Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Truth and Power: Education under Hitler

Truth is commonly defined as information that is factual or in accordance with reality. However, history indicates that it is possible for those in power to orchestrate a large scale manipulation of truth. The influence of power on truth can be explored theoretically through the disciplines philosophy and psychology. The real life application of these disciplines can be evaluated through historical evidence using the case study of education under Hitler’s Germany. This is relevant to those doing interdisciplinary studies because the manipulation of truth runs parallel with a strategy of cutting disciplines in education. Essentially, there is a relationship between seeing things narrowly, in one perspective, and being misled.

Hitler-Jugend (1933)

Philosophy: Foucault's view on Truth and Power edit

The philosopher Michel Foucault researched the creation of truth under a system of power. He created two relevant theories: the conflict between “event truth” and “demonstration-truth”, and “inquiry”.

Michel Foucault

"Event-truth" and "Demonstration-truth" edit

In his book Madness and Civilization, Foucault distinguishes “event-truth” and “demonstration-truth” using the example of a psychiatrist diagnosing someone with madness. “Event-truth” is the truth experienced by the patient and cannot be predicted by the psychiatrist. “Demonstration-truth” arises from a structured, scientific reasoning based on proof. Foucault shows that through diagnosis, the psychiatrist (having power) tries to replace the “event-truth” with the “demonstration-truth”. The psychologist controls the demonstration and therefore imposes a unilateral, monodisciplinary truth on an issue. Without an interdisciplinary approach, those who determine truth can develop an awareness of their power, and gain more control over others[1]. The power dynamic between a teacher and a student is linked to this concept. The "event-truth" is the truth that the student discovers facing the unknown. The teacher has the power to impose a "demonstration-truth" over it.

Inquiry edit

Foucault sees the inquiry of truth as a status of power. Those who are forced to accept the inquiries of others are not empowered by the meaningful process of acquiring and authenticating knowledge, and are therefore easier to manipulate. When the only source of truth stems from those in power, one can be conditioned to believe things that aren't factual[2]. In education, the "inquiry" is done by the teacher. Young students may acquire knowledge without having the capacity to evaluate the truth independently.

Psychology edit

Those in power are able to manipulate people by imposing objective truths. Over time, these truths become embedded in society, through conditioning people to behave in a certain way.

Conditioning in Education edit

Figure 1: Pavlov's Dog

Emotions like fear or contempt can be used to impose truths, whereby any questioning or criticism is responded to by radical systematic measures. This contradicts the principle of Falsifiability. The idea of opposition is seen as an anomaly, which prevents the conscious possibility of disagreeing with power. Furthermore, violence perpetuated by those revolting against the power is seen as wrong, further perpetuating them as an "anomaly" [3].

This situation is close to that of Pavlov's conditioning experiments. In Figure 1, there is a conditioned response when the dog is brought food when the metronome is ticking, making the dog salivate when the food is not there[4]. When free thought is punished, the result is constant self-questioning and anxiousness until the individual's actions conform to the expectations of the person in power[5].

Foucault, Psychology and the Infiltration of Racism edit

According to Foucault, micro and macro levels of power must work in conjunction with each other in order to affect an individual’s beliefs.[6] Racism cannot be fully enforced or regulated by the state, so how does it deal with personal, informal interactions – the bonds and friendships that cut through the education and segregation enforced by sovereignty? There must exist two truths, subjective and objective, where the subjective truth is highly dependent on the views and opinions of ones peers, and the objective truth is more susceptible to imposition by the state.

Goebbels statement, “propaganda can only be effective if it is broadly in line with preexisting notions and beliefs”, explains how malleable the minds of teenagers were under the Nazi regime. Areas of Germany which voted for anti-semitic parties before WW1 and where indoctrination was most effective are still more anti-semitic today.[7]

History: Evidence of Manipulating Truth edit

The philosophical and psychological theories discussed above may be applied to the case study of youth under Hitler. When the Nazi Party (NSDAP) came into power in 1932, part of their agenda was to influence the education system to benefit their political ideals[8]. By 1939, most young people supported the NSDAP and many would denounce their parents to law enforcement [9]. This demonstrates the success of manipulating truth on a large scale through education.

Hitler Youth Hour of Commemoration in front of the Town Hall in Tomaszow, Poland during Nazi occupation. (1941)

Foucault and the School Curriculum During the Nazi Period edit

Poster for the Film, The Aryan (1916)

Syllabi for Geography and Politics were adapted accordingly to encourage a “fanatical devotion to the national cause”[10] and teachers did not allow for inquiry beyond Nazi ideology[11]. Students were punished for expressing their opinions or criticisms freely[12]. This corresponds to Foucault’s ideas on controlling the boundaries of intellectual inquiry as an exercise of power, whereby "demonstration truth" replaces "event truth".

Psychological Conditioning edit

During the Nazi period, disciplines were only linked to the concept of Aryan racial superiority and emptied of any other interpretation or purpose. One famous example is the mathematical problem which depicted people with disabilities as a burden for German society[13] . By forcefully reiterating Nazi ideology in all disciplines, children were conditioned into believing these concepts.

Imposing Subjective and Objective Truth edit

Objective truth during this period was systemically imposed by the state. The NSDAP set up the Nazi Teachers Association, which was compulsory for all teachers[14]. Teachers were retrained to teach Eugenics and “Racial Science” objectively, providing what seemed like formal scientific evidence for Aryan supremacy [15].

Subjective truth was established by youth movements such as Hitler Youth. As opposed to an enforcement of truth by power, German youth felt peer pressure from friends in the same social status as their own [16]. This may have been more convincing to children who had trouble accepting truth by authority.

Physical Education edit

Physical Education was changed from 2 to 10 hours a week minimum in primary schools at the expense of subjects like Religious Studies or languages[17]. The idea was to make the physical fight worthier than the intellectual fight. A lack of intellectual resilience meant students wouldn't challenge the knowledge system set by the NSDAP. This implies a lack of interdisciplinary thought made children more vulnerable to accepting truth from power.

This led to confirmation bias; those who believed in the Nazi ideology became the majority and the general acceptance of this truth was a source of validation [18]. Challenges to this validation were viewed as a consequence of genetic and mental illness, underlining the growing lack of critical thinking in the society.

Sources edit

  1. Blais L. Savoir expert, savoirs ordinaires : qui dit vrai ? : Vérité et pouvoir chez Foucault. Sociologie et sociétés [Internet]. 2007 Sept [cited 2018 Dec 09]; 38(2):151–163. Available from :
  2. Foucault M. Truth and Juridical Forms. Social Identities [Internet],2010 Aug [cited 2018 Dec 02]; 2(3):341. Available from:
  3. Koch, H. W. (1996). The Hitler Youth: Education, 1922–1945. New York: Barnes and Noble. ISBN 978-0-88029-236-8.
  4. Hart-Davis, A. Pavlov's Dog. Modern Books; 2018
  5. Gallistel, C. R et al. The Symbolic Foundations of Conditioned Behavior. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2002
  6. Hook, D. (2007), Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power, page 221,
  7. Voigtländer N, Voth HJ. Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015;112(26):7931-6.
  8. Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior: Youth and the National Community [Internet]. Facing History and Ourselves. [cited 9 December 2018]. Available from:
  9. Life for young people in Nazi Germany [Internet]. BBC Bitesize. [cited 9 December 2018]. Available from:
  10. Snyder, L. Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. London: Hale; 1976. pg79
  11. Evans, R. The Third Reich in Power. New York Penguin Press; 2005. pg270
  12. Education in Nazi Germany [Internet]. Spartacus Educational. [cited 9 December 2018]. Available from:
  13. Snyder, L. Encyclopedia of the Third Reich. London: Hale; 1976. pg79
  14. Nazi social and economic policies [Internet]. BBC Bitesize. [cited 9 December 2018]. Available from:
  15. Buller, E. Amy. Darkness Over Germany. London: Longmans, Green; 1943
  16. Mackinnon, M. The Naked Years: Growing Up in Nazi Germany. London: Chatto & Windus; 1987
  17. Koch, H. W. The Hitler Youth: Education, 1922–1945. New York: Barnes and Noble; 1996
  18. Kershaw, I. The Führer Myth: How Hitler Won Over the German People [Internet]. Spiegel Online. [cited 9 December 2018]. Available from: