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July 26, 2001

Bytwerk Book Examines Nazi Propaganda

UPDATE: Bytwerk will speak at Calvin on September 6 on the role of cinema in Nazi propaganda as part of the Calvin Noontime Series. The talk is free and open to all.

In 1996 a book called "Hitler's Willing Executioners" created a furor with its contention that most Germans of the 1930s and 1940s were eager and willing to participate in the Nazi campaign to eliminate the Jews.

Calvin College professor Randy Bytwerk (left) thought that assertion was wrong. So, last fall, when he was asked to revise his 1983 book on Nazi propaganda, "Julius Streicher: The Man Who Persuaded a Nation to Hate Jews," he jumped at the chance. And he added a chapter refuting the ideas of "Hitler's Willing Executioners."

He went through the archives of Der Stuermer, the weekly newspaper that Streicher founded to rouse racial hatred of the Jews. And he found some interesting information.

Says Bytwerk: "In the 1930s Streicher spent a lot of time in his paper attacking Germans by name for essentially being too nice to Jews. This was in the leading anti-Semitic paper in Germany, a paper that at one point had a circulation of 500,000 in a country of 60 million. Being denounced (in Der Stuermer) could have consequences, but many people were willing to accept personal risk rather than go along with Nazi anti-Semitism. That, to me suggested that Germans were not all willing participants."

Indeed, Bytwerk believes that propaganda was a major force in getting Germans to ignore the persecution of the Holocaust.

"To suggest that Germans were more depraved than the rest of us makes the Holocaust a German phenomenon," he says, "and I believe that's a bad argument to make. I think it's important to say this is not a German abnormality. "

Bytwerk's revised book is due out this fall from Cooper Square. In it he traces the work of Julius Streicher in Der Stuermer, a paper that, Bytwerk says, helped Germans isolate themselves from the plight of their Jewish friends and neighbors.

"The propaganda built a foundation for dislike," says Bytwerk, "enough to make you turn your eyes in the other direction. Through Der Stuermer, Streicher was able to propagate his single-minded anti-Semitism."

Bytwerk notes that there was a long history of anti-Semitism in Germany that Streicher and the Nazis were able to play upon. "He (Streicher) didn't start out with an audience that hadn't heard of Jews," says Bytwerk. "In fact, he played on stereotypes they already had. And he twisted those stereotypes, played them up, via vulgar cartoons, horrible writings and more. And he did this week after week after week. After a time, little by little, the foundation was there for the Holocaust."

This notion of incremental progress is at the heart of another book Bytwerk has just finished, comparing Nazi and East German propaganda. Tentatively titled "Bending Spines," the book looks at how, in the words of one German minister who was subject to Nazi interrogations, with each visit the spine was bent a little more, millimeter by millimeter.

"It's a one-way street," says Bytwerk. "You accept one thing and you can't go back. The propaganda has begun to work."

The new book will be an interesting one for readers, Bytwerk hopes, not only for its content but also because of its interactive nature. Currently Bytwerk runs a German Propaganda Archive on Calvin's website that receives some 1,000 hits a day during the school year. The new book will include links to various pages on the site, so that a reference to a speech in the book will point to a page on-line where the entire speech can be read. Pictures in the book will be part of larger picture archives on-line.

Bytwerk's on-line work already reaches many people, sometimes in poignant ways. Recently a German man sent Bytwerk an e-mail, with thanks for helping him better understand his father who lived during the Nazi era and was still, late in life, a believer in its racist propaganda. The man was grateful that he could see what his father had seen and thus know a little of the background to his father's racism.

"That's one of the goals for what I do," says Bytwerk. "It's too easy for us to look at the Nazis and think, 'evil Germans.' We need to understand still today what happened and why it happened, so that we can work to see it doesn't happen again."

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