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Goebbels on propaganda: learning from those we detest


One cannot examine propaganda without consulting one of its masters, Joseph Goebbels, even though the field rose in the US "with Walter Lippman, journalist, and Edward Bernays, psychologist, who proceeded to create intense anti-German sentiment in favor of joining the British in WW I." (See "Congregation for Propagating the Faith" to agitprop to oppo research; four centuries of manipulating public opinion, foreign and domestic.)

Speaking of Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information (CPI) "which at its peak employed 150,000 people" with the goal of creating a ""war will" among an ethnically diverse American population," Hitler noted in Mein Kampf that:

"the war propaganda of the English and Americans was psychologically correct. After four and one-half years a revolution broke out in Germany, slogans for which came from the enemy's propaganda."

Both Hitler and Goebbels took notice of Bernays' group mind and engineering consent and the potential of mass-scale propaganda to control public opinion, while Goebbels became one of its most masterful disseminators. Exchange National Socialism for your "ism" of choice, along with a few nouns, and Goebbels still speaks to us today. But it is important to understand both how propaganda speaks to us and how we listen to it. The German Propaganda Archive defines propaganda as the "systematic attempt to persuade a public to accept the views of its leaders," or more simply, "moving the masses, but is careful to note Jacques Ellul's observation that 'that modern society is such as to render propaganda almost necessary':

[In] order for propaganda to be so far-ranging, it must correspond to a need [in this case] the State and the authorities. [propaganda is not] an active power vs. passive masses... For propaganda to succeed, it must correspond to a need for propaganda on the individual's part... ; one cannot reach through propaganda those who do not need what it offers. The propagandee is by no means just an innocent victim. He provides the psychological action of propaganda, and not merely leads himself to it, but even derives satisfaction from it. Without this previous, implicit consent, without this need for propaganda experienced by practically every citizen of the technological age, propaganda could not spread... [There] is a citizen who craves propaganda from the bottom of his being and a propagandist who responds to this craving. Propagandists would not exist without potential propagandees to begin with. To understand that propaganda is not just a deliberate and more or less arbitrary creation by some people in power is therefore essential. It is a strictly sociological phenomenon, in the sense that it has its roots and reasons in the need of the group that will sustain it.

Propaganda is a cooperative, comissive process.

Early on, Goebbels understood this bi-directional nature of propaganda. A 1928 speech, Knowledge and Propaganda, delivered as training to party cadres, was one of Goebbels most detailed discussions of propaganda. A powerful discourse, I quote from it here as it is context for our subsequent discussions of propaganda usage within the US and in Iraq. Keep in mind that we can learn much from those that we detest, and to exchange National Socialism for your "ism" of choice:
There is really little point to discussing propaganda. It is a matter of practice, not of theory. One cannot determine theoretically whether one propaganda is better than another. Rather, that propaganda is good that has the desired results, and that propaganda is bad that does not lead to the desired results. It does not matter how clever it is, for the task of propaganda is not to be clever, its task is to lead to success. I therefore avoid theoretical discussions about propaganda, for there is no point to it. Propaganda shows that it is good if over a certain period it can win over and fire up people for an idea. If it fails to do so, it is bad propaganda. If propaganda wins the people it wanted to win, it was presumably good, and if not, it was presumably bad. No one can say that your propaganda is too crude or low or brutal, or that it is not decent enough, for those are not the relevant criteria. Its purpose is not to be decent, or gentle, or weak, or modest; it is to be successful. That is why I have intentionally chosen to discuss propaganda along with a second theme, knowledge. Otherwise, our discussion this evening would be of little value. We have not gathered to discuss lovely theories, but rather to find ways of practically working together to deal with our everyday challenges.
Goebbels proceeds to discuss propaganda and its role in political life:
[We] can do that only when we begin with the origin of propaganda itself, namely the idea, then move to the target of propaganda, namely people.
Ideas in themselves are timeless. They are not tied to individuals, much less to a people. They rest in a people, it is true, and affect their attitudes. Ideas, people say, are in the clouds. When someone comes along who can put in words what everyone feels in their hearts, each feels: "Yes! That is what I have always wanted and hoped for." That is what happens the first time one hears one of Hitler's major speeches%u2026
History proves that the greatest world movements have always developed when their leaders knew how to unify their followers under a short, clear theme. [Speaking of Christianity] Christ's goal was clear and simple%u2026 Because this teaching was simple, crisp, clear, and understandable, enabling the broad masses to stand behind it, it in the end conquered the world.
One then builds a whole system of thought on such a brief, crisply formulated idea. The idea does not remain limited to this single statement, rather it is applied to every aspect of daily life and becomes the guide for all human activity %u2014 politics, culture, the economy, every area of human behavior. It becomes a worldview%u2026
I am a National Socialist when I see everything in politics, culture or the economy from this standpoint. I therefore do not evaluate the theater from the standpoint of whether it is elegant or amusing, rather I ask: Is it good for my people, is it useful for them, does it strengthen the community? If so, the community in turn can benefit, support and strengthen me. I do not see the economy as some sort of way of making money, rather I want an economy that will strengthen the people, make them healthy and powerful. Then too I can expect that this people will support and maintain me. If I see things in this way, I see the economy in National Socialist terms. If I develop this crisp, clear idea into a system of thought that includes all human drives, wishes and actions, I have a worldview.
As an idea develops into a worldview, the goal is the state. The knowledge does not remain the property of a certain group, but fights for power. It is not just the fantasy of a few people among the people, rather it becomes the idea of the rulers, the circles that have power. The view does not only preach, but it is carried out in practice. Then the idea becomes the worldview of the state. The worldview has become a government organism when it seizes power and can influence life not only in theory, but in practical everyday life%u2026
Each movement begins as a party. That does not mean it has to follow the methods of parliamentary parties. We see a party as a part of the people. As an idea spreads, becoming a worldview that spreads to the community, the community will want to give the idea practical form. The party will feel the necessity to organize%u2026 Gradually, a strong organism develops, a party ready to fight for its ideals. A party that does not want that will indeed continue to preach its ideals, but will never bring them into reality%u2026
The state needs a worldview. Christianity also conquered the state, and in the moment that it conquered the state it began to carry out practical political activity. You can with justice claim: "Yes, but at the moment Christianity took over the state, it began to cease being Christian." That is the tragedy of all great ideas. At the moment they enter the realm of this life of sin, of the all-too-human, they leave the heavens and lose their romantic magic. They become something normal. We are not discussing whether or not one can change the nature of life%u2026
You can see that a movement needs an organization if it is to conquer the state %u2014 and it must conquer the state if it wants to do something of positive and historic significance%u2026
If a movement has the strength to take over government positions of power, then it has the right to form the government as it wishes. Anyone who disagrees is a foolish theoretician. Politics is governed not by moral principles, but by power. If a movement conquers the state, it has the right to form the state. You can see how these three elements combine ideals and personalities. The idea leads to a worldview, the worldview to the state, the individual becomes a party, the party becomes the nation.
The important thing is not to find people who agree with me about every theoretical jot and tittle, but rather that I find people who are willing to fight with me for a worldview. Winning people over to something that I have recognized as right, that is what we call propaganda. At first there is knowledge; it uses propaganda to find the manpower that will transform knowledge into politics. Propaganda stands between the idea and the worldview, between the worldview and the state, between the individual and the party, between the party and the nation%u2026 Propaganda stands between the one and the many, between the idea and the worldview. Propaganda is nothing other than the forerunner to organization. Once it has done this, it is the forerunner to state control. It is always a means to an end.
Although I must hold unshakably and unalterably to the idea, propaganda adjusts itself to the prevailing conditions. Propaganda is always flexible. It says different things here than it does there. It cannot be polished, laminated and stuffed; rather it must occupy the space between the one and the many. I talk differently on the streetcar with the conductor than I do with a businessman. If I did not, the businessman would think I was crazy and the streetcar conductor would not understand me. That means propaganda cannot be limited. It changes according to whom I am trying to reach%u2026
[There] is no ABC of propaganda. One can make propaganda, or one cannot. Propaganda is an art%u2026 One is either a propagandist, or one is not. It is wrong to look down on a propagandist. There are people who say a propagandist is merely a good drummer. This displays a certain envy and lack of ability. They are mostly mediocre philosophers whom the masses ignore%u2026 It is foolish to look down on propagandists. The propagandist has a certain role within the party%u2026 You can see how propaganda relates to the worldview and to the organization. After we have finished the hard work of moving the idea and the worldview from the individuals to the masses, propaganda has the task of taking the knowledge of the mass and enabling it to take over the state%u2026
Propaganda is absolutely necessary, even if it is only a means to an end. Otherwise, the idea could never take over the state. I must be able to get what I think important across to many people. The task of a gifted propagandist is to take that which many have thought and put it in a way that reaches everyone from the educated to the common man%u2026 I can recall a Hitler speech in Jena. Half the audience were Marxists, half students and university professors [yet] the university professor and the average man had understood what Hitler said. That is the greatness of our movement, that it can use language to reach the broad masses%u2026
Goebbels turns to the mechanics, the "essential characteristics of propaganda" that still rings clear today (practitioners are recommended to the full text), then concludes:
The task of the leaders and followers is to drive this knowledge ever deeper into the hearts of our shattered nation. Each must make that clear, each must think things through. Everything we do must be clear. We will never give up. If everything is clear, one does not have to be an outstanding speaker. If he can say it all in a few words, he is a propagandist. If we have an army of such propagandists, from the littlest to the Fuhrer himself, and if each spreads our crystal-clear knowledge to the masses, the day will come which our worldview takes over the state, when our organization seizes the reins of power, when we are no longer members of a slave colony, but citizens of a political state that we ourselves have formed.
The United States Information Agency (USIA) was established in 1953 by Dwight Eisenhower as an independent foreign affairs agency within the US executive branch, tasked with explaining US foreign policy and national interests. It was effectively over in 1999.
The Anti-Propaganda Tradition in the United States
John Brown
Bulletin Board for Peace
29 June 2003
Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes
Jacques Ellul
Trans. Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner. New York: Knopf, 1965; Random House/ Vintage 1973
ISBN 0394718747
Substantial excerpts
Knowledge and Propaganda
by Joseph Goebbels
Translated by Randall Bytwerk, et al
"Erkenntnis und Propaganda," Signale der neuen Zeit. 25 ausgewuhlte Reden von Dr. Joseph Goebbels (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP., 1934), pp. 28-52.
Gordon Housworth

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