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Nazi Propaganda in the UB

By Reinbert Krol, lecturer in Modern History

Swastikas, anvils, swords, wreaths, images of labourers, poems and quotes by great poets and philosophers. At the UB’s Special Collections department, I leaf through piles of illustrated posters that were spread among the population in Nazi Germany as Wochenspruch der NSDAP (the NSDAP weekly slogan). A new propaganda poster was printed every week between July 1937 and April 1945. Slogans such as Der Führer hat immer Recht (‘the Führer is always right’) hence found their places on the walls of ministries, town halls, schools, restaurants, hospitals, offices and work spaces. These posters were also printed in the Netherlands during the occupation. Here, they were entitled Parool van de Arbeidsweek (slogan of the working week).

I looked into these posters at the request of Professor Bernd Sösemann from Berlin. He researches these propaganda posters and asked me whether the Dutch posters had been preserved. Once in a while, a single copy is offered at an online auction, but most of these posters can be found in the UB in Groningen and at the NIOD (Institute for War, Genocide and Holocaust Studies). The NIOD archives host approximately 70 copies, which may become available online at some point. The UG Special Collections department also owns over 70 copies. As far as I was able to find out, Groningen is the only university library that owns such a collection.

As the title of the poster series indicates, the attractively designed prints were aimed at labourers: they were intended to convince them to rally behind national socialism. Besides the anonymous texts, most of the quotes and sayings come from famous German figures: Frederick the Great, Beethoven, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Goethe, Schiller, Bismarck, Fontane, Moltke, Hindenburg, Treitschke, Wagner, Hitler, Goebbels, Ribbentrop, Göring. For the Dutch versions, quotes from anti-revolutionary politician Groen van Prinsterer, poet and writer Vondel (who was actually born in Cologne), the South-African Boer general and politician De Wet and NSB (national socialist movement) leaders Woudenberg and Mussert were used as well. Remarkably, texts from socialist poets such as Henriette Roland-Holst and Margot Vos were also used.

The use of socialist texts has to do with the history of the development of the Nederlands Arbeidsfront (NAF; Dutch Labour Front), which was partially responsible for the publication of the Parool van de Arbeidsweek. The NAF was intended to replace the socialist worker’s unions. Because the German occupiers initially tried to gain the support of the Dutch population, it is likely that they used socialist texts on purpose; in other words, they tried to convince people that their socialist ideals were in line with, or could be replaced by, national socialism.

Browsing through the pile of posters, it quickly became clear to me that this weekly propaganda will not have left the world views and political views of the Dutch population unmoved. They are a source that clearly shows how refined the propaganda machine was – not just through its partial use of quotes from Dutch people but also through the choice of quotes that were clearly aimed at a broad layer of society, such as De eerbied voor den arbeid is de kracht van het volk (‘the veneration of labour is the strength of the people’, anonymous), or: Slechts arbeid verjaagt angst en zorgen (‘only labour drives away fear and worry’, anonymous). Or, more strongly put, Wie zijn volk liefheeft, kan dit bewijzen door de offers die hij er voor brengen wil (‘the man who loves his nation can prove the sincerity of this sentiment only by being ready to make sacrifices for the nation’s welfare’, Hitler), and a well-known one: Gij zijt niets – uw volk is alles! (‘you are nothing – your nation is everything’, Hitler).

At least as surprising as the appropriation of socialist poets are Goethe’s quotes in this context: Men kan in ware vrijheid leven en toch niet ongebonden zijn (‘man can live in true freedom and yet not be unattached’). For its use in propaganda, this quote was completely stripped of the context of Goethe’s ethics and his Bildung ideals. It was then applied in the context of an ideology that is a far reach from what this poet stood for: humanism and global citizenship.

In short, these posters are a remarkable find in Groningen’s UB and, above all, they are of historic importance. Further research is needed; it is, for example, doubtful whether socialists and antifascists like Vos and Roland-Holst were aware that their texts were used in this way. Also unknown is whether they protested against this. Moreover, it is important to know where these posters were read and what the relative impact of them was on the local inhabitants. For example, was using quotes from Goethe and Schiller successful in the Netherlands, or did Dutch authors have more impact? And did all these quotes actually originate from these authors?

Furthermore, research into the function and functioning of propaganda is valuable in times of fake news, alternative facts and post-truth. How critical are we in regards to current political language (framing) and the digital posters on (social) media that accompany them?

Special thanks to Professor Bernd Sösemann. The working title of his book, which will be published in the coming autumn:

  • NS-Mobilisierungsstrategien im Alltag. Das Propagandamedium „Wochenspruch der NSDAP“ 1937 – 1945.
    Erster Band: Monografie, Dokumentation und Hilfsmittel
    Zweiter Band: Teilband I Edition der Gau- und Reichsausgaben, 1937-1938/39
    Teilband II Edition der Gau- und Reichsausgaben, 1939-1945

The volumes consist of roughly 2,000 manuscript pages and will be published in autumn 2020 by Franz Steiner Verlag (Stuttgart) as part of the series Beiträge zur Kommunikationsgeschichte.

German images: Arbeitsstelle für Kommunikationsgeschichte und interkulturelle Publizistik (AKiP), Sammlung Bernd Sösemann, Freie Universität Berlin.

Dutch images: University Library Groningen, Hallema Archive

I also wish to thank Tobias van der Knaap of the IISG and Femke Jacobs of the NIOD in Amsterdam.

  • Translation: University of Groningen Language Centre, Translation & Correction Service
Last modified:28 April 2020 3.51 p.m.
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