- The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust
Holocaust historians and teachers have often posed the question, "How much did the average German know about the genocide of the Jews?" This query reflects not only scholarly curiosity, but also the fact that after World War II most Germans claimed not to have known about the Nazis' genocidal aims. The latter point is bolstered by popular renditions of the period even today. For example in the 2004 film Der Untergang (Downfall), a gripping view of Hitler's last days in the bunker, the Führer's secretary looks surprised when Hitler, while dictating his last will and testament, lashes out against the Jews—as though she had never heard racial hatred from the Führer's lips.
In his fine new book, Jeffrey Herf does not claim to show what average Germans knew or did not know. He does make it clear that during World War II the Nazis wanted their citizens to know that the extermination of the Jews was under way. To rally support for the war effort, Hitler, Goebbels, and the understudied figure Reich Press Chief Otto Dietrich coordinated efforts to present Jewry as the chief wartime enemy, one that had to be annihilated. A deluge of anti-semitic wall newspapers and posters found their way into every public space—from subway stations to kiosks to hotel lobbies. Moreover, in their speeches Goebbels and Hitler spoke directly of extermination, giving everyday Germans a clear window into their genocidal purposes. [End Page 303]
Herf's commanding knowledge of this murderous propaganda might well have led the author to consider the links between antisemitism and popular consent in Nazi Germany. But Herf is too aware of the pitfalls of making sweeping statements about the reception of propaganda. Instead, he takes a top-down approach, honing in on the construction of the Jew-as-enemy narrative and the mindset behind it. Herf demonstrates that the Holocaust, rather then being distinct from World War II, was ideologically inseparable from the war effort. In their paranoid vision, Hitler, Goebbels, and Dietrich saw an international Jewish cabal that was plotting the extermination of Germandom. For them World War II was a defensive war aimed at crushing the Jewish "plutocracy" they insisted was surreptitiously guiding American, British, and Soviet foreign policy.
The Nazi leadership made its case by weaving together existing tropes about Jewish influence into a public narrative about how "Jews"—from New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (who was in fact part Jewish), to New York state governor Herbert Lehman, to 1930s Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov—were intent on wiping out not just the German state, but the very German people. As Herf points out, Hitler was the chief narrator of this story. Throughout the war, the Führer met regularly with his confidante Dietrich to coordinate directives to the national and local press about how to publicize the "bloodthirstiness" of the Jews, and he continually referred to his January 1939 "prophecy" that the Jews would "be wiped out."
Herf presents a powerful corrective to the view that Hitler did not make his views clear and that ordinary Germans had little access to his thoughts. In doing so, the author directly challenges the notion that Nazi proclamations were shrouded in vagueness. "This was not the language of euphemism, bureaucratic avoidance, or banality," writes Herf. "It was extraordinary and blunt discourse" (p. 126).
How much of their conspiratorial rhetoric constituted cynical maneuvering, and how much did the Nazis actually believe? Herf is of the view that Hitler and Goebbels were more than conniving propagandists. He discounts "the inclination to view political statements as deceptions designed to hide real intentions, rather than as assertions in which word and meaning coincided" (p. 167). In other words, Hitler and his coterie meant what they said when they spoke of extermination, even if they did not go into detail about the death camps in occupied Poland or the killings in the occupied Soviet territories. While...