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Visitor to Exhibit

Nikitta Foston/MEDILL

The State of Deception exhibit, featured at Chicago's Field Museum, explores the origins and results of Nazi propaganda. A visitor examines the wall of propaganda items used to lure Germans into war and into the execution of millions of Jews.

The power of propaganda, then and now, through the Nazi lens

by Nikitta Foston
Nov 06, 2013


Nikitta Foston/MEDILL

The gramophone was a key piece of Nazi propaganda. With it, Nazis were able to play key speeches on the streets of Germany using loudspeakers mounted on trucks. They were also used in homes and local meetings to advance the Nazi agenda.

Hitler Poster

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Photo by Heinrich Hoffman

Election poster, 1932. Modern techniques of propaganda - including strong images and simple messages - helped propel Austrian-born Adolf Hitler from being a little known extremist to one of the leading candidates for Germany's presidency in 1932.

“Propaganda is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.”

Adolf Hitler wrote those words in 1924.

They are a chilling -- some say a sobering -- reminder of the power of propaganda. That propaganda, which began as a call for Germans to unite, eventually led to the slaughter of millions of Jews.

It’s a part of history, scholars say, that warrants scrutiny of societal standards, our appetites for power, our need for inclusion, our thirst for more, and our acceptance, passive or active, of what’s wrong.

Remnants of Hitler’s cleverly disguised campaign of genocide – posters, books, pamphlets, film, radio messages, even a board game for German children called “Jews Get Out” – are part of the Field Museum’s exhibit “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” that opened Wednesday. The exhibit commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass, a two-day wave of anti-Jewish destruction, referred to as Kristallnacht.

It’s an excursion into our past that is worth the trip, made especially relevant, organizers say, given our modern-day mass communication vehicles that can influence and galvanize with a single click.

“Let’s be vigilant about the Internet,” said Janet Hong, project manager at the Field. “Scholars make the connection between bullying and the Internet. The rise of the Nazi population was bullying at large.”

That rise began with messages that were initially innocuous.

Radio messages poured into German homes calling for unity. Young German boys were rewarded for their allegiance by being given knives and pins. Hitler Youth Groups were formed. Newlyweds received a free version of Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf. His campaign used words like honor, pride and unity; but the goal was domination, exclusion -- and eventually genocide.

“Propaganda works because people aren’t aware of it,” said Adam Khoo, visiting the U.S. from Malaysia. After walking through the exhibit, he remarked, “There are similarities with what’s going on today. It’s just more invisible. People use propaganda to get people to voluntarily agree to what they want.”

The ability to mobilize and incite violence is something that can still happen, said Eric Agosto of Chicago, who visited the exhibit in part because many of his friends growing up were Jewish and their families were affected by the Holocaust.

“Messages are happening every day,” Agosto said. “I don’t think it would be to the same degree [as with Holocaust], but there’s a possibility [it could happen] with mass communication. We’re trying to use it to better protect people, but it is making us more vulnerable.”

Recognizing that vulnerability is an important step toward separating what is propaganda and what is not.

“When we start thinking that bad is good,” that’s propaganda, Hong said.
Propaganda messages are often benign or positive on the surface and play to a specific emotion.

“People are persuading us all the time on a daily basis,” she added. “I hope people think about Internet-supported platforms as communication. They are uncontrolled. Anybody can say anything.”

But the Internet, according to Khoo, can also be a helpful tool in avoiding propaganda. “We have access to the Internet, but in some countries, they [people] are very much relying on mass media. Those governments try to control their mass media so that they are able to pass on their beliefs and downplay their opponents’ messages, similar to what the Nazis did.”

Karin Parry is a German native, in Chicago to visit her daughter, who attends school at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She said that many of the Germans who followed Hitler didn’t have much choice. “They had to follow their leaders. If not, you were in fear for your life. And Adolf promised them something he could never keep.”

The exhibit, Parry believes, is important because “people should not forget, and not just Germans.” Because, she said, “It’s still happening, maybe not in the Western World, but look at Northern Kenya; they are more or less in the same situation.”

For Agosto, the exhibit is a visual testament to the truth of what occurred.
“Some people don’t think it [the Holocaust] happened. They think people made it up. People need to reflect on this, but not just this part, but what made people believe. That’s happening now … we’re immune to it.”

Hitler employed a message under the guise of unity that ignited an entire country in hate.

“He knew the power of the visual image. He knew how to directly connect and he understood pop culture,” Hong said. “He knew technologies were key.”

It’s something that Khoo believes could happen today. “It would be harder to pull off, but possible.”

The exhibit runs through Feb. 2.