The whole cultural apparatus of the Third Reich was geared towards promulgating and reinforcing a doctrine of innate racial superiority pertaining to a mythical “Aryan” people. This was achieved in a multitude of ways that permeated every aspect of people’s daily lives — school, play, work, media and advertising, even the design of public spaces. The ultimate goal of the Nazi party was complete symbolic domination of public and private discourse, which was to be turned, to the greatest extent possible, towards furthering the interests of the party. In this goal they succeeded to a remarkable extent, not least because of their aggressive use of propaganda, unprecedented levels of media control, and strong connections with industry.>
At the heart of this racial mythos were two complementary drives. One was positive reinforcement, dedicated to promoting notions of Aryan purity, wholesomeness, strength, and predestination as the supremely victorious people of the earth. This vision of Aryan perfection was intimately bound up with the mechanisms and ethos of Hiter’s totalitarian state, so much so that the two were seen, in Nazi eyes, as politically synonymous; the Third Reich, as a single-party dictatorship, was the political embodiment of the Aryan people, who would be defenseless and become dispersed without it. Much energy was spent promoting or encouraging so-called “Aryan” virtues — militarism, nationalism, industriousness, and fecundity among them — through propaganda and government subsidy.
The other, more sinister drive in Nazi culture was that of negative reinforcement — a relentless and comprehensive demonization of “non-Aryan” peoples as perfidious, degenerate, and malevolent. The Jewish people were by far the most visible of these, singled out for particularly vehement hatred by the Nazi party apparatus — and thus, after 1933, the state — as the supreme authors of German misfortune throughout history. The Nazis characterised the Jewish people as a sinister conspiratorial force they described as Weltjudentum (“World Jewry”), the antithesis of every supposed “Aryan” virtue, constantly manipulating the world behind the scenes to ensure the subjugation and poverty of non-Jews.
Other groups also found themselves targeted by the Nazis, whether as “degenerate races” (Roma, Sinti, and Slavs were described as such) or as thought criminals guilty of mental or moral perversion (homosexuals, pacifists, socialists, communists, liberals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even particularly devout Christians, among others, were counted among these).
These two drives, backed by the most sophisticated and audacious propaganda apparatus the world had ever seen, set in motion the currents of hatred which would rapidly give rise to the Holocaust. This process was a product of the Nazis’ ruthless opportunism, backed by their wildly populist rhetoric and growing sentiments of nationalist resentment in the wake of World War One. The Nazis successfully capitalised on Germany’s economic woes and exploited its internal divisions to propel themselves into a position of total control over German society, all of which was predicated on the violently racist mythology which they injected into every level of public life.
One of the two great cultural impulses of the Nazi state was the promotion (and indeed deification) of an idealised Aryan people, personified in what the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) describes as “a racial community (“Volksgemeinschaft”) which aligned with Nazi ideals.”
As the USHMM goes on to say, these ideals were by no means straightforward — and indeed were often self-contradictory. Generally speaking, however, some clear themes could be identified. German nationalism was a central concept, given symbolic focus by the elaborate iconography of the Nazi party and glorified, in the early days of Hitler’s chancellorship, by the sweeping propaganda efforts of Leni Riefenstahl and others.
Militarism (held to flow from the inherent martial prowess of the Aryan people) was a major theme, with members of the armed forces held in especially high esteem as protectors of the Volksgemeinschaft. This was in part aimed at capitalising on widespread public contempt for German disarmament after the Peace of Versailles, which furthered the Nazi party’s policy of rearmament, and simultaneously served as a driver of recruitment for the expanding armed forces needed to pursue Hitler’s aggressively expansionist designs on Europe.
Another theme was fecundism and the importance of German Youth — a common refrain was the duty of Aryan people to reproduce prolifically. This was often explicitly framed as a device for increasing the population of “pure” Germans even as the Reich’s enemies were said to be either incapable of controlling their sexuality — or deliberately attempting to breed the Aryan race out of existence. Perhaps the most notorious manifestation of fecundism was the Lebensborn, a state program established in 1935 aimed at both increasing the birth rate through extramarital sex between “racially desirable” Germans and at increasing the rate of adoption of “racially desirable” orphans by upstanding German families.
More commonly, however, themes of fecundism and youth were tied up with notions of an idealised German family life. This was most visibly manifest through the mechanism of the Hitler Youth, membership in which was compulsory for all German children after 1936. Absorbing much of its symbology and activity profile from the scouting movement, it promulgated a mythos of youthful exuberance and beauty. These wholesome forces were to be organised via the Hitler Youth and subjected to serving the ideals of the Reich.
The notion of strong families, particularly for working- and middle-class Germans, were also promoted through the state’s close ties with industry. The party’s official trade union organisation established the Volkswagen (literally “People’s Automobile”) company in 1937, aimed at providing and subsidising affordable vehicles to families which could not afford the luxury models which then dominated the market. Such efforts underscored the central propaganda message of Goebbels and others that marriage, children, and a happy family life were essential to ensuring the Reich’s survival.
The counterbalance to this idealised mythology of Aryan purity and virtue was the portrayal of “non-Aryan” people as evil, debased, and unworthy of life — the ultimate consequences of which are discussed at length elsewhere in this Virtual Museum. This mythos revolved closely around the idea of enemies within the state, corrupting it from the inside. These enemies, according to the Nazi party, needed to be recognised and stopped in the pursuit — whether conscious or unconscious — of their anti-German agendas.
To that end, highly exaggerated depictions of Jews and other perceived enemies of the German Reich were a mainstay of all forms of media. Anti-Semitism was already a well-established theme in popular German discourse, but its audience and reach expanded dramatically. Anti-Semitic children’s literature in particular proliferated at an extraordinary rate — the Nazi Party’s implied (and indeed explicit) goal was to produce children so deeply shaped by their racialist mythos that they would willingly serve its agendas as adults.
A great deal of explicitly anti-Semitic propaganda was directed at adults as well. This was often disseminated in book form, frequenly published by figures with strong ties to the Nazi Party, and ranged from collections of speeches to “informative” works like Juden Stellen Sich Vor (Imagine the Jews) — which amounted to nothing more than a series of caricatures of stereotypically Jewish figures showcasing their supposed negative traits or undermining German society in various ways. Film was another popular medium, with titles like Der Ewige Jude (“The Wandering Jew”) and Jud Süß (“Süss the Jew“) enjoying enormous theatrical success — the latter was watched over twenty million times and made millions at the box office.
Some of the most iconic propaganda of the Nazi era was in the form of newspapers, especially the Stürmer (“Stormer”) published by Julius Streicher, who would later be executed for crimes against humanity. Stürmer began publication as early as 1923 and did not cease publication until the end of the war in 1945 and was famous not only for its lurid and violently anti-Semitic content and imagery but for its sexual explicitness. Nor did its hatred stop with the Jews; it was also noted for aggressive propaganda against other enemies proscribed by the Party. So grotesque and sensationalist was the Stürmer’s (and Streicher’s) coverage that many Party officials frowned on it as likely to drive people away from Nazism — remarkable, from a political machine as determinedly racist as the Third Reich. Most party officials preferred more official outlets like the Völkischer Beobachter, but Streicher’s popularity with the working class could not be denied.
Jews were by far the most visible targets of state propaganda and violence in this relentless effort to create a counterpoint to “pure” German society, but they were by no means the sole targets of Nazi condemnation. Anyone who did not conform to Nazi racial ideals and anyone who did not enthusiastically embrace the mythos of the party was a target. This was even more the case if an individual was identifiable as a members of any recognisable non-Nazi group. These included not only political opponents of the party (communists, socialists, monarchists, liberals, and others) but also homosexuals and religious groups (Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most visible of these). Alongside the Jews, black Africans, Slavs, and the Roma and Sinti peoples of Eastern Europe were singled out as “undesirable”. Millions of Slavs were later killed by the Nazis and their allies. Hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti, who had suffered centuries of anti-Ziganist discrimination prior to the rise of the Nazis, were also killed.
The cause of all these deaths, the whole terrible legacy of the Holocaust, traces back in some form to these two interweaving polarities of Nazi culture — one that said “these must live” and another that said “for these to live, all these must die”.