While intended to coincide with the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, a new exhibition at the United Nations on Nazi propaganda contains eerie parallels to today’s heated political climate in the United States and beyond concerning refugees, immigration and other urgent problems that have helped far-right parties to ascend to power.
“The Holocaust did not begin with killing, it began with words,” Howard D. Unger, a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, told the audience gathered at UN headquarters for the exhibition opening in late January. “The appeal of ideology remains as powerful” as ever, he said, adding: “We are in a war of ideas. We all must be soldiers in this war.”
The UN unveiled the traveling exhibition as part of a program commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, held each year on Jan. 27. The display, produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is titled “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.” It is up through March 5 in the UN’s main lobby.
Through posters, photographs, illustrations, videos and brief texts, the exhibition examines how the Nazis used propaganda to win broad voter support in Germany’s young democracy after World War I; carried out radical programs under the party’s dictatorship in the 1930s; and justified war and mass murder.
Among the items and images are a depiction of a 1932 election poster for Hitler, a caricature of a hooked-nose Jewish man, a poster of a bloodthirsty “Jewish Bolshevik commissar” associating “the Jew” with the murder of more than 9,000 Soviet citizens in Ukraine in 1937-38, recordings of Nazi speeches and a poster of a muscular “enlightened” German worker.
In one wall text, it asks the question, Why did many Germans buy into Nazi propaganda? The answer, in brief, said that with the onset of the Depression, millions of Germans switched their party allegiances to vote for the Nazis; the country was going through “bad economic times”; and coupled with the inability of Germany’s political parties to form a viable coalition government it all led to “widespread voter dissatisfaction.”
Many voters, it said, “turned to Hitler out of fear of impoverishment” and that Hitler’s extreme nationalism “resonated” with many voters.
In partnership with the Holocaust Museum, the UN has also produced a set of 16 posters and a lesson plan on the exhibition in the UN’s six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) as well as in Dutch, Ukrainian and Kiswahili.
“This most extreme case study emphasizes why the issue of propaganda matters and challenges citizens to actively question, analyze and seek the truth,” the museum stated in its promotional materials.
The parallels between Nazi propaganda and today’s political climate were clear, given the current rise of populist leaders around the world, the success of the Brexit movement that led to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and, of course, the election of President Trump, who campaigned as an outsider to the Washington political establishment, promising to “make America great again.”
Steven Luckert, senior program curator at the Holocaust Museum, explained at the exhibition debut how Hitler, as German chancellor, was obsessed with propaganda and used contemporary advertising techniques to convey his messages. Indeed, the Nazis portrayed themselves as “outsiders,” as the only party that could unite all Germans and solve the country’s problems, Luckert said.
The Nazis, for example, created a Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, portrayed Jews in the most negative light and not only tried to incite hatred but created a “climate of indifference” — a critical mind-set that helped Hitler to succeed.
The Nazis never said to “go out and kill your neighbor,” Luckert said, but rather encouraged Germans to “just sit back and let the state protect you” — a message that was much easier to swallow than actual murder directives. “That allowed the Holocaust to happen.”
In a later interview with PassBlue, Luckert was reluctant, however, to draw direct parallels between the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s and the Trump presidency, noting “there is a growing tendency throughout the world” to have distrust in public institutions and massive voter frustration with mainstream politics.
“Some extremists have been able to take advantage of that,” Luckert said, declining to single out any group or administration.
“We live in an age in which we’re constantly bombarded with messages,” Luckert noted, with hate propaganda spreading around the world through social media. “This is a subject for concern for everyone in the world.”
“The exhibition in many ways gets people to think about” the message and to be “more critical consumers,” he added — to think about what’s being “left out” of such messages.
Referring to a recent Stanford University study that found that students were unable to distinguish between “fake” and accurate news online, Luckert said that younger people needed to be more skeptical and discerning about the news. The Holocaust museum brings in school groups to help get this message out, and Luckert has met with teachers from around the country who are “dealing with it at the ground level” with their students.
Meanwhile, the White House released a statement on Jan. 27 commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day without specifically mentioning Jews, and after being challenged about the omission, the Trump administration said it was seeking to be “inclusive” of all groups that had suffered.
But organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League were not buying this explanation. “The suffering of the Jewish people is not an afterthought, a prepositional phrase to be bolted onto the end of a sentence,” wrote the League’s chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, in a blog post. “The suffering of the Jewish people is the whole reason that the concept of the Holocaust was defined. It became shorthand to explain the unexplainable, the inconceivable — an intentional, transnational campaign to exterminate an entire people perpetrated in broad daylight in front of the entire world.”
The Holocaust museum itself issued a general statement on Jan. 30 that did not specifically reference Trump but noted: “Nazi ideology cast the world as a racial struggle, and the singular focus on the total destruction of every Jewish person was at its racist core. Millions of other innocent civilians were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, but the elimination of Jews was central to Nazi policy.
“As Elie Wiesel said, ‘Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.’ “
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Lori Silberman Brauner is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer who most recently served as deputy managing editor at the New Jersey Jewish News. She received a B.A. in political science from Muhlenberg College; an M.A. in international affairs from Drew University; and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was one of 10 North American journalists who took part in a ICFJ-UN Foundation Reporting Fellowship in September 2016 to explore the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.