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I've been trying to understand this for some time now. It seems to me that propaganda should only work if the audience doesn't know that it's propaganda. So if the Nazis' goal was to control its population and deceive them via Goebbels' ministry, which controlled the media and produced popular films and so on, wouldn't they be undermining themselves by calling this ministry the "Ministry of Propaganda"? (To me, it's a lot like giving someone a placebo and then telling them that it's a placebo. It no longer works in that case because its efficacy depends on the subject genuinely believing in its authenticity.)

People have suggested to me that perhaps historians have retroactively given Goebbels and his ministry these titles. But, the impression I get from all the literature and documentaries is that, at the time, then and there in Nazi Germany, his title really was Minister of Propaganda.

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The title wasn't created retroactively. The German name of the ministry was Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (ministry of public enlightenment and propaganda). Nazi Germany wasn't the only country with a propaganda ministry/agency, the US, the USSR, Brazil and Ireland also had their own at some point. –  Yannis Rizos Dec 27 '13 at 20:06
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@YannisRizos - IIRC, US did have a similar function but I don't think it was ministerial level. They had official Hollywood liasons and all. –  DVK Dec 29 '13 at 21:26

2 Answers 2

up vote 16 down vote accepted

The term "propaganda" got its negative meaning only after World War II. Before that, even some democratic countries such as Ireland had ministry of propaganda, which was expected to present the government's side of the picture (the same work nowadays done by spokesperson)[2].

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Actually, propaganda started getting a bad reputation in connection with the FIRST World War. But the "Second" pushed its reputation to new lows. –  Tom Au Dec 27 '13 at 19:30
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References would make this a great answer. –  Lennart Regebro Dec 27 '13 at 21:21
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It seems to me that this answer is essentially arguing that "propaganda", which today essentially means "lies", did not have quite that meaning in the 1930's. –  T.E.D. Dec 27 '13 at 22:01
    
@T.E.D.: My guess is that the ratio of truth to lies changed over time, and not for the better. At one time, propaganda may have been viewed as we now view "infomercials," somewhat true, but with an axe to grind. –  Tom Au Dec 27 '13 at 22:54
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@TomAu - I guess you don't view infomercials as cynically as I then. :-) –  T.E.D. Dec 27 '13 at 22:56

There's really two questions here. How does propaganda work and what did the German's know about how it worked?

What is Propaganda Applied rhetorics for the persuasion of mass audiences through the use of mass media for the purposes of commercial interests (eg advertising, public relations) or to persuade audiences to support a cause or to hurt support for the opposing side's cause (war-time, political, advocacy, lobbying)

Different Avenues of Propaganda There are avenues of propaganda: white, grey and black propaganda. White propaganda is when the source of the propaganda is known and black is when the source is a lie. Grey is when the source unknown. Usually when we think of the word "propaganda" we think of black propaganda, but white sources are very common and also effective. Goebbels is an example of white propaganda. The White House press secretary is another example, although I'm not trying to draw a direct parallel. Advertising is another white source and quite effective. Maybe we don't think of advertising as "propaganda" but we know its advertising, and it still helps companies sell products. Therefore, propaganda absolutely does not need to hide its source to be effective.

Title of Ministry of Propaganda Germany was ground-breaking in the field of propaganda in the early 20th century. America had a negative attitude towards it even during WWI and limited its use. American intellectuals developed a model based on a poor understanding of human behavior that envisioned propaganda directly entering the audiences thoughts and influencing them directly without any feedback or interpretation by the audience. Therefore the American interpretation of propaganda was as a very dangerous weapon that could destroy democracy.

The German interpretation was not nearly so dire. Propaganda can also be seen as a tool to spread positive political ideas. We use propaganda today this way although we do not call it by that name due to the negative connotation. It might be best to translate Goebbels as the head of the "Ministry of Public Information" or "Ministry for Advocacy for the Interests of German Peoples" to understand how the German people would have understood him.

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Or as George Orwell would put it, "Ministry of Truth". So "propaganda" simply did not have the negative connotations in Europe that it has today? I'm sure that the US government was very aware of propaganda techniques, but took great pains to never use that term in reference to its own work (only to enemies'), and to base such work on truth as much as possible (for example, see the Why We Fight film series). –  Phil Perry Apr 21 at 22:38

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