Propaganda and Hoaxes in Nazi Germany: 80 Years Later

The psychological tactics used to make us believe the most outrageous ideas.

Posted Nov 08, 2018

USHMM, used with permission.
Translation: "Behind Enemy Lines: the Jew". The poster depicts a caricature of a Jew hiding behind the enemies of the Nazi regime, symbolized by the British flag, the U.S. Flag, and the Communist flag.
Source: USHMM, used with permission.

When we look back at historical atrocities like the transatlantic slave trade and the Holocaust, we keep wondering how ordinary people with moral sentiments akin to ours could have let them happen.

We want to know, not just because we are completely flabbergasted by the enormities of terror, but also because we know that you and I could easily have been, or become, the not-so-innocent onlookers and even the active executioners.

Even if we accept that pure contempt, if intense enough, can make cruel exploitation seem justified to us, and that hatred, if intense enough, can make retribution and elimination seem justified to us, the question arises how a political group can make almost any ordinary person regard others with contempt or hate of this magnitude.

One answer to this question is that propaganda works in just this way, that is, propaganda is a tool strategically employed to make us believe the most outrageous ideas without us ever questioning their truth. How propaganda further extreme emotions and their corresponding attitudes is the topic of Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley’s aptly entitled book How Propaganda Works.

Stanley is primarily concerned with what he calls “undermining propaganda” (p. 51). Undermining propaganda, he says, appeals to an ideal in the service of a goal that in fact contradicts this very ideal, for example, appealing to the value of peace to justify war or the value of liberty to justify slavery. This is contrasted with supportive propaganda, which appeals to emotion to strengthen an ideal (or cultural value) for the purposes of justifying a goal, for example, appealing to the horror and (hence) injustice of (real or imagined) atrocities committed by the enemy to justify war.

As a kind of speech, propaganda fundamentally involves political, economic or aesthetic ideals mobilized for a political purpose. Part of its effectiveness, Stanley argues, lies is its design that can make it appear to be harmlessly aiming at conveying an “innocent” at-issue content, when its true message is a derogatory not-at-issue content. For example, if you aim at mobilizing support for stricter immigration laws, referring to non-citizen immigrants as “aliens” can seem harmless, as “alien” is a legal term with just that meaning, but “alien” evokes images of an unwelcome, strange, hostile, humanoid-like creature. This is the not-at-issue content, which can propagandize, for example, by prompting us to regard stricter immigration laws as just.

Stanley provides an insightful and long-needed philosophical analysis of propaganda. However, his narrow focus on "undermining propaganda" makes it less suitable for accommodating the role such emotions as contempt, hate and pride play in mobilizing support for extremist ideologies and “solutions.”

To fill this gap, I will propose a complementary account of how propaganda elicits emotions and show how these emotions cause ordinary individuals to regard extremist ideologies and “solutions” as just and necessary.

Since my proposal will address propaganda that simultaneously undermine and support, I will treat Stanley’s distinction between supporting and undermining propaganda as a distinction implicitly referring to distinct mechanisms that can be at work in one and the same piece of propaganda.

On my view, the main function of propaganda is to elicit strong emotions in a group of people in order to create a cohesive group organized around common values and implicitly or explicitly define who are excluded from group membership in order to mobilize the forces of group polarization.

Rhetoric and pictures can induce emotions in a number of different ways. One is by containing slur-like phrases (for instance, phrases with negative connotations such as “welfare,” “alien,” “rat,” or “sexually promiscuous”) that indirectly degrade the perceived enemy but are less likely than explicit slurs to register with us as offensive, Stanley suggests.

Degrading language and pictures, including the use of slurs and animalistic depictions, especially in older form of propaganda, will tend to induce contempt but not hatred. In the colonial era, “cockroaches,” “orangutans,” “apes,” “monkeys,” “primates,” “beasts,” “bluegums,” “stenchers,” “drudges,” “she-devils,” (defiant black women) “six-legged-s,” (black women with sagging breasts) “mules,” (children of a white man and a black slave) and “uppity beasts” (“misbehaving” slaves) were part of the rhetoric that kept the colonists’ contemptuous attitudes toward blacks alive.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, expressions like “lives unworthy of life,” “useless eaters,” “unjust burdens,” “misfits,” “freaks,” and “monsters” were part of the rhetoric that made Germans hold contempt for the mentally and physically disabled and other marginalized groups. Hitler would later turn the contempt into hate of the “real enemy,” but when he first came to power, contempt helped garner support for implementing eugenic sterilization and euthanasia programs.

Another way for rhetoric and pictures to induce emotions is to make an apparently credible attribution of evildoing or evil intent to destroy us (or both) to the “enemy” or “outgroup,” sometimes while simultaneously strengthening positive feelings like pride, altruism and empathy already self-attributed by ingroup members. The attribution of evildoing to the enemy will tend to induce hate and vengefulness in the ingroup, and the attribution of evil intent to destroy us will tend to induce fear. If strong enough, the hatred will cause the ingroup to regard retaliation as just and the fear will cause deportation or extinction as necessary.

In Nazi Germany, the Nazi’s portrayal of the Jews as disease-spreading rats feeding off the host nation, poisoning its culture and polluting the Aryan race (evil-doings) triggered feelings of hate and vengefulness in German population. The portrayal of the national Jews as butchers and East-European Jews as aliens planning a communist takeover (evil intent to destroy) triggered intense fear. Their hatred of the Jews made retaliation seem just to many ordinary Germans, whereas their fear of the Jews’ taking over the country and then the world made mass deportations and, eventually, genocide, seem necessary.

The Nazi propagandists also used rhetoric and pictures to boost German pride (this is an example of supportive propaganda, in Stanley’s sense) and, in some instances, to rectify the sneaking suspicion from the Allies that something was rotten in the “Third Reich.”

In 1941, word had reached the Allies that there had been a mass deportation of Jews from their homes in Germany. As the pressure to explain what happened to the deported Jews increased, the Nazis established the “model” ghetto Theresienstadt. What was in reality an overcrowded, pest-infected concentration camp was portrayed in Nazi propaganda as a “spa town” where elderly German Jews could enjoy “their golden years” in safety.

In the fall of 1943, following the deportation of Danish Jews to Theresienstadt, the Danish Red Cross announced that they wanted to make a site inspection. To prepare for the visit the Nazis planned and made preparations for an elaborate hoax.

After drawing up the exact route the delegation would take, they ordered the prisoners to paint buildings and enlarge the living space and install furniture and curtains in select buildings. The areas outside were beautified with green turf, flower gardens and benches as well as fake stores, a café with white table cloths, a playground with a sandbox and swing set and a community hall with a stage, a Synagogue, a library and verandas. The streets and buildings were given names with positive connotations such as “Neuegasse” (New Street), and the artistic endeavors admirably carried out by the incarcerated underground was now allowed out in the open.

To avoid giving off the impression that the “village” was overcrowded, the Nazis deported over 7,500 of Jews to death camps, leaving hearty or famous Jews behind to improve their shady image.

On the day of the tour, the Jewish inmates were instructed to dress in good-quality clothing and enact rehearsed narratives, for example, bake fresh bread, showcase wagons with deliveries of fresh produce, play “major league” soccer in the camp square in front of a cheering crowd, serve as members of the Elders' Council, relax on the outdoor park benches or play music on a wooden pavilion in the town square. The tour culminated with a performance of a children's opera, Brundibár. Afterwards the Red Cross affirmed that the conditions at Theresienstadt passed for humane.

Following the visit, the Nazis used the Potemkin village to create the propaganda documentary Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (Terezin: A Documentary Film of the Jewish Resettlement Area) that had been contemplated two years prior to the Red Cross visit. What remains of the documentary shows strong, healthy Jewish laborers and artists working in their different fields of expertise and cheerfully leaving the workplace at the end of the day (“Feierabend”).

The voice-over explains:

The use of free time is left to the discretion of the individual. Often the flow of those headed home goes in one direction: toward the big sporting event in Theresienstadt, the soccer match. 

The camera then cuts to a soccer match, professionally enacted against a backdrop of cheering and applauding spectators. After the match we see the players shower in the sports facilities. A tour of the town’s recreational activities follows. The “villagers” are shown taking books out of the lending library, attending academic lectures and enjoying a classical concert.

The camera then cuts to scenes of older children and adults tending to the community garden and then to scenes of residents reading, chatting, knitting, playing cards or relaxing on garden benches. Healthy-looking young girls are shown playing with their life size dolls. The final scene displays a traditional Jewish family having dinner together.

The “model” ghetto Theresienstadt was the most egregious and elaborate piece of pro-Nazi propaganda concocted by the Nazi regime. Other hoaxes were staged in the Nazi’s effort to enrage the German population and justify the war. Footage showing battles at the border between Germany and Poland or ethnic Poles slaughtering German Poles was regularly exhibited in order to intensify hatred or provide evidence for the Nazi claim that Germany wasn’t interested in war but was merely defending themselves out of necessity.

In the third part of this post we look closer at how propaganda and indoctrination served as a catalyst for groupthink. The first part can be found here.


Prager, B. (2008). “Interpreting the Visible Traces of There is sein Stadt,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 7, 2: 175-194.

Stanley, J. (2015). How Propaganda Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet,, retrieved on April 10, 2018. The film is sometimes incorrectly referred to as “The Führer Gives the Jews a Village.” See also Margry, K. (1992). “ ‘Theresienstadt’ (1944–1945): The Nazi propaganda film depicting the concentration camp as paradise,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 12, 2.