Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in Nazi Germany

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Political influence on Truth in Nazi Germany[edit]

Censorship: book burning

A social scientist would view the analysis of the political manipulation of society as a way of discovering an interpretive truth as 'an 'interpretive approach in the social sciences grows out of the idea that the social world is ontologically different from the natural world'[1]. The interpretive truth in Nazi society was critically different to the objective truth owing to Hitler's manipulation of them. Hitler acknowledged this himself as in 1924 he said that 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.'[2]

Hitler used propaganda as a tool within German Society to manipulate the truth. NATO defines propaganda as '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'[3]. This highlights the power of propaganda as it can directly influence what people believe to be true.

Nazi Propaganda was focused on four major themes: 1) prioritising national unity by putting the community before the individual; 2) the need for racial purity; 3) hatred of common enemies, particularly the Jews, and 4) charismatic leadership.[4] All of these aspects enabled Hitler to create an interpretive truth as through propaganda he could manipulate how Germany 'was still suffering from a deep sense of national humiliation, and weakened by inflation, economic depression and mass unemployment.’[4] He was able to paint himself as Germany's saviour, creating the image of a united community that could blame a common enemy for their misery.

Creating his 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 highlights the extent of Nazi propaganda as it infiltrated most aspects of everyday German life - Nazi values were successfully communicated through art, music, theatre, books, radio, educational materials and the press[5]. In combination with censorship, the Nazi party was able to create their own truths.

In 1943, Orwell commented on the world's reliance on propaganda 'This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history'[6]. This emphasises the power of propaganda as a tool to manipulate truth within society suggesting that there is no such thing as an objective truth.


01940 0660 (2) Der Stürmer.jpg

Propaganda within education can arguably be seen as indoctrination as Hitler was able to ingrain core Nazi values in children from a young age. The core curriculum was changed to focus on sports, history and racial science emphasised through the names 'Aryan biology', 'German mathematics' and 'Nordic physics' and how Einstein and Freud were reviled[7]. The creation of youth programs also manipulated societal truth particularly through the segregation of gender and promotion of antisemitism. Hitler hoped that 'These young people will learn nothing else but how to think German and act German... And they will never be free again, not in their whole lives.'[8]

Promotion of antisemitism[edit]

The extreme antisemitism in German society was made possible through the repeated message in propaganda. For example, the slogan printed on the bottom of the antisemitic newspaper Der Stümer was "Die Juden sind unser Unglück!" The Jews are our misfortune![9] Between 1941 and 1944, the publisher 'personally authored 12 articles demanding the annihilation and extermination of the Jewish race in unequivocal terms.'[9]

Psychological tactics[edit]

The Nazi party’s policies not only altered the information accessible to the public, but they also psychologically influenced the attitudes and behaviors of citizens.

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." — Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany

Illusory truth effect[edit]

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." [10]— Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany

Goebbels' quote alludes to a phenomenon recognized in cognitive psychology as the 'illusory truth effect,' which explains that repetition of statements makes them seem more plausible, thus influencing our subjective truth on the matter. 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 study published by the American Psychological Association[11] and a 2019 study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review[12] concluded that this effect 'occurs across all levels of plausibility.' [12] In other words: the 'illusory truth effects occurred even when participants knew better.[11]

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[13].

Goebbels' obvious understanding of this psychological tactic of persuasion emphasizes that the Nazi party developed its political strategies (including indoctrination of Nazi principles 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 explain why fascist Nazi ideologies and Hitler's constructivist truth about the nation and its people were able to spread so effectively.

Manipulation of Historical and Economic Truths[edit]

Nazi propaganda and Hitler's psychological manipulation were even more effective due to 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:

Economic Chaos[edit]


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[14]. 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.[15] 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.[16] In economics, rational choice theory emphasises the importance of logic and self-interest in decision-making.[17] 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'[18] 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[19], and even manipulating official statistics to prove the economic success of his policies.[20]

Stab-in-the-back myth[edit]

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.[21] In reality, this was not objectively true as Germany had suffered huge losses and could not feasibly continue in battle[22]. 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'[23]. However, the mere existence of the census still succeeded in validating the Nazi's antisemitic ideology[23]. 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.

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  3. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Nato Standardization Agency Aap-6 – Glossary of terms and definitions, p 188.
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