Sunday, March 4, 2012

Seeing Through Political Propaganda


The other evening my wife and I watched Triumph of the Will, a film some of my history students will be watching.  This piece of Nazi propaganda depicts the 1934 Parteitag, an annual week-long festival for the National Socialists at Nuremberg.  There are a number of directions in which to take a discussion of this film.  I will point out to my students, for example, the chilling fact that the Night of the Long Knives had happened only two months before the rally, at which Hitler tried to persuade members of the SA and SS - the latter of which he used to murder the leaders of the former - that there were no disagreements within the Nazi Party.



But the film also reminded me of contemporary US politics.  No, I do not think Barack Obama is the next Hitler or that Mitt Romney is going to establish a totalitarian Mormon state.  Allow me to explain...

Triumph of the Will is, in many ways, a very appealing film.  There is some great cinematography, lots of pomp and spectacle, and thousands of nifty uniforms.  The film - and the party it idolizes - denounces class conflict and Communist revolution, instead calling for national unity and cooperation.  On a practical level, the Nazis highlight the jobs they have created and the roads they have built; on a higher plane, the Nazis utilize religious-style symbolism and Hitler calls upon a generation of young Germans to commit themselves in sacrifice for an ideal larger than themselves.

All of this, in the narrow terms I have described it, is quite good.  The problem is that the casual observer might not think further - indeed, the Nazis hoped they would not.  Because behind the pageantry and the soaring rhetoric are empty lies at best and utter wickedness at worst.

Why all the militant uniforms and talk of "victory" when Germany is not at war?  What is to become of those not deemed fully German?  Why is Hitler identified as the embodiment of both the nation and the party?  What qualities make him pre-eminently German, or who put him in charge?  And to what end is all this national effort and striving?  For what are Germans asked to sacrifice?  The more one considers the Nazis and their program, the less it makes sense.  In the end, it is nothing but the worship of Power for its own sake.

Some in Germany saw through the Nazis' propaganda, and thus Hitler was opposed by the likes of Blessed Clemens von Galen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Claus von Stauffenberg and the July 20 Conspirators, and a number of others.  Some of these men recognized the bankruptcy of the Nazi ideology early on; others only came around later.  Unfortunately most Germans lacked the intellectual insight or moral courage to perceive what was happening in their country and do something about it until it was too late.

Here in the US the stakes may not be quite so high, but the task is the same: we must see through the half-truths and the hollow rhetoric of those who would use our political support as pawns in their own games.  We must wage intellectual resistance against the political shams of our day; we must convert, ourselves first and then others.
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