“There in the floodlit night, jammed together like sardines, in one massive formation, the little men of Germany, who have made Nazism possible, achieved the highest state of being the Germanic man knows: the shedding of their individual souls and minds – with the personal responsibilities and doubts and problems – until under the mystic lights and at the sound of the magic words of the Austrian they were merged completely in the German herd,” William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years
“The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history rolling has from time immemorial has been the magic power of the spoken word, and that alone. The broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech. All great movements are popular movements, volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotional sentiments, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of the word hurled among the masses.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
It was a disheveled Landsberg Prison inmate who wrote these prophetic words about mass movements egged on by provocative speech and transmitted over recently built networks by newly developed mass-media technology.
Soon he would emerge from his jail cell to take full advantage of a perfect storm of never-before-assembled circumstances to unleash upon the world a gathering storm of fury with profound implications for society then and now.
To many the Perfect Storm is a novel and a movie about the crew of the fishing boat Andrea Gail from Gloucester, Massachusetts, lost at sea during severe conditions while longline fishing for swordfish 575 miles out in the Atlantic.
In this case, the “Perfect Storm” can be seen as a unique confluence of political, economic, philosophical and technological events that produced the backdrop that led to the Gathering Storm of 1930s Nazi Germany. This essay evades discussions about the impacts of the Industrial Revolution, the Rise of Bismarck, the Bolshevik Revolution, Germany’s loss in World War I, the hatred of the Versailles Treaty, the fragility of the Weimar Republic, the Great Depression and the many other macro political and economic events that contributed to or constituted the discontinuous model of history of 20th Century Germany.
The key point for this survey is that all of these historical epochs, coupled with startling new advancements in mass culture technologies and networks, culminated in a unique climate that was fully exploited by Hitler and his disciples, in particular Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945).
Political pros, including the late presidential campaign strategist Lee Atwater (1951-1991), have preached the virtues of “message, candidate, campaign” in this particular order to captivate the masses or an electorate in a democratic setting. In the case of totalitarian Nazi Germany’s use of mass culture for political purposes it must be asked: What were the origins of the message? (There is obviously no need to inquire about who was the “candidate.”) And how was the campaign conducted with frightening results?
This discussion assumes the reader’s more-than-adequate knowledge of the macro political/economic influences that contributed to die Weltanchauung of Nazi Germany. This focus instead touches upon Germany’s philosophical underpinnings that contributed to the message. There is also the need to adequately, but not exhaustively, weigh the impact (at the time) of new mass media technology — most notably radio, cinema, recorded sound and telephony – all of which made their collective power known for the first time in the 1930s/1940s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill used these tools to inspire. Hitler had other designs for these new breakthroughs in mass media.
It is no mistake that the majority of these advancements occurred in the mid-to-late 19th Century, basically coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in 1837; Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone in 1875; Thomas Edison, the phonograph in 1877; Louis Lumiere, the motion picture camera in 1895 and Guglielmo Marconi, the radio also in 1895.
As important as these inventions were, there still needed to be time for related communications networks to be built and expanded to the masses on a global scale. The true, cumulative impact of Bell’s telephone, Marconi’s radio, Lumiere’s cinema camera were not truly felt until the early decades of the 20th Century or about the time that Hitler and his Brownshirts were agitating and fighting in the streets of München and eventually spreading their sinister Nazi web over Germany.
Borrowing from Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s (1911-1980) “The Medium is the Message,” University of California Professor of Sociology Manuel Castells Olivan coined his own version of this concept, “The Network is the Message.” Castells’ contention (even though he was writing about the Internet) is that the network is more important than the message, and without the former the latter is essentially of no consequence. (“If a tree falls in a forest…).
Goebbels would have gladly not argued; simply combining the two – message and network – to completely hold sway over the thinking of the German public.
Most of all, it was how the National Socialists took full advantage of these developments to wage a mass-culture campaign never before seen in the modern world that revolutionized the use of propaganda. It was no mistake that one of the first actions undertaken by the Nazis upon assuming power in 1933 was to secure immediate control of the means to influence and subjugate the masses.
Goebbels and his ministry took supreme control of what French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) labeled as the Ideological State Apparatuses or ISAs. In his Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses essay, Althusser included religion, education, family, legal, political, trade-unions as ISAs. For this discussion, we are focusing on two of Althusser’s ISAs: Communications (e.g. press, radio…) and cultural (e.g. literature, the arts, sports etc.).
Althusser distinguished ISAs from what he called “Repressive State Apparatus” (e.g. government, administration, the army, the police, the courts, the prisons), which he said “functions by violence.” He said that ISAs “must not be confused with Repressive State Apparatus.” With all due respect to Althusser, the Nazis skillfully used both the tools of repression (e.g., violence) and the new means of ideological persuasion, particularly the spoken word, to physically and mentally dominate the German public and eventually the majority of the populations that they subsequently conquered and enslaved.
“It is interesting that the only developed ‘mass’ use of radio was in Nazi Germany, where under Goebbels’ orders the Party organized compulsory listening groups and the receivers were in the streets,” Welsh academic Raymond Williams (1921-1988) wrote in Technology and Cultural Form. “There has been some imitation of this by similar regimes, and Goebbels was deeply interested in television for the same kind of use.”
“…As the years went by, Dr. Goebbels proved himself right, in that the radio became by far the regime’s most effective means of propaganda, doing more than any other single instrument of communication to shape the German people to Hitler’s ends,” wrote William L. Shirer (1904-1993), in his Pulitzer Prize winning The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich. He was the Universal News Service and CBS correspondent out of Berlin, who obviously understood the power of radio.
German-Jewish, philosopher-sociologists Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), both of the “Frankfurt School,” were compelled to take flight from Germany when Hitler and Nazis claimed power and with it, put in motion what would become the Holocaust. The two exiles introduced the notion of The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. They correctly concluded that the Hitler/Goebbels propaganda machine seized control of this “industry” to make the regime sound more reasonable than it was in reality.
“Society is full of desperate people and therefore prey to rackets,” they wrote. “… The attitude of the individual to the racket, business, profession or party, before or after admission, the Führer’s gesticulations before the masses, or the suitor’s before his sweetheart, assume specifically masochistic traits.” They added that life in the late capitalist era is a constant initiation rite in which everyone must show identification with the power that is “belaboring him (or her?).”
And what were the messages emanating from Hitler’s version of the Culture Industry that constituted required listening im Vaterland?
Several philosophers and prominent German thinkers in the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century contributed to the notion of a strong nation state, the rise of militarism and the glory of modern-day warfare…all of which were wholeheartedly embraced by Hitler and his followers.
German historian Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) provided a glimpse into this way of thinking in his Formation of the Historical World essay. “The goals of war permeated all parts of (early German) life. They asserted themselves in the relationship of the family to the military order…The military ethos also produced the system of devoted followers that was so important for military and political development.”
Dilthey said that we must add the “individuality of national spirit” to this commentary. “The life-value of the individual person is shifted to his martial qualities.” And what is the highest value and enjoyment of existence? “This characteristic, which finds its highest expression in the joy of battle, influenced the entire development of our political institutions and our spiritual life.”
Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1837) is most commonly known for his dialectrics, which inspired Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and the founding of Communism. In the case of the Nazis, who violently opposed Marxism, they preferred to gain strength from Hegel’s celebration of the supreme power of the state. The state, he wrote in his Philosophy of History, “has the supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state…for the right of the world spirit is above all special privileges.” And what about the individual’s pursuit of happiness? To Hegel this notion needs to be subordinated, if not outright crushed.
“World history is not an empire of happiness,” Hegel wrote. “The periods of happiness are the empty pages of history because they are periods of agreement, without conflict.” Taking it a step further, Hegel said that war makes for “the ethical health of peoples corrupted by a long peace, as the blowing of the wind preserves the sea from the foulness which could be the result of a prolonged calm.”
Dueling Hegel when it comes to the glorification of the state was nationalist political historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896), who bluntly stated to the individual: “It does not matter what you think, so long as you obey.”
He said that martial glory is the basis of all political virtues, rivaling the “masterpieces of our poets and thinkers.”
“The concept of the state implies the concept of war, for the essence of the State is power,” von Treitschke wrote. “That war should ever be banished from the world is a hope not only absurd, but profoundly immoral.”
Books paying homage to authoritarian disciplines, the magnificence of the state, the subordination of the individual and the glory of martial conflict were not the only ones sitting on the night stands of the Fascists (literally Mussolini’s bedside) during the first-half of the 20th Century. Reportedly, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” drew heavily on the propaganda techniques of French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon’s (1841-1931)  The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.
“The great events of history have been brought about by obscure believers, who have had little beyond their faith in the favor,” LeBon wrote in 1895. “It is not be the aid of the learned or of philosophers, and still less of skeptics, that have been built up the great religions which have swayed the world, or the vast empires which have spread from one hemisphere to the other.” LeBon was obviously referring to St. Paul, Christopher Columbus and others (Hitler no doubt would have liked to mentally associate himself with this elite company).
LeBon said that the leaders of crowds wield a very despotic authority, and whether they are intelligent or narrow-minded is of no real importance because the world belongs to these popular leaders. They persist by demonstrating a force of will that LeBon said was both immensely rare and powerful, “nothing resists it; neither nature, gods, nor man.”
LeBon refers to the tactics of another European conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte, who said that there is “only one figure in rhetoric of serious importance, namely repetition.”
“The opinions and beliefs of crowds are specially propagated by contagion, but never by reasoning,” wrote LeBon. “The conceptions at present rife among working classes have been acquired at the public-house as the result of affirmation, repetition and contagion.” Wonder if there were any public houses in 1930s-era Germany?
Shirer saw as much each day and night in 1934 as thirty thousand jammed into Nürnberg’s Luitpold Hall, packed the city’s narrow streets or participated in a mass rally of a half million strong at the Zeppelin Meadow.
“You have to go through one of these to understand Hitler’s hold on the people, to feel the dynamism in the movement he’s unleashed and the sheer, disciplined strength the Germans possess,” Shirer wrote in his Berlin Diary. “And now – as Hitler told the correspondents yesterday – the half-million men and women who’ve been here during the week will go back to their towns and villages and preach the new faith with new fanaticism.”
In his Revolt of the Masses, Spanish liberal philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) prescribes how skillful propagandists (he was absolutely no fan of Fascism) exploit the masses going about their daily business. He said the majority of men have no opinions of their own, so these have to come from external forces, “like lubricants into machinery.”
“Hence it is necessary that some mind or other should hold and exercise authority, so that people without opinions – the majority – can start having opinions,” he wrote. “For without these, the common life of humanity would be chaos, a historic void, lacking in any organic structure. Consequently without a spiritual power, without someone to command, (author’s emphasis) and in proportion as this is lacking, chaos reigns over mankind.”
LeBon takes up this mantle to introduce the notion that prestige is an essential ingredient in order to influence the crowds and control the masses. “The great leaders of crowds, such as Buddha, Jesus, Mahomet, Joan of Art and Napoleon, have possessed this form of prestige to a high degree…The special characteristic of prestige is to prevent us seeing things as they are and to entirely paralyze our judgment. Crowds always, and individuals as a rule, stand in need of ready-made opinions on all subjects. The popularity of these opinions is independent of the measure of truth and error they contain, and is solely regulated by their prestige.”
Shirer saw first-hand how Hitler’s oratorical skills held his German audiences spellbound. Der Führer developed a special rapport with the crowds that “it did not matter so much what he said but how he said it…I would pause in my own mind to exclaim: ‘What utter rubbish! What brazen lies!’ Then I would look around at the audience. His German listeners were lapping up every word as the utter truth.”
“No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda,” Shirer wrote. And if someone dared to doubt the message of Goebbels’ propaganda machine? “…One was met with such a state of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one has blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless is was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.”
Ortega y Gasset grouped Syndicalism and Fascism together is his 1932 book (one year before the ascension of Hitler) and said that Europeans are inflicted with a strangeness” for “elements of novelty.”
“Under the species of Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions,” he wrote. “This is the new thing: the right not to reasonable, the ‘reason of unreason.’”
The reason for this exercise is not to merely recount how the Perfect Storm of history, macro-economic factors, technology and sinister intent led to the most efficient propaganda machine the world had ever seen. Many before have written extensively about what Winston Churchill called The Gathering Storm. This voice will not be added to that chorus.
Instead, present-day society and future generations must be mindful of this history and then ask whether a similar repository of elements and events could ever again form the nucleus of a propaganda machine that has even scarier implications for civilization in this era of terrorism and nuclear proliferation?
Shirer and other observers before, during and after what the German’s refer to as the NS-Zeit have questioned how a nation that produced “some of the most elevated minds and spirits of the Western World” (e.g., Kant, Humboldt, Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Beethoven…) could fall completely under the sway of an Austrian corporal.
We have already answered the question of whether this kind of repressive control of the vehicles and networks of mass culture coupled with the spread of incessant propaganda can occur in the 21st Century. One only needs to look north of the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula for the answer. But in all due respect, did the rural and backward hermit kingdom of what now constitutes North Korea ever produce the thinkers and the civilization even remotely equivalent to the major countries (e.g., Germany) of the industrialized world?
Theoretically anything is possible, but Goebbels would have quickly confronted what the People’s Republic of China is combating today: the global impact of a vast network of PCs and servers, guided by ever more powerful microprocessors, governed by clever software operating systems and tied together with a worldwide web of cyberspace.
Wonder what would be the popular reaction to vivid Google Earth satellite photos of Auschwitz downloaded onto millions of computers, replayed repeatedly on YouTube, written into encyclopedic script on Wikipedia.org and served as the subject of blogs, Tweets, LinkedIn and Facebook entries? How would Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Goebbels et al. explain satellite transmissions of concentration camps or mobilized infantry/armor/Luftwaffe in the face of a digitally informed global population?
The greatest threat to modern-era propaganda makers, even though he certainly did not know this in 1965, was most likely Gordon Moore. One of the three founders of Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) postulated that year that the number of transistors on a given piece of silicon real estate doubles every 18 months.
“Moore’s Law” has not only been 100 percent accurate since its inception, it may even be judged to be conservative. The net result is an explosion of mass communication access devices (e.g., PCs, tablets, digital readers, cell phones) that are smaller, faster, better and consume less power.
In his Parisian lecture this past September, New York University Journalism Professor Jay Rosen wrote about the disintegration of the atomized “mass” audience. He asked what if society turned away from the television tube en masse, similar to crazed television newsman Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.
“Immediately people who happened to be watching would alert their followers on Twitter,” Rosen wrote in his The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation. “Someone would post a clip the same day on YouTube. The social networks would light up before the incident was over. Bloggers would be commenting on it well before professional critics had their chance. The media world today is a shifted space. People are connected horizontally to one another as effectively as they are connected up to Big Media; and they have the powers of production in their hands.”
Bottom-line conscious global businesses are moving away from top-down control where everything is designed, manufactured and sold under one roof and instead concentrating on their bread-and-butter raison d’etre and outsourcing the rest. Rosen said a similar worldwide shift from vertical-to-horizontal is occurring in how the public receives news and information (North Korea and few others are exceptions).
There still are some very famous media brand names, but the number of “journalists” harnessing digital ones-and-zeroes to self-publish is growing with every passing day. The vehicles of choice are not just wireline or wireless networked servers and PCs, but a growing variety of mobile communications devices.
The most populous nation on the planet, authoritarian China is struggling against the massive weight of sheer math and the tyranny of numbers: 1.5 billion people, millions of mobile devices, millions of PCs, millions of television sets, thousands of servers, thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable and a vast worldwide web to tie them all together. No one should underestimate the lengths the regime will go to protect its hegemony (e.g., Tiananmen Square in 1989), but nonetheless Moore’s Law continues unabated.
Does anyone want to take a wager that Moore’s Law will outlast the Communist Party of China (CPC) or other despots who try to use mass media to wage a stifling propaganda campaign with chilling impacts for not only the subjugated but for their neighbors as well?
Even though there are no guarantees in life, it can be argued that rapid advancements in innovation and humanity’s insatiable demand for the marketplace of ideas will severely curtail, if not put an end, to systemic, one-sided propaganda efforts such as the one unleashed and waged by Goebbels. The impact of today’s information technology (and the killer apps still to come) will digitally expose the lies and deception behind Goebbels-like modern day messages. It was another form of technology, the cyanide capsule, that put an end to Goebbels’ life in a deep bunker underneath a bombed out city, not far from the remains of what was once his grandiose Propaganda Ministry.
Soon thereafter his loud speakers finally went silent.