Nazi propaganda has proven not only immensely powerful, but long-lasting, a new study shows. The findings, discovered by researchers from the US and Switzerland and reported by Israel Hayom, reveal the long-term impact of the totalitarian regime on youngsters growing up at the time.
Researchers examined attitude surveys conducted between 1996 and 2006, reflecting the views of 5,300 people from 264 towns and cities across Germany. The questionnaires, known as the German General Social Surveys, asked respondents about a range of issues, including their opinions of Jews, and the answers could be sorted by age, gender and location.
Survey results revealed that those born in the 1930s, who spent their formative years in the Nazi-ruled education system, were most likely to hold extreme anti-Semitic views, even half a century after the Holocaust.
“It’s not just that Nazi schooling worked, that if you subject people to a totalitarian regime during their formative years it will influence the way their mind works. The striking thing is that it doesn’t go away afterward,” said Hans-Joachim Voth of the University of Zurich, one of the study’s authors.
The location of respondents also reflected that the Nazi propaganda machine was most effective where underlying prejudice already existed. Using voting records from as far back as the 1890s, researchers found a pattern. Those who came from regions which voted for traditionally anti-Semitic parties were more likely to hold extreme anti-Semitic views today.
“The extent to which Nazi schooling worked depended crucially on whether the overall environment where children grew up was already a bit anti-Semitic,” said Voth. “It tells you that indoctrination can work, it can last to a surprising extent, but the way it works has to be compatible to something people already believe.”
Benjamin Ortmeyer, head of research into Nazi education at Goethe University in Germany, is unsurprised by the findings. He was not involved in the study, but says the results make sense.
“The significance of this kind of propaganda hasn’t really been exposed,” Ortmeyer added. “Compared to the brutal deeds of the Nazi mass murderers, this area of crimes, the brainwashing, was largely ignored.”
Ortmeyer believes this is due to an unwillingness among Germans of the time to talk about their experiences. In contrast to Jewish survivors, who bear witness to the atrocities they suffered, Germans prefer to preserve the memories of their happy childhoods.
Ortmeyer noted the way the Nazis wove their propaganda into the education system in every subject area, sometimes even recruiting students as unwitting accomplices, requiring them to do “projects” finding names of Jewish families recently converted to Christianity in church records and using that information later to hunt down Jews.
There were exceptions, Ortmeyer pointed out, including youth resistance movements such as the “White Rose” in Munich and the “Edelweiss Pirates” in Cologne. “Those are important examples for young people these days,” he said.
Unexpectedly, researchers found that respondents born in the 1920s held only marginally more anti-Semitic views than those born in the 1940s, after the Nazi regime, though the former group had grown up under Nazi influence. They posit that perhaps those with the most extreme beliefs at the time, being old enough to enlist, might not have survived the war.
“We can’t prove it, but it seems likely to us, based on the patterns in the data, that these were the cohorts that weren’t drafted but by the end of the war they could volunteer for the Waffen SS. And they had an incredibly high casualty rate,” said Voth.