Art as Propaganda

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Art as Propaganda

For genocide and crimes against humanity to occur, the dehumanization of the potential victims must first take place. Perpetrators of such crimes often use art as a tool to help them accomplish their goals. Indeed, without the intense propagandistic effort of the National Socialists to demonize Jews, Africans, Roma, the ill, and others they deemed "undesirable," the genocidal intentions of Hitler and the Nazi party may not have been realized. As historian David Welch suggests in his 1993 book, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, Nazi propaganda was used to convince those who were not yet persuaded of the importance of the Hitler's racial policies, and to inspire those who already adhered to his views.

The Jews were one of the primary targets of Nazi smear campaigns. Hitler's propagandists employed newspaper caricatures, films, and posters in their attempt to dehumanize the Jews. Julius Streicher, the editor of the National Socialist Der Stürmer, printed a number of editorial cartoons that depicted Jews as either "children of the devil," or as rat-like vermin whose "claws" can stretch out and infect the entire globe. Film was also used to distill and disseminate the Nazis' racist values. For example, in the movie Jud Süss, the director Veit Hartlan distorted the story of an actual eighteenth century Jewish court financier who had been hanged for "Christian treachery and hypocrisy" (Welch, 1983, p. 285). Veit transformed him into a stereotypical cosmopolitan Jew. He portrayed him as someone willing to disguise his Jewishness so that he might rape the Aryan maiden Dorothea and satiate his reputedly monstrous sexual appetites. Although the rape of Dorothea incensed many in the German audience who viewed the film, it was, as one newspaper critic remarked, the scene of the Jews bringing "all their belongings into Stuttgart . . . [that] repeatedly prompted . . . shouts of . . . 'Throw the last of the Jews out of Germany!'" (Welch, 1983, p. 291). If films such as Jud Süss or editorial cartoons did not fully achieve the goals of the National Socialist Party, the party's propaganda minister, Goebbels, was willing to employ other tactics as well. Widely circulated posters such as Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) asserted that the Orthodox Jew was crooked, was concerned only with money, and was aligned with the forces of Bolshevism.

Like the Jews, African-Germans, homosexuals, Roma and others were rendered as racially undesirable by Nazi propaganda. On August 5, 1929, Hitler concluded that "If Germany was to get a million children a year and was to remove 700,000–800,000 of the weakest people, then the final result might be an increase in strength" (Burleigh and Wippermann, 1992, p. 142). African workers who stayed in Germany in order to remain with their Caucasian wives and interracial children represented a potential "corruption" of the Aryan blood line. As a result, many of the so-called mischling or mixed race children were forcibly sterilized. Indeed, the Nazis were so fearful of African and African-American culture (particularly jazz) that in 1930 a law was passed that was titled "Against Negro Culture." In other words, the Nazis were clearly aware of the potential for popular cultural forms to taint what they considered to be genuine Aryan culture—whether this taint was a result of marriage or of music. As a consequence, the Germans often conflated stereotypes of African-American musical performers with those of Jews and Africans into some of their most heinous propaganda pieces.

Two of the most infamous and well-known Nazi propaganda artworks were posters which advertised cultural events. In a poster advertising an exhibition of entartete musik (degenerate music), for example, the viewer is confronted with a dark-skinned man in a top hat with a large gold earring in his ear. This distorted caricature of an African homosexual male in black face playing a saxophone has a Star of David clearly emblazoned on his lapel. To the National Socialists, the most polluting elements of modern culture were represented by this single individual. They were suggesting that anyone who listened to jazz (or enjoyed other forms of art that they judged to be degenerate) could be transformed into such a barbarous figure.

Toward the end of the war, the Nazis circulated posters in a somewhat desperate attempt to get their "white European brothers" to join their cause. In one infamous poster, the designer depicted a multi-armed monster clutching two white American women. Attached to his muscle-bound body are iconic references to the Ku Klux Klan, Judaism (the Star of David), boxing gloves, jazz dancing, and a lynching noose. At his middle is a sign that reads in English "Jitterbug—the Triumph of Civilization." This poster was directed at white European men, and it urged them to protect their wives and their culture against a coming invasion of primitive, inferior American men. As occurred in the poster that warned against jazz, this image conflated stereotypes of the Jew with that of the African in an attempt to frighten white (Aryan) Europe and America into joining their cause. The exaggerated racist stereotypes served to strengthen and amplify widely accepted attitudes regarding racial and ethnic superiority. With these images, the National Socialists were offering their justifications as to why certain groups should be feared and thus eliminated.

SEE ALSO Advertising; Architecture; Art, Banned; Art, Stolen; Film as Propaganda; Propaganda


Burleigh, Michael, and Wolfgang Wipperman (1991). The Racial State: Germany 1933–1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lusane, Clarence (2003). Hitler's Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era. New York: Routledge.

Petropoulos, Jonathan (1996). Art as Politics in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Welch, David (1983). Propaganda and the German Cinema: 1933–1945. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Welch, David (1993). The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. London: Routledge.

Anna M. Dempsey

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Art as Propaganda

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