Ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make: I did not want to write this post. I also did not want to write the post about the Reichstag Fire back in February.
Nazism infuriates me more than anything in the world. The mere mention of the Third Reich puts me in a bad mood for days, sometimes weeks. I do not exaggerate.
So why am I bothering with it here? As a German-American who is fully immersed in researching German history and the arts, I feel that I must. It is a dark part of German history that I cannot ignore, even though i would like to.
What Was Nazi Propaganda?
Propaganda was essential for the Nazis to obtain power and control people. They used posters, books, films, and other materials to show off their so-called “superiority” and cut down anyone they considered an enemy or political suspect. They used these things to sway public opinion in their favor, essentially scaring people into supporting them.
If you did not submit, you died. Plain and simple.
Many Germans, such as actors William Dieterle, Conrad Veidt and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, openly defied the Nazis and barely escaped with their lives. They were forced out of Germany and had to plant roots in countries far away from the Fatherland, where people did not speak their language or share their culture.
Propaganda Films Destroyed the Careers of Some German Film Stars
It was not unusual for actors who starred in films for Universum Film AG (Ufa) to become members of the Nazi Party (NSDAP). Some, such as Werner Krauss (best known for playing Dr. Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), were big supporters of the Nazis, while some, such as Willy Fritsch (best known for his popular teaming with Lilian Harvey), were simply members and that was that. They did not make a huge fuss about it.
And association with the Nazis indeed destroyed the careers of some of the biggest and brightest German film stars. Two of the biggest examples are Emil Jannings and Leni Riefenstahl.
Emil Jannings was the first person to win an Oscar for his roles in The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. (Fun Fact: Rin Tin Tin was actually the favorite for Best Actor, but the academy didn’t want to look foolish giving the Oscar to a dog.)
A truly gifted actor, Jannings’ portly presence onscreen was a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately when the talkies hit Hollywood, his thick German accent killed his career there. Back in Germany, he starred in a long string of Nazi Propaganda films that, by 1945, killed his career for good.
By the end of World War II, he frantically went around clutching his Oscar, trying to salvage what was left of his fame, but it was too late. He was blacklisted and forced into retirement.
In her heyday, Leni Riefenstahl was an extremely popular German actress and dancer. Not only was she gifted onscreen, she was fabulous behind it, too. Unfortunately it was what she could do behind the screen that was her downfall.
In 1932, she met Adolf Hitler and embarked on a career she later came to deeply regret. Hitler admired her work and she was hypnotized by his powerful presence.
She became a faithful National Socialist and willingly took on the role as the director for propaganda films, notably Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) in 1935, a documentary about the Nazi Congress in Nuremberg.
Her film career did not suffer the way Jannings’s did. Indeed, she often received praise outside of Germany for her skills as a filmmaker, but she was (and still is) saddled with the black mark of Nazism and propaganda. A sad thing to be known for when she could have been known for so much more.
What can be said about why so many German stars submitted to Nazi control? Were they evil people (as some would like to think)? Were they gullible? Were they afraid of what would happen to them and their families if they did not do as they were told? Or was there another reason things happened the way they did?
Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!