“Common sense could not understand that it was possible to exterminate tens and hundreds of thousands of Jews,” —Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw
Propaganda was as an important tool to win over the majority of the German public who had not supported Adolf Hitler. It served to push forward the Nazis' radical program, which required the acquiescence, support, or participation of broad sectors of the population.
Combined with terror to intimidate those who did not comply, a new state propaganda apparatus headed by Joseph Goebbels manipulated and deceived the German population and the outside world. Propagandists preached an appealing message of national unity and a utopian future that resonated with millions of Germans. They also waged campaigns that facilitated the persecution of Jews and others excluded from the Nazi vision of the “National Community.”
Propaganda, Foreign Policy, and Conspiring to Wage War
Rearmament was a key element of German national policy after the Nazi takeover in early 1933, as it was under the democratic Weimar government. German leaders hoped to achieve this goal without causing preventive military intervention by France, Great Britain, or the states on Germany's eastern borders, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The regime also did not want to frighten a German population anxious about another European war. The specter of World War I and the deaths of 2 million German soldiers in that conflict still haunted popular memory.
Throughout the 1930s, Hitler portrayed Germany as a victimized nation, held in bondage by the chains of the post-World War I Versailles Treaty and denied the right of national self-determination.
Wartime propagandists universally justify the use of military violence by portraying it as morally defensible and necessary. To do otherwise would jeopardize public morale and faith in the government and its armed forces. Throughout World War II, Nazi propagandists disguised military aggression aimed at territorial conquest as righteous and necessary acts of self-defense. They cast Germany as a victim or potential victim of foreign aggressors, as a peace-loving nation forced to take up arms to protect its populace or defend European civilization against Communism.
The war aims professed at each stage of the hostilities almost always disguised Nazi intentions of territorial expansion and racial warfare. This was propaganda of deception, designed to fool or misdirect the populations in Germany, German-occupied lands, and the neutral countries.
Preparing the Nation for War
In summer 1939, as Adolf Hitler and his aides finalized plans for the invasion of Poland, the public mood in Germany was tense and fearful. Germans were emboldened by the recent dramatic extension of Germany's borders into neighboring Austria and Czechoslovakia without having fired a shot; but they did not line the streets calling for war, as the generation of 1914 had done.
Before the German attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, the Nazi regime launched an aggressive media campaign to build public support for a war that few Germans desired. To present the invasion as a morally justifiable, defensive action, the German press played up “Polish atrocities,” referring to real or alleged discrimination and physical violence directed against ethnic Germans living in Poland. The press deplored Polish “warmongering” and “chauvinism,” and also attacked the British for encouraging war by promising to defend Poland in the event of German invasion.
The Nazi regime even staged a border incident designed to make it appear that Poland initiated hostilities. On August 31, 1939, SS men dressed in Polish army uniforms “attacked” a German radio station at Gleiwitz (Gliwice). The next day, Hitler announced to the German nation and the world his decision to send troops into Poland in response to Polish “incursions” into the Reich. The Nazi Party Reich Press Office instructed the press to avoid the use of the word war. They were to report that German troops had simply beaten back Polish attacks, a tactic designed to define Germany as the victim of aggression. The responsibility for declaring war would be left to the British and French.
In an effort to shape public opinion at home and abroad, the Nazi propaganda machine played up stories of new “Polish atrocities” once the war began. They publicized attacks on ethnic Germans in towns such as Bromberg (Bydgoszcz). There, fleeing Polish civilians and military personnel killed between 5,000 and 6,000 ethnic Germans, whom they had perceived, in the heat of the invasion, to be fifth column traitors, spies, Nazis, or snipers. By exaggerating the actual number of ethnic German victims killed in Bromberg and other towns to 58,000, Nazi propaganda enflamed passions, providing “justification” for the numbers of civilians that the Germans intended to kill.
Nazi propagandists convinced some Germans that the invasion of Poland and subsequent occupation policies were justified. For many others, the propaganda reinforced deep-seated anti-Polish sentiment. German soldiers who served in Poland after the invasion wrote letters home,reflecting support for German military intervention to defend ethnic Germans. Some soldiers expressed their disdain and contempt for the “criminality” and “sub-humanity” of the Poles, and others viewed the resident Jewish population with disgust, comparing Polish Jews to antisemitic images they recalled from Der Stürmer or the exhibition entitled the “Eternal Jew,” and, later, from the film of the same name.
Newsreels also became central to German Propaganda Minister Goebbels's efforts to form and manipulate public opinion during the war. To exercise greater control over newsreel content after the war began, the Nazi regime consolidated the country's various competing newsreel companies into one, the Deutsche Wochenschau (German Weekly Perspective). Goebbels actively helped create each newsreel installment, even editing or revising scripts. Twelve to eighteen hours of film footage shot by professional photographers and delivered to Berlin each week by courier were edited down to 20 to 40 minutes. Distribution of newsreels was greatly expanded as the number of copies of each episode increased from 400 to 2,000, and dozens of foreign language versions (including Swedish and Hungarian) were produced. Mobile cinema trucks brought the newsreels to rural areas of Germany.
The Propaganda of Deception
On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland. The war the Nazi regime unleashed would bring untold human suffering and losses. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in summer 1941, Nazi anti-Jewish policies took a radical turn to genocide.
The decision to annihilate the European Jews was announced at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 to key high-level Nazi Party, SS, and German state officials, whose agencies would contribute to implementing a Europe-wide “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Following the conference, Nazi Germany implemented genocide on a continental scale with the deportation of Jews from all over Europe to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and other killing centers in German-occupied Poland
The Nazi leadership aimed to deceive the German population, the victims, and the outside world regarding their genocidal policy toward Jews. What did ordinary Germans know about the persecution and mass murder of Jews? Despite the public broadcast and publication of general statements about the goal of eliminating “the Jews,” the regime practiced a propaganda of deception by hiding specific details about the “Final Solution,” and press controls prevented Germans from reading statements by Allied and Soviet leaders condemning German crimes.
At the same time, positive stories were fabricated as part of the planned deception. One booklet printed in 1941 glowingly reported that, in occupied Poland, German authorities had put Jews to work, built clean hospitals, set up soup kitchens for Jews, and provided them with newspapers and vocational training. Posters and articles continually reminded the German population not to forget the atrocity stories that Allied propaganda spread about Germans during the First World War, such as the false charge that Germans had cut off the hands of Belgian children.
The perpetrators also hid their murderous intentions from many of the victims. Before and after the fact, the Germans used deceptive euphemisms to explain and justify deportations of Jews from their homes to ghettos or transit camps, and from the ghettos and camps to the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other killing centers. German officials stamped “evacuated,” a word with neutral connotations, on the passports of Jews deported from the Germany and Austria to the “model” ghetto at Theresienstadt, near Prague, or to ghettos in the East. German bureaucrats characterized deportations from the ghettos as “resettlements,” though such “resettlement” usually ended in death.
Nazi Propaganda about the Ghettos
A recurrent theme in Nazi antisemitic propaganda was that Jews spread diseases.
To prevent non-Jews from attempting to enter the ghettos and from seeing the condition of daily life there for themselves, German authorities posted quarantine signs at the entrances, warning of the danger of contagious disease. Since inadequate sanitation and water supplies coupled with starvation rations quickly undermined the health of the Jews in the ghettos, these warnings became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as typhus and other infectious diseases ravaged ghetto populations. Subsequent Nazi propaganda utilized these man-made epidemics to justify isolating the “filthy” Jews from the larger population.
Theresienstadt: A Propaganda Hoax
One of the most notorious Nazi efforts at deception was the establishment in November 1941 of a camp-ghetto for Jews in Terezín, in the Czech province of Bohemia. Known by its German name Theresienstadt, this facility functioned both as a ghetto for elderly and prominent Jews from Germany, Austria, and the Czech lands, and as a transit camp for the Czech Jews residing in the German-controlled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
Anticipating that some Germans might find the official story that Jews were being sent to the East to perform labor to be implausible in reference to elderly Jews, disabled war veterans, and prominent musicians or artists, the Nazi regime cynically publicized the existence of Theresienstadt as a residential community, where elderly or disabled German and Austrian Jews could "retire" and live out their lives in peace and safety. This fiction was invented for domestic consumption within the Greater German Reich. In reality, the ghetto served as a transit camp for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in German-occupied Poland, and killing sites in the German-occupied Baltic States and Belarussia.
In 1944, succumbing to pressure from the International Red Cross and the Danish Red Cross following the deportation of nearly 400 Danish Jews to Theresienstadt in the autumn of 1943, SS officials permitted Red Cross representatives to visit Theresienstadt. By this time, news of the mass murder of Jews had reached the world press and Germany was losing the war. As an elaborate hoax, the SS authorities accelerated deportations from the ghetto shortly before the visit, and ordered the remaining prisoners to "beautify" the ghetto: prisoners had to plant gardens, paint houses, and renovate barracks. The SS authorities staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries. After the Red Cross officials left, the SS resumed deportations from Theresienstadt, which did not end until October 1944. In all, the Germans deported nearly 90,000 German, Austrian, Czech, Slovak, Dutch, and Hungarian Jews from the camp-ghetto to killing sites and centers in the “East”; only a few thousand survived. More than 30,000 more prisoners died in Theresienstadt itself, mostly from disease or starvation.
The Red Cross Visit to Theresienstadt
By 1944 most of the international community knew about the concentration camps and were aware that the Germans and their Axis partners brutally mistreated prisoners in them, but exact details about living conditions in these camps were unclear.
In 1944, Danish Red Cross officials, who, given alarming reports circulating about the fate of the Jews under Nazi rule, were concerned about the nearly 400 Danish Jews deported to Theresienstadt by the Germans in the autumn of 1943, demanded that the International Red Cross, headquartered in Switzerland, investigate living conditions in the camp-ghetto. After considerable stalling, German authorities agreed to permit a Red Cross inspection of the camp-ghetto in June 1944.
Information gathered during this investigation would be reported to the world. Newspapers in the US and throughout the world covered aspects of the Red Cross investigation.
Propaganda Film: Lens on Theresienstadt
As early as December 1943 SS officials in the Office for Jewish Emigration in Prague, an affiliate of the Reich Main Office for Security, decided to make a film about the camp. Much of it taken during the summer after the Red Cross visit, the footage depicts ghetto prisoners going to concerts, playing soccer, working in family gardens, and relaxing in the barracks and outside in the sunshine. The SS forced inmates to serve as writers, actors, set designers, editors, and composers. Many children participated in the film in return for food, including milk and sweets, which they normally did not receive.
The purpose of the mid-level officials in the RSHA in making the film is not entirely clear. Perhaps it was meant for international consumption for, in 1944, German audiences might have wondered why ghetto residents appeared to live a better, more luxurious life than many Germans in wartime. In the end, the SS only completed the film in March 1945, and never showed it. Indeed, the complete film did not survive the war.
As with other efforts to deceive the German population and the wider world, the Nazi regime benefited from the unwillingness of the average human being to grasp the dimensions of these crimes. Leaders of Jewish resistance organizations, for example, tried to warn ghetto residents of the German intentions, but even those who heard about the killing centers did not necessary believe what they had heard. “Common sense could not understand that it was possible to exterminate tens and hundreds of thousands of Jews,” Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, observed.
Propaganda to the Bigger End
The Soviet victory in defense of Moscow on December 6, 1941, and the German declaration of war against the United States five days later, on December 11, ensured a protracted military conflict. After the catastrophic German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, the challenge of maintaining popular support for the war became even more daunting for Nazi propagandists. Germans increasingly could not reconcile official news stories with reality, and many turned to foreign radio broadcasts for accurate information. With moviegoers beginning to reject the newsreels as blatant propaganda, Goebbels even ordered theaters to lock their doors before projecting the weekly episode, forcing viewers to watch it if they wanted to see the feature film.
Until the very end of the war, Nazi propagandists kept public attention focused on what would happen to Germany in event of defeat. The Propaganda Ministry particularly exploited the leak of a postwar plan for Germany's economy developed in 1944 by Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury in the Roosevelt administration. Morgenthau envisioned stripping Germany of its heavy industry and returning the country to an agrarian economy. Such stories, which achieved some success in stiffening resistance as Allied troops moved into Germany, were aimed at intensifying fear of capitulation, encouraging fanaticism, and urging continued destruction of the enemy.
Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC
In recent years, many victims of violence have written memoirs in which they seek out and confront the perpetrators who harmed them. The opposite is rare. Few perpetrators seek out their victims, let alone write books about them. But fifty years ago this month, Melita Maschmann, a former Nazi, published just such a book.
“Fazit,” which was translated as “Account Rendered” in 1964, is the memoir of a woman who, as a fifteen-year-old and against her family’s wishes, joined the Hitler Youth. Before and during the Second World War, Maschmann worked in the high echelons of press and propaganda of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Nazi youth organization, and, later, she supervised the eviction of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms. Arrested in 1945 at the age of twenty-seven, she completed a mandatory de-Nazification course and became a freelance journalist.
Soon after her release from internment in 1948, Maschmann wrote a letter to a Jewish former classmate with whom she had the kind of passionate friendship common among adolescent girls. She didn’t know if her friend had made it out of Berlin before the war, or if her mother (whose address she had obtained) would pass the letter on. “I don’t know if it reached you,” the author writes. “Since then I have often continued my conversation with you, awake and in dreams, but I have never tried to write any of it down. Now, today, I feel impelled to do so. I was prompted to this by a trivial incident. A woman spoke to me in the street and the way she held her head suddenly reminded me quite strikingly of you. But what is the real reason which made me sit down and write to you as soon as I came in? Perhaps in the intervening years I have, without being aware of it, prepared an account within me which must be presented.”
“Account Rendered” is written in the form of a second book-length letter. “With you as a witness,” the author writes, in a painful, exhaustive, seemingly scrupulous portrait of her younger self, “I should like to try once more to go over the result of my reflections on the past. You will compel me to be much more precise than I could be if left to myself.”
Maschmann is acutely aware that her friend might view her project as self-justifying, but writes, “Even the element of fate in a person’s life does not dispose of individual guilt, I know that. What I hope, dare to hope, is that you might be able to understand—not excuse—the wrong and even evil steps which I took and which I must report, and that such an understanding might form the basis for a lasting dialogue.”
Maschmann elaborated on her purpose to Hannah Arendt in 1963, in a letter that expressed her desire to help former Nazi colleagues reflect on their actions, and to help others “better understand” why people like her had been drawn to Hitler. (Their brief correspondence can be read online.)
A deft writer and practiced propagandist who understood the power of a vivid quote, detail, or anecdote, Maschmann portrayed herself as a girl who came of age in a culture imbued with the shame of Germany’s defeat in the First World War. “Before I understood the meaning of the word ‘Germany,’ I loved it as something mysteriously overshadowed with grief…,” she writes. Her wealthy parents, avid newspaper readers and members of the conservative German National Party, complained about “the chaotic squabbling of Parliament” and the millions of people out of work, but had a sign affixed to their door that read “No Hawkers or Beggars.” Melita sympathized with them, and with the maid, chauffeur, and house seamstress. The latter wore an embossed metal swastika under the lapel of her coat, spoke movingly of Hitler, and was instrumental in Melita’s resolve “to follow a different road from the conservative one prescribed for me by family tradition.” The book documents twelve years of following that road.
“Account Rendered” appeared at a time when Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” was making its way into public conversation, and while the West German parliament was debating the statute of limitations on crimes committed by Nazis. Some critics found the text candid and forthright; others considered it defensive, prevaricating, and melodramatic. Some of Maschmann’s former colleagues, Nazis who were issued kerosene with which to burn their documents at the end of the war, viewed it as a betrayal, and never forgave her for writing it.
In Germany, the book went through eight editions (the last in 1987) and was added to high-school reading lists in some school districts. It became part of Germany’s private, public, and scholarly debates over its own history. Historians of the Nazi period—Daniel Goldhagen and Claudia Koonz, among others—used “Account Rendered” as a primary source. Women’s studies researchers tried to discover in it the mentality of a female perpetrator. Students of memoir used the text to showcase the vagaries of personal narrative; sociologists looked for a relation between the literary work and the cultural setting from which it arose. Some readers questioned Maschmann’s reliability as a narrator, her motivation, and whether or not she was representative of ordinary Germans. They theorized about the Jewish friend to whom the memoir is addressed: Was she a construct, a composite, or a reality?
No one could answer those questions, because soon after the book’s publication, its author effectively disappeared from public view. She had found a guru, Sri Anandamayi Ma, a woman venerated as a “living saint,” in India. Maschmann took a Hindu name, lived in Indian ashrams, and returned to Germany only on brief family visits every two or three years.
I had never heard of Melita Maschmann until a friend, the former editor Arthur Samuelson, described “Account Rendered” as one of the most interesting memoirs he had ever read. My husband and I republish classic non-fiction as e-books at Plunkett Lake Press, and we were intrigued. “I found in the memoir someone who had been overtaken by history,” Samuelson told me. “Someone who was struggling to make sense of what no longer made sense, and to understand why it had once done so. And someone whose best self had been attracted to Nazism.”
We read the book and began to research its history.
First, we located Maschmann’s remaining family in Germany and France. According to her sister-in-law, now in her nineties, Maschmann had trouble finding friends and establishing a postwar life. She travelled, took some university courses, and freelanced for newspapers. In 1962, she toured Afghanistan and India and, after publishing her memoir, decided to leave Germany.
Among the scholars who continue to be intrigued by Maschmann is Dagmar Reese, the author of “Growing Up Female in Nazi Germany.” She recalled that she had come across a footnote in an essay by the late Irmgard Klönne suggesting that Maschmann’s Jewish friend was not a literary construct but an actual person: Marianne Schweitzer, the daughter of the physician Ernst Schweitzer and Franziska Körte Schweitzer of Berlin. We located her at her home in La Jolla, California, and she almost hung up when we called, thinking we were telemarketers.
At ninety-five, Schweitzer is an impressively sharp, brisk, and busy woman, who attends a weekly yoga class and still volunteers at the San Diego Museum of Man. She told us that in the spring of 1933, when she had just turned fifteen and was failing Latin and math, her mother had her transferred to a new high school, where Melita became her best friend. They did their homework together, discussed literature, and exchanged confidences. “Melita was quick, articulate, and gregarious—a joiner,” Schweitzer recalled. “She was bored at home with her conventional and conservative parents, and joining the Nazis was a way for her to rebel against them. I came from a more progressive, artistic family, and I was more of a loner, a listener and observer.”
At first, Marianne and Melita agreed about politics. “We were both idealistic Weltverbesserer who wanted to make the world better, except that she wanted to improve the German Nazi world while I wanted to improve all of mankind. Gradually, these discussions erupted into serious conflict. Melita joined the B.D.M., the Hitler youth organization for girls, and became what I call a hundred-and-fifty-per-cent Nazi. I was horrified. She persuaded me to attend meetings where Hitler would speak; her intent was to have me convert. I told her in no uncertain terms that he sounded like a hysterical fanatic and that I couldn’t understand how an educated, highly intelligent person like her could possibly be impressed by him. She told me that I was not able to appreciate his greatness because I had Jewish blood.”
Eighty years later, Marianne recalls that she found this remark ridiculous. Until 1932, she hadn’t known she “had Jewish blood.” The Schweitzers observed Christmas and Easter, and belonged to the Lutheran Church. Her mother’s family was Aryan by Hitler’s standards, but that year her father revealed that his parents were Jews who had been baptized as adults. The family’s prospects dramatically changed.
As a Mischling, or “half-Jew,” Marianne was allowed to remain in school. In 1936, Melita suddenly disappeared. Marianne recalls being devastated that Melita had left without a word, and pressed Dr. Flashar, their favorite teacher, for answers. The Maschmanns, she explained, had decided that Melita needed more rigorous academic preparation for her Abitur (end-of-school exam), and had transferred her to a boarding school. (In the memoir, Maschmann writes that they sent her away to curtail her Nazi activities.)
In the fall of 1937, Melita reappeared to the Schweitzers, asking to renew the friendship. In “Account Rendered,” she admits that the Gestapo had enlisted her to spy on the family, who were suspected of hosting an anti-Nazi group in their home.
On the evening of November 1st, a contingent of Gestapo men entered and searched the Schweitzers’ house. There was no secret meeting, but Marianne’s older sister was arrested for conspiracy to commit high treason and was sent to a concentration camp, where she remained until July, 1938. Their mother was also arrested, and was released after a week. “I fetched her from prison and will never forget how shabby she looked and how badly she smelled,” Marianne wrote me. “I still feel ashamed to have been so repelled by her appearance.”
During Kristallnacht, in November, 1938, Ernst Schweitzer was arrested and badly beaten, and Franziska Körte Schweitzer redoubled her efforts to get the family out of Germany. Most of them wanted to remain in Berlin, but Marianne, remembering family friends who had visited from America when she was a child, had long dreamed about California. She and her father left for England in 1939, and Marianne learned of the outbreak of the Second World War onboard an ocean liner to New York. Her elder sister stayed behind, married an Aryan, and gave birth to two children before the war’s end. One of their brothers died fighting for Germany on the Russian front. Her parents and remaining brother got to New York by the end of the war. During those six years, Marianne went to school. She attended Bryn Mawr on a scholarship for three years, graduated, then obtained a master’s in anthropology from Yale in 1945. She had married and was forgetting her German when, in October of 1948, her mother passed on Melita’s first letter.
“Eleven years of world history have passed,” Melita wrote. “Then we were children, now we are people who have been marked by life… Is it possible to go back to the great friendship of our youth?”
Marianne doesn’t remember exactly how she felt when she received the letter, but she did not answer it. In February, June, and August of 1950, she received more letters, in which Melita confessed to spying and wrote, “I have always been ashamed about what happened in 1937.” And “I am happy that you are in the U.S. and say nix to all things German while I try to heal the breaks with people and renew our friendship.”
In 1954, Marianne moved to Panama, where her husband worked for a U.N. agency and she taught German at the National University. In 1963, she and several other Latin American German instructors were invited by the Goethe Institute to visit Germany. Melita had maintained contact with members of Marianne’s family who had remained there; she begged Marianne to visit. In the spring of 1963, just before “Account Rendered” was published, Melita handed the manuscript to Marianne, who read it and stayed at Melita’s home that night to discuss it.
“To say our meeting did not go too well would be an understatement,” Marianne told me. “I was utterly shocked by what I read. I hadn’t realized the extent of her activities during the war. I was confused, hurt, overwhelmed, and unable to talk about it. She cried when we said good-bye. I did not. In retrospect, I would say she behaved in a direct, straightforward way, and I did not. I never saw her again.”
Marianne moved back to the United States and, in 1964, became an instructor of German at the University of California. She felt disinclined to enter into the emotional turmoil of a relationship with Melita, “even though she kept on writing to me from India, where she became a disciple of an Indian guru. I rejected her attempts to renew our relationship and, though I remained fond of my German relatives, I rejected Germany.”
Marianne did not write about herself until 2006, when, at the age of eighty-eight, she was going through her papers and came upon Melita’s letters. She extracted what interested her, typed it up, and threw out the originals. “I didn’t think they would be of interest to anyone. I am now very sorry that I didn’t keep at least one. Thinking about it now, eighty years after we met, I can say that Melita’s betrayal and Hitler’s destruction of what I valued in Germany are reasons why I do not think of myself as a German.
“I give her credit for having the courage to write and publish ‘Fazit’ at the time she did. In 1963, nobody I met admitted to having been a Nazi. She may have been the first German, and certainly the first German woman, who tried to face her past with honesty. No other book at that time said, unequivocally, ‘I was a Nazi, and here’s why.’ I am certainly treated well in her memoir, with insight and respect. Melita eventually came to be horrified by Nazism, and I believe she really meant the book as an apology.”
Melita Maschmann died in Germany in 2010, after suffering for over a decade from Alzheimer’s. She never married and had no children.
Helen Epstein blogs for artfuse.org and is the author of six books, including “Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History” and “Children of the Holocaust.” Melita Maschmann’s “Account Rendered” is published by Plunkett Lake Press.
Above: Hulton Archive/Getty