WW2 Relevance

|   10 March 2012

Goebbels and persuasion

I think a lot, as regular readers of this blog might know, about why we believe what we believe.

Why do we hold the opinions we do? Is it because of our education, the influence of our peers, our parents, our life experience – or some deep needs within us? I know this is also a subject that all of the great manipulators of human behaviour have also obsessed about – people like Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist.

I made a particular study of the work of Goebbels, and still see the influence of his work all around me. I’m not saying that our politicians and their political consultants consciously ape Goebbels’ work – most probably know little about it – but the truths that Goebbels discovered are still clearly relevant.

In essence, Goebbels believed that the best way of influencing people was to entertain them – ‘above all don’t bore me’, was his instruction to those who worked for him. He also realized that it is much more effective to re-enforce people’s existing prejudices rather than to try and change their minds about anything. And when I see the work of political consultants, it’s obvious that many realize this central truth. They call it ‘speaking to the needs’ of the electorate.

The trouble is that, as Goebbels knew, it can also be effective to appeal to the worst imaginable ‘needs’ of the electorate – the ‘need’ to feel that the problems we face are someone else’s fault, the ‘need’ to get rich at the expense of others, the ‘need’ to jump queues in order to get what we want, the ‘need’ to think that we are superior to others… and so on.

That’s why a leader like Martin Luther King is so extraordinary in history. When a reporter asked him why he was against the war in Vietnam when so many powerful people were in favour of it, King replied: ‘Sir, I’m sorry, you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader… I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus.’

How many leaders are like that? Not so many.

One Response to “Goebbels and persuasion”

  1. jeffwilliamswriter says:

    I wonder to what extent Goebbels used his skills of persuasion to manipulate his own wife. He seemed to have convinced Magda to marry him (prior to which, she’d had Jewish lover, whom she was reportedly much in love with). Also Goebbels repeatedly convinced Magda to stay with him, despite his numerous affairs.