Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in Nazi Germany
Political Influence on Truth in Nazi Germany
In social constructivism 'knowledge is a human product that is socially and culturally constructed in an active manner and not something that can be discovered.' Truth in Nazi Germany can be analysed from a constructivist approach since the manipulation of information, through propaganda, altered people's understanding of the truth.
Propaganda is 'any information, ideas, doctrines, or special appeals disseminated to influence the opinion, emotions, attitudes, or behaviour of any specified group in order to benefit the sponsor either directly or indirectly.' Nazi propaganda constructed a society with national priorities and values by targeting four major themes: 1) prioritising national unity; 2) racial purity; 3) hatred of common enemies, particularly the Jews, and 4) charismatic leadership. Hitler argued propaganda's 'task is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favours the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly'—essentially promoting the construction of societal truth. Hitler aimed to create a narrative that painted himself as Germany's saviour and created the image of a united front that could blame a common enemy for their misery.
Creating their own truth was clearly of critical importance to the Nazi regime as on the 14th March 1933, a few months after Hitler's seizure of power, he established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. This ministry ensured propaganda infiltrated most aspects of everyday German life: Nazi values were successfully communicated through art, music, theatre, books, radio, educational materials and the press.
Examples of Propaganda
Through the political strategy of altering the education system, Hitler ingrained core Nazi values, which he viewed as intrinsically German. He hoped 'these young people will learn nothing else but how to think German and act German... And they will never again be free.' Education now focused on sports, history and racial science, emphasised through 'Aryan biology,' 'German mathematics' and 'Nordic physics.' These values were further promoted through youth programs.
Promotion of Anti-semitism
Anti-semitic messages were constantly repeated in Nazi propaganda. For example, the slogan printed on the bottom of the anti-semitic newspaper Der Stümer was "Die Juden sind unser Unglück!" (The Jews are our misfortune!)
Nazi policies not only altered the information accessible to the public, but they also psychologically influenced the attitudes and behaviours of citizens.
Illusory Truth Effect
"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." — Joseph Goebbels
Goebbels' quote alludes to a phenomenon recognised in cognitive psychology as the 'illusory truth effect,' which explains that repetition of statements makes them seem more plausible, thus blurring the distinction between truth and misinformation. Previously, researchers believed that limitations to the illusory truth effect included an individual's knowledge — the more informed an individual was on a subject, the less they could be convinced by contradictory statements. Nonetheless, a 2015 and a 2019 study both concluded that this effect 'occurs across all levels of plausibility.' In other words: 'illusory truth effects occurred even when participants knew better.'
Why this effect works is explained by psychologist Tom Stafford: rather than 'being rigidly logical about every piece of information you hear,' our brain uses heuristics — shortcuts, such as 'relying on how often you've heard something to judge how truthful something feels' — to determine the plausibility of a piece of information.
Goebbels' obvious understanding of the illusory truth effect explains why the Nazi party developed its political strategies (including indoctrination through education and propaganda) based around the concept of repetition. Furthermore, no matter how extreme the claims and ideologies spread by the Nazi party may seem now, the findings from the 2015 and 2019 studies help to explain why fascist Nazi ideologies and Hitler's constructivist truth were able to spread so effectively.
Manipulation of Historical and Economic Truths
Nazi propaganda capitalised on the low morale caused by the bleak economic conditions and German disillusionment following their defeat in World War I. Hitler exploited and even altered historical truths to further his own cause.
After World War 1, the economic instability in Germany increased dramatically. The German government struggled to pay reparations and so printed large amounts of money, leading to hyperinflation. The German mark collapsed, and the middle classes lost their incomes and savings. The Great Depression of 1929 further crippled Germany, as the Americans recalled the loans which had been keeping the economy afloat, and unemployment levels skyrocketed. Hitler exploited this economic misery to increase support for the Nazis, especially amongst the middle and upper classes who were afraid of potential austerity measures under the Weimar government. In economics, rational choice theory emphasises the importance of logic and self-interest in decision-making. Indeed, many Germans voted for the Nazis simply because they made a 'pro-active calculation of the benefits they would derive from the Nazi program' and concluded it was the rational choice to maximise their economic utility. Hitler was aware of this truth and used it to his advantage, gaining support by promising to abolish unemployment and raise living standards. Furthermore, Hitler even manipulated official statistics, examples of empirical truth, to prove the economic success of his policies.
Another way in which Hitler manipulated the truth was through the use of 'scapegoats' — groups of society which he blamed for Germany's political and economic problems. Hostilities towards these groups grew heavily during World War 1. Hitler blamed Germany's defeat on the democratic Weimar government, portraying them as the 'November criminals' who stabbed Germany in the back by signing the armistice. In reality, this was not objectively true as Germany had suffered huge losses and could not feasibly continue fighting. Hitler also used the war to further promote anti-semitism by claiming that the Jews had evaded their duty to fight. The Judenzählung census of 1916 was an attempt to prove this lack of Jewish military involvement as an objective truth. Crucially, the true findings were kept classified by the War Ministry as they 'failed to uncover any evidence of Jewish wrongdoing.' However, the mere existence of the census still succeeded in validating the Nazi's anti-semitic ideology. Furthermore, the Jews were used as scapegoats for Germany's economic problems due to their relative wealth and business success. Hitler concealed and distorted the empirical truth regarding the Jewish population, consequently gaining acceptance of his anti-semitic beliefs and facilitating the Nazi's rise to power.
Evaluating Truth in Nazi Germany
The Nazi party’s ability to gain and maintain power was largely a result of the reality they constructed for the German people through the manipulation and destruction of empirical truths. They successfully utilised their understanding of psychology, history and the economic conditions of the time to enhance the effectiveness of their political strategies in altering German perception of truth. Despite these disciplines traditionally having different methods of determining truth, whether that be a constructivist, empirical or other approach, combining the individual analyses arising from these methods enriches our understanding of how truth was constructed in Nazi Germany. This interdisciplinary approach to how truth is fabricated is crucial to understanding and combating the effects of global misinformation.
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