In September 1936 the National Socialist newspaper Westdeutscher Beobachter (WB) advertised itself in a business journal with the provocative question “Man or Market?” Flanked by the sculpted imagery of a stalwart mother and her sword-bearing son, the ad copy implied that people, in all their heroic guises, were more important than the impersonal workings of the economy. Specifically, the advertisement drew attention to the role of the human being (Mensch) in Germany’s economic recovery. The “new Reich’s” rebirth was not the result of desk workers pouring over dusty files and market reports. Rather it was due to “the mobilization of all human values and existential claims.” With more than 200,000 subscribers, the WB hoped to contribute to this activist spirit by offering advertising space to Germany’s companies. Advertising was more than a “thing in itself,” the WB proclaimed. It was an expression of the “new communal will,” and by highlighting the fruits of economic recovery through ads and in turn exploiting the purchasing power of Germans, the WB hoped to serve as “an essential medium between production and consumption.”
With its vague references to “community” and “will,” its celebration of Germany’s rebirth, and its promotion of a product, this advertisement was familiar fare in the 1930s. It tapped into a sense of economic optimism and offered familiar nationalist tropes to its audience of business professionals used to creating such ads themselves. For the historian, the advertisement sheds light on commercial relations in the Third Reich. First, it demonstrates how both private and state-run businesses, in this case a party newspaper, appealed to Nazi ideals without explicitly using the regime’s racist terminology; sacrifice, mobilization, and national recovery were stock populist concepts, and marketers knew how to employ them to maximum effect. Second, it reveals the importance of “consumption” as a word that had immediate resonance for business leaders in the 1930s. No longer was it assumed that producers were the engine of the economy; goods also had to be consumed by the masses, and a company’s success depended on understanding the relationship between what they produced and what the public wanted. Finally, by positing an inherent opposition between human beings and markets, the advertisement revealed the Nazi Party’s uneasiness with modern forms of commerce. National Socialist economists felt that, in and of themselves, buying and selling were soulless, even inhuman, exercises. But by sanitizing commercial relations and binding them to the fate of the Aryan race, the Nazis hoped to dissociate consumption and marketing from crude materialism. As we will see, the Nazis defended the right of biologically acceptable individuals to buy and sell freely and to exercise their creativity in the marketplace, but they also demanded that production and consumption speak to the higher goals of the community, the nation, and the Volk.