Faculty, Research

Inciting Hate through Posters, Films, and Exhibitions: German Anti-Jewish Propaganda in the Generalgouvernement, 1939–1945

grabowski_smallJan Grabowski is a professor of history at the University of Ottawa. In the academic year of 2017-18 he will be teaching on online course to the students of Weiss-Livnat International MA program on the Jews of Poland during the Holocaust.

In his 2009 article for the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Professor Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa discusses the little-examined issue of the German anti-Jewish propaganda that was distributed in the General Gouvernement (GG) area of Poland during the years of German invasion and occupation, from 1939 to 1945. He notes the resources that were dedicated to this branch of propaganda in particular, with the use of visual media and the involvement of Polish artists and existing Polish anti-semitic material.

The German propaganda effort in GG Poland was considerable, led by a number of German propagandists brought in from Goebbels’ own office in Berlin. In addition, scores of local Polish workers were employed and a great deal of resources poured into the Polish propaganda effort. This was partly because Polish hatred for Germany was already high before the catastrophically destructive German advance into Poland worsened it further. The sole point which united Germans and Poles was their hatred of the Jews and the Bolsheviks. While Germany initially kept their anti-Bolshevik propaganda to a low level, once Russia entered the war the Germans increased to a flood propaganda that linked the Jews and the Bolsheviks as the cause of every Polish woe.

Grabowski points out that the anti-Jewish messages were heavily promoted using visual media, including posters, newsreels, and traveling exhibitions, so as to reach even the 23% of Poles who were still illiterate. Short ‘newsreels’ depicted the Germans as saviors of the Poles, who corralled Jews into ghettos to prevent them from spreading typhus. Hybrid newspaper-cum-cartoons were distributed across rural villages, using large images and short texts that could be understood by the undereducated Polish countryfolk. Huge posters with eye-catching anti-Semitic images were plastered everywhere, and a number of traveling exhibitions used sculptures, images and art to bring German anti-Semitic messages across the GG region of Poland.

Anti-jewish propaganda was not only created by imported German professionals. Notable local Polish artists were employed to create posters that repeated the message that Jews were to blame for world affairs. The traveling exhibitions used original images, sculptures and pictures created by notable top Polish artists to portray Jews as black market profiteers causing food shortages and the menacing puppet-masters inciting America to enter the war and instigating Bolshevik Russia’s aggression.spread German anti-Semitic propaganda. Anti-Jewish poems and rhetoric written by local Polish writers were printed and distributed en masse. The Nazi propagandists often suppressed any indication that the material originated from German sources. In order to encourage the Poles to view Jews as the shared enemy from whom they had been saved by the Germans, they acted to reinforce impressions of pre-war Polish anti-semitism.

While the Germans pulled anti-Western propaganda after just a few months due to its ineffectiveness, anti-Semitic propaganda continued and increased. Even after 1942, when it was toned down elsewhere in Europe in the wake of Western outcry, anti-semitic propaganda was ratcheted up in Poland. With tens of thousands of Polish Jews hiding on the Aryan side of the ghettos, propaganda was a vital tool to prevent Poles from agreeing to help any Jew to survive. Anti-Semitic propaganda continued in Cracow and Warsaw up to the very last days of the war – with anti-Jewish posters distributed in early January 1945, a few days before the Russian army rolled in.

As Grabowski notes, it is difficult to be sure of the impact of German anti-Semitic propaganda in Poland, simply because it did build upon existing anti-Jewish feeling. But he builds upon anecdotal evidence from diaries, eye witnesses and other sources to indicate that such largely visual propaganda did have an effect on Polish Jew-hatred which lasted beyond the end of the war, as can be seen from the Kielce pogrom and other acts of violence against returning Jews.

In short, Grabowski concludes, German anti-Jewish propaganda harnessed existing anti-Semitic sentiments using multiple visual channels in order to override Polish hatred of Germany. They modified their previous successful propaganda with Polish input and the work of notable local Polish artists to better appeal to the local, and largely rural, population. While the impact of this propaganda is difficult to assess, it is concluded to have been significant.

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