Films played a major part in propaganda in Nazi Germany. The film industry was controlled by the Nazis and ranged from anti-Semitic films such as “The Eternal Jew”, to propaganda films to ‘enlighten’ youths about the Hitler Youth movement (“Hitlerjunge Quex”) to coverage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Leni Riefenstahl. Whatever topic it was, all of this was controlled by Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda. It was Goebbels who said:
“We are convinced that films constitute one of the most modern and scientific means of influencing the mass. Therefore the government must not neglect them.”
“The Eternal Jew” portrayed Jews in the way the Nazis wanted people in Germany to think about the Jews in general. Some of the film was taken in the ghettoes of Polish cities after the successful invasion of September/October 1939. It showed dishevelled Jews living in squalor and portrayed this as a ‘normal’ way of life for the Jews. “The Eternal Jew” was made in 1940 and the Ministry of Propaganda wanted to reinforce its view of Jews onto the German people at a time when there was a general feeling among the Nazi hierarchy that its message was not being fully supported by many Germans. The Jews were compared to rats throughout the film with the narrator informing the audience that as rats spread diseases, so do the Jews. The film is riddled with inaccuracies: Charlie Chaplin was portrayed as a Jew, which he was not and the Torah is read out in a service on a Tuesday, which would not happen. The film’s director, Fritz Hippler, claimed that everyone who took part in the film did so on a voluntary basis when, in fact, coercion was used especially in the scenes filmed in the ghettoes. Probably the most infamous part of “The Eternal Jew”, and the part that was most designed to create a feeling of revulsion among the viewers, was the ritual slaughter of animals before they were eaten. However, despite the image of total loyalty to Hitler and therefore to the Nazi state that the Propaganda Ministry wanted to propagate, not that many Germans paid to see the film. It is thought that only 1 million went to the cinema to view it – far fewer than the 20 million that paid to see “Jew Süβ”.
‘Hitlerjunge Quex’ was released in 1933 by Hans Steinhoff. While the film was titled ‘Hitlerjunge Quex’ it was also subtitled “a film about young people’s spirit of sacrifices” and these words were on the posters that advertised the film. Unlike many Nazi films, ‘Hitlerjunge Quex’ was a box office success.
It told the story of Heini, a small and not very strong blond boy. His parents lived in a poor area of Berlin. His mother was portrayed as a caring and kind woman. His unemployed father, a socialist, was portrayed as a bitter and unpleasant man. Heini’s father sent him on a weekend’s camp with young communists. During this weekend, Heini met a group of Hitler Youth. He was immediately impressed with them and decided that he would like to join them. His father reacted violently when Heini expressed his desire to join the Hitler Youth. However, as well as upsetting his father, Heini was also rejected by the local Hitler Youth when he tried to join them as they believed that because of his background he was a communist spy who would feed information back to his father about what the Hitler Youth did. Seeing her son in total despair, Heini’s mother tried to gas both herself and her son. Heini survived but his mother died. In a show of support, members of the Hitler Youth turned up at his home with a uniform for him and accept him as one of them. They nicknamed him ‘Quex’ (Mercury) because he volunteered for the most hazardous missions that the Hitler Youth carried out. A senior member of the local SA believed that Heini was too young and too small for such missions. However, he allowed him to distribute Nazi leaflets in an area of Berlin where the communists were strong. While distributing the leaflets in a poorly lit area of Berlin, Heini was attacked by communist thugs and was badly injured. He was found the next morning by members of the Hitler Youth but he was close to dying. With his last breath, Heini spoke the words of a Nazi marching song: “We march for Hitler, through night and dread – the flag means more than being dead.”
‘Hitlerjunge Quex’ did exactly what Goebbels wanted films to do: it portrayed the socialists/communists as the bad people while the Hitler Youth were the opposite. To what extent people were taken in by it is not known as the Nazi censorship machine ensured that all comments were what the government wanted to hear.
The coverage of the 1936 Olympic Games would have started well for Riefenstahl. The opening ceremony in what was one of the world’s largest stadiums was carefully orchestrated. The crowd had been primed to greatly cheer when the German team made its appearance. The French even gave Hitler the Nazi salute – something that it had threatened not to do. But then she must have run into a major problem – how did you portray one of the world’s greatest athletes without going against Nazi racial theory? Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals – and he was not white. The accepted blue ribbon event – the 100 yards dash – even had two non-white medal winners. It had been accepted that Hitler would put the medals around the necks of the three medal winners but he stormed off in anger. Riefenstahl – a favourite of Hitler’s – took the simple approach. She showed it as it was including the defeat of the Nazi super-athlete Lutz Lang to Owens in the long jump. But she also used footage of Owens being interviewed where he stated that he had greatly enjoyed his time in Berlin and that his treatment and reception by the Berlin people had been outstanding. A director of NBC went on film to congratulate the Nazi organisation for the most modern transmitting arrangements seen at that time – 20 transmitting vans were put at the disposal of the world’s media. That way, with the opening and closing ceremonies going to plan, the world’s greatest athlete hailing the 1936 Olympics and a leading American company expressing their gratitude, the whole racial issue was seemingly bypassed with no obvious problems. It is almost certain that few would have discussed the racial issue after the Olympics (how can a non-white be inferior when he won four gold medals?’) simply because Nazi Germany was a police state. Any deviation from the accepted path would have been suitably dealt with and people in Germany would have known this.
Both Hitler and Goebbels knew that films were an important part of the propaganda machine. They set up a specific department to create ‘proper’ Nazi films as early as 1930 and Goebbels took an especial interest in it. After the war, Fritz Hippler was tried for his part in the making of “The Eternal Jew”. He was acquitted but during his cross-examination, he did make the point that while Goebbels tended to sit back during the making of most Nazi films, he took a very active part in “The Eternal Jew” as if he was desperate to hammer home the Nazi’s anti-Semitic views.