State of Deception:The Power of Nazi Propaganda


of an Exhibition

by Mara Kurlandsky

Published on March 04, 2011, Modified on March 09, 2011

  • Description:

    The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is showing an exhibition that highlights the power of words and images to rally a nation behind evil acts. Utilizing a diverse array of multimedia and hundreds of artifacts, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda is an exhaustive study of techniques employed by the Third Reich to gain power and influence. Nazi propaganda is a subject frequently analyzed by historians and the exhibition’s curators do an admirable job in finding new interpretations to a well-trod subject. By opening the chronologically organized exhibition at the end of the First World War, State of Deception shows how Hitler’s master propaganda was not born when he ascended to power, but learned and developed in the aftermath of the war—a war which he believes was lost because of the Allies’ use of demoralizing anti-German propaganda. The exhibition continues through Hitler’s reign and the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when several convictions for propagandists were handed down at the Nuremberg trials. The exhibition, as an examination of the roots, goals and effects of Nazi propaganda, is highly effective, visually engaging and obviously rigorously researched. However, the exhibition misses an important interpretive opportunity by relying on a historical narrative that fails to connect the lessons of the Nazi propagandists to more contemporary incarnations of propaganda.

    The strength of the exhibition lies in its design as a pseudo-immersive experience to give the viewer a glimpse of what life would have been like under the sway of Nazi propagandists. From the start, visitors are drawn into the space by encountering a projected video montage of Hitler’s speeches with pulsating concentric circles emanating from the central images. Then, another video montage, this one outlining major historical events from the period after the end of World War I to the beginning of Hitler’s rein. Each other major period has its own montage, familiarizing the visitor with the relevant background without excessive text. The space is tightly controlled, leading the visitor through a fixed historical narrative which is reflected in the physical design. The labels are fabricated to look like torn paper and the wall text mimics the typography in the archival posters, all details to enhance the sense of public advertising Germans would have experienced. Rough brick walls in the first section pasted with frayed reproductions of posters and advertisements reinforce the notion that Germany post-World War I was a defeated and messy place. The reproductions give context to the framed archival posters on display and give the appearance of what a German at the time might see when walking down the street. When moving into the middle section covering the entirety of Hitler’s rein, the rough brick walls give way to smooth white stucco walls with classical detailing to suggest the “New Germany” under the Fuhrer. The wall leading into the final section, covering the immediate post-period, is crumbling and broken to convey Germany’s defeat.

    Audio and video are central to the immersive experience. The exhibition makes clear that the Nazis utilized every modern technology at their disposal to communicate with the nation, even creating a Braille version of Mein Kampf, which is on display. Other items on display include a gramophone, which plays Nazi marches, a projector showing videos intended for school classrooms, the People’s Receiver—a subsidized radio that brought Nazi broadcasts to the people while restricting the ability to tune into more distant airwaves, and an early German television. The film Der Erwige Jude (The Eternal Jew) is shown along with its poster featuring the most stereotypically long-nosed and menacing Jew. In the middle of the exhibition there is a circular area formed by curtains hung from the ceiling projected with archival video and quotes from Hitler and party members. Upon stepping into this space, which is backlit with an eerie red color, the viewer’s immersive experience is heightened by the complete surrounding of Nazi words, images and sounds. It is a hypnotizing experience, and one feels part of the crowd as footage of a boisterous Nazi rally is shown. This experience subtly suggests to the viewer how it was possible for the average German to become caught up in the atmosphere of propaganda.

    The other strengths of the exhibition are context and repetition. An Allied poster featured in the first section depicts Germany as a King Kong-like monster; a later poster highlights how Hitler appropriated this image to warn Germans against repeating the mistakes of World War I. Numerous photographs show posters that can be seen in the exhibition in their original context. A gigantic bust of the Fuhrer encased in glass is seen later in a photograph being carted off by the Allies, an effective way of displaying the downfall of the “Hitler cult.”

    The chilling poster the viewer encounters early in the exhibition—the stern face of Hitler floating on an inky black background—is seen in a photograph of two men affixing the poster to a wall in the lead-up to Hitler’s 1932 campaign. This poster is further echoed in the very last poster the viewer sees in the final section of the exhibition. It is a black background with Hitler’s image, only this time Hitler is imagined as half skeleton with the words “Nuremburg, Guilty!” instead of his name. The image provides a satisfying end to a narrative that shows both the power and ultimate danger of propaganda images.

    Less satisfying, however, is the half-hearted attempt to link Nazi propaganda to more recent uses of propaganda. The curators point out that the conviction used against propagandists at the Nuremburg trials was also applied in convicting a Rwandan on cause of inciting genocide, and they suggest that Iranian Prime Minister Ahmedinejad may soon face similar charges. This seems like a last minute attempt to discuss more modern uses of propaganda; however the choice of figures seems to suggest that only “evil” people use propaganda. Furthermore, little is made of the propaganda examples used by the Allies in World War I—these posters (like the above mentioned King Kong-like image) are referred to as propaganda but left unanalyzed. This suggests that Allied propaganda was somehow better or more acceptable though it utilized the same tools as Nazi propaganda. Not all propaganda is used by genocidal dictators and certainly the techniques that Hitler used are today still used by politicians and advertisers, albeit for far less nefarious reasons. Since attempting to cover the whole history of propaganda is obviously too big a mission for one exhibition, a better and more interesting epilogue to the exhibition would show how the de-Nazification of Germany post-World War II most certainly did not eradicate these powerful images, which have attained cult status amongst fringe groups in the United States and Europe.

    Beyond this, though, State of Deception as a study of the propaganda used by the Third Reich is a masterful exhibition. It utilizes multiple forms of media to give the visitor an immersive experience in Nazi imagery and ideology and skillfully links the well-known images of World War II to their origins in the aftermath of World War I. The exhibition is well worth a look or several in order to devote time to its extensive array of artifacts. No doubt the fascination with Nazi mythology will continue for the foreseeable future in the ongoing attempt to unravel how the Third Reich managed to unleash such evil on such a massive scale. State of Deception should be remembered as one of the best attempts to do this.

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