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The art of making history 

The Nazis' sophisticated propaganda machine, artists' reactions to the 2008 financial crisis: How your political history gets made, then and now.

It's been 80 years since the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany. It all seems pretty improbable now, that a political party whose main platform was eliminating Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other "undesirables," led by a shrill man with a toothbrush mustache, could attain, let alone maintain, absolute power, and do it so quickly—between 1928 and 1932, the Nazi constituency in the 500-member German parliament grew from 12 to 230. But as the new Field Museum exhibit "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda" shows, Adolf Hitler and his propaganda officers were masters at graphic design and niche marketing and at harnessing new technology to spread their messages.

"They were able to sell Hitler and Nazi ideals to people who wouldn't have normally bought into it," says United States Holocaust Memorial Museum curator Steven Luckert, who created the exhibit. "They went from obscurity to prominence in just a couple of years. No other political party in history has ever done this."

Hitler himself was obsessed with propaganda. He studied the work of the Allies during World War I and the Italian Fascists. The more lucid chapters in Mein Kampf, Luckert says, are discourses on the art of influencing public opinion.

In its early years, the Nazi Party portrayed itself as all-inclusive, with an everyman leader in Hitler, a patriot who had fought for the German army in World War I even though he technically didn't give up his Austrian citizenship until shortly before he became president. "It didn't matter if you were an aristocrat or a farmer, a Protestant or a Catholic," says Luckert. "This was new in German politics."

The Nazi propaganda machine kept close tabs on public opinion and tailored its messages accordingly. In areas where polls showed that residents weren't especially interested in the "Jewish question," for example, it played down its anti-Semitism and emphasized other issues people said were important to them. It was only after the Nazis rose to power and eliminated all other political opposition that their propaganda began targeting Jews as the enemy.

They also knew how to make their message look good. "The 20s and 30s in Europe was the golden age of poster design," says Janet Hong, the Field's project manager for exhibitions. "The posters still look so modern. It takes you aback."

click to enlarge The Nazi Party pamphlet "Hitler Over Germany," made for Hitler's 1932 presidential campaign - © U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM/PHOTO BY HEINRICH HOFFMANN
  • The Nazi Party pamphlet "Hitler Over Germany," made for Hitler's 1932 presidential campaign
  • © U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/photo by Heinrich Hoffmann

But more importantly, the Nazis embraced any technology available to them. Hitler traveled by airplane instead of rail; flying made him appear dashing and heroic, and it also allowed him to speak to thousands of people in multiple cities in a single day. He hired skilled filmmakers, most notoriously Leni Riefenstahl, to produce movies proclaiming the greatness of the Aryan race. Nazi directors experimented with 3-D film, and Germany became the first country to introduce television in 1935. And, crucially, the Nazis dominated the radio airwaves.

"In 1933, they took control over broadcasting," says Luckert. "They purged broadcasting of political undesirables. They worked with manufacturers to create inexpensive radios so more Germans could listen to the radio, people who had never owned a radio before. This makes people feel indebted to you. They also understood if they had political propaganda on all the time, people would shut it off. So they combined it with entertainment. Their broadcasts were 70 percent music. People were more susceptible to the message after listening to music."

Propaganda was so integral a part of the Nazi regime that its perpetrators, including Julius Streicher, publisher of the newspaper Der Stürmer, and Hans Fritzsche, head of the propaganda ministry's radio division, were tried as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. The Allies were careful to remove all signs of Nazi propaganda from postwar Germany and made its distribution illegal.

Since it opened nearly five years ago, "State of Deception" has been one of the most popular exhibits at the Holocaust Museum. "It raises important issues about the role propaganda played for the Nazis," says Luckert, "but it also gets visitors thinking about their own role as consumers of information."

From Money to Burn, a performance by Dread Scott - DEXTER JONES
  • From Money to Burn, a performance by Dread Scott
  • Dexter Jones

The history at Gallery 400 is of a more recent vintage: the show "It's the Political Economy, Stupid," the first in a series called "Standard of Living," focuses on the 2008 financial crisis.

"All of the artists either responded to or made art coinciding with the collapse of 2008," says Lorelei Stewart, the gallery director. "They show the political, economic, psychological, and emotional ramifications of the collapse and also the threads that created it." The 16 pieces in "It's the Political Economy, Stupid" are mostly video, and mostly created by American and European artists. The two curators, Gregory Sholette, an American, and Oliver Ressler, an Austrian, originally created the exhibit for the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York.

The pieces here deal with how the recession has affected, or interfered with, the daily lives of ordinary people. Ohio artist Julia Christensen, for instance, traveled the country documenting how various communities repurposed big-box stores after the bad economy forced them to close (Austin, Minnesota, for instance, turned its abandoned K-Mart into the Spam Museum); her photos will be on display as a slide show. Other work is closer to performance art: in Money to Burn, Dread Scott filmed himself burning dollar bills on Wall Street until the police came to arrest him.

Some of the pieces address the financial crisis metaphorically. Homo Homini Lupus, a video by the Italian artist Filippo Berta that takes its name from a Latin proverb that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed summed up human behavior (it translates as "Man is a wolf to man"), shows wolves tearing the Italian flag to pieces. It takes them 37 seconds.

There will be three more "Standard of Living" shows over the next two years, but Stewart isn't yet sure what they'll include. She's organized two meetings in November (the first is at 2 PM on Saturday, November 2, at the gallery) for curators, community organizers, scholars, and other interested individuals to discuss which issues to address in the upcoming exhibitions.

"'Standard of Living' is about financial issues," says Stewart, "about labor and work. How does one live a sustainable life in this economy? It's a community-influenced curated project. If the group in November says they're interested in the minimum wage, that's where we'll focus our curating. We'll find artists doing work related to the issues. It's an evolving conversation.

"I'm looking forward to how this project will span two years and build on itself," she continues. "We want to create a forum for people to think about their own activism and create a dialogue."

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