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The Lingering Effect of Nazi Propaganda

Germans who grew up during Hitler’s reign are more likely to express anti-Semitic views than their older or younger counterparts.
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Nazi educational institution. (Photo: Jan Bommes/Flickr)

Nazi educational institution. (Photo: Jan Bommes/Flickr)

Can a determined, despotic regime instill hateful beliefs into an entire generation?

The question is not theoretical: Such an attempt was actually made, in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and early '40s. New research that examines current-day attitudes reveals that, to a large degree, it worked.

“Nazi indoctrination—with its singular focus on fostering racial hatred—was highly effective,” economists Nico Voigtländer of the University of California-Los Angeles and Hans-Joachim Voth of the University of Zurich write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Germans who grew up under the Nazi regime are much more anti-Semitic today than those born before or after that period.”

Analysis revealed “a significantly higher share of committed anti-Semites" among women who were born in the 1920s, and thus subjected to Nazi propaganda as adolescents.

Importantly, the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda varied from one part of the country to another, having its greatest influence in regions with historically high levels of anti-Semitism. “Where schooling could tap into preexisting prejudices,” the researchers write, “indoctrination was particularly strong.”

Voigtländer and Voth tracked variations in anti-Semitic attitudes using data from the 1996 and 2006 waves of the General Social Survey for Germany. Using a one-to-seven scale, the 5,300 participants expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such statements as “Jews should have equal rights” and “Jews exploit their victim status for their own advantage.”

Based on the participants' answers, the researchers determined that “one quarter of the German population holds mildly or strongly negative views of Jews," while four percent are “committed anti-Semites.”

Younger Germans were far less likely to fall into that latter category than older ones. But the the highest percentages were found not among the very oldest participants, bur rather those who were in school when Hitler was in power (1933 to 1945).

Specifically, the researchers found that, even after controlling for personal characteristics such as education, Germans born in the 1930s “are approximately twice as likely to hold extreme anti-Semitic beliefs” than those who entered the world in the decades before or after.

Further analysis revealed “a significantly higher share of committed anti-Semites" among women who were born in the 1920s, and thus subjected to Nazi propaganda as adolescents. This was not true for men of that same age, likely because many young males who held such views died during World War II. “Many young fanatic Nazi supporters volunteered for the Waffen-SS, which had particularly high casualty rates,” the researchers note.

So the intense Nazi propaganda effort—which took place not only during school hours, but also through books, films, and compulsory enrollment in the Hitler Youth—had a lasting effect. But its impact varied considerably from one part of the country to another.

“Nazi schooling was particularly effective where the population had previously held anti-Semitic beliefs,” the researchers report. “Nazi propaganda and schooling increased the number of youngsters who became fervent anti-Semites, especially in those towns and cities where Germans in the 1890s and 1900s had voted heavily in favor of anti-Jewish parties.

“Conversely, where few Germans had shown signs of racial hatred before World War I, Nazi indoctrination made much smaller inroads into the collective psyche of the young.”

So bigotry can indeed be taught, as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote in their World War II musical. And once it is instilled, it is difficult to eradicate.

But that doesn’t mean young minds are at the mercy of the state. These results suggest the kids who were indoctrinated most effectively were those who were exposed to Nazi propaganda at school—and then had it reinforced, or at least not refuted, at home.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.