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The Nazis’ most expensive and least watched propaganda film

After previous books about for instance Christmas during World War Two and SS judge Konrad Morgen and his crusade against SS corruption and ‘illegal’ murder, a new book of WW2 researcher Kevin Prenger will be published, entitled ‘Hitler’s Last Chance’. Its subject is the last propaganda movie of the Nazis and the rise and fall of the German city Kolberg, which is also the title of the movie. It premiered on 30 January 1945. Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was closely involved in the making of this movie which is still prohibited in Germany. Dutch website Historiek.net asked Kevin Prenger some questions about the subject of his book.

Various characters from the movie. Fragment of the DVD cover.

You often expose less known facets of World War Two. How did you get to this subject?

A few years ago, I read the novel ‘Kastelau’ by the Swiss writer Charles Lewinsky. The story is about a German movie crew settling in Bavaria at the end of 1944 in order to make a propaganda movie with a patriotic message to the German people. The convincing story of Lewinsky is fictitious but it made me curious as to the reality and so I ended up on ‘Kolberg’, the last propaganda movie of the Nazis. The movie premiered in 1945, three months before the end of the war. Neither cost nor effort were spared to make the movie, although the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich was imminent.

The movie is about the similarly named German city on the Baltic coast which was besieged by troops of Napoleon in 1807. At that time, the Prussian army, supported by a civil militia, had held out for months against the besiegers. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels wanted the Germans of 1945 to emulate the example of the Kolbergians in 1807: hold until the last bullet and defeat the enemy.

Not only the movie evoked my interest, I also was curious about the history of this city unknown to me. Before the war, this was a well-known spa and well-attended bathing resort. Early March 1945, the city was besieged again, this time by the Red Army and the Polish People’s Army. The Germans didn't manage to hold out but many refugees from Eastern-Prussia, inhabitants of Kolberg and troops could be evacuated in time by sea. I have included many impressive eyewitness accounts of these chaotic weeks in my book. The city came into Polish hands after the war and is now named Kołobrzeg. I found it symbolic that exactly this city, the history of which should have encouraged the Germans to defeat the enemy, fell into enemy hands and was lost by Germany forever.

How important were propaganda movies in the Third Reich?

Goebbels, an avid movie fan, attached great importance to feature films. With his Ministry of Propaganda he took over the entire German movie industry step by step until he had complete control. We associate propaganda with lies, sowing hate and political manipulation, but many Nazi movies were much more sophisticated. Out of the 1,150 full length feature movies produced in Germany, only about 10% was explicit propaganda. Goebbels was of the opinion that propaganda isn't effective when it is recognizable as such. Therefore he had propaganda messages hidden in for instance romantic drama and adventure movies. These entertaining movies called Unterhaltungsfilme were well received by the viewers but they did contain implicit or explicit refences to for instance anti-Semitism, racial theories, the image of the enemy and Nazi patriotism.

The original movie poster from 1945.

Remarkably, the war didn't cause a decrease in movie attendance in Germany but actually to an increase. Between 1939 and 1945 about a billion viewers were registered. In a period of great ordeals and privation, people looked for entertainment to forget the daily worries for a while. Goebbels turned this to maximum advantage, also because prior to every movie, the newsreel was shown in which he could show the audience a favorable situation at the front.

As far as you are concerned, is it educational to look at historical propaganda today?

I think it is worthwhile to understand how sophisticated historical propaganda can be, so today we are better protected against the propaganda we encounter every day, although we often call it – rightly or not – fake news. Social media is a medium Goebbels would have put to good use. His propaganda offensive, to which the German population was subjected for years, with for instance feature movies, has played an important role in justifying any Nazi crime, be it the military ambitions, the euthanasia program or the persecution of the Jews. Without rebuttal, propaganda is lethal. We should always be aware of that. In our free, democratic world we fortunately have an abundance of means to fight propaganda, such as good education, a free press and factual information on the internet readily and freely accessible to all.

‘Kolberg’ was an obvious propaganda movie. What was its major goal?

The most important goal was to unite the population and the front. The perseverance of the military and the civilians in Fortress Kolberg during the siege by the French in 1807 should be an example for the German movie goer. Moreover Goebbels also wanted to reach the inhabitants of the cities that were bombarded by the Allies to motivate them to hold on. The order to make the movie was given in 1943 when the situation at the fronts was less desperate than in 1945. The movie can't been seen apart from Goebbels’ speech about the Total War on February 18, 1943 in the Sportpalast in Berlin. The Battle of Britain had long been decided to the disadvantage of the Germans, in Stalingrad the Germans had surrendered and in North-Africa as well the German troops and their allies had been on the defense since early 1943. With his speech, Goebbels incited the entire society to war. That had happened in 1807 in Kolberg as well when civilians from young to old assisted in flooding their fields, taking care of the wounded, delivering ammunition and extinguishing fires.

The Berlin Sportpalast during Goebbels’ speech about Total War. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J05235 / Schwahn / CC-BY-SA 3.0

How closely was Goebbels involved in the process?

Apart from Goebbels having given the order, he meddled actively in the script, the production and the editing. Although his name is missing from the trailer, he had in fact final responsibility as artistic producer. He made a gigantic budget available and gave director Veit Harlan a free hand to withdraw soldiers from their duty and assured him that all departments of the Wehrmacht, the State and the Party would cooperate; he read and commented on the script, but in particular he put his stamp on final editing. Many hours of cutting passed before he was pleased with the result. He was far from satisfied with the preliminary version shown to him at the end of 1944 because he found it too pacifistic. In his opinion, Harlan had shown too much of the suffering of the Kolberg inhabitants. Even one of the three recorded great battles died in the editing room on orders of the minister. The continuous killing and being killed would only get on the nerves of the viewers. According to Harlan, movie material valued at 2 million RM ended up in the waste basket – and that in a period in which there was a huge shortage of raw material for negatives.

In ‘Kolberg’ the heroic struggle of the Prussian army against Napoleon’s troops is the focal point. Was it a logical subject to work with? And was this history known to many Germans anyway?

The siege was laid after Napoleon’s triumphant entry into Berlin on October 27, 1806. The state of Prussia collapsed like a house of cards after various Prussian fortified cities such as Spandau, Stettin, Küstrin and Magdeburg had surrendered without a fight. So, Kolberg was comparable to the famous fictitious Gallic village that was the only one to hold out against the Romans. The siege of Kolberg gained mythical status in Prussia although five other fortresses would hold out until the armistice. Many generations of school children were told how the Kolbergians had withstood the French. In contrast to what is claimed in Prussian history, the siege didn't end with in a Prussian victory. The defenders of the fortress may have held out to the end, it was the armistice signed between Prussia and France that ended hostilities.

The Prussian fortress commander August Neidhart von Gneisenau and the Kolbergian civilian leader Joachim von Nettelbeck were the great heroes of the siege. In Kolberg, the pair was honored with monuments and plaques on the walls of houses where they had lived temporarily or resided. Furthermore, streets and schools in town were named after them. After 1807, Von Gneisenau would play an important role in defeating Napoleon. In Prussia and later on in Germany, he would become immortal as name giver of various military barracks, (war) ships, streets and squares. Of course, both persons play an important role in the Nazi propaganda movie.

It seems odd that a large number of Wehrmacht personnel was deployed in making the movie whereas in fact each soldier was needed at the front. Why was permission given for this?

Their number was lower than is still claimed today. According to some sources, no less than 187,000 soldiers would have been deployed as extras such as soldiers of Napoleon. A part of them would have been withdrawn from the front especially for this purpose. All these figures are a massive exaggeration though. In order to put in these numbers in perspective: on June 6, 1944, D-day 156,000 Allied soldiers crossed the Channel to take part in the Normandy landings, a gigantic operation. And then, an even larger number of German military would have been deployed by Harlan? It hardly goes without saying that Hitler and the army leadership wouldn't have permitted such a large number of military be withdrawn from the already weakened front

This excessive number was nothing else but propaganda and a number of 5,000 is far more plausible. The deployment of thousands of soldiers as extras in a period in which in fact each and every healthy man (and woman) had to be deployed to the advantage of the war industry, or in others words: for the Total War, is remarkable nonetheless. And then, there were the set builders, pyrotechnicians, production managers, camera operators, light and sound technicians and many other workers. One could see the movie as a weapon, comparable to the Vergeltungs- or Wunderwaffen deployed during the last phase of the war in order to try and turn the tide for Germany.

The movie was released in a chaotic period. How many Germans did actually see the movie and did it have the desired effect?

Owing to a shortage of raw materials, only 50 copies of the movie could be made. Whether they all arrived at their destination is an open question, regarding the chaos and destruction caused by bombardments. Apart from 13 cinemas in Berlin, the movie also played in cities such as Breslau, Königsberg, Munich and Hamburg. Only few Germans though took the trouble or had the opportunity to go and see the movie. In this phase of the war, they surely had something else on their minds. American media historian David Culbert estimates that only a few thousand Germans had seen the movie during the war. This made ‘Kolberg’ not only the most expensive but also the least watched movie produced in Germany up till then.

Goebbels during a movie film premičre in the UFA-Palast in Berlin. In 1944 the cinema was severely damaged during an Allied bombardment. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-1014-501 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Can you tell something about the writing process? Which sources were helpful? What discoveries did you make during writing that amazed you?

My sources were very divers, but apart from the movie ‘Kolberg’ and Nazi propaganda movies in general, I also describe the rise and fall of the German city of Kolberg. The articles that have been published in the Kolberg local papers were a rich source. Hence I could paint a fine picture of what was going on in the touristic village at the start of the war. It struck me how carefree and relaxed daily life was in that holiday season. The year 1939 even was a record year as to the number of spa guests and day visitors. It is remarkable that the previous record of 1914 – the year in which the First World War erupted – was broken. The term ‘dancing on the rim of a volcano’ applies to both years.

Actually, it took until 1945 before the war reached Kolberg. In January and February 1945, many refugees from the east arrived in the city, wanting to continue their journey to the west by train or boat in order to stay out of the hands of the feared Red Army. The siege began in March, laid by the Soviets and its Polish allies. Prior to that time, not a single bomb had struck the town. Whereas many German cities were bombed into rubble, until the beginning of March, Kolberg was an oasis of rest where injured soldiers were recuperating in the sun along the beach and in spa hotels commandeered by the Wehrmacht.

What happened to the movie material after the war?

The movie has been preserved but after the war, the Allied occupation forces placed it on the list of prohibited movies. Officially it is still forbidden in Germany to buy, sell or show the movie without justified historic explanation. On the internet, the movie can easily be bought on DVD and can also be watched on YouTube. We shouldn’t handle it too frenetically either. In comparison to for instance anti-Semitic propaganda movies such as ‘Jud Süß’ the movie has a set up that hardly differs from today’s movies. The action is somewhat clumsy and the dialogues bombastic, but the acting of star player Heinrich Georg can be appreciated. Knowing under what circumstances the movie was made and premiered, it is just as intriguing as it is curious. I hope that people, after reading my book, will watch the movie. I am not afraid the propaganda will have any effect on them.

What happened to the actors appearing in the movie after he war? Were they prosecuted?

Things went bad for movie star Heinrich George. After the war he died in Soviet captivity. By the way, he is the father of Götz George, who died in 2016 and played Kriminalhauptkommissar Horst Schimanski between 1981 and 1991 in the popular German crime series ‘Tatort’. I like to mention these tidbits because they bring history closer. At the time of the Nazi era and earlier, father Heinrich was certainly not less popular than his son Götz after the war. If in a movie an actor was sought for an authoritative or fatherly role, the charismatic and sturdily built actor soon rose to the surface. In ‘Kolberg’ he plays civilian leader Von Nettelbeck. He carries the movie for a large part, also as desired by Goebbels who wanted the Germans to emulate this legendary figure.

Heinrich George (center) with Nazi leader Robert Ley (chief of the Reichsarbeitsdienst) on his left. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R1213-0502 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Director Veit Harlan got away with an occupational ban of five years. In Germany he was acquitted three times of the charge that he, by making of the anti-Semitic movie ‘Jud Süß’ from 1940, had attributed to the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. A salient fact: the judge responsible for the last two acquittals was far from having a clean conscience himself. This Walter Tyrolf had been a member of the Nazi party and at the time of the Third Reich, being the judge on the Sondergericht in Hamburg, he had pronounced the death sentence for petty thievery and racial dishonor several times.

After the war, Harlan strove for full rehabilitation and international recognition of his work, comparable to the well-known director Leni Riefenstahl. His Nazi past would haunt him for the rest of his life though. He would never emulate the successes he achieved during the Nazi era, apart from ‘Kolberg’ though, with his post-war movies.

Hitler's Last Chance (Hardback)
Kolberg: The Propaganda Movie and the Rise and Fall of a German City
By Kevin Prenger
Frontline Books
Pages: 224
Illustrations: 28 mono
ISBN: 9781399072977
Published: 28th February 2023

Hitler's Last Chance: Kolberg
The Propaganda Movie and the Rise and Fall of a German City
ISBN: 9781399072977
More information about this book
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Hitler's Last Chance: Kolberg

Used source(s)

  • Source: Historiek.net / Kevin Prenger
  • Published on: 30-01-2023 07:00:00