During his ascent to the dictatorship of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler mastered the use of propaganda, raising both the public’s hatred of non-Aryans and its loyalty to himself and the Nazis. In many speeches, Hitler aimed his propaganda at Germany’s sparse Jewish population in order to scapegoat them as agents of cultural and economic decline. In his book Mein Kampf, the “bible” of the Nazi party, Hitler wrote, “By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord. In every mingling of Aryan blood with that of lower peoples, the result was the end of the cultured people.” Hitler’s strategy succeeded. His anti-Semitic cultural and religious propaganda inflamed many Germans’ deep hatred of Jews and sparked a reign of terror against them.
Today, many extremist right-wing leaders and politicians, bent on building or keeping political power, spout Hitler-like propaganda to fan ethnic hatred and violence and to blame minorities for domestic problems. In turn, followers who embrace their leaders’ rhetoric vent their pumped-up ethnic hatreds in a mounting spiral of violence. As the American socialist New Union party explains:
To get the people to fight for their respective rulers’ interests, the politicians and warlords stoke ethnic hatred through propaganda about invented atrocities committed by the other side. Then the same characters go out and actually commit atrocities in supposed retribution for the atrocities they claimed were done by their opponents. The cycle of violence and murder then escalates and develops a life of its own.
Events in the war-torn former Yugoslavia illustrate how propaganda can ignite ethnic fighting. As Yugoslav-born religious studies professor Paul Mojzes writes, “Even the most cursory reading of the politicians’ statements indicates that each [ethnic] side liberally provoked the other. The name-calling was belligerent, the speeches and articles untruthful and incendiary. All lie[d] massively.” As a result of bitter ethnic hatred, hundreds of thousands of Croats, Muslims, and Serbs have been killed or wounded and more than three million have been left homeless.
Tragically, this brutal type of ethnic hatred and violence seems to be intensifying around the world. In many European countries, for example, experts argue that not since Nazi Germany have extremist right-wingers been more popular, their messages more hateful, and the ensuing ethnic violence more deadly. Today, many right-wing leaders use propaganda to foment ethnic hatred toward people of color, immigrants, and other minorities.
Recent Immigrants: In Germany, for example, where more than fifteen million foreigners have immigrated since 1980, neo-Nazis echo Hitler’s propaganda and exploit fears that the immigrant wave will ruin Germany’s culture and economy. Neo-Nazi skinhead violence against Turkish and other immigrants has become so widespread that Germany has banned some neo- Nazi political parties for cultivating xenophobia. According to German novelist Gunter Gräss, “The most dangerous thing is, we have [skinheads] in government. They think the same way as the young kids who shave their heads and carry swastikas and demonstrate. They encourage these ideas and brutal actions.”
Rooted Minorities: But immigrants are not the only victims of ethnic propaganda. Ethnic groups with traditional roots—Muslims in the Balkans and India, Gypsies and Jews in Europe, indigenous tribes in Africa and South America, and other minorities—are also threatened. Like the Jews in Nazi Germany, the tiny minority of Gypsies, or Romanies, in Hungary are victims of persecution and government propaganda. In an attack that author Paul Hockenos declares “clearly alludes to the Gypsy community, if not all people of non-Magyar ethnicity,” Hungarian ruling party vice president Istvan Csurka wrote: “We must end the unhealthy practice of blaming Skinheads for all that is bad among the youth, while leniently acknowledging other sicknesses, crimes, and cultural crimes. We can no longer recoil from the fact that there are also genetic reasons behind degeneration.” Hockenos charges that in many statements like this, “the ruling [party] has complicitly fueled aggression and resentment against people of color.” For when right-wing leaders wield their power in government and the media, the objects of their hatred find it difficult to combat propaganda and ethnic violence.
Ethnic conflicts or wars are never completely resolved unless they end in genocide. Ethnic hatreds thus tend to simmer, often ready to erupt when demagogues preach racist lies. But although propaganda can be an extremely persuasive message that creates the type of strife discussed in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict: Current Controversies, it is never predestined to succeed and many ethnic groups have rejected its emotional appeal. Nations committed to peace can take solace in this fact as they attempt to strengthen ethnic relations within their own borders and around the world.