Would Social Media Have Helped or Hindered Hitler?

“Grossman’s paternal grandmother came from Galicia, in Poland. In 1936, a Polish policeman stopped her on the street and said something hostile. On the spot, the unworldly young widow decided to take her two children to Palestine.”

The Unconsoled: A writer’s tragedy, and a nation’s,’ George Packer, The New Yorker, September 27, 2010.

“‘Hitler and the Germans’ wants to explore the unanswered questions and therefore concentrates on the relation between the German people . . . and the ‘Führer’. Visitors have the chance to learn about the mechanisms Hitler used to get the acceptance and loyalty of the German people.”

The Berlin Express, writing about a new exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, which opened October 15, 2010

“I have always been struck by what I feel is too strong an insistence that we are living in unprecedented times.”

Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Tim Wu, Knopf, 2010

This week I read a fascinating and moving New Yorker piece about David Grossman (a successful Israeli novelist) and how his writing has evolved to address Israel, the Holocaust, and most recently, his own son’s death in the conflict with Lebanon. It’s one of those New Yorker pieces that is so well-written, textured, and nuanced that it makes you never want to pick up a keyboard again.

Anyway, an anecdote in the piece (quoted above) struck me. The purpose of the anecdote was to reveal how Grossman came to be an Israeli, but it took me in another direction, and left me wondering: how many Jews left Europe prior to WWII based on suspicions about what might come? Further, if communication across the Diaspora been easier and quicker, would more Jews have made the decision to leave Europe thus reducing the horrors of the Holocaust? Today, social media (Twitter, FaceBook, etc) promises easy, quick, and cheap communication among social groups. So, finally, I wondered, would social media have helped or harmed Hitler as he rose to power and orchestrated the Holocaust and the atrocities of WWII?

Part of the answer certainly depends on an examination of the relationship between Hitler and the German people. This is the subject of a provocative new exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, which, in part explores “the mechanisms Hitler used to get the acceptance and loyalty of the German people,” as mentioned in the quote about the exhibition above.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that my question has already been contemplated in an academic context. If not – here you go, graduate students – have at it and please send me the thesis in a few years (or seven). Certainly there have been many “alternate histories” of this period in history – some gratuitous, and some worthy. The intention of this question, however, is not to re-imagine history but rather to place contemporary technology into a broadly-examined historical context in the hope of revealing useful truths about the relationship between technology and humanity.

In any case, it seems like a topic worthy of significant thought by people more qualified than me. At minimum, it would require a solid historical understanding of Germany, the Nazi Party, world politics, Jewish culture, communication technology of the 1930s and 40s, and several other factors. It would also require in-depth understanding of today’s social media technology, and significant opining on whether or not there is anything culturally transformative about it (BTW, Malcolm Gladwell thinks not, others, like Don Tapscott, think otherwise).

I’m motivated to ask these questions because I feel a certain amount of cynicism, or at least skepticism, regarding current claims about social media/Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0. Take this announcement – for example – from something called the “The Future Research Group of the World Mind Network,” claiming that “Web 2.0 is a massive leap forward in human evolution.” Hmmn. As in, Evolution, evolution? The “researchers” claim that these technologies represent “a quantum leap in the evolution of Homo Sapiens,” and that now, we “will be able to change society in days or weeks, rather than years.” At minimum, these claims, fogged with the scent of science, seem hyperbolic. I don’t know anything about this group or its agenda, but these kinds of claims are not out of the ordinary – even in the serious business community. For example, I recently participated in at Tweetup (a real time monologue competition over Twitter : ) regarding Enterprise 2.0 (i.e., the use of social media inside organizations, as opposed to by individuals), where an an E2.0 enthusiast stated that there should be no need to justify the Return on Investment (ROI) of buying E2.0 products because, after all, what’s the ROI of air?

The propensity of each generation to view their era as special is well-understood. I think the same thing happens with technology. Technology does change society, no doubt, but does it fundamentally shape human beings and the way we behave? Or, do existing power structures, behavioral patterns, and societal “rules” remain relatively constant? One writer to recently weigh in on these questions is Tim Wu, in “The Master Switch, (quoted above), which I am currently reading (thanks, new iPad and Kindle app!). He argues that new information technology inevitably goes through a cycle of chaotic innovation, then centralized control and regulation, then creative destruction. The idea that control of information technology ultimately becomes centrally controlled and regulated is certainly germane to the questions I’m asking here.

In my mind, some of the big questions are:

  1. In the period prior to Hitler taking power, would Jews have employed social media to share their observations and feelings about rising anti-Semetism in daily life?  If so, would this chorus of observation reached some kind of threshold where it would have changed the outcome, by affecting government actions (perhaps naive), or at least motivating more Jews to leave or otherwise prepare for what was coming? In other words, had David Grossman’s grandmother had 500 FaceBook friends, would her decision to move from Poland to Palestine in 1936, shared on FaceBook, motivated any of those friends to do the same?
  2. In this same period, could social media “activism” by average German citizens who opposed Hitler and the Nazi Party have altered his rise to power?
  3. In this same period, could political forces that opposed Hitler and the Nazis have employed social media to motivate and coordinate their “base” in a way that would have changed the outcome?
  4. After Hitler’s rise to power, would the inevitable censoring and control of social media by Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi party turn those platforms from a grassroots, individualized tool of dissent (or at least, communication), into an incredibly effective propaganda machine – perhaps more effective than anything Goebbels had access to at the time to “to get the acceptance and loyalty of the German people”?
  5. Much literature from this period points to the role that a lack of verifiable information about the actual fate of Jewish neighbors, friends, and relatives who were taken by German authorities played in Hitler’s ability to orchestrate the Holocaust. Assuming some uncontrolled social media continued to exist after Hitler’s rise to power, would it have been used to share real information about their fates that could have motivated more Jews to escape, or Germans (and leaders outside Germany) to act to stop it?

The heart of these questions is not merely academic. Rising nationalism and anti-Semitism is a concern in Germany and across Europe. Several regimes around the world – sensing the potential threat – censor and control social media and other emerging communication technology.  Social media played a large role in US elections recently and in 2008. The information emitted as an incidental byproduct of social media communications is playing a bigger and bigger role in litigation.  The way that we use and interact with these technologies is important, and imagining them in a different historical context is perhaps one way to better understand them and their potential to both help and harm.

4 comments

  1. Christian Buckley

    Interesting premise. I am very passionate about the topic of social informatics, and specifically the study of how collaboration and social technology has fundamentally changed (and continues to change) the way that we work. It is more than a shift from an agrarian to industrial to technological society (a horizontal, or broadly-based change) – instead, it is a deep vertical shift. But to the question of whether social media would have helped or hindered Hitler, we may look to countries like Iran and North Korea for answers. Both countries tightly control (or attempt to) media and what their citizens can consume on the web, but even so, information permeates every border and technology is taking root in even the most remote locations. I believe social media would have greatly hindered Hitler, if not within his borders, than by providing his neighbors with the information – and time – they needed to respond more quickly and get the help of the surrounding region. Hitler taking power was like digging away at a sand castle, one spoonful at a time. Social media may not stop armies from crossing borders, but it can help spread ideas, provide visibility, and raise awareness long before physical action is taken.

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  3. Rob Robinson

    Great Question – and one certainly that cannot be answered in a “sound byte” – however, I might suggest topically that the question is three fold:

    1) Would Social Media Have Helped Hitler In His Accession To Power? (Pre 1933)
    2) Would Social Media Have Helped Hitler In Consolidating His Power? (1933-1939)
    3) Would Social Media Have Helped Hitler Maintain His Power? (1939-1945)

    If a similar situation occurred today – through the lens of 2010 – one might argue that social media would have hindered him in these three areas. However, in the time frame of 1925-1945 – through the lens of the daily lives of the German People – one might make the case that communication would have helped him in his accession to power, consolidation of power – as he delivered a vision that the people wanted to believe in (or said differently, believed in more than the alternatives available at the time).

    On the topic of “maintaining power” it seems reasonable to say that through the lens of 1939-45 – social media would have helped Hitler more than it would have hurt him – as by that time Hitler had strong control of all national communications conduits – so just as it was illegal to listen to foreign broadcasts – it most probably would have been illegal to listen to any non-governmental controlled communications conduits without exposing oneself to great peril.

    A Great Book on this Topic is “Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany” (Robert Gellately – Oxford Press – 2001).

    Addendum: The Nazi Party did effectively use technology beyond the “communications realm” as can be seen in the use of early IBM punch card technology (See IBM and the Holocaust by Author Edwin Black – Crown Publishing – 2001).

    Great Questions – And Thanks For Asking – As It Is Important For Us To Consider The Use Of Technologies.

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