In 1930s Germany, Nazi Party leaders understood the power of mass communication to disseminate hatred and anti-Semitism. “Propaganda,” Hitler wrote, “is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.” In their rise to power, the Nazis deployed sophisticated modern communications technologies, including radio and film, to win the battle of ideas – and thus to shape public opinion and behavior – among a well-educated population in a fledgling democracy.
The Nazis are gone but propaganda lives on, and its potential is deadlier than ever. As we commemorate the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, extremist groups around the globe wield new technologies to incite hatred and perpetrate new mass killings and genocides. That’s why UNESCO has decided to base this year’s International Day of Commemoration on the theme From Words to Genocide: Anti-Semitic Propaganda and the Holocaust. On this occasion, UNESCO and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) are joining forces to present at UNESCO headquarters the exhibit State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.
During the early 1930s, a period of severe economic distress, many Germans were willing to overlook the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, because they were attracted to other aspects of the party’s message. The Nazis knew this: In the run-up to the 1932 election, the party relied on the emerging field of public opinion research to probe the needs, hopes, and fears of blue- and white-collar workers, the middle class, women, farmers, and youth. Accordingly, Nazi propagandists toned down anti-Semitic rhetoric and presented the party as the only political force capable of creating jobs and putting food on German tables. Likewise, they won over newly enfranchised women voters by portraying themselves as the defender of traditional German womanhood and the family.
Hitler’s extreme nationalism resonated with many audiences, including young people who wanted to restore Germany’s lost territories and military might. But rabid anti-Semitism remained at the center of the Nazi worldview. As soon as the party came to power, in 1933, it began to implement anti-Jewish policies. The Nazis eliminated alternative sources of information, burning books and arresting journalists as they prepared to advance their goal of establishing a united “Aryan” Europe.
In today’s interconnected world, individuals and non-state groups motivated by extremist ideologies can use the power of new technologies to shape attitudes and beliefs, and incite violence on a global scale. Since 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) has disseminated more than 700 propaganda videos, tailored to various audiences, in all major languages, to maximize the reach and impact of its message.
Nearly 50,000 Twitter accounts are propagating these vehicles of hatred, seeking to exploit ignorance, intolerance, and divisions within societies. Young people are being targeted for recruitment. Within the territories it controls, ISIS persecutes and kills individuals on religious and cultural grounds, with a recent USHMM report concluding that the group has committed acts of genocide against the Yazidi minority population under its control.
Another worrisome trend is the increasingly sophisticated use of hate speech directed against minorities and migrants. Violent, exclusionary, and discriminatory rhetoric has returned to Europe – the land of the Holocaust. Extreme nationalists exploit the current refugee crisis, in a context of fear and deadly terrorist attacks, to gain large numbers of supporters.
State of Deception shows us how propaganda can have deadly consequences. The Holocaust began with words, not mass killings We must remember how the poison of anti-Semitism and racism, projected through mass media, and through entire political, cultural and educational systems, led a continent into mass violence and genocide.
Today, against the new propaganda of hatred, our challenge is to harness the power of new communication technologies to empower pluralism and human dignity for all, to combat all forms of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. This new war for hearts and minds can be won only if we update and upgrade the tools of education, culture, science, and communication. UNESCO was created 70 years ago for this purpose, and it leads a global program for Holocaust education and genocide prevention, working with governments and teachers to instill this history in classrooms.
Bombs and bullets alone cannot defeat political poison. We must also win the battle of ideas. Schools, museums, and the media must foster media literacy to help young people develop critical-thinking skills. Intellectuals, artists, and public figures must highlight the danger of indifference toward groups espousing intolerance and exclusion. And political leaders should encourage social integration and mutual understanding.This is how we can pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust – not only to lament the dead, but also to empower the living.