Though it may be challenging to find the time to visit The Field Museum during this busy holiday time, find a way to go. State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda will be at the Field Museum only until February 2, 2014 and it tells a very important story. The exhibition explores how Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party made effective use of propaganda to persuade the German people to adopt radical policies and eventually head into war. This exhibition was produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This exhibition was there for three years. Now the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is on the road, moving to Arizona next. The opening of State of Deception coincides with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous coordinated attacks on Jews that took place in Nazi Germany and Austria in 1938, taking its name from the shards of glass resulting from the broken glass windows in shops.
I found the rarely seen artifacts in this exhibition helpful in attempting to understand the rise of Nazi power through propaganda. I have struggled for many years with trying to gain some insight or make some sense of how it could have been that Germany, sophisticated, iterate, cultured and democratic could turn so rapidly and totally. And I am always seeking the lesson of what happened there, wondering if it could happen here. Other exhibits, stories, lectures tell about the impact of World War I, starvation, inflation, a desperate nation, and this exhibition tell all those things but there is an added focus-Germany’s superior communication technology and execution.
In conversation with Dr. Steven Luckert, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and curator of this exhibition, I learned that after careful consideration he decided to narrowly focus this topic. By exploring the advanced techniques related to communication available at that time and the sophisticated and skilled communicators, visitors come away with greater insight. Dr. Luckert explained that capturing the attention of visitors to an exhibition on this topic is both important and challenging. Along with the display of artifacts and signage, he decided that an effective technique was to use large monitors that historical movie clips with headlines from US newspapers that announced the action in the video superimposed on the film conveyed a lot of information efficiently.
Interestingly, when viewing the large videos that are so frequently used in current exhibitions, I never pondered about how the screen come to be there, how they are set up and maintained. However, during this exhibition, I had the chance to talk with a behind the scenes person responsible for the videos that are pretty much the meat of most exhibits, Michael Kaiz. He is continually checking to be sure they are functioning.
This exhibition demonstrates the power of Germany’s communication superiority in those days. Radio messages, movies, newspapers, and phonographs belted out messages of hate. Their movie industry lead the world. They printed more newspapers than the several European countries combined. The Nazis were all things to all people. They surveyed to see what people wanted and then, depending on the group they made promises. Hitler changed his persona to match the group he was addressing. Gradually the populace was persuaded to turn against “others”.
Among the artifacts are a huge copy of Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf” and another very small copy that was given by the state to couples when they were married. While many think of Nazi propaganda as simply promoting hate, in reality, it was more than that—propaganda was a complex tool used to also promote unity among specific populations while taking away the rights of others.
Remarkably, when Adolf Hitler joined the German Worker’s Party in 1919, it had only a few dozen members. Within weeks, he had expanded the group’s membership, and within a year, he had become the director of party propaganda. In 1924, Adolf Hitler wrote, “Propaganda is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.” How much propaganda influences people's actions and opinions continues to be debated today, but in the 1920s and 30s, Nazi leaders understood the important role that propaganda played in implementing their party’s policies.
And when the war was over..
Someone asked me if I felt depressed after seeing this exhibition and I can honestly say that was not what I felt. In fact, I was energized by the presentation to be vigilant in evaluating information.
Local support for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s activities is noteworthy with a recent fund raiser bring in $5.9 million—more than $2 million ahead of last year’s successful event—and it was chaired for the first time by a child of survivors, Joseph Gutman, and his wife, Sheila. The Gutmans led a program showcasing the breadth of the Museum’s work and marking the official launch in Chicago of the Museum’s comprehensive campaign, Never Again: What You Do Matters. More information
State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda schedule:
November 6, 2013–February 2, 2014
The Field Museum
February 20, 2014–June 1, 2014
Burton Barr Central Library
April 11, 2015–September 7, 2015
St. Louis, MO
Missouri History Museum
This exhibition is free with admission to The Field Museum, located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. For further information, visit the Field Museum Website fieldmuseum.org.
And if time permits, on a lighter note go see “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair”. You can see a review here.
Photos: B. Keer or as noted