Using Authentic Nazi Propaganda in Teaching the Holocaust:
We must look into the abyss
in order to see beyond it.
Robert Jay Lifton, 1986
I would also like to say that it did not at all occur to me that these orders could be unjust. It is true that I know that it is also the duty of the police to protect the innocent, but I was then of the conviction that the Jews were not innocent but guilty. I believed the propaganda that all Jews were criminals and subhumans and that they were the cause of Germany's decline after the First World War. The thought that one should disobey or evade the order to participate in the extermination of the Jews did not therefore enter my mind at all. 2
This testimony by Kurt Möbius, a former police battalion member who served in Chelmno, was quoted by Daniel J. Goldhagen at a key place in his book "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust." According to Möbius' court statement in 1961, Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda was an important factor - perhaps even the key psychological factor - in convincing the perpetrators that they were doing something "good" for German society by killing Jews. This personal evidence from an "ordinary German," as well as many other such testimonies, confirm the importance of what Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen have defined as "Genocidal Mentality" and which they have seen as a neccessary precondition for actual genocidal behaviour. 3
In his book, Goldhagen has traced the background of genocidal thinking in Germany and he has proven how many of ordinary Germans had no problems with their role as perpetrators, because their world-view during the war had developed into a profound genocidal mentality. Goldhagen lacks, however, a convincing analysis of the process of how genocidal thinking was turned into genocidal mentality in the individual perpetrator, i.e. the process of how the last psychological obstacles of human empathy were broken down and replaced by a willingness to kill. From my point of view, he seems to have underestimated perhaps the most crucial of all those different factors that though a long and complex process finally instigated the Holocaust: the role of self-enforcing propaganda in mass-media, using the techniques of modern technology to produce "reality" as "authentic proof" of anti-Semitic ideology. 4
All teaching of the Holocaust must be based on high ethical standards and must deal with the the two key questions: "How could it happen?" and "What are the historical lessons we can learn in order to prevent it from happening again?"
Our knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust is today profoundly influenced and formed by the ability of film and television to reconstruct and dramatize the history. One notable example was the American "Holocaust" TV series which had a strong impact not only in Germany when it was shown in 1978:
A more recent example of the same kind is Steven Spielberg's most remarkable film "Schindler's List" which now has been transferred to video and is widely used as a means of teaching the Holocaust to future generations both in the US and abroad. 6 Despite the indisputable quality of the film - and of the teaching material that has been published for this purpose - it can be seriously questioned whether this kind of teaching the Holocaust really is accomplishing the high goals listed above. The film creates strong emotions through its realistic descriptions of the atrocities commited by the German SS and it makes the viewer understand, that it was possible for human beings to act so inhumane to fellow human beings. "Schindler's List" is for a teacher perhaps the most suitable tool to convince his students that the Holocaust did happen - and it can used as an effective warning to young people that it must not happen again.
However, the film only describes the Holocaust from the point of view of the victims, not from the perspective of the perpetrators. It gives no explanation of why and how the perpetrators behaved the way they did, and there is no indication of an answer to the crucial question of what made the Holocaust possible - the message of the film "only" being an appeal to the audience to act like Schindler and help people who are persecuted. From a ethical point of view this is undoubtedly an important aspect, because it counteracts the deniers of the Holocaust, but it is definitely not enough. Teaching of the Holocaust must create an awareness of all those features and attitudes in today's society which might be the beginning of a development that could end up as persecution or even genocidal killing. Or to put it in another way: "Schindler's List" must be supplemented by material which demonstrates the way the genocidal mentality was induced into the perpetrators.
One of the ways this could be done would be to show authentic Nazi film propaganda. Both Hitler and Goebbels considered the film medium to be the most important tool to influence the minds of the German people. 7 Leni Riefenstahl's famous documentary "Triumph des Willens" on the Nuremberg Rallies in 1934 was certainly instrumental in creating the "Führer-Myth," 8 and another "documentary," "Der ewige Jude" (1940), was produced in order to "reveal" the "truth" of the Jews. 9 It contained the whole "legitimization" for their annihilation.
A source-critical shot-to-shot analysis of the film demonstrates that "Der ewige Jude" is probably the most manipulated film ever made. 10 Apart from being a shocking example of Nazi paranoia toward the Jews, it is also one of the best illustrations of how distorted "reality" can be used as a means of creating hate and genocidal mentality, because we are able to document the way it was done down to the tiniest detail. As outlined below, there are even strong reasons to believe that it was this ability of the audio-visual media to "(re)produce reality" that brought the decision-makers (Goebbels and Hitler) themselves across what Lifton once called "the Threshold of Genocide" 11 - and that the release of the film can be seen as the promulgation of Hitler's decision to launch the Holocaust. 12
"Der ewige Jude" contains 70 minutes of vicious anti-Semitic propaganda of the worst kind, and it is still an emotional and intellectual challenge to those who see it: How would you have reacted, if you had seen the film in 1940?
Although "Der ewige Jude" was produced almost sixty years ago, the German government still considers it to be so dangerous that it is forbidden to show it in public - with one exemption: University teachers are allowed to use it as part of their teaching. By special permission it can also be shown in seminars dealing with "politische Bildung" (education in politics), if the responsible teacher can prove that he has specific expertise in media criticism and the history of the Holocaust. 13 Nevertheless, many video copies of "Der ewige Jude" are in circulation among neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups all over the world, to whom it is a "cult film." 14 A copy with an American voice-over can be obtained by anyone from the firm International Historic Films in Chicago, and all efforts by the German government to stop this distribution have failed, because legally it is considered to be in accordance with the First Amendment. 15
From these facts arise at least two important questions:
Before a discussion of these two questions in detail it is, however, necessary to present the history of the film, as it is rather unknown even to most scholars of the Holocaust.
The production history of "Der ewige Jude"
On November 10th, 1938, the Führer made an important speech to the German press. 16 Although he made no direct reference either to the Reichskristallnacht itself or to Jews in general, the whole speech can be regarded as his comments upon the lack of support for the pogrom he was getting from the German public. Hitler rebuked the propaganda makers for not having understood his strategy - aiming at war - and he made it unmistakably clear to his audience what exactly he expected them to do in the future:
The rebuke was certainly understood by Joseph Goebbels, who for the first time decided to use the film medium as a tool for inducing anti-Semitism into the German people. 18 Being responsible for Nazi film production he had, however, earlier preferred other topics (including easy entertainment and more "positive" presentations of Nazi world view) 19, but immediately after Hitler's speech he called upon the production companies to present scripts for anti-Semitic feature films. 20 His wish for a "documentary" could only be fulfilled after the Campaign in Poland in September 1939, because he lacked footage of Jews actually looking like the Nazi stereotype of the Jew, of services in the synagogue and of ritual slaughtering. 21
From his diary as well as other sources we can follow the production
There are strong reasons to believe that the film and its production history should be characterized as a mirror of the decision-making process to launch the Holocaust itself, because the final version of the film can only be interpreted as a deliberate call for annihilation, through its juxtapositioning of ritual slaughtering - staged as cruelty to animals - and Hitler's notorious prophecy of January 30, 1939. 23
In order to create the strongest effect on the public as possible Joseph Goebbels had ordered ritual Jewish slaughtering to be filmed in the Lodz ghetto, and when he saw the rushes of these scenes on October 16, 1939, he wrote in his diary:
He showed the scenes at Hitler's dinner table on October 28, 1939, and those present "were all deeply shocked." 25 Two days later, Goebbels himself went to the ghetto of Lodz - and commented on his impressions in his diary:
Goebbels pursued this idea of a genocidal solution during the whole production of a film which can only be seen as his personal advocacy for prevailing on Hitler himself to draw the "natural" consequence of his own - exterminist, yet still theoretical - ideology. 27 The film was recut, rephrased and tested several times in accordance with Hitler's wishes before the Führer finally approved the film for public screening, probably on May 20, 1940. 28
However, "Der ewige Jude" was not released immediately because it awaited the final cut of the feature film "Jud Süß" which was another part of Goebbels' propaganda package. It should arouse those anti-Semitic feelings that were to be "proven" by the "authentic film-document," "Der ewige Jude." 29 While "Jud Süß" had its opening night with great publicity during the Venice film festival on September 6, 1940, "Der ewige Jude" was shown to the top people in the Third Reich on September 8 as the demonstration of the new kind of war propaganda that should prepare the German audience for the continuation of the war. 30 Now, nobody could be ignorant about the fact that the war was not just a "normal" war. It was a war on "Weltanschauungen," based on racism. Members of the attendant audience, however, protested heavily against showing the slaughtering scenes outside party meetings, and Goebbels had to produce a milder version - without these scenes - for women and children. 31
"Der ewige Jude" finally had its opening night on November 28, 1940, where its director - Fritz Hippler - stressed that the film was the proof of the correctness of Hitler's prophecy from 1939. In an interview, broadcasted all over Germany, Hippler concluded by quoting
It can thus be argued that "Der ewige Jude" could be Hitler's public statement of what was to be the next step in his war against the Jews - using the emotional power of modern reality-like mass media to transfer his decision into the minds of the perpetrators and bystanders. Just as the Führer in his rebuke to the propaganda makers on November 10, 1938 had outlined, the German people were themselves to take the decision to kill European Jewry systematically - out of the conviction: "What one cannot solve with fair means, one has to solve with violence, because it cannot go on like this." 34
Testimonies like the one by Kurt Möbius quoted above are indeed horrifying proofs of how successful this strategy was.
"Der ewige Jude" as a means of teaching the Holocaust?
From a narrow, purely historical point-of-view there can be little doubt that on an university level "Der ewige Jude" must be considered to be an important tool in teaching both Nazism and the Holocaust. No other single historical source is so elucidating about Nazi ideology and world view as "Der ewige Jude." From more than twenty years of teaching experience I can certify that all major features of the mentality of the Third Reich can easily be demonstrated through an analysis of this film by students at high school or university level. It is also my experience from many such seminars in both Denmark and Germany that the viewing of the film suddenly turns the distant historical ideology of Nazism into a both attentive and relevant question for young people of today. For a period of seventy minutes they are set more than fifty years back in history and feel as if personally involved what it was like to live in the Third Reich - or to be its unfortunate neighbours or scapegoats.
A project was launched in 1970 at the Institute of History at the University of Copenhagen, originally as a purely methodological attempt to establish principles for source-critical editions of important film documents. 35 One of the films selected was "Der ewige Jude." As it, however, soon became clear that the film contained excellent educational examples of all kinds of propaganda techniques within the audio-visual media, the project got a supplementary perspective apart from the methodological one: We wanted to find out whether the film - or part of it - could be used to teach mass-media criticism outside the university, particularly in high-schools. First of all we had to find out what effects it had on young people of the present day. In our own opinion the film was both blunt and grotesque and had just the opposite effect of the one originally intended, because of our knowledge of the Holocaust, but we had to support our notion through empirical research as we, of course, in no way wanted to arouse any kind of anti-Semitism.
Between 1973 and 1975 we tested "Der ewige Jude" on a sample of 1200 Danish high-school students in the age between 16 and 19, by means of a questionnaire consisting of 25 questions, and prepared according to the best sociological standards at the time. We had hidden some "traps" in order to control the honesty of the answers which were filled out anonymously. The result of the survey was both clear and encouraging to us. Only one single person expressed that he had changed his opinion of Jews in a negative direction - and from an analysis of his other answers we could conclude that he already was a latent anti-Semite before viewing the film.
From this survey we could conclude beyond any doubt that the fear that we and other experts had had of unintentionally creating anti-Semitism among Danish high-school students was unfounded. That was
Most of all, however, we were surprised by the ability of the youth to be critical in relation to what they saw. Because they had grown up with television contrary to most members of the project group they handled the information from the film in much more balanced way than we had ever expected. They were also able to express their impressions and points of view on a very differentiated level. From a democratic point of view it was most comforting to us that we had underestimated their ability to associate to more general thinking and to draw their individual conclusions.
One of the questions asked was whether the topic of the film was still of current interest and in case the answer was "yes," the student should argue why. We thought that the students would refer either to persecutions of Jews in the Soviet Union and Poland or to the (then) recent Yom Kippur War. About 60 percent answered the question in the affirmative, but only half of these pointed to matters related to Jews. The rest referred to racism in general - including the Danish attitude to Turkish and Yugoslav workers in Denmark - or to the necessity of being critical to mass media.
Although our experiences thus were encouragingly positive, the project of making the film - or part of it - available to Danish high-school teachers stopped for a number of reasons. One of them was that the group members got their degrees and left university. Another was that, in the late 1970s, German authorities tightened the rules for lending copies of the film from the Federal Archives in Koblenz.
The difficulty with accessability was (and still is) - together with the lack of tradition among historians of using films as historical sources - the reason why the film was (and still is) almost unknown to both scholars and students of the Holocaust. In 1972 the project group therefore contacted the Institute for the Scientific Film in Goettingen - an institution owned by the German federal states which reprints film sources for research and educational purposes at the German universities.
A survey carried out in the following year showed that 60 out of 63 professors of modern history supported such a reprint and the institute obtained the rights for university use from Transit-Film in Munich which controls the rights of Nazi film production on behalf of the German Government. In return the institute had to publish a written commentary to the film in order to refute the manipulations in the film. For many years there only existed a preliminary text, until the final source-critical edition was published by me for the institute in 1995. 36
In 1979 the German Association of History Teachers held a large conference in Berlin in order to discuss how they could deal with the effects of the American TV-series "Holocaust" which had aroused an enormous debate in the West German public. We presented our
The next initiative concerning the educational use came in the mid-1980s from the University of Cologne, where two German psychologists, Dr. Yizhak Ahren and Dr. Christoph B. Melchers, studied the effects of anti-Semitic propaganda films on ordinary Germans today with the help of in-depth psychological interviews. First they analysed the impact of the feature film "Jew Süß" 38 and then of "Der ewige Jude." 39 In their concluding reflections they underlined the fact that any film experience can be seen as a dialogue between the film and the viewer, where the viewer is bombarded with statements which he principally can accept as trustworthy or reject as untrustworthy. They summarized their empirical findings as follows:
To Ahren and Melchers there is a striking similarity between modern information through mass media and commercials on one hand and open propaganda on the other, and they explicitly argued that the only way to fight such propaganda is to make it a specific topic in education. Therefore they strongly advocated the use of "Der ewige Jude" in history teaching as well as in special courses on politics:
The book by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has once more lit a fierce public discussion on the reasons behind the Jewish genocide - and once more made the question of the guilt of "ordinary Germans" a matter of
This eagerness of the German public - especially young people - to know and to accept the obligations of history is the main reasoning behind a forthcoming conference organized by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung and the Association of History Teachers in Germany to discuss the possibilities of using "Der ewige Jude" as a didactic tool. A lot of test-screenings, accompanied by half an hour of introduction, and always followed by at least one hour of discussion, have been carried out in the past years in both the former West and East Germany. At the beginning of such a screening the audience was told that it was about to see a forbidden film and the participants were asked to vote after the discussion whether the ban of the film should be lifted or not.
The result was the same both in the former West Germany and in the former East Germany, although there seems to be a clear difference between the need to discuss in the two parts of the reunited Federal Republic - the need being much bigger in the former GDR. A clear majority had voted in favour after the viewing and the following discussion, but then the same thing happened again and again: Members of the audience began during the voting to protest against the way I had deliberately phrased my question for the referendum. After a new discussion it was rephrased and obtained the votes of almost the whole audience. They were not willing to accept a general release of the film, but they did support the use of the film for educational use, i.e. in the way they had just experienced it themselves. Some of them even claimed that they had learned more about the Holocaust from the film experience and the subsequent discussion than ever before. Others explained that they now understood why it could happen in Germany.
Why did it happen in Germany? is one of the key questions in Goldhagen's book. He has shown that there did exist an exterministic attitude among those ordinary Germans that participated as perpetrators and he has demonstrated the cultural roots of this anti-Semitism. Yet - as many critics have pointed out - he has not dealt sufficiently with crucial questions like
Or to put it in other words: Goldhagen never really showed why and how the annihilation of the Jews was made into firm belief to perpetrators like Kurt Möbius.
It is exactly these psychological and socio-psychological factors that are made topical by "Der ewige Jude." The viewing of this film demonstrates in a horrifying way, how cultural stereotypes suddenly can evolve into paranoid reasons for killing other people. As revealed by the test-screening and the research by Ahren and Melchers, one of the reasons for its strong impact today is that it is "the real thing" - it is an authentic historical document, made by the Nazi themselves and intended for public use. Another reason is that it still is an emotional and intellectual challenge to the individual seeing it - to make up his mind regarding Nazism and anti-Semitism.
Should we still be afraid of Hitler's public call for annihilation of the Jews?
I strongly believe the answer is no. Viewing the film produces a ominous warning about what can happen when "produced" reality in a reality-like medium is conceived as the reality itself. In this respect, "Der ewige Jude" has become the ancestor of audio-visual propaganda on TV which - like it happened in former Yugoslavia - has instigated and legitimized genocidal killing in our time. 44 Through a comparison with such examples an analysis of the film - with the hindsight of what were the dreadful consequences of this piece of "produced reality" - we can help to disclose those psychological patterns of genocidal mentality which should be the ultimate aim of teaching about the Holocaust.
Notes and references
1. I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Gerald Fleming, London, for his encouraging and challenging criticism during the preparation of this paper.
2. Quoted from Daniel Jonah Goldhagen: Hitler's Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York 1996, p. 179.
3. Robert Jay Lifton/Eric Markusen: The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat. New York 1986.
4. This process is described in detail in my Danish book: Foerermyten. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels og historien bag et folkemord. Copenhagen 1996, 424 pages (The Führer-Myth. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and the History behind a Genocide). Basic thinking and preliminary results are also presented in two articles in German: Stig Hornshøj-Møller: "Die Entscheidung. Der antisemitische Propagandafilm 'Der ewige Jude' und seine Bedeutung für den Holocaust." In: Gerhard Maletzke/Ruediger Steinmetz (ed.): Zeiten und Medien - Medienzeiten. Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Karl Friedrich Reimers. Leipzig 1995, p. 142-63. - Stig Hornshøj-Møller: "'Der ewige Jude' (1940) - Legitimation und Ausloeser eines Voelkermordes." In: Karl Friedrich Reimers (ed.): Unser Jahrhundert im Film und Fernsehen. München 1995, p. 59-97.
5. Josef Joffe: "Goldhagen in Germany." The New York Review, November 28, 1996, p. 18-21. - Cf. also Friedrich Knilli/Siegfried Zielinski (ed.): Holocaust zur Unterhaltung. Anatomie eines internationalen Bestsellers. Berlin 1982. - Friedrich Knilli/Siegfried Zielinski (ed.): Betrifft 'Holocaust'. Zuschauer schreiben an den WDR. Berlin 1983.
6. Facing History and Ourselves. A Guide to the Film Schindler's List. Brookline, Massachusetts 1994.
7. David Welch: Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933-1945. Oxford 1983. - Hilmar Hoffmann: "'... und zähle nicht die Toten!'. Die Funktion von Film und Kino im Dritten Reich." In: Hillmar Hoffmann/Heinrich Klotz (ed.): Die Kultur unseres Jahrhunderts. Bd. 3. 1933-1945. Düsseldorf 1991, p. 151-83.
8. Martin Loiperdinger: Rituale der Mobilmachung. Der Parteitagsfilm 'Triumph des Willens' von Leni Riefenstahl. Opladen 1987. - Martin Loiperdinger/Rudolf Herz/Ulrich Pohlmann (ed.): Führerbilder. München 1995.
11. Robert Jay Lifton: The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York 1986.
13. Oral information from the executive of Transit-Film, Munich, Karl Woerner (now retired).
14. Rebecca Lieb: "Nazi hate movies continue to ignite fierce passions." New York Times, August 4, 1991. - Michael Schmidt: Heute gehoert uns die Strasse. Der Insider-Report aus der Neonazi-Szene. Düsseldorf 1994, p. 47-52. - Stig Hornshøj-Møller: "Kultfilm der Neonazis. 'Der ewige Jude' verbreitet immer noch 24 Lügen pro Sekunde." medium 3/1994, p. 31-33.
16. Wilhelm Treue: "Rede Hitlers vor der deutschen Presse (10. November 1938). Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 6 (1958), p. 175-88.
17. As the Jews from Hitler's point of view were not part of the German people, the Jewish Question consequently was a matter of foreign policy.
18. Ralf Georg Reuth: Goebbels. München 1990, p. 399-400.
20. Dorothea Hollstein: Jud Süß und die Deutschen. Frankfurt/Main 1983. - Régine Mihail Friedmann: L'image et son juif. Paris 1983.
22. Ralf Georg Reuth: "Glaube und Judenhass als Konstanten im Leben des Joseph Goebbels." In: Ralf Georg Reuth (ed.): Joseph Goebbels Tagebücher 1924-1945. München 1992, vol. 1, 20-46. - Cf. also Elke Froehlich (ed.): Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels. Sämtliche Fragmente. Bd. 1-4. München 1987.
27. According to Felix Kersten, Heinrich Himmler explicitly blamed Goebbels as the man who made Hitler take the final decision to launch the Holocaust. Heinz Hoehne: Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf. Die Geschichte der SS. München 1967, p. 298.
28. Fritz Hippler - executive director of the film - in 1992 told the BBC in a TV-interview, that
And the correctness of this testimony is corroborated in details by the source-critical analysis of the production history of the film. - For the reasons to date Hitler's final approval of the film, cf. the literature listed in note 4.
29. Cf. note 4 and 9. - According to the rolling titles at the beginning of the film "Der ewige Jude" was a "documentary film" which - "shows us Jews the way they really are, before they conceal themselves behind the mask of the civilized European." It used the slaughter scenes as the emotional climax, claiming that the reason for showing this "original footage," which belonged to the "most dreadful" ever recorded by a camera, was justified by one argument: By means of seeing for themselves the German people would at last "comprehend the truth of Jewry." And according to the commentary - read by the authoritative speaker of the Newsreels - "these pictures prove the cruelty of this form of slaughter. It reveals the character of a race which conceals its brutality beneath the cloak of pious religious practices."
"Der ewige Jude" contained nothing new, but was virtually a filmed "black book" filled with examples from many years of anti-Semitic traditions. As part of the propaganda set-up - and as with all feature films of the day - one could purchase an illustrated program, the Illustrierte Film-Kurier, with a summary of the contents of the film which is reprinted here in order to give an impression of this, the hate-film of all time:
31. Willi A. Boelcke (ed.): Kriegspropaganda 1939-1941. Geheime Ministerkonferenzen im Reichspropagandaministerium. Stuttgart 1966, p. 503 and 518.
33. C.C. Aronsfeld: "'Perish Judah'. Nazi Extermination Propaganda 1920-1945." Pattern of Prejudice 12, 5 (1978), p. 22-23.
35. The project was initiated by Professor Niels Skyum-Nielsen who worked out a source-critical methodology for using films in historical research. His Assistent Professor Karsten Fledelius was responsible for the survey, testing the effects of using the film for teaching the Holocaust and media critics.
36. Survey in the archives of the Institute for the Scientific Film, Nonnenstieg 72, D-37075 Goettingen, Germany. TEL.: +49-551-50240 - FAX: +49-551-5024400.
37. Karsten Fledelius, Stig Hornshøj-Møller: "Nationalsozialistische Antisemitismus-Propaganda: Filmbeispiel 'Der ewige Jude.'" Tagung der Koferenz für Geschichtsdidaktik, Berlin, September 24-27, 1979 (unpublished).
38. Christoph B. Melchers: Untersuchungen zur Wirkungspsychologie nationalsozialistischer Propagandafilme. Köln 1977.
39. Yizhak Ahren, Stig Hornshøj-Møller, Christoph B. Melchers: "Der ewige Jude" oder wie Goebbels hetzte: eine Untersuchung zum nationalsozialistischen Propagandafilm. Aachen 1990.
44. During the summer of 1992 I closely followed Serbian and Croate Television live on Cable-TV. My experiences from viewing these programs as well as the whole mix of programs finally made me realize the importance of "Der ewige Jude" as a crucial factor for instigating the Holocaust.
Last modified: September 5, 1998