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Bending spines

the propagandas of Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic

Randall L. Bytwerk

Publication Year: 2004

Why do totalitarian propaganda such as those created in Nazi Germany and the former German Democratic Republic initially succeed, and why do they ultimately fail? Outside observers often make two serious mistakes when they interpret the propaganda of this time. First, they assume the propaganda worked largely because they were supported by a police state, that people cheered Hitler and Honecker because they feared the consequences of not doing so. Second, they assume that propaganda really succeeded in persuading most of the citizenry that the Nuremberg rallies were a reflection of how most Germans thought, or that most East Germans were convinced Marxist-Leninists. Subsequently, World War II Allies feared that rooting out Nazism would be a very difficult task. No leading scholar or politician in the West expected East Germany to collapse nearly as rapidly as it did. Effective propaganda depends on a full range of persuasive methods, from the gentlest suggestion to overt violence, which the dictatorships of the twentieth century understood well. 
     In many ways, modern totalitarian movements present worldviews that are religious in nature. Nazism and Marxism-Leninism presented themselves as explanations for all of life—culture, morality, science, history, and recreation. They provided people with reasons for accepting the status quo. Bending Spines examines the full range of persuasive techniques used by Nazi Germany and the German Democratic Republic, and concludes that both systems failed in part because they expected more of their propaganda than it was able to deliver. 

Published by: Michigan State University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

The research was supported by Calvin College, which provided a sabbatical, other time for travel and research, and an environment conducive to writing because one has something to say rather than because one has to. The archivists and librarians at the Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv in Berlin oversee a pleasant working environment, and they know their holdings. ...

Terms and Abbreviations

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pp. xi

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pp. 1-10

A pastor who lived through the Third Reich described his meetings with Nazi officials in a way that illuminates life in totalitarian societies: “[O]ne would be pushed further, step by step, until he had crossed over the line, without noticing that his spine was being bent millimeter by millimeter.”1 The Nazis he met with knew that persuasion is a gradual process with ...

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pp. 11-40

At the last congress of the GDR writers’ association in 1987, Jürgen Kucyzinski, the perennial tolerated troublemaker of the GDR, wished for a socialist equivalent of prayer: “I have looked in vain for a substitute for prayer that could remind us, despite all the troubles we have and the barriers we encounter each day, or at least each week, of the greatness of ...

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Chapter 2: DOCTRINES

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pp. 41-56

Although National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism were quasi-religious worldviews with absolute claims to truth, they developed significantly different theoretical approaches to propaganda. Nazism was not fond of theory at all. Convoluted academic books were written on various aspects of Nazi ideology during the Third Reich, but Nazism’s ...

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pp. 57-70

On 30 March 1945 Joseph Goebbels was complaining to Adolf Hitler about ineffective propaganda produced by Otto Dietrich and Robert Ley.1 Goebbels never quite succeeded in persuading Hitler to grant him the full authority he craved. Unlike the GDR’s propaganda, which had clear lines of authority, Nazi propaganda displayed organizational confusion. ...

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pp. 71-88

Both the Nazis and the GDR developed substantial central propaganda bureaucracies that determined the general content of propaganda. These bureaucracies alone could never have maintained thorough systems of control. To do that, both systems depended on large numbers of propagandists at lower levels to carry out their activities. Participating in the system ...

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pp. 89-108

Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, lover and adviser to Empress Catherine the Great, had a problem in 1787. The empress was to tour an area into which he had sunk considerable sums of her money with limited results. After careful preparation, Potemkin presented Catherine with a facade of success, though he did not build the literal Potemkin villages of ...

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pp. 109-130

People may attend to the news, no matter how influenced it is by propaganda, from an understandable desire to make sense of the world around them. The popular arts are different. Their popularity is influenced by matters of taste, style, and personal preference. Moreover, there are other options for leisure than popular arts. The Third Reich and the GDR ...

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pp. 131-154

Bending spines takes steady pressure in every area of life. Jacques Ellul observes: “Propaganda tries to surround man by all possible routes, in the realm of feelings as well as ideas, by playing on his will or on his needs, through his conscious and his unconscious, assailing him in both his private and his public life.”1 I have earlier discussed the quasi-religious nature ...

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pp. 155-170

The propagandas of the Third Reich and the GDR failed. Both had as their goal better and lasting worlds populated by new kinds of human beings. The Third Reich survived twelve years, the GDR forty. Both collapsed absolutely, the Third Reich by military force, the GDR through a gradual decline that became suddenly evident when its citizens realized ...


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pp. 171-204

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 205-222


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pp. 223-228

E-ISBN-13: 9780870138997
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870137105

Page Count: 228
Publication Year: 2004