Reichskulturkammer, or How Hitler’s Germany Cultivated Propaganda Out of Folklore
As a travesty of history, we have all of the events that surrounded the holocaust—because the truth of the matter is that antisemitism, reshaping of an entire body of cultural literature, and the ensuing power struggle came well before the beginning of the attempted extermination of the Jewish people. Hitler’s vision was both carefully planned out, and easily executed upon the establishment of the Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment in March of 1933, by the newly appointed Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
It was, as Kamenetsky pointed out, the National Socialist (Nazi) Party’s recognition of German Folklore as an “excellent means to educate young and old in the spirit of the new Weltanschauung.” This new Weltanschauung, or worldview and philosophical view of life, according to the Nazi Party left no room for new culture or ideals that might challenge the progression of a “pure” master race. This censorship meant that “every author, artist, composer, publisher, bookseller, librarian, researcher, and teacher, as well as the general public,” was affected by the censorship policy that the party instilled as the new values that they would uphold. (Kamenetsky 1977:168)
This brought “seemingly spontaneous book-burning ceremonies,” to the public in the early 1930s, as well as “radical cleansing,” throughout all of the country’s libraries of “undesirable and so-called ‘decadent’ literature.” (Kamenetsky 1977:168) During this time of extreme propaganda, there were new editions of Grimm’s Kinder und Hausmärchen that upon release re-emphasized the importance of a return to the ancient cultures and life of the peasant. It is said that this also endorsed the idea of the peasant as being the “pillar of the state,” and Hitler’s aversion to decadent city lifestyles.
This calls to mind Grimm’s tale of Hansel and Gretel—a tale where a family is stricken with famine, so much so that the “evil” stepmother is able to coerce the father into leaving their two children in the woods on their own to starve before being able to find their way back home. The tenacity of these peasant youths is an image that would have been welcome in Hitler’s Germany, one where they overcome the evil witch, which could have been easily replaced with the image of an “evil Jew,” who was there to consume them, albeit not literally.
Hitler is even quoted in 1933 saying, “We know from history that our Volk can exist without cities, yet it is impossible to conceive that it could exist without the peasant!” (Kamenetsky 1977:169) Upon reflection of this kind of statement as well as the transformation of, “the innocent folktale … into an ideological weapon,” it is clear that while Hitler’s assertion of the importance of the peasant, he truly intended to drive most of the German people into poverty while the Nazi Party reaped the benefits. Furthermore, he aimed to essentially brainwash his people beginning with the youngest generation:
“A closer examination of the National Socialist guidelines for educators, librarians, and youth leaders, throws light upon the folktale’s role and function in the Party’ indoctrination program for children and young people.” (Kamenetsky 1977:170)
This was done under the guise of bringing the collective mind of the country to the nostalgic version of their nation’s past, an appeal to the best of times—at least according to Hitler’s agenda. Kamenetsky further states that the purity of the German Folklore was of utmost importance to the Aryan agenda and that they made tremendous efforts to separate traditional German Folklore from being muddled, or decayed by international influence and that it, “needed a thorough cleansing process to restore it to its original form and meaning.” (Kamenetsky 1977:172)
Professor Strobel, a notable figure in Nazi “education,” made an emphasis on removing any “alien,” elements out and can be quoted as having written the following in 1937:
“The aim of folklore is and remains to give an unfalsified representation of that which is true to the Volk. However, a precondition for such a representation is an understanding of the Weltanschauung which is based upon the principle of the blood and on the right faith in distinguishing that which belongs to our race from that which is alien to it.” (Kamenetsky 1972:226)
He believed it to be the folklorist’s responsibility to remove any of the elements that had somehow snuck their way into Nordic-Germanic myths, customs, and rituals in order to propagate folklore that would have been as “purely as possible related to ‘the ancestors.’” (Kamenetsky 1972:226) In this respect, not only did the Reich manipulate folklore to suit their needs, but they also, in effect manipulated history to reflect their own Aryan agendas and policies.
Truly, they needed to instigate an image of instability for mixed folklore if they didn’t want anything to taint the otherwise noble and superior race they wished to establish. “If we want to walk safely into the future … then will have to walk upon the firm soil of our folklore,” (Kamenetsky 1972:223)
It is true too, however, that the history of Germany was rife with anti-Semitism even before the beginnings of World War II; there are sentiments dating back as early as the mid-1500s from Martin Luther’s essay “Von den Juden und ihren Lügen.” In which he is quoted as having written, “into the fire, into the fire with the synagogues! Into the stables with the Jews! … let one drive all … Jews to hard labor … No indulgence, no sympathy for the Jews!”Anti-semitism being propagated through folklore was hardly the first instance of literary hatred for the Jewish people, but it was possibly the most damaging of all.
Kamenetsky, Christa. “Folktale and Ideology in the Third Reich.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 90, no. 356, Apr. 1977, pp. 168–178., DOI:10.2307/539697.
Kamenetsky, Christa. “Folklore as a Political Tool in Nazi Germany.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 85, no. 337, July 1972, pp. 221–235., DOI:10.2307/539497.
Mieder, Wolfgang. “Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes Through Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 95, no. 378, Oct. 1982, pp. 435–464., DOI:10.2307/540750.