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Phoenix Library Hosts Nazi Propaganda Exhibit

Reproductions of Nazi-era propaganda posters.
(Photo by Mark Brodie-KJZZ)
Reproductions of Nazi-era propaganda posters.

Walk through the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, and you will be transported back to the 1930s. A new exhibit opened this week called “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.” But Karl Kendall, the library’s deputy director of collections and programming, said it is not just about the past.

"Well, I think there’s the importance historically of the topic but also relating propaganda to life today, and the fact that we’re still bombarded with all these messages," said Kendall. "And hopefully an exhibit like this helps people learn how to better decipher, wade through those messages and figure out for themselves what is true and what is not."

This is a traveling show from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. Phoenix is its second stop. The museum’s JoAnna Wasserman showed me around the photos and reproduced propaganda posters. She said Hitler believed propaganda helped cost Germany WWI, which in part led to his use of it in the lead up to WWII.

"I think what’s really interesting and what you see emphasized in this exhibit is how much more advanced they were than everyone else at the time. So, part of it was their messaging, and part of it was also their use of new technology, which they really smartly, began to use," said Wasserman.

"You almost hate to have to ask a question like this, but it seems like since WWII and since the Nazis’ rise and then eventual fall, a lot of what they did has been adopted by almost everybody, it seems, trying to get any kind of message out," I said.

"Well and they also studied what had been done before. Hitler was a student of propaganda. Yes, it’s an art, and people study it and they adopt techniques that work, but for example right here, you see a wall of posters targeting different audiences, really segmenting the different audiences, and tailoring the message to what would have been appealing to those audiences at the time," said Wasserman. "And that’s something we’re used to seeing all the time now, but it was really sort of cutting-edge at the time."

"When people walk through this exhibit, what do you ideally hope that they take away from it, after having seen it?" I asked.

"We’ve got a lot of goals. What I would hope that people do is think about propaganda relative to themselves," Wasserman said.

"I would imagine especially now, given all the different media that are out there that we see every day, it seems like this could be a particularly salient point for people right now, especially here in Arizona right now, with all the messaging we’re having going on with a particular piece of legislation at the capitol," I replied.

"I think what visitors are surprised by and astounded by is the Nazi complete control of the media. And I think what people today experience is sort of an inverse challenge in the same way, which is that there are so many media, there are so many competing messages, it feels overwhelming," Wasserman said.

She said it can be tough to figure out what to believe, especially with social media adding to the traditional ones. She said the Nazis worked hard to cultivate grass-roots propaganda and that while it is not an exact comparison, there are some similarities to today.

"I don’t know that we get that level of organization with social media today, I think it takes on sort of a life of its own," said Wasserman. "But I think what is interesting is the ability for each individual to be a propagandist, whether we like to think of ourselves as that or not."

Burton Barr Library is the first such facility to host the exhibit. It had been at the Field Museum in Chicago before coming here. Kendall said public libraries are good spots for exhibits like this.

"There’s 80,000 people that come through these doors at this facility every month, and so the potential impact is very great," said Kendall.

“State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” will be on display through June 1 at Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.