To put it shortly and sweetly: Humans are hard-wired to get off on gossip. For anyone gearing up for a holier-than-thou response to that premise: you, my fellow human, are lying. You, like me and like everybody else, were blessed and cursed with our distinctly human need to be in the know. This nosiness might be thought of as one of the traits that drives people to seek community and be a part of a whole.
I wonder sometimes about this ulterior motive for community-mindedness and civic engagement. If community is born in part of our selfish intent to self-enhance, how might a marketing campaign capitalize on this most basic of human tendencies? Enter Nazi propaganda, an enormous catalyst for unspeakable evil and atrocity... and arguably one of the more brilliant PR victories in history.
Author Linda Schulte-Sasse writes in Mass Spectacle, History, Cinema that Nazi success is largely attributed to letting “the aesthetic become ‘reality’ by… turning the political experience into an aesthetic experience of community." In fact, Hitler’s mass rallies were organized for largely aesthetic purpose, so that an individual – perhaps a gentle, generous and upstanding German citizen – would turn away from their inner moral compass and look only outward. Who has time to mull over right and wrong in the face of such a powerful scene and Hitler's moving and impassioned call to action? Two important question have been pondered time and time again among academics and, more personally, is a fixture of my jewish heritage and Holocaust education. Were all Nazis evil? And if not, how the hell could they have been complicit in such atrocity?
Arguably the most awe-inspiring scenes depicted in the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (commissioned by Hitler) are the mass rallies, the scenes in which thousands of attendees stand eagerly watching Hitler and other Nazi leaders deliver impassioned speeches or drive by in a parade. Posters, banners, songs and pop culture in general hammered this point into the minds of all the many adopters (though there were, of course, many Germans who did not adopt). Such scenes embody the collective agreement of thousands of people, and effectively instills the rightness of the new doctrine in a viewer that perhaps had not yet joined the Nazi bandwagon. Hey – all the cool kids were doing it.
The mass rallies were crucial to make Nazism rational, even obvious. But as many corporate ads and political campaigns demonstrate, the rational isn't enough to drive a group to action. It needs to look like a jolly good time. That's why Triumph is peppered by not-at-all filler scenes of pure recreation; a jovial water fight breaks out on the Nazi Youth training campground in one scene, a group of boys pamper and prep for Hitler's visit in another, and everybody seems focused on helping their neighbor get ready for the day. Upbeat music accompanies these visual representations of community-mindedness, understandably evoking in the viewer just a fraction of the ‘joy’ that one feels being a part of this Nazi conglomerate.
At twenty-one minutes into the film, a line of boys stand still as Hitler approaches them. Hitler walks slowly, nodding curtly to each person, and finally leans in to address one of them. Of course, such an event likely happened rather infrequently, but these various scenes still evoke the desired images – Nazi appreciation of the individual, group camaraderie, and a cohesive community. The “reality” portrayed in the film was staged, a photo op, but as photo ops are wont to do, it worked like a charm. Nazi propaganda simultaneously highlighted an individual's unique role in the Nazi framework and promised a sense of completion and wholeness if they participate in it. Nazi mania wasn't born of peer pressure. It was born instead of 'I want to have as much fun as they're having' and 'they cannot do this without me.' Egocentrism, meet community service.
Arbeit Macht Frei. Work Will Set You Free. Yes, You. Egocentrism, meet community service.
Love of country, love of fellow man. It's all fun and games until six million plus people get hurt.