Last month, the venture capitalist Roger McNamee drew parallels between the persuasive powers of Facebook and those of Joseph Goebbels. McNamee made a mint from early investment in the social media site but he believes Facebook has since adopted the techniques of Hitler’s spin doctor to create a climate of ‘fear and anger’. It’s not just Facebook, of course, it’s the internet in general that has contributed to this new golden age of intolerance.
In a recent interview with the Times, Silicon Valley guru Jaron Lanier, the man who coined the phrase ‘virtual reality’, said the way internet companies monitor our behaviour gives them the power to:
‘…change people’s character…to corral people into a peer group, political or business or whatever. This technique tears society apart’.
This was the strategy deployed by Goebbels when he was appointed Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda in March 1933. As he declared, shortly after taking office, his goal was a ‘spiritual mobilisation’ of the German people in which ‘the individual will be replaced by the community of the people’.
That meant eradicating dissidents, free-thinkers and anyone else whose face was offensive to his community. How was this achieved? Goebbels manipulated public opinion with propaganda directed at those he believed were ideologically out of step with the National Socialist’s core values. His methods were varied and, in the early years, non-violent. One of those targeted was the sculptor Ernst Barlach. His figures adorned many public buildings in the early 1930s but the Nazis considered his art ‘not appropriate to our age’, in much the same way some New Yorkers today believe the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not an appropriate place to display Balthus’s ‘Thérèse Dreaming’.
Articles critical of Barlach began appearing in newspapers, petitions were launched demanding his work be pulled down and anonymous letters were pinned to his front door insulting him and his work. Lamenting the ‘fawning cowardice’ of his fellow Germans for giving in to Goebbels, Barlach suffered a fatal heart-attack in 1938. ‘I resemble someone driven into a corner, the pack at his heels,’ he said, shortly before his death.
Social media is full of such ‘packs’, or ‘lynch-mobs‘, although their dogma is Diversification not Aryanisation. They hound and hector their enemies, disgracing them publicly, ruining them professionally. Universities ban newspapers of which they disapprove and deplatform speakers they regard as divisive. Goebbels also banned the works of those not attuned to his spiritual revolution, classifying them as ‘unwanted authors’. Different terminology, same tyranny.
What else might might Goebbels find to admire in the West today? The recent ‘Pestminister’ sex scandal would take Goebbels back to 1936, and the similar strategy he used so effectively to undermine the Catholic Church. A few cases of homosexual abuse among priests suddenly became, in the hands of the Nazi propaganda genius, a ‘sexual plague [that] must be exterminated root and branch’. In the hysterical witch-hunt that followed, monks and priests were fired from their teaching posts and Catholic youth associations were closed down.
One of the reasons the Nazis targeted the church was that it was too male and stale, too many people with deeply-ingrained beliefs. The Third Reich was about indoctrinating the young, whose opinions were immature and malleable, and the Hitler Youth was the echo chamber of its day, a place where like-minded young Nazis could gather and rail against those who didn’t conform to their view of the world. They stocked their school libraries with the right sort of books, removing and burning those that were ideologically inappropriate.
Goebbels not only indoctrinated the German youth but he purposely drove a wedge between them and older generations, whom he depicted as degenerate. The Hitler Youth were encouraged to be insubordinate and aggressive to their elders if they didn’t share their ideology. Goebbels even gave the Nazis their very own virtue signal, the Hitler salute, which from July 1933 was compulsory for state employees. ‘Anyone not wishing to come under suspicion of behaving in a consciously negative fashion will therefore render the Hitler greeting’, ran the official decree.
Behaving in a ‘consciously negative fashion’ is the excuse used by the Twitter packs to hunt down those with alternative views; it’s also what motivates the internet campaign group, Stop Funding Hate, to target the Sun, the Mail and the Express, and what prompts its founder, Richard Wilson, to tell Newsnight that ‘the end point for us is a media that does the job we all want it to’.
That was also the end point of Goebbels, to enlighten the masses and create a new Germany. ‘The revolution we have made is a total one,’ he wrote in November 1933. ‘It has encompassed every area of public life and fundamentally restructured them all. It has completely changed and reshaped people’s relationship to each other.’
Britain is now changing, becoming increasingly censorious with those who are out of step with the prevalent ideology. The internet has become the Joseph Goebbels of the 21st century, intolerant and intimidating, a means for the angry and illiberal to destroy their enemies without getting their hands dirty.