Article by Steven Litt
The story of Nazi propaganda and the role it played in Hitler’s rise and fall and the Holocaust is a terrible one that will bear repeating as long as history has meaning.
It’s a tale told chillingly and well at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, where “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” is on view through Sunday, March 15.
Organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the exhibition compiles posters, film clips and artifacts including multiple editions of “Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, along with a bronze bust of the dictator and a yellow Star of David of the type the Third Reich required Jews to stitch to their clothing.
Much of the material on view, including grainy newsreel footage of Nazi parades and speeches, the cult-like images of Hitler and photos of massive crowds giving the stiff-arm salute, will be familiar to most visitors.
But the show is full of surprises, including a special edition of “Mein Kampf” printed as a Nazi Party gift for newlyweds, or an example of the affordable radios – or “People’s Receivers” — whose production Hitler’s government subsidized, all the better to broadcast poison to the masses.
Deep impact on German life
Also on view are knives emblazoned with Nazi regalia, designed as gifts to boys in the Hitler Youth corps, and a filmstrip machine of the type used by party apparatchiks in public lectures on topics such as “Germany Triumphs over Jewry” or “Healthy Family Healthy Nation.”
One of the show’s best touches is that it includes numerous propaganda posters, both originals and copies, that are accompanied by smaller versions in translation, allowing a seamless appreciation of the relation between graphics and text.
The artifacts collectively show how the Nazi information machine penetrated daily life, creating a monolithic, airtight ideology – along with an extensive bureaucracy aimed at promoting it.
The show includes, for example, the organization chart of the Nazi information ministry headed by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief of propaganda.
Early grasp of propaganda’s power
Through the rise of National Socialism and its 12 years in power, from 1933 to 1945, Nazi propagandists refined a visual repertoire based on dramatic graphics, colors and simple, powerful messages – as Hitler outlined in “Mein Kampf.”
These tools included the eventual selection of a dramatic palette of red, white and black as the party’s colors, and the use of the swastika as a logo that still has a chilling impact.
The haunting reality is that drained of political content, the style and aesthetics of Nazi propaganda are undeniably eye-catching and powerful. The party created a dark art, but it is art nonetheless.
It comes as a surprise, therefore, that the exhibition omits mention of film director Leni Riefenstahl, whose 1935 “Triumph of the Will,” a documentary on the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, is considered a cinematic masterpiece of its type.
Instead of exploring Riefenstahl, the exhibition includes fascinating clips from two lesser-known films that obliquely make the point about selling politics with style rather than blunt force.
“The Eternal Jew,” a heavy-handed documentary about the supposed menace of the Jewish people in German society, bombed at the box office, perhaps because its racist messaging was too blunt.
On the other hand, “Jud Suss,” or “Suss the Jew,” a Hollywood-style 1940 epic about a Jewish moneylender who ingratiates himself with German royalty and is hung after he rapes a German woman, was far more popular because of its storytelling and production values, the exhibition notes.
Both films were mandatory viewing for members of Germany’s military.
Goebbels especially praised “Jud Suss” for providing “inspiration completely in line with our ideals.”
The Maltz museum frames the exhibition with an introductory bank of video screens that raises the question whether propaganda still exists and in what form.
The screens flash montages of powerful images from contemporary advertising, politics and sports, including the new banner featuring LeBron James in downtown Cleveland, which bears an uneasy resemblance to the scenes of mass adulation in Riefenstahl’s famous film.
The subtle point is that the same tools used to such ill effect by the Nazis are still in use today, but with different purposes and messages in mind.
The question is whether a viewer is aware of how media and popular imagery shape consciousness – and how to respond without succumbing to manipulation.