Below – the Holocaust Museum is designed to make inside space seem like outside space. You are not allowed to take pictures within the exhibits themselves.

The Holocaust Museum featured a well-done exhibit on Nazi propaganda.  I had seen many of the things in books, but I learned from walking through it. It is comforting to consign Nazis to the past, call them a discontinuity or an aberration, but that kind of thinking doesn’t help us understand.  In those days most of the world was run by some stripe of dictator.  Whether they called themselves communists, fascists, nationalists or something else, none of them believed that individuals could or should be allowed to make choices. They manipulated the masses with powerful and pervasive propaganda.  Regrettably, propaganda, braced by state coercive power, did the job.   

The old fashioned propaganda grates on our modern ears and eyes.  We have become largely immune to that presentation style.  Besides, Nazi propaganda was a vast web of deception inseparable from the coercive power of state and its time.  Posters, music and media were just the outward manifestations and today are just artifacts.  But remember the immense damage they did and take them seriously.

Nazism was based on big lies.   The one we often overlook is their claim of victimhood. Maybe the paradox of being simultaneously a victim and a perpetrator is too much for us to handle.  They claimed they were victims of Jews, the democratic great powers, plutocratic capitalists, traitorous socialists, just bad luck and the Treaty of Versailles.   

There was some truth.  The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was unjust and unworkable.  John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1919 that it would result in economic collapse. Ten years later he was right. Germany in general and Hitler in particular played on latent feelings of guilt in the allied populations. Leaders who appeased Hitler in the 1930s did so both out of fecklessness and their own lack of confidence that they were right.  Hitler covered his aggression with the cloak of the victim.  It was a subtle but effective propaganda victory. The idea that they were just “getting back” what was theirs was strong and influenced decisions until 1939.  Truly effective propaganda sets the frame so that the players are not consciously aware of the manipulation. This is a lesson we can keep.  

Germany had valid complaints about the Versailles Treaty, but it was a non-sequitur to say that only they had a right to dictate the solution.   

The exhibition ends in the present with a picture of Iranian president Ahmadinejad. It is pretty hard to figure out what that guy is trying to say … or maybe not.  Hitler was clear about his plans, but ordinary people couldn’t believe that he really meant it.  They rationalized and made excuses.  Propaganda has modernized since then, but some things don’t change too much.

Some things are just beyond understanding but we still have to try because these things didn’t end in 1945.   Exhibits like this are good for focusing thought.