Jewish Art

Exhibition Review: State of Deception: The Power of Propaganda in Nazi Germany

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For the past two weeks, I have been gripped by Man In The High Castle, Amazon Prime’s new TV show. The show asks the viewers a troubling question: what if the Axis powers had won WWII? The show reimagines the 1960’s in San Fransisco under the Pacific States, ruled by Imperial Japan while Manhattan to Colorado is ruled by the Third Reich. Many of the characters work for the SS, so the viewer gets in an intimate look at the inner workings of the Nazi regime, especially its communication technology. The show explores the concept of “reality”, a concept that has an interesting relationship to Nazism and its use of propaganda. After all, the most striking aspect of the rise of Hitler was the way in which he reshaped the German population’s idea of reality. In the show, everyone is after these “films” which show the Allies winning the war. The Reich wants to collect and destroy the video, fearing that the American resistance movement will use the videos as propaganda to recruit. After finishing the first season, I decided to take a trip to the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art to look at their traveling exhibit, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.

The exhibit examines how the Nazi’s developed and exploited mass communication to gain power in Germany. The exhibit takes viewers through four time periods 1918-1933, 1933-1939, 1939-1945, 1945- present, highlighting the Nazi’s message, audience, and technology during each time period. The exhibit illuminates the technological and sociological innovations that allowed the Nazis to reach mass audiences. The exhibit provides excellent context into how Nazi’s developed their ideology in the post-WWI environment, showing how they used propaganda to consolidate power and turn their radical ideas into policies.

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What the exhibit does well:

The State of Deception offers a lot of information without wearing down the visitor.

The exhibit is long and packed with information, quotes, videos, and photographs but the specificity and organization keep the visitor from experiencing fatigue.

Curators encourage a broad audience with accessible readability:

All of the text is accessible to a wide range of audiences. The text panels are clear and simple, with few adverbs and simple sentence structure. The graphics are mostly posters and advertisements from the Reich which are translated into English. The curators allow the graphics space to speak for themselves, offering the bare amount of information.

What the exhibit could change:

Too many open questions:

The State of Deception poses a final question: how does propaganda play a role in your life? Ending an exhibit with such an open question could have some benefits and potential educational programming opportunities but the exhibit does not offer much context for how propaganda has continued and evolved into the 21st century. Connecting how Nazi propaganda subtly reshaped Germany’s reality to the 21st-century mass communication complex could have brought the message home. The exhibit never really answer the question of how propaganda differs from media/advertising. With one of its opening quotes being: “Can words and images inspire people to commit acts of genocide?” The exhibit never brings this question into the 21st century. While this issue may seem out of the scope of the mission of the exhibit, it might provide grounds for a part 2 or continuation.

The State of Deception’s most glorious achievement is the way the exhibit works to expand the public’s knowledge of the Reich beyond the horrors of the concentration camps. By showing how the propaganda worked to wear down and convince millions of people to follow Hitler, the exhibit does what few others have been able to do- show how ordinary people can be culpable to extraordinary evil. This deconstruction of reality by nazi propaganda plays out intimately in Man In the High Castle, bringing the question of propaganda and fear mongering into a modern context. The show exposes how ordinary people can combat propaganda using the truth.

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