Total Regime, Total Propaganda
by Gary Jason | Posted July 03, 2016
Choozoo: We went up and down that pile of dirt for four days. Fixed bayonets, hand to hand. Fought ‘em something fierce. They gave back as good as they got. Lots of men died. We were in the 23rd Infantry. We joined the Corps later. Hell, we were even younger than you.
Corporal “Stitch” Jones: I never heard of no Heartbreak Ridge.
Choozoo: That’s ’cause it ain’t in any of the history books. Just a little piece of war. Place didn’t even have a name, just a number. Stoney Jackson took one look up at it and said, “Ladies, if this hill doesn’t kill us, it’ll surely break our hearts.” — Heartbreak Ridge (1986)
Over the last couple of years I have devoted most of my all-too-limited time for research to the study of propaganda — what it is, how it works, and why it works. How can irrational propaganda persuade people of even high intelligence to believe absurd or silly things, much less do evil things? I have focused on Nazi Germany, because it was arguably the most successful dictatorial regime in modern history at rapidly consolidating political power and maintaining popular support, support that remained fairly widespread even as the country got pummeled in the last two years of the war.
The reason for the Nazi Regime’s large basis of support is, I believe, in great measure the power of its propaganda machine. The book under review is a useful illustration of how comprehensive in scope that machine was.
But a bit of conceptual analysis would be helpful here, for the term “propaganda” has a number of different meanings.
Let’s start with a basic distinction. Suppose I want Smith’s car. How might I try to get Smith to let me have it? Or better: what are the broad methods I might employ to get Smith to comply with my desire? Three, I think.
The first is attempted coercion, or what I will call simply power. This includes force, or the threat of force, or theft. I use the qualifier “attempted” to make it explicitly clear that the coercion may or may not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, my threat to beat Smith up unless he gives me his car will work only if he views me as able to beat him up. If he is bigger, younger, better trained in martial arts, and in better shape than am me, he likely will laugh at my threat.
The reason for the Nazi Regime’s large basis of support is in great measure the power of its propaganda machine.
The second broad method of obtaining compliance is attempted purchase. This includes offering to trade money, physical objects, labor, or whatever else I think the other person may value. Again, I use the qualifier ‘attempted’ to signal that the attempt to purchase might or might not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, if I offer Smith less than his “reservation price” for the car, he will refuse to sell it to me.
The third broad method of compliance is attempted persuasion (or promotion). Persuasion means offering reasons other than the use of force or the offer of goods in trade. Once again, the qualifier “attempted” indicates that the persuasion may or may not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, I may try to persuade Smith that he ought to give me a car by pointing out that he owns two of them and I own none, and appealing to the notion of fairness. But if he doesn’t view me as deserving of help, he will likely dismiss my appeal.
I grant that some might view coercion or purchase or both as types of persuasion, but this view strikes me as doubtful. While someone watching me hold a gun to Smith’s head and demand his car might say that I am trying to “persuade” him that appears to me to be a misuse of the term — really, it would be an ironical use. Similarly, it would be far from a normal use of language to say that when I bought Smith’s car for $30,000 I “persuaded” him by a “monetary argument.”
Some people use the term propaganda to cover the promotion of anything from products to policies to religious beliefs, but it is closer to common usage to use the term marketing (including sales and advertising) for the attempt to persuade people to buy specific products (goods and services) or patronize a brand. (Persuading people to patronize a brand simply means trying to increase the chances that they will buy products with that brand in the future.) I will use the term propaganda more narrowly to refer to the promotion of ideas — specifically political, social, and religious ideas and ideologies.
While someone watching me hold a gun to Smith’s head and demand his car might say that I am trying to “persuade” him that appears to me to be a misuse of the term.
So “marketing” means here messaging intended to persuade a target audience to buy the products the marketer (or his principal) desires them to buy. And “propaganda” means here messaging intended to persuade a target audience to support the ideas, ideology, policies, or political candidates that the propagandist (or his principal) desires them to adopt.
Of course, the distinctions I have drawn are not completely clear-cut demarcations; they are broad categories, and there are borderline cases. So ads for Amtrak (the federally-owned passenger rail system) can be viewed not merely as marketing the service, but also as propaganda for the federal government. Similarly, a regime that runs ads bragging about its new universal healthcare system can be viewed as making propaganda for public support but also as purchasing the support of the majority by giving them services paid for by taxing a minority. But I want to distinguish here between the use of force and the trading of goods, on the one hand, from the messages about them, on the other.
Let us turn to the Nazi propaganda machine. (I will look at both the Nazi power and purchase machines in subsequent reviews.) As Nicholas O’Shaughnessy has accurately observed in a recent article, the Nazi Regime (hereafter just “the Regime”) was based on imagery: “Propaganda was a governing philosophy, not merely a means to an end but an end in itself.” To the Regime, propaganda was foundational, and it exploited every medium it could to push the Nazi brand and its specific policies: film, newspapers, magazines, books (including children’s books), pamphlets, school curricula, art, architecture, music, performance dance, plays, sports events, public festivals and rituals, TV shows, posters, and radio shows. It was a war, a propaganda war that (like World War II) took place in various “theaters.” A theater of war is a place with natural boundaries within which military actions — “campaigns” — take place, more or less independently. The Regime waged its war by various campaigns in all the media — the theaters — of propaganda.
Let’s look at some examples. In the medium of film, the Regime had an anti-British campaign, an anti-Semitic campaign, and so on — each campaign understood as a group of films advancing that message. In the medium of popular art, posters played a big role in the presentation of the Regime’s message. The Regime focused especially on radio, issuing inexpensive radio receivers that could receive broadcasts only from the Regime. (For a detailed study of the role that radio played in the rise of the Regime, see Adena et. al.) Children’s books were made to inculcate the Regime’s message — for instance, Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom, 1938), in which a boy and his mother go picking wild mushrooms. She teaches him the difference between edible ones and poisonous ones and then compares mushrooms with people, likening Jews to poisonous mushrooms. And newspapers such as Der Sturmer (The Attacker) and Volkischer Beobachter (The Peoples’ Observer) were potent propaganda tools.
For the purpose of waging its propaganda war, the Regime created a separate ministry, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, with a staff of over 2,000 people and a budget of nearly 190 million Reichmarks. This ministry had seven divisions, one each for administration and legal matters; mass rallies, public health information, youth, and race; broadcasting; national and foreign press; film and film censorship; art, music, and theater; and defense against foreign and domestic counter-propaganda.
The principal effect of the book is the spectacle of a Regime with a massive presence in even the tiniest areas of life.
It is against this backdrop that we can consider the book under review. It isn’t about the Regime’s propaganda war, or even a major theater of it, but just a little piece — a campaign in a microtheater, so to say. It is about the uniforms and accompanying insignia that the Regime employed, that is, the dress and graphical designs used to distinguish people within an organization by rank or status. Insignia include badges, cockades, coats of arms, medals, military patches, and so on. The Regime had an enormous number of organizations, many of which had distinctive uniforms, and those uniforms and insignia helped reinforce order, discipline, and unity. Uniforms have immense psychological power to create a feeling of unity. Each of the armed forces had its uniform, as did the SA, SS, the Party hierarchy, the Hitler Youth, the Fire Service, the German Red Cross, the Railway Police, and even the Postal Service. The editors (Chris Bishop and Adam Warner) do a thorough job of showing how the insignia looked and explaining their significance. But the principal effect of the book is the spectacle of a Regime with a massive presence in even the tiniest areas of life.
The editors begin by noting that two of the most commonly employed and emotionally potent symbols were the German eagle and the swastika, which were stamped, engraved, printed, or painted on most of the medals and other items the Regime provided to groups.
The editors then take up one of the most infamous of the specific symbols, the Totenkopf or Death’s Head. The Death’s Head has a long history in the German military. It was worn by 18th-century Prussian elite units, and by certain units in World War I, including flamethrower squads and early tank units. As Bishop and Warner note, the Death’s Head was not intended as a ghoulish symbol but one that connoted the utmost devotion, literally the willingness to fight to the death.
Early in their history, the Nazis used the Death’s Head on the caps and collar patches of SS uniforms. The SS (Schutzstaffel) was formed as the elite bodyguard of Hitler, but rapidly grew, first displacing the SA (Assault Division, the Storm Troopers or Brownshirts) and then attaining a size of 800,000 at the height of the war. The SS was divided into the Allgemeine SS (the general SS) which handled police functions of all sorts in the Regime (including the Gestapo), and the Waffen SS (the armed SS), which consisted of elite fighting troops and the Totenkopfverbande (SS-TV, the concentration camp guards). The Death’s Head was on the cap of every concentration camp guard. Also, the Death’s Head was worn by armored units and a few special regular army units. But the Death’s Head worn by SS members was different from the one worn by the regular military units: it was a newer design that featured a jawbone, while the other was the traditional Prussian design (no jawbone).
The editors next discuss the various banners carried at the Nazi Party rallies, as well as the rallies themselves. The earliest rally was held in Munich in 1923 and was fairly modest, with 20,000 Party participants and an unknown number of observers. The second rally (also 1923) was in Nuremberg and featured a parade by 80,000 SA Stormtroopers. In the same year Hitler was imprisoned for the Beer Hall (or Munich) Putsch and his Party was outlawed for a few years, so the next rally was in 1926 (in Weimar). The fourth was in 1927 in Nuremberg, and featured the first torchlight parade. With the onset of the worldwide depression, the Party’s membership grew rapidly. The 1929 rally was the first “major extravaganza,” with 2,000 Party delegates listening to Hitler speak, and men marching in swastika formation. At the Berlin rally celebrating Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, attendance hit a half million. The important architect Albert Speer designed the layout of the field, with massed flags and innovative lighting. The SS and the SA had their own banners (Feldzeichen), and the Party had a special banner (the Blutfahn) that had been displayed at the Beer Hall Putsch and was stained with the blood of a Nazi “martyr.” The 1934 Nuremberg rally, fully planned by Speer, was the one featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda classic, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willen, 1935). The largest Nuremberg rally was held in 1938. The editors show the various flags and banners that figured so prominently in these rallies.
The Death’s Head was not intended as a ghoulish symbol but one that connoted the utmost devotion, literally the willingness to fight to the death.
The next section of the book is devoted to the uniforms, badges, patches, and ceremonial daggers used by the SA, the Storm Troopers, also called the Brownshirts. Bishop and Warner briefly sketch the history of the SA from its start in 1924 to its peak strength of about two million in 1934. They do not report the killing of its leaders in the “Night of the Long Knives” and its subsequent displacement by the SS.
The editors then show us the uniforms, patches, banners and ceremonial daggers of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), which was formed in 1926 and absorbed all the other German youth groups in 1933. In 1939, all German boys and girls were required to join the Hitlerjugend — which came to have 3.5 million members. Actually, children ages 10–14 first joined the Jungvolk (for boys) and Jungmadel (for girls). At age 14, the girls entered the Bund Deutscher Madel where they focused on training for house or farm work. At age 15, the boys entered the Hitlerjugend proper, where they trained for military service. With the outbreak of war in 1939, a million of them worked in the war effort. When the Regime started losing the war in 1943, they were inducted into the armed forces, where they acquired a reputation for fighting with extreme devotion, suffering enormous losses along the way.
Bishop and Warner move on to the uniforms and insignia uniquely worn by Nazi officials — the NSDAP Leadership Corps. These officials fell into seven, dizzyingly multiplying groups. The first and foremost consisted of the Führer, of course. Then there were the Party Directorate (Reichsleitung); the hierarchy of men employed in monitoring the populace, the “bearers of sovereignty”; the Gauleiters, who controlled territories the size of a county; Kreisleiters, who controlled areas that were large subdivisions of a county; Ortsgruppenleiters, in control of towns, groups of small villages, or city districts of about 1500 to 3000 households; Zellenleiters, in charge of smaller groups of households equal to four to eight city blocks; and finally the Blockleiters, the political controllers of about 40 to 60 households. Each lower level reported to the higher — with the Gauleiters reporting directly to the Führer — and all had the authority to call in the SA, SS, or other organizations to help enforce discipline.
The editors then describe the orders and paraphernalia of the Luftwaffe (the air force). The Luftwaffe was formed in 1933 but kept hidden because it was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. It was made public in 1935, at which time it had 1,000 aircraft and 20,000 members. It grew rapidly, and by 1939 had about 1.5 million men in uniform — though only about 50,000 of them were airmen. The Luftwaffe formal uniform was similar to that of the RAF — blue, with rank badges and lapels. Returning to the SS, Bishop and Warner take up the SS uniforms. The SS started with a black uniform, but as it grew, the Allgemeine SS and the Totenkopfverbande kept the black uniforms (with the characteristic SS runes and Death’s Head badges), while the remaining Waffen SS members, who fought alongside the regular Army, began to resemble those military service members, though keeping the SS patches and badges.
Next up are the various medals, orders, and honor insignia the Regime issued, which could be found on any of the uniforms. For courage in battle, the Regime kept the two orders of the traditional Iron Cross (the Eisernes Kreuz), but added a new order for conspicuous gallantry, the Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz), which could be repeatedly given, and had additional grades: Oakleaves; Oakleaves and Swords; Oakleaves, Swords, and Diamonds; and Golden Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds. Additionally, there were specific combat awards, such as the Luftwaffe Pilot’s Badge (given to pilots upon completion of flight school); the Luftwaffe Flak Badge, awarded on a point basis for bringing down aircraft; the Wound Badge (gold, silver, or black, depending upon how many wounds the soldier received); and the High Seas Fleet badge (for a sailor of the Kriegsmarine serving 12 weeks on a battleship or cruiser).
The Party had a special banner that had been displayed at the Beer Hall Putsch and was stained with the blood of a Nazi “martyr.”
The editors discuss decorative porcelain and china, much of it made at the Dachau concentration camp — the SS ran various industries staffed by concentration camp labor. The Regime either sold these items to the public or gave them as gifts or mementoes. They then show us some of the large number of awards the Regime gave out for long service, good conduct, bearing children, long-term Party membership, and exemplary service, even for street fighting: the Meritorious Order of the German Eagle (for friendly foreign dignitaries); the Cross of Honor of the German Mother (bronze for four or five children, silver for six or seven, and gold for eight or more); the Faithful Service Cross (for members of the public services who worked continuously for 25 or 40 years); and the Gold Party Badge (for the first 100,000 members of the party).
The use of the Nazi eagle is discussed in a separate section, with illustrations of its appearance on buildings, uniforms, medals, daggers, and so on. The eagle had been used as a German national symbol since AD 800 and was embraced by the Regime as the symbol of the Aryan race.
We next see the uniforms and insignia worn by the Ordnungspolizei (the “Orpo,” the ordinary police, which included inter alia the urban police, the rural police, the water and river police, and the fire service). All of these police and ancillary forces were under the direct control of the SS. It is just to describe the Nazi Regime as a massive police state.
It was also a state that seems to have been endlessly involved in propagating armed services of every kind, as Bishop and Warner illustrate in their consideration of the insignia of the NSKK (the Nationalsocialistisches Kraftfahrkorps, i.e., the National Socialist Motor Corps). The NSKK started life in 1930 as the NSAK (Nazi Automobile Corps), a motor pool for transporting party members that was under the control of the SA. In the ensuring four years it was renamed and became independent. The NSKK acted was a training organization to teach people how to drive, a traffic enforcement force, and a roadside assistance service — rather like the Auto Club combined with traffic cops. But with the start of war, it was militarized and given the duty of providing logistical support for the SS and Wehrmacht.
The editors discuss and illustrate the various symbols put on documents issued by the SS. They also review the wide variety of items that served as mementoes of the Nuremberg mass rallies. Nuremberg had a special significance for Germans; it was the meeting place for the Germanic rulers of the medieval period. The mementoes included pennants, plates, certificates, plaques, postcards, medals, and badges. The dispensing of mementoes — however kitschy — was a way of purchasing support for the Party as well as propagandizing for it.
All of these police and ancillary forces were under the direct control of the SS. It is just to describe the Nazi Regime as a massive police state.
An important part of Nazi ideology is the Führerprinzip — the "leader principle" — formulated by Hitler as early as 1921. It meant that any organization must always be ruled by the strongest individual — the Overman — and that this individual will always rise above the pack. Stripped of the Nietzschean cant, it really meant that Hitler was to be more than just the absolute dictator; he would be the object of worship in a personality cult. Pictures of Hitler were displayed everywhere, and the greeting “Heil Hitler!” accompanied by a Roman salute, was the required greeting during the tenure of his Regime. The editors give the reader a number of examples of Führer mementoes: such as porcelain plaques commemorating his 50th birthday, gold-embossed, leather bound editions of Mein Kampf, and personal invitations from him. Some of this was sold, but much of it was given away — again, propagandizing and purchasing go together.
In the next two sections the editors return to uniforms. They discuss and show the uniforms and insignia for the Panzerwaffe (the tank force, within the Reichsheer, or German regular army). The Regime certainly had very snappy uniform designs across the board; the Panzerwaffe arguably had the snappiest. The Germans had tank units as early as 1917, but the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from building tanks. Yet the army clearly planned to develop tank units in 1929, years before Hitler took office, for that was when it designed the new tank unit uniforms. The formal uniforms were black, with the Prussian Death’s Head emblems within pink borders, and instead of peaked caps, they had berets. (The field uniforms the tank soldiers wore in the African desert war were of light tan, no doubt for the sake of comfort.) The editors also show us the familiar gray Reichsheer uniforms, together with the officers’ dress daggers and other emblems and patches.
The book discusses SS cuff titles and infantry equipment, before turning to yet another uniform, this for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (the RAD, or the Reich labor service). Before the war, the RAD put men to work on large-scale infrastructure projects, while also training them for military service. In 1935, the Regime ordered all men between 18 and 35 to work in the RAD for a six-month term. With the outbreak of war, the RAD became in effect construction battalions for the Wehrmacht. Again, great care obviously went into the design of the RAD uniform, which had a sort of axe-like knife — a small machete — rather than a dagger, and unique forester caps.
In examining the insignia of foreign legions, which is their next task, Bishop and Warner rightly note that most people are unaware that about two million men from other nations fought with the Nazis, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because of coercion, and sometimes — as in the case of General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army — sometimes because of rebellion against their own governments. We see insignia from uniforms for Bosnian Muslims, Muslims from Turkestan, Danish volunteers, Latvian volunteers, and others.
The editors examine the use of the swastika on banners and flags. Usually appearing in black within a white circle against a red surround, it became a common ensign in 1933 when the Regime took power and the national flag two years later. The swastika was an Indian symbol; indeed, the word swastika is Sanskrit, the language used by the Aryans, the Indic people.As early as 1910, racists in Germany associated it with the so-called “Aryan” race, and the Nazis adopted it as their own symbol. The book also returns to the design of the Iron Cross.
The book discusses very briefly Nazi art (specifically, statuettes and dishes) before turning to the various daggers carried by uniformed organizations. Not only did fighting units carry symbolic daggers, but so did members of the German Red Cross, the Forestry Service, the National Political Education Institute, and even railway and postal workers. For most services, the dagger was merely part of the uniform, the symbol of the warrior. But for the SS, the dagger was only awarded after someone successfully passed probation, and had to be returned if the person was dismissed from the organization.
Hitler was to be more than just the absolute dictator; he would be the object of worship in a personality cult.
This brings us to the uniforms and insignia associated with elite Party schools, primary and secondary. One group of such schools was the Napolas(the National Political Training Academies), initially run by the SA and SS with the cooperation of the Ministry of Education. The second major group was the Adolf Hitler Schools, run independently of the Ministry of Education, but closely associated with the Hitler Youth.
After a short discussion of Nazi Party printed media (the Party newspaper, books, and magazines), Bishop and Warner return to uniforms and insignia, first of the foreign Nazis (in Slovakia, Moravia, Bohemia, Norway and Holland) — another topic of which most people are unaware — and of the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst, the security service, later combined with the Gestapo and Kripo) and a few of the many civilian uniforms. The Germans had well over 60 different uniformed organizations, from the German Red Cross and Customs Service down to the National Stud Farms groups. The prospect of these groups, each with its uniform, cap, dagger, eagle, swastika, and whatnot, is vast and appalling. One is relieved when one comes to the discussion of the Nazi party badge and other tokens, because these are the last items considered.
I have many problems with the Nazis, but only a few with Bishop and Warner’s book. First, they include a section about Nazi art, although (like all the sections of the book) it is quite short. A proper discussion of the Regime’s propaganda campaigns in the realm (or theater of war) of art needs a separate book, and is in any case quite distinct from the topic of uniforms and their symbolic paraphernalia. The same criticism applies to the editors’ brief and out-of-place discussion of Party print media.
Second, the book would have been better structured around the separate uniformed services (SA, SS, NSDAP hierarchy, and so on), with each in a separate chapter. For example, the editors could have collected the four scattered sections of the book on SS uniforms, SS documents, SS cuff titles, and SS personalities into one proper chapter.
Third, the book should have had an introduction discussing the psychological power of uniforms and the different psychological effects of different forms of uniforms. There has been a fair amount of psychological research on this topic, some of which is discussed in an article by Richard Johnson. Consider just the color of uniforms. Psychological surveys of college students show that they associate colors such as white and yellow with weakness, blue with security, and black and brown with strength. Is it a mere coincidence that the preferred colors for the Regime’s numerous uniforms were darker: blue for the Luftwaffe, gray for the army, brown for the SA and NSDAP Party higher-ups, black for the SS and Panzerwaffe?
Perhaps one sign of the power of the design of the extravagant array of Nazi insignia and paraphernalia is the number of websites that sell these items even today, and the prices they typically fetch.
These issues notwithstanding, this slim volume, with numerous color photos, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Nazi propaganda in particular and propaganda in general — not least because it shows just how much effort the Regime put into even this little piece of the war.
Editor's Note: Review of “German Insignia of World War II,” edited by Chris Bishop and Adam Warner. Chartwell Books, 2013, 144 pages.
Gary Jason is an academic philosopher and a senior editor of Liberty. His recent books, Disturbing Thoughts: Unorthodox Writings on Timely Issues and Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy are both available through Amazon.
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