Book Review: Selling Hitler
Propaganda & the Nazi Brand
by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy
Hurst & Company, 2016
Even with nearly a century of retrospect, the ascension of Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany seems more like an improbable nightmare than anything that actually happened. That one of the most cultured, broad-minded and socially sophisticated nations in the world should succumb seemingly overnight to a crude, nativist, no-nothing mob lead by a stiff, pompous, ranting demagogue who somehow contrived to seize power in a keystone European country and then solidify that power through physical intimidation combined with crass jingoism – it all still seems like something that would have been dreamed up by a dystopian author like Philip K. Dick rather than merely lampooned by him.
And yet it really happened, and historians ever since have been trying to figure out how. Theories have ranged from the explicitly procedural – the rocky coalition that actually brought Hitler to power has been analyzed down to its last committee memo – to the more broadly conceptual, addressing the societal paranoia tapped into by Hitler and his Propaganda Minister Goebbels. And there has always been a school of thought seeking to understand the finer points of the use Nazis made of non-physical coercion.
Nicholas O’Shaughnessy’s new book Selling Hitler: Propaganda & the Nazi Brand takes a strong and eloquent look at the landscape of that coercion, its oily opportunism and its dark heart, which he describes with fitting bluntness: “One could not be a Nazi without being a racialist; otherwise the entire ideology made no sense since race consciousness was its foundation, the substructure on which everything else was built.”
Selling Hitler is a thorough, bitter, and entirely virtuoso performance, ranging fluently over all the various mechanisms by which the Nazi propaganda apparatus attempted to create the idea of a nationalist paradise just out of reach, deliverable only by the new order. The mire of economic depression and cultural malaise was the problem, Hitler told his ever-increasing audiences, and I alone can fix it. “In this nirvana,” O’Shaughnessy writes, “the man or woman was cared for and valued as long as they conformed; all individualism was bleached out … Other-hatred was a necessary state in this progression towards a perfect world …”
The book works with smooth and angry confidence to paint a picture of this “symbolism of the bully,” including damning asides on the Nazi appropriation of ideology the Party neither understood nor wanted to understand:
Social Darwinism, as distinct from biological or evolutionary Darwinism, is clearly a myth in the sense that no one ‘race’ (if such a category can be said to exist) is ‘fitter’ than another. However, within this myth system, ideological contradiction and inconsistency was never a problem. The Nazi propagandist manipulated a world of feeling, not analysis, so he was able to deplore racialism in order to achieve a particular rhetorical effect. Such was Nazi humbuggery.
Although it’s not the overt purpose of Selling Hitler to comment on the politics of the day, the resonances are inevitable. The rise of a new strain of virulent nativism and no-nothing thuggery all over Europe and in the United States, the return of the “symbolism of the bully,” shades every page of this book with an added tenor of urgency – certainly a ward against any chance of reading this as a bloodless case study from the distant past. Instead, Selling Hitler works as a penetrating study of “Nazi humbuggery” wherever it manifests itself.