Monday, June 4, 2018

William Shirer on corrosive Nazi propaganda

I’m contemplating blogging the chapters of journalist William L. Shirer’s epic 1959 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as part of my authoritarianism series. It’s highly relevant in this moment, and as quick and suspenseful a read as an 1147-page historical tome can be.

For the moment, I’ll quote a passage from pp. 247-8 on the pernicious effects of propaganda, which Hitler cynically deployed both domestically and internationally. A key aspect of Shirer’s history is that he describes, from the perspective of a correspondent in Germany who personally experienced and covered the Nazis’ rise who now has access to millions of documents, meetings, and conversations of which he had been unaware at the time, the major techniques Hitler and Goebbels used to manipulate public opinion and government officials. The failure to recognize these deceptive techniques until it was too late was a significant factor in the failure to confront Hitler effectively.

Here’s how Shirer describes the damage done by systematic propaganda:
I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.
Many of the same approaches are being used today. It’s imperative that we not only appreciate that we’re facing a sophisticated transnational propaganda operation but come to recognize its techniques and tropes – both those adapted from the Nazis and those developed by other authoritarian movements and regimes in the years since and adapted for today’s technologies.