Mass Politics and the Techniques of Leadership; The Promise and Perils of Propaganda in Weimar Germany

Corey Ross. German History. Volume 24, Issue 2. May 2006.

As historians have long emphasized, much of the cultural and political framework of the modern world was forged in the crucible of the First World War. Among its many far-reaching consequences, one of the most important effects of the war for both contemporaries and historians alike was the unprecedented growth in efforts to influence public opinion. The vast propaganda campaigns of the belligerent states, which were both a cause and a consequence of the rapid expansion of the mass media, marked a significant shift away from nineteenth-century panoptical and disciplinary forms of governance towards new mechanisms of persuasion and seduction—or, speaking with Peter Holquist, a move away from the conservative governing practice of ‘policing’ to a more transformative and proactive form of ‘surveillance.’ In the process, the understanding of political leadership itself changed, as the ability to sustain a popular following, not merely to govern effectively in the interests of the state, became the hallmark of modern political power. In the years immediately after the war, these tendencies were powerfully reinforced by the introduction of new democratic constitutions and the doubling of the electorate with women’s suffrage, all of which together constituted a fundamental structural transformation of the ‘public sphere.’ The convergence of these interrelated trends—democratic suffrage, a new appreciation of public opinion in the era of ‘total war,’ the growth of mass media—meant that the end of the First World War saw, throughout much of Europe, the advent of a new political form: the modern media democracy.

It was during the following years that the contradictions of this new political form were first grappled with, above all the tension between a highly medialized public sphere and the democratic principles of self-determination and popular sovereignty. The propaganda excesses of the war had demonstrated beyond doubt that the manipulation of public opinion, and therefore the partial usurping of popular sovereignty itself, was a real danger. This raised a number of difficult questions about the relationship between political leader-ship and public opinion which became the subject of extensive debates across the industrialized world. For a number of reasons, these debates were particularly acute in Weimar Germany, where the new democratic constitution was not only hotly contested but also directly related to the trauma of defeat and revolution. The fact that this defeat came as a shock to most Germans not only testified to how misled the modern public could be, but also bred a host of myths about the nature of the defeat itself.

Over the last decade or so there has been a flurry of work on propaganda in Germany, most of it focused on either organizational questions or the content of particular campaigns, with only limited attempts to embed the growth of propaganda within its wider social and cultural context. The concern of this article is therefore to investigate some of the contemporary debates about propaganda and public opinion in Weimar Germany as part of the wider shift to a modern media democracy under the impact of military defeat. It approaches these debates at two levels, as both general societal discourse and as a matter of concrete political decision, which they clearly were at the beginning and especially at the end of the republic. It also seeks to contextualize these debates within the broader sphere of advertising and publicity, in particular the increasing professionalization of advertising and its concurrent attempts at social legitimation. As we will see, the postwar fascination with propaganda in Germany undermined Weimar democracy in a number of ways (though, obviously, was by no means the chief cause of the collapse of the Republic), not only by nourishing right-wing notions of an authoritarian Volksgemeinschaft, but also by eroding democratic conceptualizations of public opinion across the political spectrum.

Propaganda, Advertising, and the Modern Public

The term ‘propaganda,’ which before 1914 was essentially synonymous with ‘advertising’ or ‘Reklame,’ underwent profound changes over the following years. For it was during the First World War—the first war in which not only armies, but whole societies were mobilized for the production of violence— that the deliberate shaping of public opinion was first perceived as an indispensable (not merely additional) weapon in the modern arsenal. Unlike all previous wars, this conflict was to be won or lost not only on the battlefield, but also on the home front, in the factories and villages. Thus the objective of sustaining one’s own morale and undermining that of the enemy was no longer confined to the troops in the trenches, but extended to the entire population. As war henceforth encompassed both the military and civilian spheres, controlling information and influencing public opinion became part and parcel of modern armed conflict.

The unprecedented degree of intermingling of these two spheres under ‘total war’ powerfully re-moulded contemporary understandings of the modern public. Among democratic circles, above all within the SPD and DDP, the experience of the war was seen as validation of their insistence on the need for meaningful popular input into the running of the state, the ensuing revolution as conclusive proof that the Wilhelmine Obrigkeitsstaat had outlived its legitimacy and that a strong state required the integration of the masses. Among conservatives, the dependence of the war effort on the willingness and sacrifice of the common folk swept away the last vestiges of a traditional paternalistic understanding of political leadership, whereby the state effectively served as a bulwark against the irrationality of unenlightened public opinion; such notions had already been eroding before the war with the rise of the ‘radical’ populist right. Once and for all, the war showed that public opinion mattered—though this fact could be and was interpreted in a variety of ways during the months and years that followed. What was the proper relationship between the political élite and public opinion? What lessons, if any, could be learned from Germany’s defeat?

The most contentious question immediately after the war—and the one that set the tone for much of the ensuing debate—concerned the role of propaganda during the war and in the collapse of the Wilhelmine state. Broadly speaking, the different answers to this question ranged from the notorious ‘stab in the back’ myth (according to which the unconquered German military had fallen victim to a collapse of morale on the home front under the influence of enemy propaganda) to the sober recognition that propaganda was not the culprit, and that morale among the troops had collapsed primarily because of the ever-growing realization of enemy material superiority and not because of a loss of nerve on the home front. Between these two poles was the widely-held notion that propaganda was indeed a crucial factor in Germany’s defeat, but that the military government was to blame and that troop morale was affected no less than the home front. In this view there was no ‘stab in the back’; it is therefore incorrect to associate all propaganda-centred explanations of Germany’s defeat with this generals’ myth or with the far right. This was in fact a common view among civilian officials like Matthias Erzberger, who as director of the Central Office for Foreign Affairs (Zentralstelle für Auslandsdienst) was in charge of coordinating foreign propaganda from October 1914 onwards. The refusal to accept Germany’s military defeat and the corresponding insistence on non-military explanations was indeed extremely widespread among liberal politicians and journalists, reaching even into the SPD. As Edgar Stern-Rubarth (a leading journalist with Ullstein and lecturer at the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik) put it in one of the seminal postwar works on the topic: ‘only an insufficient understanding of the ultimate causes of this victory could unleash the fierce controversy over whether the front was “stabbed from behind” or collapsed of itself. For in reality we were defeated by enemy propaganda, by the struggle of words and thoughts.’

Whoever was to blame, the idea that ‘the peace of Versailles was ultimately less the penalty for our military defeat than the consequence of our completely defeated publicity policies (Politik der öffentlichen Werbung)’ was something that most Germans wanted to believe. This assumption was in fact one of the basic fundaments of the extensive discourse on propaganda in Weimar Germany, not only among the ‘scientific’ works in the field, but also in journalistic treatises and in the popular press. What is important for our purposes here is that the clear predominance of this view within the wider discourse on propaganda and public opinion had a number of political consequences. For one thing, it encouraged a vast overestimation of the power of propaganda to manipulate public opinion; even public relations experts spoke of a ‘propaganda psychosis’ after the war. Second, by assuming that the masses were essentially seducible and needed to be led, it at least implicitly rested on an authoritarian understanding of the relationship between political élites and public opinion. Finally, this condescending view of the masses suggested that the perceived morality of propaganda lay more in the cause it served than in its techniques of argumentation jeer se. In other words, the ends justified the means. If upholding order or consolidating democracy required élites to manipulate public opinion via tendentious or misleading rhetoric, there was nothing inherently immoral or anti-democratic about it. It made no sense ‘to regard agitation per se as something reprehensible.’

Though never academic consensus, there was no shortage of contemporary scholarly theories lending credence to this view. The basic idea was that propaganda represented a particular means of managing the centrifugal forces of modern society. In the view of sociologist Johann Plenge, propaganda functioned as a kind of lubricant for the dissemination of social ideas and the smooth functioning of social organizations. ‘The study of propaganda as practical social theory’ constituted a core part of the curriculum of the Staats-wissenschaftliches Institut which he directed in Münster from the early 1920s onwards. Plenge’s views corresponded closely to those of American political scientist Harold Lasswell, who is not only widely regarded as the founder of the academic study of propaganda, but who also explicitly drew on the work of German scholars in particular, including Plenge and Stern-Rubarth. According to Lasswell, the rise of propaganda was a threefold reflection of modernity: first, that the modern world is too vast to forge social cohesion around a tribal fire; second, that it is an educated world that reads news and argument; and third that in democratic societies individual desires take precedence over bonds of loyalty. In other words, ‘propaganda is a reflex to the immensity, the rationality and wilfulness of the modern world. It is the new dynamic of society, for power is subdivided and diffused and more can be won by illusion than by coercion.’

Different aspects of this argument were indirectly reinforced by a number of German mandarins, most notably Carl Schmitt, who explicitly argued that parliamentary democracy was incapable of forging unity and stability in the era of mass democracy. Schmitt’s rejection of liberal parliamentarism was based on the idea that politics was about struggle; what mattered was making decisions that guaranteed the preservation of the state, not generating a lowest common denominator through endless discussion and debate. Moreover, the compromises hammered out by parliaments were by no means a clear reflection of the popular will, subject as they were to the cynical manoeuvring of party machines. In certain circumstances, therefore, a minority government might actually be the most ‘democratic’ alternative—not least when democrats find themselves in the minority (a real concern in the Weimar Republic):

Then the familiar program of ‘people’s education’ unfolds. The people can be brought to recognize and express their own will correctly through the right education. This means nothing else but that the educator identifies his will at least provisionally with that of the people … Theoretically, this does not destroy democracy, but it is important to pay attention to it because it shows that dictatorship is not antithetical to democracy.

Though Schmitt’s arguments were addressing quite different issues from those of Lasswell or Plenge, they nonetheless shared an important implication: namely, that propaganda was not of itself immoral or anti-democratic, but rather morally and politically neutral. Indeed it was on balance politically desirable, for by enabling leadership in the era of mass politics it presented a proactive alternative to the ‘politics of cultural despair’ and the cultural pessimist diagnoses of an irrational mass public inevitably triumphing over educated opinion.

From this point of view, propaganda was nothing less than a modern necessity, and indeed no less so in the realm of mass politics than in the sphere of commerce. It was widely agreed that industrial society, with its huge expansion of both commercial markets and the political public, required new forms of communication to replace the older personal bonds of smaller traditional communities and markets. Just as commercial propaganda enabled producers to communicate with consumers in a mass, anonymous market, so did political propaganda become indispensable with the emergence of a mass electorate. This perception of propaganda as a means of managing the complexities of modern society was, then, nourished by more than just the experience of the war. It was widely thought, for instance, that with the extension of the franchise to women, additional guidance was required for this politically inexperienced and privately oriented segment of the electorate. The retention and acquisition of foreign markets lost during the war likewise pointed to the need for enhanced propaganda efforts abroad, and in this case a particularly close intertwining of commercial and state activities. The trauma of the revolution of 1918-19 and bourgeois fears of an increasingly organized working class also played a role. During the political upheavals of the immediate postwar period, it appeared that only the workers’ parties had learned the value of effective propaganda. Hitler himself drew much of his early propaganda inspiration from the mobilization efforts of the SPD in the years just before and after the war. In contrast to the ‘vividness’ of the leftist poster campaign, ‘the efforts of the bourgeois parties were dragged down by the lead weight of old-fashioned hollow ideas from the realm of higher education and suffered from officialese (Papierdeutsch).’

It was precisely such ‘lead weight’ among the educated middle class that, in the eyes of public relations experts, still hampered the proper appreciation of propaganda in Germany. In spite of the experience of the war, there was still a widespread disdain for publicity or advertising of any kind. Advertising was still widely associated with market criers (Marktschreierd) and swindle; as the flip-side of the same coin, political propaganda connoted rabble-rousing, deceit and playing to the gallery. Despite the extensive efforts of advertising organizations to improve their professional image throughout the 1920s, the terms ‘advertising’ and ‘propaganda’ still carried a distinct whiff of odium. This was not least the case among the bulk of mainstream politicians who insisted that advertising did not ideally belong in the realm of politics. And it was not just a reflection of autocratic hangovers among the bourgeois parties; the bulk of the SPD, precisely because of its Enlightenment roots, held the firm view that politics should be about substance, not appearance.

Such sentiments were deemed hopelessly anachronistic within the wider propaganda discourse. Indeed according to Ernst Jäckh, president of the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik, they were flat wrong. In his view, politics (conceived as a mixture of persuasion and responsibility) and advertising (understood as nothing more than the art of conveying a message as effectively as possible) were not only compatible but inseparable: ‘Politics (in the appropriate sense) and advertising (in the appropriate sense) are therefore quite compatible, indeed they need each other and yield (in the appropriate sense) a fruitful companionship.’ Moreover, as Jäckh and numerous other commentators argued it was particularly within a democratic framework that this synergy between politics and publicity was most pronounced. As an inevitable by-product of free choice and competition, whether within the market of goods or ideas, propaganda and advertising appeared not as tools of manipulation but rather, quite the contrary, as expressions of democratization. Hence it was not necessarily regarded as hyperbole to assert, as the leading advertising journal Die Reklame put it in 1929, that ‘advertising is the single truly democratic manifestation of public life today.’ From this point of view, political propaganda in a democratic system and commercial advertising in a free market were not so different after all. While politics was of course about substance, in the era of mass democracy it simply could not make do without effective presentation. And as far as presentation was concerned, ‘it is for the publicity expert of no consequence whatsoever for what kind of merchandise he makes propaganda … It would therefore seem, indeed the conclusion is inescapable, that the generally recognized rules of publicity are also valid for political propaganda.’

What were these generally recognized rules, and how did they apply to the political realm? During the 1920s, the rapid development of applied psychology and its sub-field advertising psychology (Werbepsychologie) had a major impact on commercial advertising. Various journals and research institutes were founded shortly after the war, and over the early 1920s the first synthetic works on advertising psychology appeared. As the insights from this literature gradually percolated into advertising practice (especially regarding memory and repetition, form and shape recognition, colour and page placement, brand symbols), they also spilled over into the related world of political propaganda. What bound together this disparate body of knowledge on advertising and propaganda was above all its predication on the basic concepts and language of ‘mass psychology,’ and in particular on the notion that ‘influencing the psyche of the individual within the masses is most successful when it appeals to the most primitive stirrings and emotions.’ Though it is impossible to know how direct was the influence of Gustave Le Bon’s Psychologie des foules on individual authors, all the seminal works in this discourse—including Mein Kampf—reflected its fundamental precepts: the conceptualization of the masses as feminine and seducible, their controllability via psychological ‘suggestion,’ the appellant power of emotion over ratio and form over content, the attraction of action and violence, and of course the desire of the masses to invest loyalty in others. In short, the purpose of political propaganda was to enable leadership in the era of mass politics and the tools for achieving this lay in the principles and laws of mass psychology, whose successful application was regarded as the true measure of effective propaganda.

Again, the war was seen to provide evidence of this. According to Friedrich Schönemann, one of Plenge’s assistants at the Staatswissenschaftliches Institut in Münster, the alleged success of British and American war propaganda was due precisely to its ‘ice-cold deliberation’ and ‘sole concern with exerting an effect’ on public opinion unencumbered by unscientific moral scruples. This ‘scientific’ application of mass psychological techniques was seen as a direct result of professional involvement. Whereas the British and American authorities had undertaken ‘an intensive cultivation of public opinion in support of foreign and domestic political goals via means that we had previously only used in pursuit of commercial aims,’ German wartime propaganda was characterized by ‘dilettantism, incompetence in both application and execution.’ This purely instrumental and professional approach to propaganda was epitomized in German eyes by the campaigns of British press baron Lord Northcliffe, who was widely (though erroneously) credited with the collapse of Austrian troop morale in 1918.

Although blaming propaganda for Germany’s defeat was of course a comforting thought after the fact, it should be noted that such criticism was voiced well before the end of hostilities; it is thus incorrect to suggest that the notion of allied propaganda superiority over Germany was invented by Ludendorff after the war. There were numerous calls from 1915 onwards for the establishment of a central propaganda office staffed with advertising professionals in order to overcome the ‘complete anarchy’ of the German propaganda effort. Although the official propaganda agencies employed a handful of advertisers, it seemed to many ‘as if the decisions on publicity matters were taken by civilian or military officials with no previous experience in the field of publicity.’ Thus despite considerable efforts and resources poured into propaganda, the actual product was generally regarded within advertising circles as poor, ‘because it was practised by persons who were indeed zealous, but not sufficiently familiar with the basic laws of propaganda.’ German propaganda needed to involve professionals; it was a grave mistake ‘to leave it to those who viewed matters on the world-political stage from their narrow “Prussian-official-military horizon”.’ Simply put, propaganda was ‘treated in many ways as a kind of war game (Kriegssport), but not as serious publicity science (Werbewissenschaft).’

The overall message of the propaganda discourse could hardly be clearer: modern, professional and ‘scientific’ propaganda had been a decisive factor in Germany’s defeat and was an indispensable part of modern politics. Indeed, in view of Germany’s international position after Versailles, it was more important than ever for the political élite to abandon its outdated disdain for mass propaganda and to make use of this modern ‘weapon’: ‘The weapon that defeated us—The weapon that remains for us—The weapon that will secure us recovery.’

From Propaganda to Instruction: Government Publicity in the 1920s

Although this faith in the benevolent power of mass propaganda was by no means universally shared, even many liberal democrats called for some form of political guidance for the ‘masses’ after the war. As Theodor Wolff, a leading democrat and editor of the liberal Berliner Tageblatt, commented, ‘a people like the Germans, whose political maturity had remained undeveloped under its previous subordination, must be educated above all for its new tasks, its new state form and its new responsibilities.’ The question was, of course, where to draw the line between appropriate ‘education’ and inappropriate ‘manipulation’ of public opinion. As we will now see, this was not just a matter of abstract debate, but also of concrete policy. From the perspective of the new civilian government, the war of words not only continued after the cesation of hostilities with the erstwhile enemies, but indeed took on an added domestic dimension as the fledgling republic was repeatedly threatened over the following months by internal political turmoil. In the circumstances, the question was less whether an attempt should be made to influence public opinion than how best to do it.

Government publicity efforts in the early Weimar years were crucially shaped by the institutional structure inherited from the Wilhelmine authorities. Whatever the dubious quality of Germany’s wartime propaganda, it is clear that the military leadership had built a vast organizational apparatus more or less comparable to that of the other belligerents. Though initially focused at winning sympathy abroad the launch of Ludendorff’s ‘patriotic instruction’ (vaterländischer Unterricht) campaign in 1917 signalled an increasing concern with unmistakable signs of war-weariness in the trenches and on the home front. One of the key effects of this campaign was the concentration of media relations and general propaganda efforts, most notably manifested in the founding of the film-concern Ufa in December 1917, the creation of the office of Press Chief in the Reich Chancellery (further amalgamated with the Foreign Office press department in February 1918), and the establishment of a Centre for Domestic Affairs (Zentrale für Heimatdienst) as an inland counterpart to the Zentralstelle für Auslandsdienst.

Although widespread calls for a central propaganda ministry went unheeded after the war, the existing publicity tools were largely salvaged by the new government. In the case of press relations, the wartime trend towards centralization was actually accelerated by the establishment of a Reich Press Office (Reichspresseamt, though the genuine degree of co-ordination was long deemed ‘deplorable’ by journalists) replete with a special film department (Filmdezernat). More general propaganda activities were henceforth the remit of the re-christened Reichszentrale für Heimatdienst (hereafter RfH), which not only produced its own propaganda materials but also sought to coordinate the vast array of semi-official and private propaganda organizations in Germany. Among the most important of these semi-official organizations were those devoted to refuting Allied charges of German ‘war-guilt’ (most notably the Arbeitsausschuss Deutscher Verbdnde and Zentralstelle zur Erforschung der Kriegsschuldfrage), financed largely by the Foreign Ministry via its War Guilt Section (Kriegsschuldreferat). Through selective editing, obfuscation and outright disinformation, the ‘patriotic self-censors’ manning these agencies, including a number of prominent historians, were instrumental in generating a wide consensus within Germany about the ‘war guilt lie.’ It is worth noting that most of these activities centred on printed material: feeding articles into newspapers, producing handbooks and documentary editions. The new medium of radio (launched in 1923) was, by contrast, not directly enlisted for the purposes of political propaganda—at least not within Germany. Because any decision to allow ‘political’ broadcasts meant that anti-Republican parties would also have to be granted air-time on the basis of ‘parity of access,’ the architects of Weimar radio soon agreed to adopt the principle of ‘unpolitical’ and strictly non-partisan airwaves. Although this caused a number of problems in practice, and although some ‘political’ content in radio programmes was arguably unavoidable, on the whole this precept was strictly adhered to—until, that is, the overt government instrumentalization of radio from summer 1932 onwards, initiated by the von Papen cabinet. Prior to this, however, government publicity efforts within Germany centred by and large on the press and the RfH.

After the acceptance of the Versailles Treaty and failure to overturn the ‘war guilt’ clause, government propaganda during the early 1920s focused primarily on two sets of problems: the series of border disputes (in the East, Helgoland and Schleswig-Holstein) and above all on winning international sympathy against French actions in the Rhineland. The activities of the various semi-official propaganda organizations, which were financed in large part by Rhineland industry, ranged from producing leaflets to feeding articles into the foreign press to financing trips to Germany by prominent foreigners, especially from England and the United States. The high point—or rather low point—of these efforts was reached during the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, as the German propaganda campaign was roundly castigated in the press for its half-heartedness and amateurism. The general view was that the government had signally failed to learn the propaganda lessons of the war. As the Vossische Zeitung put it, ‘Germany is doing far too little in this regard and whoever does not recognize this is short-sighted and naive.’ Instead of letting professionals do the job, ‘one satisfies oneself with the appointment of a few recommended journalists into the machinery of government, where they quickly submerge under the interplay of surreptitious forces and become worn down by office work.’ As a result, the government was letting a golden opportunity slip through its fingers, as even foreign journalists remarked: ‘If you were doing to the French what they are doing to you—the world would be foaming with rage at you.’ Although the French authorities painted a very different picture of a sprawling and well-oiled German propaganda machine, the impression east of the Rhine was once again of a complete propaganda defeat. And once again, part of the problem was seen in the continued aversion towards propaganda among political élites, epitomized by the oft-cited remark by State Secretary von Rheinbaben in response to hopes that his appointment in the Reich Chancellery would bring about some improvement in this regard: ‘For heaven’s sake, no propaganda!’

With the end of passive resistance in the Ruhr, government propaganda efforts shifted away from confrontation towards garnering support for its policy of compromise with France. This entailed above all a change of focus back onto the domestic front, for which the RfH remained the single most important agency. Immediately after the war, the RfH had actively supported the new government in a variety of ways: working with the Council of People’s Deputies, distributing propaganda on the issue of nationalization, fighting against various strike movements and against the Kapp-Putsch. Most important for our purposes here, it was also involved in making propaganda for the Weimar coalition parties in the Reichstag elections of June 1920, for this raised the thorny question of how appropriate such Staatspropaganda was within a democracy and how it could remain above party politics. In spite of widespread criticism and calls for its dissolution by the extreme left, the RfH was eventually salvaged by a Reichstag decision in July 1921, albeit henceforth under close multi-party control and with a tightly circumscribed remit. According to the parliamentary resolution, ‘The Reichszentrale ftir Heimatdienst serves the aim of factual instruction (sachliche Aufklärung) on issues of foreign and economic policy as well as social and cultural issues, not in the spirit of individual parties, but from the perspective of the state as a whole.’

The key term was ‘factual instruction,’ for it was clearly intended to denote something wholly different from ‘propaganda.’ As the RfH’s official organ explained shortly after the Reichstag decision:

In contrast to propaganda, instruction is rooted in logic and is based on solid facts, from which each individual can and should draw his or her own conclusions. This instruction does not seek to impose a ready-made opinion as in the case of propaganda, but rather seeks to stimulate one’s own judgement and reflection through providing sound and conclusive documentation.

The key distinction was whether it furnished open-ended information for rational deliberation (which was considered democratic), or closed opinions via ‘market-crying and the loud ballyhoo of propaganda’ (which was not). This principle was soon reflected in the day-to-day activities of the RfH, which deliberately avoided ‘extensive methods of mass propaganda’ (assemblies, posters, flyers, and so on) in favour of concentrating on ‘the “sub-leaders” (Unterführer) in the political and economic life of the nation.’ Henceforth its primary focus lay in ‘political education,’ or more specifically in organizing or supporting further education courses and lecture series geared for social ‘multipliers’ such as teachers, administrators, organization-chairpersons and other professionals. This low-key form of targeted ‘political education’ as opposed to more emotive and visible ‘mass propaganda’ not only defined the work of the RfH, but was symptomatic of government public relations in general throughout the 1920s. Such efforts were not only deemed more democratic, but also more effective in the long run, as some propaganda ‘experts’ themselves argued. The problem was that the long-term prospects of German democracy were far less than certain, and in the short term the overwhelming emphasis on rational appeals aimed at specific groups rather than on generating a sense of attachment to the new political system among the population at large contributed decisively to the Republic’s oft-cited ‘sensory deficit’ (Sinnlichkeitsdefizit), or lack of rituals and symbols objectifying and supporting the new political order. Historians were by no means the first to perceive this poverty of symbolic self-representation; contemporaries voiced such concerns from the early 1920s onwards. While this sensory deficit may not have seemed so grave during the 1920s, by 1930 at the latest, with the onset of acute economic and political crisis and the rising tide of radicalism, it was increasingly perceived as a dangerous political-symbolic vacuum.

The Rise of Radicalism and the Promise of Propaganda

With the collapse of the last democratically elected parliament in March 1930, the question for most contemporaries was less how the democratic system in Germany could survive than what would take its place. As the crisis deepened the ‘totalitarian temptation’ loomed ever larger; various ideas about leadership cults and mass movements that had previously been only toyed with by the mainstream parties took on a new significance. And as the democratic parties increasingly saw little alternative but to tolerate or even support the authoritarian Brüning cabinet as a means of rescuing the republic from complete collapse, it is hardly surprising that qualms about the morality of manipulating public opinion would also gradually be eroded.

But the implications of the shift towards authoritarian government after spring 1930 were ambivalent as far as the perceived role of state self-representation, or Staatspropaganda, was concerned. At the most basic level, this shift could imply either a decrease in the importance of such publicity efforts corresponding to the diminished input of public opinion into the political process (a reversion to an autocratic ‘policing’ régime), or an increase in their importance as a means of shaping public opinion in lieu of following it (an enhanced ‘surveillance’ régime). If one were to take the latter ‘surveillance’ alternative of enhancing publicity efforts (which most did), this raised another set of issues as to how best to carry it out: to redouble existing efforts at political education or to resort to the kind of agitation techniques culled from the realm of commercial advertising that the radical political movements, above all the National Socialists, were employing to such effect? In practice, then, there were three options: first, to remain aloof from publicity battles so far as possible; second, to counter the emotionalized propaganda of the radicals by expanding efforts to educate the public about the complexity of the political issues at stake; and third, to imitate the radicals’ agitprop techniques in order to fight fire with fire. The first option was in many ways embodied by chancellor Brüning himself. Unlike his Social Democratic predecessor Müller, who had reversed a decision to cut the RfH budget for fear of creating a domestic propaganda vacuum that could be filled by the Nazis, Brüning radically cut the RfH’s budget and had to be dissuaded from closing it down altogether. In view of the highly unpopular nature of his austerity measures, Brüning maintained remarkably little contact with the press. Even Theodor Wolff, who had far better access to the chancellor than most journalists, spoke of Brüning’s ‘hermit-like isolation’ and encouraged him to make more effort to sell himself and his policies to the public. Officials within the Reich Chancellery and many of Brüning’s own ministers likewise counselled him to do more. As Labour Minister Stegerwald wrote to him in December 1931, the government’s press policy had to be ‘fundamentally reformed’ in order to combat the demagogues: ‘For I consider it impermissible in a period in which parliament’s influence is almost completely eliminated to exclude the press to such a great extent as well.’ Although Brüning was eventually persuaded to hold a number of radio addresses explaining his policies, his instincts always remained those of the autocrat who deemed deliberate publicity efforts to be beneath the dignity of his office, even in the face of vicious attacks by his enemies. This attitude was typified in his response to a suggestion to use free advertising space for publicizing government policies: ‘How could you expect me to make propaganda for myself?’

By contrast, the majority of senior officials and government-supporting politicians were by the autumn of 1930 convinced that enhancing publicity efforts for both the state and the government was an absolute necessity, indeed more so than ever. But again, views differed as to what means to adopt. This question first posed itself in the run-up to the Reichstag elections of September 1930, when it was suggested that the government counter the radical tide not only via its customary dry journalistic activities, but also by adopting the radicals’ own emotive-visual weapons ‘in order to create a counter-effect through mass postering as a means of at least partially balancing out the damaging and disastrous effect of the other posters on public opinion.’ Despite warnings against ‘false economizing’ that could ‘bitterly avenge itself, the idea of a mass poster campaign was eventually rejected not only because of the high costs, but more importantly due to a sense of scepticism that ‘such an officially sponsored election poster, even if very skilfully and professionally executed, would most likely seem rather boring and have little rousing effect among the masses in comparison to a National Socialist or Communist poster, for example, whose arguments and depictions are of course completely without restraint.’ In other words, it was doubtful that the dry prose of rational governance could compete with the emotive poetry of the radical political movements on their own terrain—that is, if translated into imagery.

Throughout 1930-31, then, the publicity efforts of the RfH and Reich Press Office continued in the established vein of rational ‘instruction’ and argumentation. Despite having its budget cut by well over half, the RfH continued to organize dozens of lectures and exhibitions, as well as help arrange several radio addresses in support of the government. Yet despite its continued activity, even supporters had to admit that ‘the public propaganda effect is often quite unsatisfactory.’ Indeed it could even be counterproductive, as in the case of radio addresses that interrupted or replaced music broadcasts and other popular segments of the published programme. In many ways the government’s publicity approach was mirrored within the democratic parties, especially the SPD, whose own propaganda efforts likewise continued to emphasize rational persuasion and education as opposed to more emotional propaganda. Insofar as the strategy was to ridicule Nazi propaganda through reasoned argument, both the republican parties and the government not only eschewed the maxims of the concurrent propaganda discourse, but conceived their public relations efforts as a deliberate contrast to them.

Just as in the immediate postwar years, such efforts were deemed woefully inadequate by the bulk of professional advertisers and journalists who increasingly warned of the dangers of ignoring the insights of modern public relations, above all the need for systematic organization, using a wide palette of media, and appealing to emotions and desires. In the mass-political marketplace of ideas, the forces of stability were, so the argument ran, being completely out-advertised by the radical competition. Apart from the handful of welcome radio addresses, which were justified by government officials as an ‘unpolitical’ form of public information about the logic and necessity of Brüning’s austerity policies, the propaganda opportunities of the non-print media were virtually ignored. ‘Has the government never heard of the sound newsreel?’ asked the film journal Film-Kurier. In view of the increasingly partisan Ufa newsreels (not to mention the unmistakable right-wing trend among entertainment films from 1931 onwards), it was considered an ‘unforgiveable failure of the Reich government’ to leave the field to the far right out of some misplaced sense of maintaining the political neutrality of the cinema: ‘The neutrals are wrong.’ The problem, as many critics suggested, was not so much a lack of will as a lack of money and above all a lack of expertise. As one advertiser complained in a letter to the Reich Chancellery: ‘The government has almost no weapons in the political arena. Propaganda experts are not consulted.’ This basic argument of the ‘experts,’ repeated time and again in advertising journals, the mainstream press and in various letters to the government was, though transparently self-serving, remarkably consistent since the end of the war: Staatspropaganda was a modern necessity, and effective Staatspropaganda required advertising professionals: ‘The requisite specialists, tried-and-tested and practically experienced are available. They merely need to be deployed.’

From late 1931 onwards the Reich authorities were inundated by such unsolicited advice, much of it castigating state public relations for having ‘no publicity plan, no scientifically trained and practically experienced publicity advisors.’ A number of advertisers, including the executive committee of Germany’s leading advertising organization (the Deutscher Reklame-Verband), directly offered their services to the government on an honorary or paid basis. The wide range of recommendations that were offered essentially boiled down to two points: first, that state publicity efforts needed to be more systematically organized, and second that they had to make more use of emotion and suggestion. There were, as during the war, numerous calls for appointing an experienced advertiser to the position of propaganda minister. The idea was to organize state publicity along the lines of a modern commercial advertising campaign, characterized above all by a single guiding concept and a clear, systematic strategy for disseminating its messages via multiple media outlets. These messages, in turn, had to be grounded in the precepts of ‘mass psychology’ if they were to have the desired effect on the bulk of the populace. In this view, political education and factual information may be suitable for the RfH, but its efforts touched only élites and were largely preaching to the converted in any case. Since the masses were widely assumed to be clueless about government, rational arguments were considered out of place. The key, as the celebrated ‘brand technician’ Hans Domizlaff argued in a widely read work on ‘propaganda devices for the conception of the state,’ was to play on the masses’ psychological fears and desires: ‘Very simple ideas—that by no means need to be sensible, but which match the psyche of the masses in such a way as to arouse psychoses—will always render the most clever and honest government declarations ineffective.’ Moreover, since ‘a people can never maintain long-term enthusiasm about an abstract idea such as the state commonwealth if the idea is not objectified by symbols perceptible to the senses,’ it was necessary to develop certain ‘style devices of the state as psychological supports’—in other words, precisely the kind of rituals and symbols that the Republic so sorely lacked but that the Nazis in particular had developed into a signature political image.

Although such Staatspropaganda was clearly conceived as a long-term venture, what this advice amounted to in the short term was essentially the imitation of National Socialist propaganda techniques. These techniques were in fact the object of considerable admiration within advertising circles, in particular the Nazis’ use of suggestion, imagery and brand technique. As the renowned advertiser Ernst Growald remarked after the Reichstag elections of July 1932 (in which the Nazis made their largest ever gains), ‘Hitler’s success rests in large part on excellent advertising, which is especially effective since his opponents cannot mount anything nearly as powerful against it. The advertising-fetish of the Nazis is the swastika, which is propagated better than any factory or firm symbol ever was.’ If the state was to withstand this onslaught, it was seen as absolutely imperative to employ these same tools of modern professional advertising: ‘systematic and professionally-guided state propaganda is a precept of state morality, of wisdom and of thrift.’

In view of the Nazis’ apparent electoral successes (which many commentators misguidedly attributed to little more than their catchy propaganda), such sentiments were on the ascendant across the political spectrum. By 1931, leading moderates such as Gertrud Bäumer and Marie-Elisabeth Lüders were appealing directly to the Chancellor for a more aggressive public relations campaign. As Lüders lamented in May 1931, the economic crisis and the massive erosion of support for the republic meant that

our methods of political attack and defence are no longer appropriate. The people possess neither the inner calm nor the energy for rational examination, objective consideration and independent decision. They do not want to examine, search and find, but rather want to receive ready-made ‘solutions,’ and indeed ones that match their own state of mind, which so far as possible both begins and ends with their own personal fate.

As a result, it was necessary to fight the demagogues with their own weapons: ‘We have enough enemies, among them some very clever people. We must be a match for them.’ Within the SPD, too, there was a growing realization that, in the words of Henrik de Man, ‘national fascism appeals to the basic political impulses to which socialism has paid far too little attention over the preceding decades.’ Supporters of a more militant and charismatic political style such as Carlo Mierendorff and Julius Leber were gradually gaining ground within the party. The creation of a sharply critical cartoon film entitled Ins dritte Reich represented a clear desire to modernize the SPD’s propaganda techniques (though the censorship authorities only allowed the film to be played at closed SPD gatherings for fear of public disturbances). More importantly, the eventual adoption of Sergei Chakotin’s ‘three arrows’ motif for the July 1932 elections marked a significant shift towards ‘psycho-technical’ electioneering tactics, albeit still against considerable scepticism among the party leadership.

In the meantime, there were similar discussions within the government about redoubling the state publicity effort. While Brüning himself continued to make rather hesitant and infrequent use of the radio, officials within the Reich Chancellery arranged a number of meetings with advertisers to discuss their ideas, though the lack of funds precluded any of them being realized. In this regard at least, the replacement of Brüning’s government by von Papen and his arch-conservative cabinet in June 1932 marked an unmistakeable turning-point, for it was first under von Papen that the government as such made more systematic attempts to gain the popular support it so sorely lacked. Amidst renewed proposals to establish a centralized propaganda office, the most important changes under von Papen occurred in the area of radio, which was thoroughly reformed and brought under firm state control over the latter half of 1932. As part of this restructuring, Interior Minister von Gayl ordered a daily ‘Government Hour’ for all radio broadcasters, during which ministers could hold supposedly ‘unpolitical’ speeches in support of government policies. The perverse result was that over the six and a half months of his chancellorship, von Papen spoke on the radio eighteen times and went to the Reichstag only once. The contrast with Brüning’s aloofness and reluctance to ‘make propaganda for himself could hardly be more stark. This direct political harnessing of radio was very much a part of the wider attempt to fill the power vacuum that the presidential cabinets had them-selves created by bypassing parliament. But the attempt by the von Papen government—as well as by the Schleicher government that succeeded it in December—to mobilize popular anti-republican sentiment for its own purposes stood virtually no chance of success in 1932 given the huge lead of the Nazis in precisely this area.

As a number of contemporaries feared at the time, the eventual shift towards more emotionalized publicity methods by the presidential governments and by the moderate parties was not only too little too late, but also a two-edged sword. It was too little in a number of respects. A large-scale agitation campaign of the kind recommended by advertisers was hindered not only by a lack of funds but also, in particular among the Social Democrats, by continued qualms about the deployment of ‘suggestive’ propaganda. A lack of experience in mounting such publicity also appeared to play a role; even the ‘three arrows’ campaign launched by the ‘Iron Front,’ which signalled a direct challenge to the symbolic power of the swastika, was decried in the professional advertising press as an amateurish stopgap measure. In addition, the kind of fundamental opposition as adopted by the Nazis was, despite its attractiveness to an increasingly hostile electorate, clearly not an option for the moderate parties or even for the gentlemen’s club governments of von Papen and Schleicher. As for the revised publicity strategy being too late, closing the gap between the ‘sensory deficit’ of the Republic and the forceful visual occupation of the public sphere by the Nazis was not a matter of months but years; the same applied to the vague visions of a ‘new state’ harboured by von Papen and others. Perhaps most importantly, any shift to suggestive propaganda meant fighting the Nazis on their own terrain. It was difficult to see how a party or government claiming to represent the rational interests of the state—whether on a parliamentary or conservative authoritarian basis—could effectively fight an avowedly anti-rationalist party by appealing to emotion over rationality.

This was, however, precisely what the ‘experts’ had long been prescribing, and in the crisis situation after 1930 their ideas seemed increasingly plausible. In this sense the propaganda discourse that underlay these prescriptions helped undermine Weimar democracy not only by nourishing right-wing myths of a ‘stab in the back’ and anti-democratic notions of a Führer and Volksgemeinschaft, but also by hollowing out democratic conceptions of the modern public from the very centre. The crisis-ridden experience of parliamentarism and in particular the swelling support for the radical parties had turned even many staunch republicans into what Harold Lasswell called ‘despondent democrats,’ democrats whose trust in the good sense of ‘the people’ had been disappointed:

Let us, therefore, reason together, brethren, and find the good, and when we have found it, let us find out how to make up the public mind to accept it. Inform, cajole, bamboozle and seduce in the name of the public good. Preserve the majority convention, but dictate to the majority!

This certainly is not to suggest that the Weimar Republic collapsed primarily because of its public relations shortcomings. Nor is it to say that refraining from such ‘bamboozling and seduction’ would have been more effective in the circumstances of the early 1930s. The point is rather that there was no workable solution in the circumstances. The Weimar democrats failed to find an adequate answer to the problem of republican self-representation not because they were unwilling to, but rather unable to. There were various reasons for this, first and foremost the general dissonance between the values of democracy and individual emancipation on the one hand and the irrationality of symbolism and ritual on the other. Unlike their radical opponents, who had no qualms about resorting to rituals in order to play on emotional needs during a period of great disorientation, the Weimar democrats found it unpalatable to argue for a rational form of politics on such a ‘suggestive’ basis. In addition, they also found it difficult to agree amongst themselves on the precise nature of the Republic’s self-representation, with anniversaries and symbols derived from the socialist, radical and national-liberal traditions all vying for prominence. In this sense, the Republic’s public relations shortcomings should be regarded more as symptoms than causes of its underlying weakness. In the absence of a consensus as to what the Republic stood for even among its supporters, ‘the creeping erosion of the Republic was brought about less by the insufficient efforts of democrats to establish a system of symbols than by the impossibility of succeeding by democratic means.’ It was therefore not so much a lack of will as a lack of unity that explains why, in spite of the vast propaganda discourse after the war, and in spite of the significant influence that this discourse had on the views of mainstream democrats, the republican forces in Weimar Germany neglected the encouragement of at least a modicum of popular emotional attachment to the new political order, and only fully recognized this deficit under the impact of the Nazis’ advertising-inspired mobilization efforts. Clearly, Weimar republicans recognized too late the dangers of ignoring the attractiveness of mythic appeals to faith, especially in times of uncertainty. Yet in the circumstances—which involved the supporters of the Republic arduously finding a lowest common denominator—the dismissal of such manipulative propaganda as incompatible with the (ideally) rational discourse of democracy seemed the only con-sensually ‘democratic’ course of action. Put differently, the lack of agreement on the ultimate ends of state publicity meant that there was no practicable way to justify the means.

The cruel irony is that the doubts about the long-term effectiveness of emotionalized propaganda and the continued insistence on the power of rational persuasion harboured in some quarters were just proving to be well-founded when the Nazis were brought into government. After the November 1932 elections it was clear to Nazi officials and grass-roots activists alike that their propaganda had largely exhausted its possibilities. Goebbels himself despaired at the thought of another election campaign: ‘God grant that we do not have to carry it out.’ The innumerable posters, slogans and marches had proven highly effective at whipping up a frenzy, but as the Strasser wing of the party had previously warned, their overuse, as with any stimulant, would eventually lead to a kind of sensory deadening; solid, long-term support needed to rest on more than emotion. Even more ironic is the fact that after the Nazi take-over such aggressive forms of publicity were officially castigated in the realm of commercial advertising as self-serving and manipulative, and therefore at odds with the ‘service before self-conception of a Volksgemeinschaft. In place of the ‘coarse stimulants such as suggestion, deception, etc’ that characterized the previous ‘epoch of “suggestion-competition”,’ the new doctrine of commercial publicity in the Third Reich was based on matter-of-fact persuasion and explanation.

This doctrine was to some extent mirrored in the Nazis’ new brand of Staatspropaganda after 1933, which, though hardly matter-of-fact or geared towards encouraging independent analysis, nonetheless differed markedly from the shrill propaganda of the ‘period of struggle.’ This dramatic shift of emphasis was, of course, the direct result of moving from opposition into government. Exercising power as opposed to acquiring it put the Nazis in a fundamentally new position. For one thing, it placed incomparably more resources and media outlets at their disposal: ‘Now we will show them what one can do with the state apparatus when one knows how to use it,’ gloated Goebbels during the election campaign of February 1933. More importantly, it also called for different tools—agitation was replaced by entertainment, anger by pleasure, fundamental opposition by the positive pathos of regeneration. Nowhere was the shift from electioneering to ‘integration propaganda’ more clearly expressed than in Goebbels’ address to radio executives on 25 March 1933:

The primary rule is not to be boring. I prioritize this above everything else. Whatever you do, do not broadcast tedium, do not present the desired way of thinking (Gesinnung) on a silver platter, do not think that one can best serve the national government by playing thunderous military marches every evening … Rather, you must help to cultivate a nationalistic art and culture that also genuinely matches the modern tempo and modern sensibilities.

The boundary between ‘entertainment’ and ‘politics’ was deliberately blurred and not just by infusing the former with the latter. This also worked in the other direction: ‘politics’ in a narrower sense was to be no more dry and boring than ‘entertainment.’ For as far as political rituals and symbols were concerned the Nazis, unlike preceding governments, clearly needed no persuading about the importance of ‘style devices of the state as psychological supports.’

Not surprisingly, many of the public relations experts who had been promoting Staatspropaganda as a necessity of the modern world welcomed the new state under Hitler and the establishment of Goebbels’ ministry as both a confirmation of their arguments and as an antidote to the centrifugal forces of mass politics (and, for a handful at least, as a source of jobs). But what they and so many others failed to recognize at the time was that the Nazis’ Führer-centred solution to the problem of mass politics was no solution at all. Indeed, it was both weaker in its fundaments and more threatening to the integrity of the state than anything that preceded it. If the Weimar Republic suffered from a sensory deficit, the Third Reich suffered from a surfeit of charisma, indeed an overwhelming reliance on it. The integrative power of the ‘Hitler myth’ required more than just an immense propaganda effort, it also demanded constant mobilization and continuous political victory. In these circumstances, political integration of the masses and political stabilization—the elusive twin goals of republican politicians throughout the Weimar years—were not necessarily the same thing. For the radicalizing spiral that arose from this charismatic form of authority and the ever-expanding dynamism of the Nazi movement generated centrifugal forces that eventually destroyed the ‘state’ itself, and rational governance along with it.