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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FORTY NINE Nuremberg Myths

This is pretentious but there is a point to it. Pedalling into Nuremberg this morning, I was put in mind of an article in Psychology Today by Michael Michalko titled Why We Cannot Perceive the World Objectively. His thesis is that people see what they expect to see: perception works by our senses capturing input from the stimuli around us, from which we build our own reality.

The stimuli at the fringes of Nuremberg this morning were those of an urban sprawl but my perception constructed a different reality based on some filters that I could recognise - and probably some that I could not.

One filter was the image of narrow medieval streets where Hans Sachs was tapping at his leather-draped last. An artificial image, obviously, a stage set - Act 2 of a Covent Garden Meistersinger (though ironically this was the only opera which Wagner set with historical precision - sort of - in a well-defined time and place). Another filter was the Nuremberg of the infamous Nazi rallies that we all picture through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl. Stupidly, a third was the view from the open cockpit of a green 1959 Lotus Elite straining on the long straight of the Nurburgring racetrack. This filter, inaccurate by about 250 miles, was embedded in childhood when I thought of it as the 'Nuremberg-ring'. Geography was a subject learned later.

Lotus Elite 1959 (c)

And then there was Laura Knight's painting of the Nuremberg War Crimes trials. Sent by the War Artists Advisory Committee to record the event, she created a fantasy canvas in which the Nazis in the dock sit among the ruins of a devastated Germany. In a way, she was right to turn the image into an allegory – one purpose of the trial and its publicity was to create a mythology of blame as propaganda against militarism in Germany.

Hitler would have well understood the Allied attempt at propaganda. Two chapters of Mein Kampf explain: The finest theoretical insight remains without purpose and value if the leader does not set the masses in motion toward it.

On London's South Bank, there was once a museum of the moving image that had a Dalek you could sit in, and various artefacts from the history of film. One exhibit that stays with me was a reconstruction of one of Stalin's cinema trains. In the 1920's, he sent these trains through Russia, stopping at remote villages to show the peasantry the glories of communism.

This form of delivery was extremely effective and the Nazis were early adopters. Indeed, there are such close parallels between the film history of the two dictatorships that they seem to cross-fertilise. Stalin continued to regard cinema as of prime importance: Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 Battleship Potemkin, for example, was propaganda for the virtues of the proletariat.

Hitler, too, was a devotee of the cinema. From his early agit-prop years, he knew that the written word was ineffective – he had seen too many people simply cast aside leaflets he had placed in their hands.

His solution was two fold. While he always gave primacy to mass oratory – 'spoken leaflets' - he understood the value of images, still and moving:

The picture in all its forms up to the film has greater possibilities. Here a man needs to use his brains even less; it suffices to look, or at most to read extremely brief texts, and thus many will more readily accept a pictorial presentation than read an article of any length. The picture brings them in a much briefer time, I might almost say at one stroke, the enlightenment which they obtain from written matter only after arduous reading.

The Nazis used film remarkably early. There is written evidence of showings in 1923, and footage exists for the 1926 and 1927 'Party Days'. And the Party's territorial ambitions were clear from the start in titles such as Kampf um den Rhein (Struggle for the Rhine). Goebbels was so impressed by the director of these films, Willy Sage, that he set up a special unit for him called the NS-Bildberichte (National Socialist Picture Reports).

One of the most significant of the early Nazi films showed the funeral of 22 year old Horst Wessel – a stormtrooper shot by communists during riots in Berlin. The son of a Lutheran pastor, Wessel became involved in right wing politics early on with the Bismarckjugend (Bismarck Youth) of the monarchist National People's Party. He even tried to start his own movement to "raise our boys to be real German men".

His trajectory was then both downwards - drinking and subsisting in dosshouses - and increasingly violent, a path that would surely have led him to the brutalities of Krystallnacht. Wessel joined the paramilitary Wiking Liga (Viking League) dedicated to "the revival of Germany on a national and ethnic basis through the spiritual education of its members … [and the] ... establishment of a national dictatorship." He was attracted to ever more vicious groups such as the Black Reichswehr. And then, at the age of 19, with many others from the Wiking Liga, he joined the paramilitary SA, the Sturmabteilung and was hooked - his "political awakening"

Horst Wessel leading an SA unit through Nuremberg (c)wikicommons

Wessel fitted in well and came to Goebbels' attention. He spoke at rallies, recruited other youths and rose to be district leader of the SA for Friedrichshain (where our ride started 49 days ago). One of his men later recalled that Wessel's Sturm 5 was:

"a band of thugs, a brutal squad ...Horst made Adolf Hitler's principle his own: terror can be destroyed only by counterterror ... In the East End of Berlin, he opened up a route through which a brown storm tide poured in unceasingly and conquered the area inch by inch.

In October 1929, he wrote the prescient lyrics of Die Fahne hoch! (Raise the Flag!) to a tune, ironically, taken from a Communist song book. After Wessel's death, Goebbels made the song an icon, the official anthem of the Nazi Party and ultimately the co-national anthem of Germany:

Raise the flag! The ranks tightly closed!

The SA marches with calm, steady step.

Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries

March in spirit within our ranks

Film was taking centre stage in Nazi propaganda. The involvement of Alfred Hugenberg, director of a major film company, Universum Film, ensured that newsreels made by the Nazis were now shown weekly in cinemas all over Germany.

In the critical 1932 elections, the party mirrored Stalin's cinema trains with mobile vans giving open air showings of films like Kampf um Deutschland (The Fight for Germany). Support for this initiative came from the German subsidiary of Twentieth Century Fox, Fox-Tonende-Wochenschau, which supplied the mobile projection vans. And now that talking movies had arrived, ears were opened to the oratory of the master himself: in Der Fuehrer (1932), many Germans heard Hitler speak for the first time.

A tide of films followed to convert the masses to Nazism. One was Zinsknechtschaft (The Dominance of Invested Capital) starring Gottfried Feder, whom Hitler believed to be expert even though he was actually an engineer.

Brechung der Zinsknechtschaft (literally 'Breaking the Bondage of Interest') was an anti-capitalist polemic starring Gottfried Feder, whom Hitler believed to be an expert economist, though in fact he was self-taught and an engineer. The film shows the Nazi technique: martial music leads the viewer out of darkness to Feder dressed plainly in a dark suit with white shirt. Only the swastika on his lapel hints that this is a Nazi production. Feder speaks straightforwardly to the people, hardly raising his voice because there is no argument, and ending with a simple Heil! to the people.

Few Bavarians, of course, had voted for the Nazis and the state government tried to stop the films being shown – even though they had been passed by the Weimar Republic's Film Censorship Office. They failed. The Nazis, in contrast, were notably successful in closing films that ran counter to their message. The essentially pacifist All Quiet on the Western Front was forced out of cinemas by violent demonstrations – and audiences driven out screaming by a release of mice into the theatres.

By the time Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the machinery of propaganda under Goebbels was formidable. Film was at the centre of their strategy in a decade when cinema itself was at the centre of most people's lives. The Nazis controlled the cinema and had the organisation and resources to do something major. They just needed a major film director to create magic.

But here we must stop. More about Leni Riefenstahl on Monday. The Race Marshal looks hungry and a traditional heart-shaped dish full of Nuremberg Rostbratwurste has arrived.

A sausage with a 700 year history (c)insidethetravellab

Hans Hotter singing Was duftet doch der Flieder -

Wartime film of Laura Knight and with Ruby Loftus -

A biopic on Goebbels and his propaganda techniques -

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