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“Thank God, the Führer is alive.” How Nazi propaganda successfully brainwashed the German nation

Although the residents of Nazi Germany had no Internet or phones, there is ample evidence that the Germans kept close track of the domestic situation. Yet many of them forwent trustworthy information sources (such as foreign radio stations) in favor of state propaganda. Meanwhile, propagandists insisted that Germany was the primary victim in the war and that Hitler was both courageously defending his nation and liberating the peoples of the countries where he was waging war. Eager to support their Führer, many young men enlisted into the army voluntarily, girls took medical training, and the elderly anticipated news of victories on the battlefield. En masse, the Germans even condemned Hitler's assassination attempt on July 20, 1944, though it may have seemed impossible to deny Germany's crimes at the time. Confidence that Hitler's removal would only make things worse consolidated the nation around the Nazi government up until the end of World War II.

  • Germany looking for a pretext

  • How the Germans developed a victim cult

  • Hitler saves Great Britain from its government

  • Apathy among the Germans

  • Goebbels' propaganda gaffe

  • “The blackest day” or the long-awaited peace

  • Meaningless losses

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Germany looking for a pretext

Upon annexing the Sudetenland in 1938, Adolf Hitler swore it would be his “last territorial claim”. Germany needed a valid pretext for its next act of aggression. Throughout the spring and summer of 1939, Hitler's government bemoaned the oppression of the German minority in Poland, while devising a plan of invasion. On August 31, an SS commando unit staged a “Polish” attack on a German radio station at Gleiwitz, five kilometers away from the border. On September 1, Hitler addressed the nation: “Last night regular Polish soldiers fired on our territory for the first time. Since 5.45 a.m. the fire has been returned.” German troops entered Poland. There was no declaration of war: the German side referred to its actions as “self-defense”, a “counter-attack”, and “returning fire”. The global community did not think much into the Gleiwitz incident, but the German nation, properly riled up by propaganda and regular broadcasting of unspeakable atrocities allegedly committed by the Poles, was quick to see itself as the injured party.

The specter of Germany’s defeat in World War I reared its head again. Streets grew ominously empty. The nation was wary of how Poland's allies would react. As much as the Germans wanted to resolve the Polish question, few were willing to go to war with Great Britain or France. This is evidenced, for instance, by the surveys conducted in Upper Franconia: “‘The answer to the question of how the problem ‘Danzig and the [Polish] Corridor’ is to be solved is still the same among the general public: incorporation in the Reich? Yes. Through war? No.” Even those whose loyalty to the regime was initially questionable agreed that the Polish crisis affected Germany's interests. Writer Jochen Klepper, who was married to a Jew, wrote at the time:

“‘The German East is too important for us not to need to understand what is now being decided there... We cannot wish for the fall of the Third Reich out of bitterness as many do. That is quite impossible. In this hour of external threat, we cannot hope for a rebellion or a coup.”

The “hour of external threat” was on many minds. Schoolteacher Wilm Hosenfeld told his son: “All domestic ideological political differences have to step back, and everyone has to be a German, to take a stand for his people.” By night, air raid alarms sounded in Berlin, as Polish planes entered the German airspace. The alarms soon stopped, however, as the capital was out of danger.

On the afternoon of September 3, the British government declared war on Germany. In the evening, the French government followed suit. German veteran Dr. August Töpperwien, who had already paid a visit to the enlistment office to volunteer and had been rejected, was outlining his upcoming theology lecture. Eventually, he set his mind on the slogan from the brass buckles of army uniform belts: “Gott mit uns” (“With God on our side”). For Germany, the real war started on September 3. Life in the Third Reich changed: draftees were stationed in combat-ready military units, girls enrolled in medical training, and the elderly went to sleep worried. No one wanted war. However, the Germans viewed the war as something they did not choose; something forced on them externally.

The Germans viewed the war as something they did not choose; something forced on them externally

Poland expected Hitler to focus on retrieving land along the border, between West and East Prussia. However, the German army chose different sectors, advancing from the north and south toward Warsaw. It bombed cities and refugee columns and conducted mass executions of prisoners of war. Filled with a “terrible rage against the Poles”, the Germans believed these atrocities were justified.

The weekly cinema news, Wochenshau, portrayed captive Polish soldiers saying they’d been given orders to exterminate the German minority. The government also accused Poland of starting the genocide of the Germans. In November 1939, the German Foreign Ministry released a book with photographs documenting the violent acts of the Poles: dismembered women, wooden carts filled with dead bodies, and mutilated children's faces. In his speech in Danzig on September 19, 1939, Hitler mentioned “tens of thousands” of “our Volksgenossen” who had been “abducted, abused, and murdered in a most gruesome manner”. As he put it, “sadistic beasts let themselves go and allowed their perverted instincts to run free. And the pious democratic world stood by without batting an eyelid.” For more impact, he added a contrast: “I have instructed the German Luftwaffe to lead this war in a humane manner, i.e. only against fighting units.”

German troops advancing to the Polish border
German troops advancing to the Polish border

By October 6, Germany had occupied all of Poland. Speaking at the Reichstag, Hitler reiterated he had no territorial claims against France or Great Britain and offered them peace. The Germans had rekindled their hopes of restoring the pre-war calm. Newspapers were mottled with headlines like “Germany’s Will for Peace” and “Co-operation with All Nations of Europe”. On Monday, October 9, when rumors reached the capital that the British government had agreed to negotiate, thousands of people walked out into the streets to celebrate. To curb uncontrollable public exuberance, the authorities released an official refutation. Neither Great Britain nor France accepted peace. The warring parties were entering a phase that would be later dubbed “Phony War”, characterized by very low intensity of combat.

How the Germans developed a victim cult

Before 1939, Hitler’s method both at home and abroad was to speak of peace while preparing for war. During the Munich crisis of 1938, when the German public’s fear of war became particularly evident, the Chancellor realized his nation did not share his aggressiveness. The Nazi government could not advocate war openly and had to cover up its intentions with peaceful slogans and initiatives. It was not until November 1939 that German journalists were ordered to stop the “peace propaganda” and cover events “in such a fashion that the inner voice of the people itself slowly begins to shout out for the use of force”.

Hitler's regime perpetrated acts of aggression unbeknownst to the populace at large. Violence remained abstract and remote, directed against Jews, homosexuals, enemies – always somebody else. The Germans did not experience any restrictions until the ban on listening to enemy radio broadcasts. Shops labeled radio receivers with a sticker reminding customers that listening to foreign broadcasters was a crime against national security. Nevertheless, the Germans continued to refer to foreign media – albeit taking more precautions: turning down the volume, switching to German stations after the broadcasts, or making sure their neighbors could not hear enemy speech. However, some residents of the Reich took these restrictions as an offense, not understanding how listening to foreign broadcasts could undermine their personal faith in the Führer and the government.

Some residents of the Reich failed to understand how listening to foreign radio could undermine their personal faith in the Führer and the government

German radio engaged in active counter-propaganda, constantly ridiculing statements made by British and French broadcasters, throwing accusations of lies and manipulation, and calling Churchill the “Lord of Lies” or rubbishing him as “WC”. Naturally, any reports of torture in concentration camps were hushed up. German propaganda depicted the Volksdeutschen as the ultimate victims, insisting that all things German were being banned, restricted, and abused all over the world. Meanwhile, the Third Reich assumed the role of protector of European values. When the first bombs fell on German cities, Goebbels paid more attention to the meticulous listing of architectural losses than acknowledging the loss of life. Up until 1945, Berlin theaters produced Shakespeare's plays.

At 11 a.m. on May 10, 1940, press guidelines arrived from the Propaganda Ministry, announcing that “Holland and Belgium are the new objectives for attack by the Western powers. English and French troops have marched into Holland and Belgium. We are hitting back.” In German cities, nothing seemed to have changed, but residents, fearful of bombs, lined in front of kiosks to buy fresh newspapers. Around sixty bombs fell on the German city of Freiburg on that day. Germany blamed the attack on “Allied planes”. A new round of war began, turning the tables on the Western front. German authorities threatened:

“From now on, every enemy bombing of German civilians will be answered by five times as many German planes bombing English and French cities.”

On the following day, the Germans were told that the Freiburg bombing victims included thirteen children. Their deaths would come up in the manipulative rhetoric of the Nazi government for years. Only after the war it became known that Freiburg had been bombed by Germany's own air force, the Luftwaffe, by mistake.

Adolf Hitler receives a carved wooden eagle during his visit to a Luftwaffe airbase. 1939
Adolf Hitler receives a carved wooden eagle during his visit to a Luftwaffe airbase. 1939

Germans kept their radio receivers on even at night. Military experts of the Propaganda Ministry offered a running commentary on every development Soldier Ernst Guicking wrote from the frontline:

“And to their question, ‘where to?’, we answer, ‘to Paris’, to ‘Monsieur Daladier’.”

On June 22, France surrendered. The Germans rushed out into the streets and squares to hold impromptu celebrations. Since the 1920s, when they seemed to have made amends with the decay and decadence, they had been taught to view France as a “hereditary enemy”, and then it had finally fallen. To motivate troops, military leader Hermann Göring insisted that the military postal service should transport an unlimited number of parcels to the Fatherland. The number of parcels from France spiked fivefold. Soldiers were also allowed to take home everything they could carry, so Paris railways stations were bursting with the “spoils of war”. Yet even amidst this euphoria, most Germans continued to seek peace – much to Hitler's discontent.

Hitler saves Great Britain from its government

On July 19, 1949, in the Kroll Opera House, the Führer once again had to play peacemaker. He reiterated that he saw no reason for the war to continue. Three days later, the BBC broadcast Great Britain's rejection of his peace initiative. On August 1, the Luftwaffe was ordered to launch an offensive. Berlin's air force, which had built new bases across the continent, began bombing English cities. In response, British planes set out for Germany. Despite promises of a safe rear, the Germans were growing uneasy. Hitler leveraged the concerns to justify an even more aggressive military campaign. Time after time in his speeches, he swore to “erase” enemy cities off the surface of the earth. American reporter William Shirer recorded a conversation he had with his cleaner: “‘Why do they do it?’ she asked, referring to British air raids. ‘Because you bomb London,’ Shirer replied. ‘Yes, but we hit military objectives, while the British, they bomb our homes.’ ‘Maybe,’ Shirer interjected, ‘you bomb their homes too.’ ‘Our papers say not,’ she argued.” The German press indeed underlined that the Reich was waging “fair and chivalrous warfare”, restricted to “military objectives”.

Joseph Goebbels, Germany's chief propagandist, struggled with rectifying his nation's Anglophilic sentiment, so he chose to separate the British from their government. The Germans were barraged with articles, films, broadcasts, and books addressing the unemployment, social inequality, and hardship of common Englishmen. The German propaganda insisted the Reich was saving the British from “plutocracy”. In Münster, the journalist Paulheinz Wantzen noted that “our policy aims at dividing people and government”. When it became obvious after the first few months of raids that the English were not going to grasp the opportunity and topple their government, the Germans were overcome with doubt. Some said to each other: “The people of Britain surely did not feel that they were languishing under a plutocratic regime.”

A photo in a German newspaper illustrating a report on the bombing of London. The city's docks and warehouses are on fire after Luftwaffe raids. 1940
A photo in a German newspaper illustrating a report on the bombing of London. The city's docks and warehouses are on fire after Luftwaffe raids. 1940

Both sides kept track of their losses and the enemy planes they shot down; naturally, both were lying. By mid-September, however, doubt grew after yet another radio talk given by Air Force General Erich Quade: “If England only possessed the number of planes named by Quade at the start of the war, then, adding up all the numbers of hits, it can’t have a single plane left today, or else British aircraft production is achieving something quite extraordinary.” In May 1941, Göring reassured the nation that the British armaments production had sustained “enormous damage to the point of complete destruction”. May 10 saw Luftwaffe's last major night raid on London. By then, the operational strength of the Luftwaffe’s bombing arm was down to 70% of its capacity in May 1940. Innumerable sorties, with each raid praised by the press as “the most terrifying”, “the longest”, “the most powerful” and so on, ended in nothing. Journalist Paulheinz Wantzen wrote: “In general people are reckoning with a long war, without being particularly worried or bothered about it. In its current phase, the war is hardly noticeable.”

Apathy among the Germans

While rumors of troops in the East circulated in Germany, the opening of a second front in 1941 still came as a surprise for many. The failed campaign against Great Britain forced Hitler to do a one-eighty. Air raids on England bore little fruit, so Nazi commanders thought that eliminating a potential ally would make the English more open to negotiation. At dawn on June 22, right after Nazi troops invaded the USSR, Hitler's speech was broadcast throughout the armed forces. In the morning, Goebbels repeated it on the radio:

“Thus Moscow not only broke our treaty of friendship but betrayed it! ...I was forced by circumstances to keep silent in the past. Now the moment has come when further silence would be not only a sin but a crime against the German people, against all Europe.”

Since the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union remained in force up to June 22, Nazi propagandists had not been rallying the nation against the new enemy. Therefore, the Third Reich had to play the old preemptive-strike card: “Russian patrols once more crossed...” From then on, Russians were presented in the press as “barbarians and savages”. On July 8, Völkischer Beobachter wrote: “The German soldier brings back the human rights that Moscow sought to suffocate in blood.” Once again, Hitler painted himself and his nation as the victim, who had had to put up with everything until they could finally rise to Europe’s defense. As German residents Victor and Eva Klemperer recalled, a woman once approached them in a café in the center of Dresden and handed them a newspaper, saying: “Our Führer! He has had to bear it all alone, so as not to trouble his people!”

The new campaign initially enjoyed popular support. However, it dragged out disastrously. In a war of attrition, the Third Reich stood no chance against the Soviet Union. Preparing a report to Hitler in November 1941, Reich Minister for Armaments and Ammunition Fritz Todt wrote in his notes that “this war can no longer be won by military means”. After his report, Hitler asked: “How then shall I end the war?” Todt replied, “It can only be ended politically.” In February 1942, he was killed in a plane crash. As early as in January 1942, Goebbels noticed “general defeatism in Berlin government circles”. Some members of the German elite shot themselves, including the head of Luftwaffe procurement Ernst Udet and key industrialist Walter Borbet, while a few others developed heart disorders. The ranks of the Führer's supporters were growing scarce. The populace was losing confidence in the press.

A German propaganda poster
A German propaganda poster

News of military failures reached the rear in no time. Civilians abandoned official news sources in favor of word of mouth. Soldiers wrote home about problems with supplies and shortages of winter uniforms and food. The official Instructions to the Troops issued in March 1942 forbade any expression of discontent: “Whoever complains and makes accusations isn’t a real soldier.” Military mail was censored selectively. Goebbels banned any media coverage of the army's pitfalls. Hitler began addressing the nation on the radio more and more often. He still inspired the most trust, so he was calling on his people to believe in him once more, appealing to the urgency of defending freedom not only for themselves and their children but for Europe at large. On 20 December 1941, Goebbels went on the radio to call for a major nationwide collection of winter clothing and kit for the troops as “a Christmas present from the German people to the Eastern Front”. The need to collect warm clothing for an army that the press had lauded as more than adequately equipped caused apathy among common Germans. Meanwhile, chronic food shortages in the Reich escalated to famine.

Goebbels' propaganda gaffe

In January 1943, Goebbels’ perfect propaganda machine seriously malfunctioned. On January 30, the regime's tenth anniversary, Hermann Göring extolled the feat of the 6th Army at Stalingrad. He compared German troops there to Leonidas and his 300 Spartans who held the narrow pass at Thermopylae:

“Even in a thousand years every German will still speak of this battle with religious awe and reverence and know that, despite everything, Germany’s victory was decided there.”

On February 3, the German radio announced that the battle was finally over:

“The sacrifice of the 6th Army was not in vain. As the bulwark of the historic European mission it has broken the assault of six Soviet armies for several weeks... Generals, officers, non-commissioned officers, and men fought shoulder to shoulder to the last bullet. They died so that Germany may live.”

Three days of national mourning followed. However, despite Goebbels’ meticulous orchestration, the tragedy of Stalingrad caused nationwide panic. A people that viewed defeat as an alien notion was suddenly faced with a defeat of colossal proportions. It was an emotional shock for the Germans, especially considering that Hitler had reassured them of a certain victory at Stalingrad some two months ago. Never before had the Führer's lies been so evident: “Hitler has been lying to us for three months running,” complained the Germans. Germany's catastrophic military ineptitude overturned public opinion. The Führer ordered everyone to drop the issue of Stalingrad, as though the battle had never happened. No one wrote about it or even mentioned it; no parallels were drawn. The first anniversary of the battle in 1944 was passed over in complete silence. Goebbels shrugged it off in the press, asserting “the leadership’s sovereign right to make occasional mistakes”. Yet the nation that was so fearful of defeat had already realized it was losing the war.

Germany's catastrophic military ineptitude overturned public opinion

Five years into the war, Germany was growing weary. The Münster journalist Paulheinz Wantzen picked up a joke:

“In 1999, two panzer grenadiers on the Kuban bridgehead are chatting. One of them has read the word ‘Peace’ in a book and would like to know what that means. No one in the bunker knows and so they ask the Sarge. He doesn’t know either and so they ask the Lieutenant and company commander. ‘Peace?’ he asks shaking his head. ‘Peace? I even attended a Gymnasium, but I don’t know that word.’ Next day, he is at battalion HQ and asks the commander. He doesn’t know but has a recently published dictionary and there they finally discover: ‘Peace, way of life unfit for human beings, abolished in 1939’.”

Germany’s western regions were soon barraged with allied attacks. Their residents were outraged. In the Ruhr, a ditty made the rounds that pilloried the audience of Goebbels’s ‘total war’ speech in February at the Sportpalast:

Dear Tommy, fly further
We are all mine workers.
Fly further to Berlin,

All of them cried ‘Yes’.

Goebbels promised retaliation for each strike, but retaliation was nowhere in sight. Ordinary Germans hid in basements, went starving, and fell asleep from exhaustion on the way to work. The Swiss consul, Franz-Rudolf von Weiss, described the general mood as one of “deep apathy, general indifference, and the wish for peace”.

“The blackest day” or the long-awaited peace

On the evening of July 20, 1944, the Third Reich learned of an attempt on Hitler's life. After midnight, the leader spoke on the radio, in a voice just a little tenser than usual:

“German national comrades, ...if I speak to you today it is, first, in order that you should hear my voice and that you should know that I myself am unhurt and well; second, in order that you should know about a crime unparalleled in German history. ...A very small clique of ambitious, irresponsible, and at the same time senseless and criminally stupid officers have formed a plot to eliminate me and, with me, the German Wehrmacht command.”

Despite the ubiquitous apathy and the awareness of Germany’s deadlock; despite the realization of the many years of lies, the assassination attempt was met with sharp, radical condemnation.

The father of tank commander Peter Stölten expressed his shock tersely, writing to his son, “How can they endanger the front so?” Even those who were critical of the Nazis were convinced that “only the Führer can master the situation and that his death would have led to chaos and civil war”. Women in the streets nearly cried with relief: “Thank God, the Führer is alive.” The Propaganda Ministry rushed to organize rallies for Hitler’s “providential salvation”.

Paradoxically, society demanded an even broader mobilization. The Germans were convinced that their army had only just begun to show its potential, though the country was strongly focused on defense by the fall of 1944. In August, the Hitler Youth leader, Artur Axmann, issued a call for boys born in 1928, who were 16 at the time, to volunteer for the Wehrmacht. Within six weeks 70% of the age group had signed up. However, the government was short of weapons and clothing to equip the newly-enlisted troops.

Trying to salvage the situation, Goebbels came up with a new slogan: “Time against space”. The propaganda minister used it to assure the nation that the soaring military casualty rate and bitter defensive battles of 1943 and 1944 had bought the Third Reich time for a mysterious new weapon that would soon be deployed and would change the course of the war. On 30 August, the Völkischer Beobachter published a piece titled “The secret of the last phase of the war” by the veteran war correspondent Joachim Fernau, promising a weapon of untold strength. Many Germans were willing to take these reassurances at face value because there was nothing else to rely on.

News of death camps in which prisoners were executed en masse with gas or electricity continued to spread across the country, paralyzing the nation. Half of Berlin was in ruins after enemy air raids. Hitler “had gone off the radar”. He addressed the public so rarely that after his New Year speech of 1944, many were “delighted to hear the voice of the Führer again”. Some admitted, though, that his voice sounded “hollow as the grave”. Indeed, Hitler would be hard-pressed to find a reason for festive cheer. What remained of his “Great German Reich” was bounded by the Oder and the Rhine. Everything would end in just a couple of months. Discussing gifts on Christmas Eve, the Germans joked: “Be practical, give a coffin”, and the abbreviation LSR (Luftschutzraum, “air raid shelter”) was deciphered as Lernt schnell Russisch (“learn Russian quickly”).

An aerial view of Berlin's ruins, 1945
An aerial view of Berlin's ruins, 1945

May 9, 1945, saw the advent of peace, which the Germans had craved so badly. It defied all expectations, however, as the country met its defeat quietly, with barely any resistance. Sixteen-year-old Wilhelm Körner wrote in his diary: “The 9th of May will definitely count amongst the blackest days of German history. Capitulation!” The majority, however, did not care much who had won and who had lost, even if they were the losing party.

Meaningless losses

Back in February 1943, Goebbels, who sought to construct a Stalingrad myth, entrusted the propagandist with the 6th Army, Heinz Schröter, with collecting the letters of soldiers fighting at Stalingrad. Goebbels intended to inspire thoughts of retaliation in Germans who would later read these letters.

After the war, these excerpts were indeed published and translated into many languages. They are part of mandatory reading in Japanese schools, for instance. The Germans have also re-read them many times over. Soldiers wrote to their near and dear: “It is hell on earth here. Dive bombers and artillery.” “You cannot stop thinking that the end is nigh. Our attacks have been fruitless.” “My dear parents, if it’s possible, send me some food. I’m so ashamed to write this, but the hunger is too much. Those of us who are still standing can barely walk.” “Please do not worry too much when you read these lines. Our situation here is hopeless. I salute you and bid you farewell, my dears, because when this letter reaches you, my life will have ended.”

A German soldier's letter from Stalingrad, 1942
A German soldier's letter from Stalingrad, 1942

Stripped of Goebbels’ propaganda, the letters became just what they had always been: proof of the futility and atrocity of war, a hollow and desperate yearning for peace. The Stalingrad tragedy reflected the tragedy of entire Germany: the deceived, starving, exhausted nation was left to perish in a war that was not theirs.

The article includes quotes and materials from Nicholas Stargardt’s “The German War: A Nation Under Arms”.

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