In Goebbel's shadow

September 19, 1997

Tim Cornwell reports on the furore surrounding a former Third Reich propagandist who became one of the world's top pollsters

To reach into the darkness to find the Jew who is hiding behind the Chicago Daily News is like sticking your hand into a wasp's nest," wrote Elizabeth Noelle-Neuman in 1941, for Das Reich, a German weekly controlled by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Her article, "Who Informs America", continued in this vein, purporting to explain the American media to German readers.

"When you receive 40 simultaneous stings, you stop paying attention to the individual wasps. Jews write the newspapers, own them, and have close to a monopoly over the advertising agencies that open and close the doors to advertising for each newspaper. They control the film industry, own the big radio stations, and all the theatres. Due to their cleverness, Jew journalists are not the most noisy advocates for war. When they reach for public opinion, they don't move as a group, but instead come from various directions..."

Fifty-five years later, this quotation prefaced an article in the Journal of Communication. American professor Christopher Simpson went on to repeat charges first made in 1991 that Dr Noelle-Neuman, an 80-year-old acknowledged as a leading authority in communication studies and one of Germany's most quoted pollsters, began her career working for Goebbels.

Though she never joined the party, Simpson argued that Noelle-Neuman was not just "a one-time Nazi collaborator and apologist", but that she was influenced throughout her career by having lived in a Nazi state. Her work,in particular the theory of the "spiral of silence" taught in European and American universities, was tainted by her "youthful embrace of the Nazis' explicitly racist, antidemocratic precepts." The theory of the "spiral of silence" argues that peer pressure makes people conceal their real views from pollsters.

Noelle-Neuman and her allies have reacted angrily to the allegations, which first appeared in an article in Commentary magazine in 1991. Then, Noelle-Neuman said she was sorry for her Nazi past and never intended "any harm to the Jews". The University of Chicago ended her visiting professorship. This time Noelle-Neuman has gone on the offensive, challenging Simpson in person at a communications conference. Letters attacking him were sent to the faculty committee at the American University in Washington DC, which was considering Simpson's application for tenure (it was granted). He warned that the letters might be "actionable" if published in Britain.

Simpson insists he was interested in whether the ideas of a leading theorist were shaped by her experience, as the article's title, "Historical context of communications theory", implies. But visitors to his website on the subject are greeted by the words "Heil Hitler" scrawled above Noelle-Neuman's signature. "It packs a punch," he admits.

The evidence against Noelle-Neuman is slender. But unfortunately for her it has left a paper trail, by virtue of her journalism, and Simpson says it establishes her as someone involved in a movement that persecuted Jews. Aside from the article for Das Reich, she wrote one four years earlier called "A Nazi View" for the University of Missouri magazine when she was an exchange student there in 1937. In it she sympathetically explained the "essential meaning" of National-Socialism. National-Socialism was partly a reaction, she said, to "German cultural life and national unity" being endangered by the loss of pride, the helplessness of a disarmed nation, and the "extending influence of the Jews".

Born in Berlin in 1916, Noelle-Neuman left Das Reich in 1942. She claims to have been fired after writing an article on President Roosevelt that Goebbels considered favourable. She wrote under threat of her life, she says, and was disciplined for refusing to toe the party line. It was after the war that she moved into public opinion and founded the Allensbach Institute with her husband, and in the early 1970s that she refined her ideas on the "spiral of silence".

The theory of the "spiral of silence" is that people, rather than having independent "opinions" that a pollster can taste, like to be accepted socially. They therefore bend to the opinions of the perceived majority, or the vocal minority. If their opinions go the opposite way, they may suppress them - "those confident of victory speak up, while losers tend towards silence". British public opinion in the wake of Diana's death might prove an interesting case study. According to the theory, people who were not great fans of Diana would still agree with her virtual canonisation. According to this view the "political elite and published opinion" shape the views of everyone else.

Simpson interprets the theory as concluding that "most people are ignorant, impassive, incapable of genuine self rule, and therefore, unable to be held responsible for serious decision-making". It is a totalitarian theme, he suggests, that links to Noelle-Neuman's early writings, and he argues that she brought her prewar conceptions into her postwar analysis. "I'm talking about her published record... Then I look at her modern record, and see whether there was a continuity," he says.

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