Controlling Thought:

War Propaganda in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America






(For grading purposes:  I am a SENIOR.)



Sierra Martinez

Professor Bruce Lusignan

June 6, 2003

EDGE Final Paper


            The parallels between the propaganda tactics of contemporary America and Nazi Germany are too obvious to go undocumented.  For the purposes of this paper, “propaganda” will be understood as any attempt of a government to control and/or change the attitudes of its citizens.  From this liberal definition, I will analyze the relationship between Nazi Germany and contemporary America with respect to various methods of propagating government interests.  As suggested by Hermann Goering, Minister of Economics and Commander-in-chief of the air force of Nazi Germany, the successful propaganda techniques will be compared with respect to denunciation of the peacemakers, glorification of patriotism, and instillation of fear.  Also, deemphasizing the significance of the international community, glorifying military might, creating detention centers for the blamed, and devaluing the loss of life will be explained through the lens of propaganda.  All of these methods were successful in gaining wide-spread public support for aggressive military action in Nazi Germany and are successful also in contemporary America.  There is a formula for effective war propaganda.  Both the Nazi party and the Bush administration used and do use the same, successful, war propaganda techniques.

            Hitler did not start out as a successful propagandist.  He admits to his early failures of effectively publicizing Nazi ideals in a favorable light.  However, he did notice the advantages of successful propaganda early on.  “Ever since I have been scrutinizing political events, I have taken a tremendous interest in propagandist activity.”[1]  After learning about political influence, he could not help but realize the power of propaganda.  “[I]t was not until the War that it became evident what immense results could be obtained by a correct application of propaganda.”[2]  The efficacy of propaganda in garnering support for war was such a founding principle in Hitler’s philosophy that he dedicated an entire chapter to it, entitled “War Propaganda”.  Nazi Germany, under the instruction of Hitler, refined and strengthened its war propaganda.

            While war propaganda has the potential to be successful, it requires the appropriate conditions.  Under stable conditions, or when a country is happy, war propaganda is ineffective.  The operative word is “correct” in Hitler’s quoted phrase, “the correct application of propaganda”.  Propaganda is not inherently successful but can be if applied “correctly”.  Of what exactly this correct application consists is answered in by Hermann Goering in conversation with his psychologist, Gustave Gilbert.

[GG] We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

[HG]"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

[GG] "There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

[HG] "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."[3]

In this critical passage, Goering outlines the necessary elements for amassing support for war from the citizens of a country.  While only two requirements are explicitly stated, there are three implied in the quote.  First, the public must be convinced that they are being attacked.  Second, the pacifists must be denounced.  And third, patriotism must be proposed as the only security measure.  I borrow these first three criteria for successful dissemination of propaganda from Goering.  We can see that all three of these criteria were met in both Nazi Germany and contemporary America.  In addition, and in relation to these three requirements, I propose that there are four more elements that make for successful war propaganda.

            In addition to the “Goering Three”, deemphasizing the significance of the international community, glorifying military might, creating detention centers for the blamed, and devaluing the loss of life are all key ingredients in the recipe for domestic war support.  Let it be noted that these are not necessary conditions, but sufficient.  At least, some subset of the given conditions is sufficient for successful war propaganda.  War support can be garnered without contrived propaganda, and without satisfying all of these conditions.  For example, America joined the WWII with international support, thus failing to satisfy the above criteria of disregarding the will of the international community.  However, the point is that these criteria, or some subset thereof, are sufficient conditions for successful war propaganda.  Let us analyze the these seven criteria in both Nazi Germany and contemporary America.

            In assessing the role of the first condition, telling the public that they are being attacked, we should be aware that Goering did not say “the country must be attacked”.  Goering explicitly ordered that the public be told that they are being attacked.  Furthermore, we can note that Goering did not use the past tense of “attack“.  It is not enough to inform the public that they were attacked.  The propagandist needs to convince the people that they are being attacked.  With those considerations in mind, let us observe the Bush administration’s response to having been attacked almost two years ago.

            The Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) consists of multiple color coded states of terrorist risk.  There are five states ranging from severe (red), high (orange), elevated (yellow), guarded (blue) to low (green).  The purpose of the HSAS, according to the White House homepage, is “to provide a comprehensive and effective means to disseminate information regarding the risk of terrorist acts to Federal, State, and local authorities and to the American people”[4].   Thus, we have a system that informs citizens of the current terror threat level.

            Unfortunately, the color-coded system offers no indication as to which general region of the country is being placed under heightened or lowered terrorist risk.  This system also fails to provide information about general industries that are being targeted.  Furthermore, the level of terrorist threat does not provide recommendations for specific actions to be taken or avoided.  Devoid of any specific information, one cannot help but wonder what the purpose of this advisory system is.  If the purpose of the color-coded levels is to avoid terrorism, then we are entitled to a few questions. 

            First, what kind of terrorist act would be stopped by ordinary citizens?  If the supposed attacker were a suicide terrorist, an ordinary citizen probably would not be able to stop such a terrorist.  If the terrorist intended to hijack a plane, an ordinary citizen could try to intervene, but most likely, (and as seen from the results of 9/11), would not be able to prevent the terrorist act.  These are a couple scenarios in which commonly-used terrorist techniques would not be stoppable by the common American.  The fact that an ordinary person probably could not stop a terrorist warrants an inquiry into the motivation behind instantiating the Homeland Security Advisory System. 

            Second, it is the job of our Federal Bureau of Investigation, Counter Intelligence Agency, and other security agencies to prevent terrorist attacks.  There are specialized organizations built into our government whose purposes are to protect this country.  It does not seem appropriate to delegate the work, normally accomplished by officers and professionals, to normal citizen.  Ordinary people have their own jobs to attend and fulfill.  In fact, this country and its economy depend on normal Americans doing their respective jobs.  Asking common people to adopt the responsibilities for which they have no training is not only naïve, but inefficient and possibly detrimental to the productivity of important industries. 

            Third, even if an ordinary citizen could stop the supposed terrorist act, what new information does the Homeland Security Advisory System provide?  There does not seem to be any reason that elevating the terrorist threat level will give ordinary people the information they need to prevent terrorist acts.  We should not be blind to the impracticality of the logic behind this system.  If I am walking down the street and I see a stranger, does knowing that the current terrorist threat is orange instead of yellow help me identify that person as a terrorist?  Either I have evidence that the unknown person is a terrorist or I do not.  If I have evidence that the stranger is a terrorist, (like a protruding bomb, gun, or terrorist I.D. card), then I have reason to suspect that the person is a terrorist.  If I do not have evidence that the stranger is a terrorist, then I do not have reason to suspect s/he is a terrorist.  Whether or not it is a “yellow” day, or an “orange” day is irrelevant.  What matters in identifying a terrorist is terrorist evidence, not the color of the day.  The dilemma with respect to terrorist evidence is exhaustive and leaves no room for color-coded schemes to be a source of information.

            Because the Homeland Security Advisory System provides no specific information about terrorism, its purpose cannot be to prevent terrorist attacks.  It is impractical and naive to suggest that ordinary Americans adopt the responsibilities of a CIA or FBI agent.  The ordinary person would most likely not be able to prevent common acts of terrorism.  Furthermore, the ordinary person is not aided by the information, or lack thereof, provided by the HSAS.  So, we have reason to doubt the purported purpose of this system.  Because the Homeland Security Advisory System does not help prevent terrorism, I suggest that its function is to propagate the desires of the current administration.

            If the Homeland Security Advisory System provides anything to the citizens of this country, it is fear.  We are a vulnerable country, still dealing with the effects of 9/11.  It is easy to keep a group of people in fear by reminding them of the atrocities that caused them their suffering.  The only thing the HSAS communicates is a broad reminder of 9/11.  Americans have a reason to be afraid of terrorism because they have experienced the drastic consequences thereof.  The only result of implementing the Homeland Security Advisory System is that it keeps Americans in fear. 

            The easiest way to control a person’s thoughts is when s/he is afraid.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was well-aware of this fact when he cautioned Americans, “The only thing to fear is fear itself”.  We have seen the awful repercussions of the Red Scare here in America.  However, the most severe evidence of thought control through fear tactics comes from Nazi Germany. 

            Hitler soon learned to master the art of propaganda.  While there was not an official Homeland Security department, Hitler had his own methods of contriving threats to the German public.  Instead of terrorists, the Nazi party identified and targeted Jews.  (Granted, there is incomparable justification for identifying and arresting these different groups.)  The Nazi party actively sought means to locate and identify Jews.  The SS, a division of the Nazi government that functioned as a secret police, resulted in the terrorization of many Germans.  Germans were extremely fearful of the Gestapo, and consequently, were eager to obey the orders of the Nazi government.  By keeping his citizens in a state of fear and vulnerability, Hitler was able to control the wishes of the public.  They would not voice any dissenting opinions because they were in a state of constant fear.  Even Hermann Goering, who was one of the most powerful men in the Nazi party, (second to Hitler, arguably), admitted to giving up control of his own mind.  “‘I have no conscience,’ declared Goering, ‘Adolph Hitler is my conscience.’”[5]  This admission is from later in his life, during the time period of the Nuremburg trials.  The ability to keep a country in fear is intimately related to the ability to impose the government’s desires onto its citizens.

            We can also see the glorification of military might and its relation to patriotism in Nazi Germany.  Hitler wed the ideas of loyalty to one’s country with loyalty to ones military through the use of propaganda.  By referring to key concepts such as freedom and security, he was able to convince the people to support his war agenda. 

The aim for which we were fighting the War was the loftiest, the most overpowering, that man can conceive: it was the freedom and independence of our nation, the security of our future food supply, and our national honor; a thing which, despite all contrary opinions prevailing today, nevertheless exists, or rather should exist, since peoples without honor have sooner or later lost their freedom and independence, which in turn is only the result of a higher justice, since generations of rabble without honor deserve no freedom.[6]

Although his speech is only patriotism his actions were militaristic.  By artificially, yet subtly wedding the concepts of support for one’s country and support for military action, Hitler was able to attain public approval for military action. 

            In order to glorify its military might, Nazi Germany introduced the term, “Blitzkrieg”.  This referred to the quick and awesome strikes that devastated many European cities.  In a blitzkrieg attack, either German soldiers or bombs would swiftly demolish an entire city.  For example, Krystallnacht was the disastrous night in Poland, when Nazi troops killed, wounded and arrested thousands of Jews.  “By the close of Krystallnacht, ninety-one Jews lay dead, some 26,000 Jewish men were carted off to concentration camps, and thousands more were detained by authorities.”[7]  However, a blitzkrieg attack could also refer to the awesome destruction accomplished by air raids.  On April 26, 1937, the German Luftwaffe (air force) used the Spanish city of Guernica to test their modern equipment.  The complete obliteration Guernica was the first demonstration of such modern bombing techniques, which shocked the world.  By introducing specialized terms that blended mass destruction and sensationalism, Nazi Germany was able to glorify its military might.

            Similarly, America introduced a term that gained much popularity during the War on Iraq.  The American version of a blitzkrieg attack was “shock and awe”.  This term was developed by Harlan Ullman and James Wade, in their book:  Shock and Awe:

Achieving Rapid Dominance.  In the beginning stages of the War on Iraq, the phrase, “shock and awe” became standard vocabulary of news reporters.  We intended to surprise Iraq with our swift and powerful military capabilities.  Using precision-guided missiles, America was able to bomb the city of Baghdad with extremely destructive consequences while distracting the American public with sensationalism.  Learning the lesson from the Third Reich, the Bush Administration glorified our military might in order to amass public approval for the war.

            The unification of patriotism and military might was the result of Hitler’s underlying philosophy about the nature of man - that he is violent.  Hitler’s view of the world was that violence was required for survival, a naively simplistic understanding of human survival.  Neanderthals were subject to the laws of physical supremacy and dominance.  However, with the introduction of complex language and civilization, humans, as a collective being, undertook a new philosophy of survival, that intelligence and morality were superior to brute force.  It is obvious that Hitler was of Neanderthalic philosophy of man.  In The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill comments on this central tenet in  Hitler’s plan for the German man.  “The main thesis of Mein Kampf is simple.  Man is a fighting animal; therefore the nation, being a community of fighters, is a fighting unit.  Any living organism which ceases to fight for its existence is doomed to extinction.  A country or race which ceases to fight is equally doomed.”[8]  Thus, the inflation of patriotism and the glorification of military might came naturally to Hitler.  These two conditions for successful war propaganda were easily satisfied because they were built into Hitler’s view of the world.

            The commonalities between the Bush administration’s and Nazi Germany’s disregard for the international community are painstakingly obvious.  Unlike the Persian Gulf War, the current War on Iraq did not receive United Nations approval.  Going into the Persian Gulf War, America was looking at 69% approval ratings for military action, for the invasion of Afghanistan, the American public backed our actions with 75% approval, but before the War on Iraq, the Bush administration was faced with only 59% support for the war.[9]  This difference in approval rating is partly attributable to the presence and absence of U.N. support.  Whereas the United States did not have problems gaining international support for its military actions from the previous two wars, the U.S. had severe problems convincing the international community that a military attack on Iraq was justified.  Consequently, and as suggested by the actions of Adolph Hitler, the Bush administration took a stance of belligerence towards the international community.

            The Bush administration told the public that America would “go it alone” if necessary, and that the U.N. would run the risk of becoming irrelevant if it did not comply with U.S. foreign policy.  This attitude of international defiance turned into contempt for those countries that opposed United States aggression.  The renaming of french fries to “freedom” fries, was the silliest of reactions.  Included in being dismissed by the Bush administration is the government of Iraq itself.  Instead of being referred to as a government, it was referred to as a “regime”.  Despite the fact that Iraq was a sovereign country with its own electoral process (corrupt as it may have been), we chose to regard Iraq’s government as a “regime” instead of the government that it was.  This control of the language that the public uses is directly related to control of the way the public thinks.  Through a variety of tactics, the American government convinced its citizens that the international community was irrelevant and could be dismissed without cost.  

            Hitler also faced opposition from the international community for its planned acts of aggression.  While the United Nations did not exist during the times of Nazi Germany, the League of Nations did.  Because of the restraints imposed on Germany by the international community, Hitler needed to deemphasize the significance of that community.  So, on Oct. 14, 1933, Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations and the Geneva conference restrictions.  This act of international defiance satisfied another condition of successful war propaganda -  the de-emphasis of the international community. 

            The sixth condition for successful disbursement of the government’s desires into the minds of its citizens is to create detention centers for the blamed.  In Nazi Germany, the notorious concentration camps were the areas where the government detained the arrested Jews.  While the absolutely horrid atrocities that were committed within these concentration camps is subject material for infinite research papers, for the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the societal impression that these camps were construed to present.  The Nazis isolated the Jews in order to present to the public that the government was taking every measure to protect German citizens.  Aside from the scientific functions of these concentration camps, the Nazis used concentration camps to convince the people that the those who posed a threat to German citizens in general, were being detained.  Concentration camps functioned as an effort of the government to provide safety to its citizens.  By detaining the blamed, the government could more successfully administer its citizens with higher doses of propaganda.

            From the examples of the Nazi government, the Bush administration has emulated how to successfully propagate its desire for war.  Instead of creating concentration camps, the Justice Department used mostly standard jails.  While the Justice Department did nothing even close to comparable to what the Nazis did, the broad parallel is that the detention centers in America were unjust, and served the function of deluding the public.  The Justice Department rounded up hundreds of immigrants in the U.S. and forced them into jail, regardless of terrorist activity.  This blatant injustice eventually seeped into the mainstream press, after an internal report was discovered.    The Justice Department’s inspector concluded that many F.B.I. agents made “made little attempt to distinguish between immigrants who had possible ties to terrorism and those swept up by chance in the investigation”[10].  Furthermore, it was reported that some of the detained were physically or verbally abused.  We can see the function of these detention centers by analyzing the response to these reports by the Justice Department officials.  Barbara Comstock, spokeswoman for the department, remarked, “We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks”[11].  John Ashcroft subsequently affirmed this statement.  (In fact, he asked for more power to make more illegitimate arrests.)  While trying to sidestep the injustice issue, the Justice Department proposes that its function is to protect the American public.

            We can see that the claim to protecting the public is the same in both Nazi Germany and contemporary America.  The claim appears to be merely a façade for the underlying intentions of the Bush administration.  If the function of the detention centers was to protect the public, then why were non-terrorist arrested?  It was not due to mere error in the rounding up process.  The report revealed that selecting terrorist was not a high priority of the F.B.I. agents.  Why did the department make little attempt to distinguish between terrorists and non-terrorist?  The act of creating detention centers for the immigrants is quite arbitrary, if we look at the most recent terrorist attacks on America.  In 1996, Eric Rudolph committed the terrorist attack on the Olympic games in Atlanta.  He subsequently bombed an abortion clinic and a gay night club.  Why didn’t the Justice Department round up people that were similar to Eric Rudolph?  There were no mass arrests of white, young men who had a right wing ideology.  And on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh committed the terrorist attack on Oklahoma City, the Justice Department did not have any mass arrest response.  I believe this to be evidence that the motivational function of the detention centers was not for protection of American citizens, but mere propaganda. 

            Like the Nazi Government, the Bush administration knows what makes for successful war propaganda, and detention of those blamed is one of those conditions.  The actions of John Ashcroft’s department serve to protect the American public as much as concentration camps did for Nazi Germany.   The primary function of the detention centers is to facilitate the disbursement of war propaganda.

            Last, the devaluation of human life is an important condition when convincing a country to go to war.  This point is more observational than factual.  When the loss of human life in 9/11 was reported, it was reported as the loss of civilian life.  When the loss of human life in Afghanistan was reported, it was reported as “collateral damage”.  The American military killed more innocent Afghani civilians than the number of American lives lost in 9/11.  When the loss of human life in Iraq was reported, if it was reported, was also referred to as “collateral damage”.  We can even look at how language was manipulated to devalue the loss of American soldiers’ lives.  The media referred to the soldiers as “troops”, which objectifies the soldiers’ lives.  The correlating philosophy of lost human life to Nazi Germany hardly requires explanation.  The Nazis exterminated over six million Jews.  The significance of Jewish life lost was obviously distorted by the Nazi government. 

            Propaganda is a means of convincing the public to adopt the beliefs and desires of a government.  All governments partake in this practice. However, war propaganda is particularly noticeable.  Understandably, it is hardest to convince the citizens of a country that there is justified reason to sacrifice their lives.   Hermann Goering makes this empirical observation, and proposes that there is a formula to weakening the resistance of the public to accept a plan for war.  There are seven sufficient conditions that make for successful war propaganda.  They are: denouncing the peacemakers, requiring patriotism for safety, instilling fear, deemphasizing the significance of the international community, glorifying military might, creating detention centers for the blamed, and devaluing the loss of human life.  Both the Nazi German government and the American Bush administration successfully implemented this model of war propaganda.  Any denial of the claim that our methods of justification for war propaganda are fearfully similar to that of Hitler’s, is just a wishful delusion.




















Churchill, Winston S.  The Gathering Storm.  Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1948.

Gilbert, G. M.  The Nuremberg Diary.  Farrar Strauss, New York, 1947.

Goodstein, Lourie.  “Seeing Islam as “Evil” Faith, Evangelicals Seek Converts”, The             New York Times, May 27, 2003.

Hitler, Adolph.  Mein Kampf.

Langer, Gary. “Steady Support for War”  March 10, 2003.


Lichtblau, Eric.  “U.S. Report Faults the Roundup of Illegal Immigrants After 9/11” New     York Times, June 6, 2003. 


Mosley, Lenoard.  The Reich Marshal, A Biography of Hermann Goering.  Doubleday &                Company Inc., New York, 1974.

Over, R.J.  Goering The Iron Man.  Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984.

Office of the Press Secretary.  “Homeland Security Presidential Directive - 3”  The White             House homepage.  March 12, 2003.    

Shore, Zachary.  What Hitler Knew. Oxford University Press, New York,  2003.


[1] Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, Chapter 6

[2] Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, Chapter 6

[3] G.M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diaries.

[4] Office of the Press Secretary News Release

[5] Overy, p231.

[6] Hitler, Vol. 1, Chapter 6

[7] Shore, p85.

[8] Churchill, p55.

[9] Langer.

[10] Lichtblau

[11] Lichtblau