of Hollywood, others, like Fritz Lang, leaving for political reasons. But the majority remained. One of the most famous was Emil Jannings, who in his Hollywood days in the late 1920s had won the first ever Oscar for his performance in The Last Command. Back in Germany, Jannings soon found himself starring in overtly political films such as The Ruler (Der Herrscher), a celebration of strong leadership based loosely on a well-known play by Gerhart Hauptmann and set in a monied middle-class family of industrialists modelled on the Krupps. The script-writer, Thea von Harbou, who had worked on silent films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Dr Mabuse, now made a new career for herself in the talkies during the 1930s. New stars such as the Swedish-born Zarah Leander achieved huge popularity among the cinema-going public, while others, like the German actor Theodor Loos, seemed to be an almost permanent presence on screen. A fresh generation of directors, among whom Veit Harlan was perhaps the most prominent, emerged to put across the Nazi message on film.28 Not all those who played a part in the film industry of the Third Reich escaped hostile scrutiny, however. In 1935 and 1936 the Party encouraged cinemagoers to send in inquiries about the racial and political affiliations of leading screen actors. There were repeated inquiries about one of Germany’s best-loved stars, Hans Albers, who was rumoured to have a Jewish wife. The rumour was true: his wife Hansi Burg was indeed Jewish; but Albers made sure she stayed in Switzerland for the duration of the Third Reich, out of harm’s way. Goebbels, who knew this, felt unable to take any action, given Albers’s extraordinary popularity, and the Propaganda Ministry’s officials steadfastly denied Hansi Burg’s existence.29

Actors such as Albers and Jannings played their part in boosting the extraordinary popularity of German cinema in the 1930s. Yet such successes were balanced out by the rapidly growing isolation of the German film industry. Foreign sales of German films plummeted. This was due partly to their increasing political content and declining quality, but above all to the hostility of foreign distributors, particularly if they were Jewish or had political objections to the controls which were now imposed on their colleagues in Germany. More serious still from the industry’s point of view was the virtual cessation of imports of foreign films into Germany. The problems that faced foreign films can be illustrated through the unlikely figure of Mickey Mouse, who achieved enormous popularity in Germany in the early 1930s, spawning a huge range of merchandizing from model figures to comic books. One Pomeranian Nazi newspaper declared stridently in 1931: ‘Micky Maus is the shabbiest, miserablest ideal ever invented.’ But this was very much the exception. So popular was Mickey with the German cinema-going public that Nazi film censors were more or less forced to pass all of Disney’s Silly Symphonies for exhibition. Disney’s cartoon of The Three Little Pigs had a particular appeal to the censors, since it contained a scene, later excised by Disney, in which the big bad wolf appeared at the door of one of the pigs’ houses disguised as a travelling brush salesman, with a cartoon-caricature false nose that the Nazis had no difficulty in interpreting as Jewish. The Mad Doctor, in which a crazed scientist tried to cross-breed the dog Pluto with a chicken, was a solitary exception, possibly banned because it could be taken as a satire on Nazi eugenic ideas, more likely because it was thought to be too frightening for children.30

Yet Disney’s cartoons, enormously popular though they were in Germany, soon ran into difficulties all the same. The basic reason was financial. Roy Disney, who handled the financial side of his brother’s business, concluded a new contract on 20 December 1933 with UFA to distribute Walt’s films in Germany, but on 12 November 1934 the German government quadrupled import duties on films, forcing distributors to pay 20,000 Reichsmarks in tax for every foreign film they bought. The government also imposed stringent controls on currency exports, making it virtually impossible for American companies to take any income out of Germany at all. As a result, Universal and Warner Brothers closed their businesses in Germany, while Disney never made a profit from its massive German success. The situation was hardly eased by a change in the regulations on 19 February 1935. From this point, imported films had to be paid for by exchanges with the export of German films; but the Germans no longer made films that foreign distributors wanted to show. The hostility of American distributors and the American public to Nazi antisemitism would have made it difficult to show them even had this not been the case. In the autumn of 1937 the Disney contract with UFA ran out, and to make matters worse, Disney’s accumulated assets in Germany were written off, partly to cover the bankruptcy of a major distributor. A visit to Berlin by Roy Disney failed to produce a solution, and by 1939 hardly any Disney cartoons were being shown in Germany at all. Adolf Hitler, who was given eighteen Mickey Mouse films by his Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as a Christmas present in 1937, was a lucky exception to the rule.31

By the second half of the 1930s, state control over the German film industry had become even tighter, thanks to the Film Credit Bank created in June 1933 by the regime to help film-makers raise money in the straitened circumstances of the Depression. By 1936 it was funding nearly three-quarters of all German feature films, and was not afraid to withhold support from producers of whose projects it did not approve. Meanwhile, the Propaganda Ministry’s control over the hiring and firing of people in all branches of the film industry had been cemented by the establishment of the Reich Film Chamber on 14 July 1933, headed by a financial official who was directly responsible to Goebbels himself. Anyone employed in the film industry was now obliged to become a member of the Reich Film Chamber, which organized itself into ten departments covering every aspect of the movie business in Germany.32 The creation of the Reich Film Chamber in 1933 was a major step towards total control. The next year, Goebbels’s hand was further strengthened by a crisis in the finances of the two biggest film companies, UFA and Tobis, which were effectively nationalized. By 1939, state-financed companies were producing nearly two-thirds of German films.33 A German Film Academy, created in 1938, now provided technical training for the next generation of film-makers, actors, designers, writers, cameramen and technicians, ensuring that they would work in the spirit of the Nazi regime. Financial control was backed by legal powers, above all through the Reich Cinema Law, passed on 16 February 1934. This made pre-censorship of scripts mandatory. It also merged the existing film censors’ offices, created in 1920, into a single bureau within the Propaganda Ministry. And as amended in 1935 it gave Goebbels the power to ban any films without reference to these institutions anyway. Encouragement was to be provided, and cinemagoers’ expectations guided, by the award of marks of distinction to films, certifying them as ‘artistically valuable’, ‘politically valuable’, and so on.34

As Goebbels intended, there were plenty of entertainment films produced in Nazi Germany. Taking the categories prescribed by the Propaganda Ministry, fully 55 per cent of films shown in Germany in 1934 were comedies, 21 per cent dramas, 24 per cent political. The proportions fluctuated year by year, and there were some films that fell in practice into more than one category. In 1938, however, only 10 per cent were classed as political; 41 per cent were categorized as dramas and 49 per cent as comedies. The proportion of political films had declined, in other words, while that of dramas had sharply risen. Musicals, costume dramas, romantic comedies and other genres provided escapism and dulled people’s sensibilities; but they could carry a message too.35 All these films of whatever kind had to conform to the general principles laid down by the Reich Film Chamber, and many of the movies glorified leadership, advertised the peasant virtues of blood and soil, denigrated the Nazi hate-figures such as Bolsheviks and Jews, or depicted them as villains in otherwise apparently unpolitical dramas. Pacifist films were banned, and the Propaganda Ministry ensured that the correct line would be taken in genre movies of all kinds. Thus for example in September 1933, the Film-Couriermagazine condemned the Weimar cinema’s portrayal of ‘a destructive, subversive criminal class, built up through fantasies of the metropolis into a destructive gigantism’ - a clear reference to the films of Fritz Lang, such as Metropolis and M - and assured its readers that in future, films about crime would concentrate not on the criminal ‘but on the heroes in uniform and in civilian dress’ who were serving the people in the fight against criminality.36 Even entertainment, therefore, could be political. 37

Overt political propaganda was supplied by the newsreels, above all the Weekly Review (Wochenschau), which had to be shown at every commercial film programme from October 1938 onwards, and which devoted on average half its coverage to political issues alongside the usual fare of sport, society gossip and the like. Stylized, cliché-ridden, couched in a thoroughly Nazified language of combat and struggle, delivered by the voice-over speaker in a tone of unrelenting aggressiveness, and often portraying events especially staged for the purpose of being filmed, the newsreel’s relation to reality was at best only intermediate. By 1939 all the newsreels, originally owned by a variety of companies, one of them American (the Fox Talking Weekly Review), were speaking with one voice, co-ordinated by a special office in the Propaganda Ministry and backed by a Newsreel Law passed in 1936. Like many other visual sources for the history of Nazi Germany, therefore, newsreel footage has to be used by the historian with a considerable degree of caution.38 As far as contemporaries were concerned, the propaganda intent was obvious to all but the most obtuse of cinemagoers.


Newsreels were not the principal means by which most Germans learned about what was going on in their country and the rest of the world: of far more importance was radio, which had grown rapidly in popularity under the Weimar Republic. Everyone involved in the industry, from broadcasters to engineers and salesmen, had to belong to the Reich Radio Chamber, established in the autumn of 1933. This gave the Propaganda Ministry complete power over the hiring and firing of staff. German broadcasting had already been brought under government control earlier in the year; and regional stations were eventually incorporated into the Reich Radio Company on 1 April 1934 and subordinated directly to the Propaganda Ministry. The Nazis extended their grasp to the production of wireless sets as well, paying large subsidies to manufacturers to make and sell cheap radios known as People’s Receivers (Volksempfänger), available for 76 Reichsmarks or in a smaller version at only 35. This was no more than the average weekly wage of a manual worker, and it was payable if required in instalments. One and a half million of these sets were already made in 1933. In 1934 over six million radio sets were in use in Germany, and by the middle of 1939 over 70 per cent of households in Germany owned a wireless, the highest percentage of any country in the world, including the USA. Many country people were brought within reach of government propaganda on a regular basis for the first time by this means. The spread of the radio enabled the regime to bring its message to parts of the nation that had hitherto been relatively remote from the political world. Altogether, over seven million People’s Receivers were manufactured; by 1943 every third radio set in Germany’s homes was a People’s Receiver. A particular feature of the People’s Receiver was that it only had a limited range, so that away from border areas, listeners were unable to tune in to foreign radio stations. On special occasions, radio wardens would arrange for a speech by Hitler to be broadcast over loudspeakers in public places, on factory shop-floors, in offices, schools and restaurants. On the sounding of a siren, people were supposed to stop whatever they were doing and gather round the radio set or within hearing distance of the loudspeaker for a session of communal listening. They were also meant to listen to ‘Hour of the Nation’, broadcast every evening on all stations from seven to eight o’clock. Plans were even laid for a nationwide network of 6,000 loudspeaker pillars to facilitate public listening; their implementation was interrupted only by the outbreak of war in 1939.39

Map 4. Radio Ownership in July 1938

Already on 25 March 1933, Goebbels had told broadcasters and radio managers that ‘radio will be purged’ of nonconformists and leftists, and asked them to undertake this task themselves, otherwise he would do it for them. By the summer, the airwaves had indeed been purged. Often this could mean real hardship for the dismissed. One of many affected was the novelist, poet and journalist Jochen Klepper. Born in 1903, he was not Jewish, but his wife was, a fact that aroused suspicion in itself. And though he was a deeply religious Protestant, he had a Social Democratic past. An anonymous denunciation brought about his dismissal from the state-controlled radio in June 1933. Like many such people, he now feared for his economic future. Publishing novels and poems was no substitute for his radio job, and in any case he thought it quite likely that he would be banned from publishing too. ‘I can’t really believe that the German Publishing Institution will stand by me’, he wrote despairingly. ‘How is a publishing house to keep an author afloat these days if he does not explicitly represent the “nation’s hope”?’ Finally he was rescued by an appointment to work on the staff of the Ullstein Publishing Company’s radio magazine.40 Many others had to emigrate, or go into an impecunious early retirement. But Goebbels was not content with mere personnel changes. In the same address to radio executives and producers, he went on to state, with remarkable candour:

There is nothing at all that is without political bias. The discovery of the principle of absolute objectivity is the privilege of German university professors - and I do not believe that university professors make history. We make no bones about the fact that the radio belongs to us and to no one else. And we will place the radio in the service of our ideology, and no other ideology will find expression here . . .41

But just as in film, so in radio, Goebbels knew that people would not tolerate a diet of unremitting propaganda. Already in May 1933 he began turning down requests from Nazi Party bosses keen to hear their voices on the radio, and limited broadcasts of political speeches to two a month.42

Radio, said the Propaganda Minister, had to be imaginative, modern, up-to-date. ‘The first law’, he told radio managers on 25 March 1933: ‘Don’t become boring!’ They were not to fill their programmes with martial music and patriotic speeches. They had to use their imagination. Radio could bring the whole people behind the regime.43 Despite this warning, the radio network was initially used for broadcasting large quantities of political propaganda, with fifty speeches by Hitler being transmitted in 1933 alone. On 1 May 1934 broadcasts of the Mayday celebrations, with their speeches, songs, marches and the rest, took up no fewer than seventeen hours of radio time. No wonder that there were reports that listeners were growing blasé in the face of such excesses and listening, when they could, to foreign radio stations. Only gradually was Goebbels’s oft-repeated advice heeded. From 1932 to 1939 the proportion of broadcasting time devoted to music grew steadily. By 1939 the total broadcasting hours devoted to ‘literature’ and ‘talks’ had been cut to around 7 per cent; two-thirds of broadcasting time was now taken up by music, seven-eighths of it popular rather than classical. Particularly successful was the regular request concert, introduced in 1936 and purveying hit songs and entertainment music whose style remained generally unchanged from that of the Weimar years. But some still complained that even the music was boring, and they missed the radio plays that had been so popular under the Weimar Republic.44 As the Security Service of the SS complained in 1938, the ‘dissatisfaction of radio listeners’ was demonstrating itself in the fact that ‘almost all kinds of German radio listeners . . . now as before regularly listen to German-language broadcasts from foreign stations’.45


Goebbels’s multi-faceted campaign to mobilize the spirit of the German people in the service of the Third Reich and its ideas did not run entirely smoothly. For, in a manner characteristic of so many areas of the regime, he was far from enjoying a monopoly over the territory he claimed as his own. Already in the course of the discussions leading up to the creation of the Propaganda Ministry, his original intention of including education under its aegis had been frustrated by Hitler, who had passed education over to a separate ministry headed by Bernhard Rust. More seriously, however, Goebbels had to battle for supremacy over the cultural sphere against the self-designated Party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, who saw it as his duty to propagate Nazi ideology, and in particular his own elaborate version of it, throughout German culture. At the end of the 1920s, Rosenberg had become leader of the Fighting League for German Culture (Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur), one of many special ist organizations established within the Party at the time. In 1933, the League moved swiftly to take ‘co-ordinate’ German theatrical institutions under its control.46 Rosenberg was also keen to impose ideological purity on many other aspects of German culture, including music and the visual arts, the Churches, and university and intellectual life, all areas that Goebbels had originally envisaged falling under the control of the Ministry of Propaganda.47 The Fighting League for German Culture was small but very active. Its membership increased from 2,100 in January 1932 to 6,000 a year later, 10,000 in April 1933, and 38,000 by the following October. Many of the assaults on Jewish and left-wing musicians that took place in the spring and early summer of 1933 were organized or inspired by the Fighting League for German Culture, to which a substantial number of far-right music critics and writers belonged. In addition, Rosenberg had a powerful propaganda weapon at his disposal in the shape of the Racial Observer, the Nazi daily newspaper, of which he was the editor-in-chief. To make matters worse for Goebbels, Rosenberg’s views on art and music were much more in tune with Hitler’s than were his own, and on more than one occasion, Goebbels’s penchant for cultural innovation threatened to give Rosenberg the upper hand.48

Goebbels himself had little time for Rosenberg, whose magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, he is said to have called a ‘philosophical belch’.49 While Rosenberg’s office was a purely Party institution, Goebbels had the advantage of combining his Party strength as Reich Propaganda Leader with the power of a fully fledged Ministry of State that was at the same time politically unimpeachable because it was staffed by committed Party members. Hitler did not think very highly of Rosenberg’s political abilities, perhaps as a result of the mess Rosenberg had made of things when put in charge of the Party after the abortive beer-hall putsch in Munich in 1923. So he refused to give him a government appointment. Moreover, while he shared many of his cruder prejudices, Hitler had almost as low an opinion of Rosenberg’s pretentious, pseudo-philosophical theorizing as Goebbels did. He never admitted him to the inner circle of his friends and companions. Already by the summer of 1933 the disruption caused by the Fighting League for German Culture had begun to become politically inconvenient. 50 On 22 September 1933, Goebbels succeeded in getting a decree passed to establish the Reich Culture Chamber, with himself as President. It contained seven designated sub-sections, also known as Chambers - literature, theatre, music, radio, film, fine arts, and the press, corresponding to the divisions already established in his Ministry. Some of these specialized Chambers already existed, as with the Reich Film Chamber, or were in the process of formation; now they became monopoly state institutions. Goebbels was able to recapture German theatre from Rosenberg in this way. The legal requirement that anyone who wished to work in any of these areas had to be a member of the appropriate Chamber gave Goebbels the power to exclude anyone whose views were unacceptable to the regime and effectively marginalized Rosenberg in the cultural sphere. Goebbels also used the Reich Culture Chamber to establish better pension rights and to crack down on the untrained and unqualified, though this latter policy was softened from 1935 onwards. At the same time, he took care to present the Reich Culture Chamber and its specialist sub-Chambers as a form of cultural self-administration. The Propaganda Ministry would manage them with a light touch while the real power supposedly lay with the senior artists, musicians and writers who presided over them and ran them on a day-to-day basis. In these ways, the Propaganda Minister won the support of the overwhelming majority of those Germans who depended on culture in one form or another for their living - and their numbers were considerable: 35,000 in the Reich Chamber for Visual Arts in 1937, for example, 95,600 in the Reich Music Chamber, 41,100 in the Reich Theatre Chamber at the same date.51

The Reich Culture Chamber was inaugurated in a grand ceremony presided over by Hitler himself at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall on 15 November 1933, with music from the hall’s prestigious resident orchestra conducted first by Wilhelm Furtwängler and then by Richard Strauss, followed by a speech from Goebbels and a chorus (‘Awake! Full soon will dawn the day!’) from Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Rosenberg was subsequently fobbed off with the grandiloquent but essentially empty title of ‘Representative of the Leader for the Overall Philosophical and Intellectual Training and Education of the National Socialist Party’, granted to him on 24 January 1934. His Fighting League for German Culture, renamed in more neutral terms as the National Socialist Cultural Community in 1934, struggled on, a kind of cultural counterpart to the brownshirts, deprived of a role now that the battle against Nazism’s opponents had been won, until it was finally dissolved in 1937.52 Rosenberg continued to make trouble for Goebbels from time to time, but in the end he was not effective enough seriously to trouble the Propaganda Minster’s dominance of the cultural scene, once Goebbels had abandoned his toleration of cultural modernism in the face of Hitler’s obdurate hostility to it.53

Rosenberg was not the only senior figure with whom Goebbels had to contend. Hitler, who had at one time earned a living from painting postcards, took an intense personal interest in the visual arts. He was an enthusiast for the music of Richard Wagner, developed an obsession with architecture, and spent much of his time watching films in his private cinema. Then there was Hermann Göring, whose position as Prussian Minister-President put him in control of many major cultural institutions run and financed by the Prussian state, though he made no attempt at influencing cultural policy in a wider sense. The Education Minister Bernhard Rust was also heavily involved in cultural policies, particularly where they affected the young. He established a panel of senior musicians, including the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, the pianist Wilhelm Backhaus and others, to control and in effect censor the programmes of all concerts and other musical events in Berlin. He oversaw institutions such as music conservatories and art academies. His main concern seems to have been to keep the Propaganda Ministry from encroaching on his sphere of influence, an ever-present danger given the original claim of the Ministry to include education in its remit. Finally, the Nazi Labour Front, led by Robert Ley, absorbed a large number of artists and musicians and their organizations during its takeover of the trade unions in May 1933 and seemed determined to defend the position it had thereby gained in musical life against all comers. Demarcation disputes between these various organizations and their leaders became so violent that the Education Ministry actually attempted to ban public discussion of artistic issues on 15 July 1933, though without success.54

Whatever their differences, and however much they varied on points of detail, all the Nazi cultural organizations and their leaders were agreed that Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime had to be removed from cultural life as quickly as possible, and that ‘cultural Bolshevism’ had to be destroyed, though they disagreed frequently about the particular individuals and works to which the concept could be applied. In the course of 1933 and the following years, some 2,000 artists, writers, musicians, film actors and directors, journalists, architects and others active in the cultural sphere left Germany, some of them because they disagreed with Nazism, many because they were Jewish and so had been deprived of the work that gave them their livelihood. Removing Jews from the Reich Chamber of Culture took some time partly because of objections from the Economics Ministry, which thought it would be economically damaging. By the middle of 1935, however, it was done.55 Purged of dissidents and nonconformists, and those whom the regime regarded as racially undesirable, German culture and the German mass media now faced a future of growing regimentation and control. The many quarrels between the leading Nazi contenders for supremacy in these areas did little or nothing to hinder its arrival.

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