Peter Sean Bradley is a Catholic lawyer who reviews many Nazi-related books on Amazon.
He has noticed how treatment of Nazism has changed.
"When I compare texts from the 1930s, I read about everything that is going on, the oppression of socialists and Catholics and Protestants and Jews. But when I read modern accounts, all that disappears and the only thing I read is about the persecution of the Jews. Naturally, with that kind of focus, one concludes that the Germans must have been brimming with one hatred and one hatred only, namely anti-Semitic.
Likewise, you find in the texts of the time, more concern about economic conditions and the fact that German territory was occupied than anti-Semitism. All of the other stuff disappears today, however, and what is taught is that the Nazis were merely anti-Semites. Then we say, well, we are not anti-Semites, so we are OK."
Bradley recently reviewed Julius Streicher: Nazi Editor of the Notorious Anti-semitic Newspaper Der Sturmer
His review talks about how hard it was for Nazis to sell Nazism, and about how much propaganda effort and manipulation of the public went into this effort. The review also talks about similarities between social media and Nazi propaganda, and whether or not it is ethical to hang a man for what he has said. This is no mere academic question -- in 2003, Rwandan radio journalists were jailed for genocide. They were jailed for broadcasts, rather than for actually killing anyone.
I started this book with low expectations. How interesting could a book be about the most “unpleasant” of the Nazis? How much of value could there be in reading the biography of a person who retailed the worst, most banal, most ridiculous of Jew-baiting libels to incite hatred among the gullible and stupid? I knew that Julius Streicher was the most notorious Jew-baiter in Nazi Germany through his newspaper, Der Sturmer, and that he was executed at Nuremberg, which was enough information to make me want to keep a wide berth from reading about him.
The nice thing about low expectations is that it is so easy to be surprised. This book is positively first-rate. It provides a perspective on the society of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s that is invaluable, and it runs counter to a lot of the canards about a hopelessly anti-semitic culture that was, we are told by modern historians, naturally trending toward hateful bigotry. What I took away from this book was the amount of effort it took to create the culture of Nazi antisemitism. It didn’t happen naturally. The preconditions were there, but it took huge amounts of propaganda and social conditioning to teach Germans that they had to stop caring for their Jewish friends and neighbors.
The author is Randall Bytwerk. One of the interesting discoveries I made is that Bytwerk is responsible for the “German Propaganda Archive at calvin.edu. I’ve used that source on numerous occasions as a resource for German propaganda but I did not make the connection. It makes sense, though, that a professor with an interest in propaganda would also be an expert on this loathsome character who played such a role in propaganda. Bytwerk observes that “the Internet also makes it possible to provide a virtual appendix to this book. In 1996 I established the German Propaganda Archive a large collection of translations of Nazi and East German propaganda. My goal is to make available, in English, the original materials of the two German dictatorships of the twentieth century. The site includes translations from the Stürmer and other products of Streicher’s publishing house.”
Welcome to the 21st century.
Bytwerk has no sympathy for Streicher. He constantly describes Streicher as unpleasant and rather stupid and boring in his obsession. Apparently, even Hitler could tire of Streicher’s one-note conversations topic; Der Furher would sneak into Nuremberg, where Streicher was Gauleiter, in order to avoid having to have dinner with Streicher. Nonetheless, Hitler was a Streicher supporter and Streicher was a significant supporter of Hitler and the Nazis from an early time when his newspaper, Der Sturmer, was a major source of revenues for the Nazi movement.
Streicher came out of the right wing movement. He seems to have moved gradually into the Volkisch movement as a result of his unpleasant personality and his inability to cooperate with party members in less radical parties. Streicher was from Nuremberg. Nuremberg was a Protestant enclave in Catholic Bavaria, but Streicher was a Catholic citizen of mostly Protestant Nuremberg. Bytwerk does not discuss Streicher’s religious history – for example, Bytwerk does not mention Streicher’s public apostasy in the 1930s, but he does mention, in passing, that a party that Streicher belonged to prior to the Nazis lost Catholic members when Streicher published an article attacking the Jesuits. Bytwerk also notes:
“As a teacher Streicher was expected to attend to the spiritual as well as to the intellectual development of his pupils. Particularly in the small towns in which he taught, the local priest often had supervisory authority over the schoolmaster. Now, Streicher was never to be a man who easily accepted interference in his affairs, and his childhood had not left him a loyal Catholic. In July 1904 he decided to change the time at which the Sunday school (for which the schoolmaster was also responsible) met, against the wishes of the parish priest.”
Streicher was a schoolteacher during the time that he was developing Der Sturmer and becoming a Nazi bigshot. One of the more nauseating outgrowths of Streicher’s career as a school teacher was his interest in poisoning the minds of German children with books that taught antisemitism to children. Likewise, Der Sturmer would run stories of children telling their parents not to shop at Jewish stores, much in the same way that children today might tell their parents to recycle or not smoke because their teachers had told them to.
The biggest impact that this book had on me was providing a sense of how important a role Der Sturmer played in the life of Nazi Germany. Der Sturmer was “social media” long before the concept was invented. Sturmer display cases were set up all over Germany. At this kiosks the pages of the Sturmer newspaper would be displayed so that passer-bys could get their fill of anti-Semitic propaganda. The Sturmer was a slim newspaper, fourteen pages or so, which allowed the complete paper to be read this way. The Sturmer display cases were maintained by fans of the Sturmer. These fans would write into the Sturmer to report on neighbors who were friendly to Jews. The sense I got was that this fan base might represent what we see on the websites of, say, Richard Dawkins or other internet celebrities, for whom the interaction through the comments is a major feature of their social life.
The contents of the Sturmer is described by Bytwerk as constantly changing information based on a constant theme – sounding again like an internet blog maintained by a celebrity. The theme was, of course, how awful Jews are, but Streicher had a gift for gossip and raking up new scandal in order to provide new material for his readers to be scandalized about.
In addition the Sturmer had a regular feature consisting of denunciations of Germans who were friendly to Jews or continued to patronize Jewish business. This resembles what we see today among “social justice warriors” who level secondary boycotts against businesses who support legislation they find reprehensible, or who, not so long ago, arranged to have a CEO fired from a corporation because he had made a donation in favor of traditional marriage. With that comparison, we may begin to realize the organized social sanction that the ordinary German was under – act like a decent human being and you might get your name featured in the Sturmer, after which you would be the one subject to isolation and retaliation.
Streicher used inventions and fabrications as part of his propaganda. For example, he spread blood libel stories that had been discredited centuries before. He also used the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a propaganda source. Streicher’s propaganda technique also included hammering the Jews with true stories about misconduct and crimes by Jews. Thus, any time a Jew was accused of being a rapist, this story was put into the Sturmer, which eventually led Germans to believe that there must be something to this “the Jews are rapists” meme. The technique involves conflating “facts” with “representative facts.” We see the same thing today with Catholic priests accused of child abuse. The facts are that Catholic priests are accused of child abuse at no higher rate than any other group, and that the priests accused are not representative of Catholic priests, but given the constant repetition of the theme of “pedophile priest,” most people believe that Catholic priests are somehow a threat in a special and unique way, much like Germans believed that Jews were criminals and/or rapists. Bytwerk explains:
“Moreover, many facts are not necessarily representative facts. A careful selection of information can lead an audience to a quite mistaken conclusion, even though none of the information is false. One can simply omit inconvenient facts, of course, but leaving that aside, it is easy to draw improper conclusions in other ways. For example, people greatly overestimate the incidence of disasters, murders, and diseases like cancer, and underestimate the occurrence of home accidents or diabetes. A plane crash or an earthquake gets front-page coverage and full play on the evening news, and cancer is the great evil of the day. Such vivid happenings are remembered, overshadowing less dramatic facts.
Julius Streicher’s ability to provide a profusion of facts suggesting that Jews were committing crimes on a startling scale was well suited for the modern media. His standards of evidence were, as we have seen, unimpressive, but some of what he accused Jews of doing was true. It did not matter to him and his readers that infractions committed by Jews were certainly not more numerous or even proportionally higher than crimes committed by “Aryans.” During the Weimar era his targets sometimes were convicted. And after 1933 convictions became almost predictable, for reasons perhaps not entirely evident to the average citizen. His material was not representative, but its vividness was farmore persuasive than a mere statistic.
On a lower level, given complete knowledge of the behavior and thoughts of any individual, one could construct a highly unflattering portrait, relying entirely on those facts that suggested the individual’s depravity. The ability to select is the ability to persuade. Streicher could present cases of Jewish evil with reasonable assurance that his readers would make the desired inductive leap from the given case to the general. If a large number of Jews seemed to be criminal, then all Jews probably were. Of course, the well-known human tendency to perceive selectively is also at work. One who expects to see Jews about evil deeds will find just that, overlooking consciously or not the more impressive evidence to the contrary. The anti-Semite who, in reading the Talmud, was struck only by the small number of passages he perceived as supporting his prejudices, was only following to a greater degree a mental and emotional process that everyone commonly practices.”
So, it would appear that a virtue of this book is to get us thinking about modern culture, where we can realize that we are not so special, or, perhaps, that the Germans of the 1930s resemble us in disturbing ways.
Bytwerk weighs into the claim raised by Daniel Goldhagen that the “ordinary German” was characterized by “eliminationist anti-Semitism” that would have led them to kill Jews had they had the opportunity.” Based on the data of the Sturmer, Bytwerk disagrees. Thus, Bytwerk points out that the Sturmer denunciations of Germans who were friendly to Jews increased through 1938, which suggests that many, many ordinary Germans were not anti-Semites, even in the face of great pressure to conform. Bytwerk explains:
“Surprisingly, the Stürmer sometimes carried the responses of such people. Some of the accused claimed that Jews provided better quality at lower prices. A farmer who took Jewish children for a cart ride asserted, “The government does not ask me where the money came from when I pay my taxes.” 7 To Stürmer readers, such comments emphasized stubborn refusal to relinquish contact with Jews. The criticized behavior sometimes displayed clear opposition to Nazi anti-Semitic policies, at other times only the person’s economic self-interest. Those denounced in the Stürmer might still have harbored anti-Semitic attitudes.
Still, the behavior is clearly not what one would expect of those holding eliminationist anti-Semitic views. This was particularly true by 1937, when Hitler had been in power for more than four years. Those who had thought that the Nazis were anti-Semites of the traditional variety had had sufficient time to learn otherwise. To shop at a Jewish store or to trade with a Jewish livestock dealer by 1937 took a conscious decision to ignore the considerable pressures of the state and society.”
“Some correspondents reported being insulted when they attempted to encourage people to avoid Jews. A 1938 letter gave the response of a woman in Silesia who, when reproached for buying in a Jewish shop, replied, “You’re drunk, aren’t you?” 11 A farmer criticized in 1939 for dealing with Jews responded bluntly, “Hang me from the church steeple if you want, but I’m not going to stop dealing with the Jews.” 12 Many letters noted that well-meaning attempts to dissuade citizens from dealing with Jews were simply ignored. Often they wrote, in apparent astonishment, that someone had conversed with a Jew “in broad daylight” or “in the fifth year of National Socialism” or visited a Jewish shop “on November 10, !”
There was clearly a great deal of anti-Semitism in German society, but there was a great deal of prejudice against every minority group in most countries of the period. Streicher was quite willing to engage in Catholic-baiting when the opportunity arose, but while this low-level bigotry provided the tinder, by itself, without the stoking of men like Streicher, it was not itself “eliminationist.” Bytwerk writes:
“When Goldhagen argues that most Germans were eliminationist anti-Semites, he overstates the case. Some Stürmer readers met his definition, but even most of them disliked Jews without giving evidence of wanting to kill them. Increasing numbers of villages announced themselves “free of Jews,” but readers who reported that fact did not seem concerned that their former Jewish neighbors, though relocated, were still alive. Those very readers provided evidence in their letters that they were not typical of the German population as a whole. In denouncing their decent and compassionate fellow citizens, they felt themselves members of a crusade that lacked universal support and predicted it would take a long time before they could win the struggle to remake all Germans to their anti-Semitic image. Hitler found his willing executioners— a number ample enough to slaughter millions— but he did not have the whole citizenry of Germany from which to choose.”
Streicher was kicked out of Nazi leadership by the mid to late 1930s, due to his own inability to get along with other Nazis and his own corruption. He did continue to publish the Sturmer, although as Jews either emigrated or deported, there was less material for his paper. In addition, during the war, the Sturmer operated under paper restrictions. The Sturmer’s heyday was over by the time the war started and its circulation was in substantial decline.
Because of his own incompetence, Streicher was never given the opportunity to directly participate in the Holocaust or in war crimes like the other old Nazis. Nonetheless, Streicher was hanged with them, refusing to apologize for his involvement and braying out his loyalty to Hitler in his last breath. I will shed no tears for this waste of human life, but I am not certain that Streicher should have been hanged. He was a miserable human being and he poisoned the minds of Germans, and he made the Holocaust possible with his propaganda, but, ultimately, weren’t his crimes a matter of speech and argument? Do we hang people for political ideas? If so, shouldn’t we be throwing Communists and racists in jail before they get political power?
This is a surprising, good book. Because of its focus on someone who turned out to be a minor actor, it was able to get deeper into the background of the period. I recommend it highly to those who are interested in political science or the dark arts of propaganda.