Traveling exhibit emphasizes the impact and power of Nazi propaganda

(Becky Brisley/DD)
Attendees examine a display of Nazi propaganda posters at “State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda,” a traveling U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit, at Burton Barr Central Library. (Becky Brisley/DD)

Political imagery lines the walls, depicting scenes of Nazi morale from the past such as a video of Adolf Hitler waving to adoring followers, violent posters of arms bearing swastikas, and boys in classrooms eager to join the Third Reich.

The images are part of “State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda,” a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum traveling exhibit that is currently on display at Burton Barr Central Library.

The exhibit opened Feb. 20, but the opening reception was held Thursday. JoAnna Wasserman, the education initiatives manager for the Holocaust museum, offered brief remarks and went over exhibit highlights that previewed key themes and topics.

“In recent years, we have made a concerted effort to present exhibits on themes that help visitors think not just about what happened during the Holocaust, but how and why such a devastating event could be possible,” Wasserman said.

The exhibit focuses on four different contexts, which help break down why the propaganda was so impactful to society, Wasserman said. These include: how Nazi propaganda was used to win votes in a democracy and how it offered simple solutions to a nation’s complex problems after World War I, the ways propaganda helped create a “national community” that excluded a massive amount of people, how propaganda was used in wartime to justify persecution and mass murder and, at the end of the exhibit, the challenges facing a society shaped by Nazi propaganda for years that included purging Nazism from a culture.

“Our message to the American public and citizens in our democracy is that it is vitally important to think critically about the media and messages that are all around you,” Wasserman said. “Each of us has a choice and power over our own minds.”

Although the exhibit features the propaganda that appeared to influence citizens, Wasserman said she wanted to make a note that propaganda is not brainwashing and it does not always work. Some reactions of German citizens are highlighted within the exhibit, which portray individuals that disagreed with Nazi ideas and what was taking place in their society.

Rob Wagner, an attendee at the exhibit, said he was reading a biography on Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi German. He was eventually cornered by the Third Reich, imprisoned and sentenced to death days before the war ended.

“He saw what was happening, and it’s fascinating from his point of view,” Wagner said. “For Bonhoeffer, he saw the equality of all people … he became part of the opposition church that had to go underground in order to send his message out.”

Dan Willeford, another attendee at the exhibit, understood the power that the images had on the German population.

“I think it played upon their emotion and the Germans were feeling bad about themselves after World War I ended in their defeat,” Willeford said. “I think the Nazis took advantage of that.”

“State of Deception” was the most popular exhibition in the 20-year history of the museum and more than 1.5 million people saw it in Washington D.C., Wasserman said. The exhibit will be on display at the library until June 1 and several events on the topic will take place throughout, including discussions and a free film series titled “Propaganda through the Decades.”

Two scheduled events will include people associated with the Walter Cronkite School. A discussion on May 7 titled “Do Words Kill? Hate Speech, Propaganda and Incitement to Genocide” will include Weil Family Professor of Journalism Len Downie Jr. Also, “Reporting the Message: Media and Propaganda” on May 8 will include Cronkite faculty.

The exhibit is free and open to the public when the library is open, allowing people to explore the facets of the propaganda that convinced so many to have faith in the Third Reich.

“Just because of the propaganda, Hitler told people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear,” Wagner said. “Desperate people will believe anything that promises hope.”

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