The essence of “propaganda” in Germany

DR. G. KURT JOHANNSEN
Managing Director of the Hanse Press.

Propaganda is a word often pronounced with a certain intonation, and the word is associated with ideas like prejudice, exaggeration and but little discrimination in the selection of means and methods. In fact, propagandists have been thought of as cold-blooded and calculating creatures whose stock-in-trade is deception, not to say lies.

But such conclusions are unfair. It does not give consideration to the fact that every manifestation of human life has its positive and negative symptoms. Obstinacy may mean strength of character – or merely stubbornness; national feeling exists next to narrow-minded Chauvinism; real piety finds its counterpart in bigotry, and in hypocrisy. Both varieties grow in the same soil, and yet they are separated by a whole world. Only those who judge are often unable to differentiate between the real and the false. They do not notice the difference between the propagation of an idea and the yells of a cheap-jack. Like a boomerang, such an error returns to its sender. Remarks of an English paper that the general participation of the public in the Jubilee of the sovereign was a “mob” would be on the same level as referring abroad to demonstrations in National Socialist Germany as staged get up. There are critics everywhere who dissect and label every feeling, and attribute it to the lowest possible causes. They are only satisfied when they belittle in others what is, in most cases, missing in themselves.

In order to answer the question as to what propaganda really is, and what its meaning and importance are in present-day political life, we must begin in the past. But one does not need to start with the well-known and sometimes feared German thoroughness above; one may say that no historical revolution has taken place without preparation in the shape of propaganda. The propagandist is the herald and, at the same time, the believer in a great idea. The Puritans would have remained a harmless sect, cut off from the rest of the world, if they had not propagated their religious ideas in every city and village, influencing English life to this very day. What were their methods?

It is true that the Roundheads seemed plebeian and objectionable to Charles Stuart’s Cavaliers. But this achievement, like every other great revolution, cannot be imagined unless an idea rouses the troubled souls, unless speakers lend the idea impulse, spread it to the smallest villages, into the drawing-rooms, and into the tap-rooms, into the lecture halls and into the workshops, explaining and interpreting the idea which has become a historical demand.

Propaganda? Dangerous demagogy?-These words are used by ministers who are no longer sure of themselves, and who try to keep a movement back with the usual police methods.

But the idea grows with the obstacles placed in its path. It can be obstructed and crushed to all appearance, and may, perhaps, disappear from the surface, but only to deepen below. It cannot be prevented, for it gives a period its true fulfilment, representing the real life in the nation, the old form having lost its meaning and breaking up when the time comes. This condition must be present, or it is merely a matter of a temporary symptom which is soon overcome. The Radicals who succeeded with their parliamentary reform in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign could not destroy the firm edifice of English Society. Nor did such men as General Boulanger in the Third French Republic, or Kapp in the early post-War period in Germany succeed. But who would wish to deny that National Socialism is the great revolutionary revival of the German people in all spheres of life.

The best bridge for understanding is comprehension of the historical development and the conditions of life of the other nation. In many countries the course of things taken in Germany is regarded with astonishment and, in some cases, with mixed feelings. A State broken by internal strife, which had become the political object of its neighbours after a lost war, and a people helpless in the hands of disputing parties and opposing groups, are now united, obeying one will. Let us leave out those who would prefer to see a weak Germany, for they are too shortsighted to see that a source of unrest does not make for good neighbours, although the Spanish example should have shown this clearly enough. But even those who have good intentions feel a kind of nervous anxiety when they consider New Germany. They see soldiers in numerous uniforms, men with Party badges; they hear the tramp of the marching columns of men belonging to the movement. There are mass demonstrations, pageants and national holidays, in which the whole people take part. Is that not frightful militarism? How about freedom? And, above all, is not everything just propaganda aiming at certain effects and working on a system of mass suggestion? We shall not fail to answer these questions. But first of all it seems best to glance at pre- War Germany, which was a land without propaganda.

The art of public speaking was, perhaps, never specially developed; in any case, it was completely neglected in the last century. While young people at college participate in debates, and gain practice in giving persuasive addresses, the most one learned in Germany was to give an address. The persuasive part, the development of the points in the speech, were unknown, with the result that public speeches had little effect. The academic lecture style was taken as a model. The speaker wished to instruct. No matter how clever he might be, and even though he avoided professorial boredom, it was hard for his listeners to follow him in the long run. A real speech was practically forbidden. To speak passionately and to carry the audience off its feet, so to speak, was called demagogy. Those speakers who were unable to gain a following called such speakers mob orators, or tub-thumpers. The polite speech thus became part of the regular programme, just like the reading of the minutes of a meeting or the resolution at its close. The hearers congratulated each other when the address was not too oily and pathetic, and, especially, when it was not too long.

In German political life there was in those days no Gladstone, no Joseph Chamberlain to arouse the people at election times. Even Bismarck, whose speeches in their clarity and depths of thought are perhaps better understood in our generation than in his own, had to cope with an ill-meaning Opposition in Parliament. Only a few thousands heard him there – never a whole people. Genius had no opportunity to make use of the power and magic of the spoken word.

The German governments made no attempt whatever to explain its intentions to the public, and to gain supporters. Its representatives were as “official” as possible, and the official organ, the Norddeutsche Allgemeine, was so extremely boring that only those compelled by their professions ever read it. Was it any wonder that the Government lost the ability of speaking to the people, to the masses?

The Government performed its duties with painful conscientiousness; but how can one carry on a carefully planned policy when one knows in advance that all sections of the press are waiting for the first opportunity to attack the ministers, criticise them, and laugh at them? A clever member once said: “I do not know the Government’s intentions, but I disapprove of them!” His unconscious humour, however, leaves a bitter flavour. The whole age is characterised by the picture of the old Chancellor, Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe, who sat in the Reichstag with bent head, listening to the attacks made by the Social Democratic deputy Bebel, and unable to defend himself without notes and a prepared speech.

These are not trifles but matters of central importance. A Government must be listened to by the people at times of important decisions, the Leader must be able to count on his following, and the people must not just watch disinterestedly what is going on “up there,” but know what the aims and objects are. It would not be necessary to refer so much to this point if it were not for the fact that the considerations of yesterday are the justification of to-day. We have learnt from what happened in the past. In the Great War it was shown that the German people could not stand the strain in the long run because those who governed could not strengthen their mental powers of resistance. The German people were exposed to great opposing propaganda. The Allies understood the methods of influencing nations, unlike the German statesmen. Not only the allied peoples, but also the neutrals, and finally the German people, too, experienced the effect of the vast propaganda apparatus built up on such a big scale. It is no longer the right time to subject the methods then employed to consideration; in fact, after the War persons from the former opponents’ camp did so for themselves, But when in some countries reproachful references are made to-day to German propaganda, which, after all, is only directed towards the German people, it should not be quite forgotten that the pioneer performances in this field were on the other side. It is certain that Germany was not able to cope with this big-scale influencing of world opinion; her experts wrote pamphlets to oppose this propaganda, but they had no effect in the face of the clever attacks launched by the anti-German propagandists.

The second wave of propaganda began in Germany herself. When mentioning Germany as the country without propaganda, the absence of German enlightenment was meant. There was, however, international Marxist propaganda, which aimed at stirring up discontent. Those accustomed to the respectable forms of His Majesty’s Opposition can hardly imagine the undermining propaganda of the “red” agitators. But one must admit that they knew how to talk to the masses, in their own language, and so the people went over to them. The class struggle phraseology was familiar to every workman. The simple slogans, which could be memorised without consideration, and referred to capitalists and militarism, spread to the lower middle classes. The idea of national unity, on the other hand, was a mere phantom to them. It was expounded with the aid of the threatening forefinger, and correspondingly scoffed at. In 1918 the home front in Germany was hollow; and when at the eleventh hour an attempt was made to establish contact with the masses, it was found that both parties were unable to understand each other. The words that might have formed the link could not be found. Repressions were too strong to enable words to be formed, while the hard faces, on the other hand, did not help matters. The German Empire was ruined in the course of this conflict. It could not make its ideas live in the hearts of the citizens any longer.

The post-War period is now regarded in Germany as an interlude. The turn of events began in August 1914. The dissolution which followed after the War also bore the germ of the new future in it.

The new idea arose from this chaos. It grew round the person of a man who did not belong by family, education or possessions to the class which usually controlled public life. Probably the secret of his success is due to just this fact. Adolf Hitler did not wish to start a new school of thought, as so many professors had done before him. Nor did he appeal to the educated, to lawyers, doctors and industrialists. He sought the German people. For this, his idea had to be simple, powerful, and generally comprehensible. But it also had to be comprehensive, could stop at no sphere of life, politics, culture or economy, and had to be sufficiently powerful to overcome the natural force of resistance.

How was the idea to be carried out? No society with a committee of people with well-known names was founded, nor was the publication of a thick volume or a journal the main thing. Other measures were resorted to. Nor was a mere vision enough; a group of men were collected, and they had to create the movement to fight against what was.

Power must be attained with the right means. National Socialism did not want a State based on the point of the bayonet, which, as Napoleon once said, is not a pleasant place for rulers. National Socialism wished to win the whole people. And the means of doing so was propaganda.

Now propaganda was rather difficult in Germany – the Germans regarded themselves as somewhat problematic. There were numerous theories and opinions regarding all vital questions. The nation was so divided that its uniform pulse could no longer be heard. What was needed was a common basis of thought and feeling, which first makes an amorphous mass into a nation. For this purpose, the art of simplifying matters was necessary, forming the essence of National Socialist propaganda. Without resorting to erudition, matters had to be freed from unnecessary ballast and brought back to their essentials. The appeal could not be made to the educated section of the community, but had to be directed to the mass of the people who alone regarded the word “nation” with distrust. States which have experienced the effects of international communism among their own workers will know how difficult this task is. And States which may have been lucky enough to have been spared this agitation up to now should be glad that they need not counter the effects of “red” agitation.

When the German people gave their Leader a mandate to guide their destiny in 1933, and this decision has been confirmed by overwhelming demonstrations again and again, so that National Socialism is entitled to keep criticism, which it has never fought shy of, within proper limits, Germany was on the brink of a communist revolution. She was in economic, social and other troubles of a worse nature than other countries have experienced, least of all the Allied states. In foreign affairs, Germany’s position was so difficult that the whole discipline of the people was required to overcome each crisis. Can one demand in such times that every contemporary should, without any mandate from others, have the right to criticise this or that measure?

In quiet periods, public disputes as to opinion may even be stimulating, in times of trouble, they are dangerous, and a responsible State leadership cannot permit this. The German people decided clearly for National Socialism, and there is no further justification for continuing a campaign of press criticisms.

One sometimes hears the question as to why propaganda and people’s enlightenment is necessary now that Germany has become National Socialist. With as much justification, one might assert that we are all in favour of understanding between the nations, and can, therefore, drop the subject. If this is done the idea is forced into the background, and people appear who are not so sure of the need for understanding as the silent believers in this idea.

National Socialism was victorious because it made the people politically active, bringing the burning questions of the day before the Man in the Street, making the results of his attitude clear to him, and persuading him to work for a principle, and not merely to think about his own business. It wishes to say the same as Baldwin did in his last important speech as Prime Minister when addressing the youth: “So I say take an interest in Government.” The danger of the people losing interest in public life, or, if left to themselves, of lending their ears to false prophets and sensational rumours is too great. Rumours or false reports were never better described than in the prologue to Henry IV:

I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.

Rumour can only be brought to an end by enlightenment. The object of this work of enlightenment is not, however, to talk at people until they agree with everything, or to keep everything they should not know from them. The German people, taken on an average, are much too well educated, too interested, and too thoughtful to allow themselves to be persuaded to accept something they do not want. It would be bad tactics, doomed to failure, if one were to speculate on the ignorance or limitations of the masses. If they are ignorant they should be enlightened. In this sense, propaganda is an educational work. It cannot be left to accident to decide what sources lead to the formation of the individual’s conclusions, and on this account what is of importance in the life of the nation is to be brought to him. We do not only learn at school, after all, but also in life afterwards. But bad teachers in politics have often caused the greatest misfortunes. That is what the work of enlightenment of National Socialism wishes to prevent. People are to be instructed, and, especially they are not to be allowed to doze again, but to maintain an inner participation in the fate of the nation, and not to forget that each individual is a responsible link in the great community the German people represent.

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