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A photograph of a swastika armband worn by an actor playing a Nazi soldier

How the Nazis branded themselves

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Adolf Hitler inspires a kind of disgusted awe due to the sheer scale and ambition of his atrocities. The implementation of a project as monstrous as the Holocaust, in the heart of “civilised” Europe, is something that sets the Nazis apart from other brutal and ugly regimes throughout history.

But there’s something else the Nazis pushed to new extremes: political propaganda. In fact, they advertised their identity and philosophy with such vigour that it’s fair to say the Nazis became a bona fide brand. A brand as strong, entrenched and immediately recognisable in German culture as any major corporation might be in our culture today.

As you’d expect of a successful brand, the Nazis had a logo: the swastika. And, as brand logos go, this surely ranks as one of the most successful ever designed. It is, to this very day, a universally known avatar of Nazism and the single most recognisable political symbol of all time, its crooked angles utterly embodying the violence, racism and totalitarian tyranny of Hitler’s project. The Nazis employed the swastika so well that the image remains almost radioactive in Western culture, even though its real history dates back thousands of years.

Long before Hitler got his hands on it, the swastika was a cherished religious symbol in many different cultures around the world, and is still a key image for Hindus and Buddhists. It was back in the 19th Century that this benign and innocuous symbol was put on the path to eventual infamy, when a German archaeologist called Heinrich Schliemann – on a mission to excavate sites linked to the sagas of the Greek poet Homer – came across ancient artefacts adorned with swastikas. As art historian Steven Heller puts it, “Schliemann presumed that the swastika was a religious symbol of his German ancestors.”

This idea took root among the burgeoning right-wing, nationalist movement, who eagerly adopted the swastika as a symbol of some idealised past which they wanted to resurrect by any means necessary. Although the German far-right were using the swastika for years before the Nazis came to power, it was Hitler who carefully considered how to systematically deploy it as a brand logo. Being a former artist, he was in no doubt about the importance of a visual manifestation of his ideology, and recounted how the “question of the [Nazi] flag – that is, its appearance – occupied us intensely”. He said that it had to be a “symbol of our own struggle”, an outward sign of a “common bond”, while also being “highly effective as a poster”.

In one particular sentence, Hitler summed up the thinking which the PR department of any corporation would agree with: “An effective insignia can in hundreds of thousands of cases give the first impetus towards interest in a movement.”

These statements turned up in Mein Kampf, Hitler’s notorious book which functioned as a kind of manifesto or mission statement of the Nazi brand. It was written in the aftermath of his first, failed attempt to seize power in the early 1920s, when he was realising that using politics and propaganda was a far more effective route to supremacy than violent revolution.

The Nazis’ marshalling of their message went far beyond a strong logo and a bestselling mission statement. There was also the flamboyant spectacle of their public events, when their visionary CEO – Adolf Hitler – would stride before his adoring fans. One onlooker at the time was US journalist William Shirer, who wrote: “I am beginning to comprehend some of the reasons for Hitler's astounding success. Borrowing a chapter from the Roman church, he is restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of 20th Century Germans.”

Hitler was a walking, talking symbol of his brand, and this was no accident, nor was it a quirk of his charisma. He deliberately transformed himself into the kind of figurehead his movement needed – someone who would be immediately recognisable. Hitler even employed a photographer to take snapshots of him rehearing speeches, so that he could analyse his own gestures and facial expressions. In the words of historian Roger Moorhouse, “Hitler was a very modern politician in that way. He was concerned about how he looked and his public persona.”

The importance of appearances extended to the deliberately ominous clothes worn by the SS, and produced by a fashion designer called Hugo Boss. “I know there are many people who fall ill when they see this black uniform,” Himmler proudly noted.

Ultimately, it was the top-ranking Nazi Albert Speer who best summarised his movement’s approach to branding and propaganda, saying: “What distinguished the Third Reich from all previous dictatorships was its use of all the means of communication to sustain itself and to deprive its objects of the power of independent thought.”

All these years later, in an age when the Internet has become a potent tool for the deployment of memes, images and manifestos, Speer’s words remain eerily relevant.