“The things I saw beggar description,” wrote Eisenhower in a cable to Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, describing his reaction to his visit to the Ohrdruf concentration camp:
“How many people heard or read the reports (about the murder of European Jews) and to what extent the reports were believed and their meaning grasped…is impossible to ascertain.”1 The Allies, conscious of the role Goebbles and his powerful propaganda machine had in keeping the public supportive of the regime, decided to confront the German people with visual evidence of Nazi crimes – the program included compulsory visits to nearby concentration camps, posters displaying dead bodies of prisoners hung in public places, and forcing German POWs to view films documenting the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. It also included the removal of all remnants of Nazism from public life - including the removal of anyone affiliated with the Nazi party from public offices, teaching posts, and any other positions of influence over society. This was also the first time in history that propaganda was treated as an instrument of war crimes, with prominent Nazi propagandists put on trial and convicted alongside other senior party officials at the Nuremberg tribunals2.
This is not to say that there was no debate over these forced viewings. The displayed footage did provoke discussion among the POWs and the German population, albeit with unintended consequences: wary of being manipulated by images and media again, many Germans argued that it was the Allies who were now tricking them with their propaganda. “They showed us ghastly photos of corpses piled up in the concentration camps,” writes diarist Ursula Von Kardoff, a native of southern Germany, “But the people here who saw them said that they were really pictures of the bombing of Dresden. This is the result of Goebbles’s propaganda. These people no longer believe anything and mistrust everything and everybody.”
James Agee, American author, screenwriter and film critic, made the point in his May 19, 1945 article for the Nation that the forced viewing of these films and sites of atrocities was a method to pin the guilt on the whole of the German people, justifying what he called a “hard peace” against them. Ultimately, he argues against a passion for vengeance because it is:
this old newsreel video are an excellent springboard for discussion regarding the role of propaganda in shaping war memory, and the role and responsibility of victors in the stabilization and reconstruction of societies ravaged by war and conflict. In the larger context of the Allied efforts to rebuild Germany, these programs of "forced remorse" point to the social complexities of post-war reconstruction: the balance between the need to teach the truth about the horrors of genocide in hopes of creating a stable society and an immediate imperative to satisfy the need for justice or even vengeance.
2. The most prominent among them - Julius Streicher, editor of the rabidly anti-Semitic Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which routinely printed explicit calls for the death of Jews - was sentenced to hang.