Joseph Goebbels: The Propagandist
Posted on 31st January 2021
He was the man who would fuse propaganda and art until the one became indistinguishable from the other only to believe in the very myth that he himself had created; he would in time come to be the voice of resistance for an entire generation and the epitome of devotion to a lost cause and in doing so rise to be more than the sum of his parts, but only in his expression of absolute obedience to another.
He was a sickly child short and pitifully thin who not only suffered from a lung disorder that often left him breathless but a deformed right foot for which he had to wear a metal brace causing him to limp and often be in great pain. It was disability that would keep him out of the Great War, a further blow to a young man who unable to join in the games of the other children had instead a head full of dreams but was now deemed too crippled to serve his country. Blighted by deformity as he saw it, he could never be a soldier and though he would come to wear the uniform he would never be able to hide his physical imperfections - and he hated it.
Raised a Catholic the young Joseph’s parents were eager for him to train as a priest, a career that he did not dismiss out of hand but why tend to the spiritual needs of others when one’s own remained so unfulfilled and for a God who had disadvantaged him so?
Educated at Catholic School, Goebbels studied literature and history at various institutions before completing his Doctorate in Philosophy at Heidelberg University but his academic accomplishments did not provide a pathway to success and by 1923 he was working as a lowly bank clerk in Cologne, a job he despised and found demeaning, he wished to be writer.
His ambition to be a man of letters was leading nowhere however, in 1921 he wrote a novel* that was in large part autobiographical but others finding his life story far less interesting than he evidently did himself ensured it remained unpublished. His career as a playwright similarly stalled and the few articles he did have published in a local newspaper were not particularly well-received.
He was by now 27 years old and had achieved nothing, lonely and frustrated in those hours he had to himself he read right-wing accounts of German history and absorbed the mystical roots of Aryan nationalism whilst developing his already violent hatred of the Jews into something like a cogent anti-Semitism. More than anything he was searching for ideas, a purpose to his life, a concept he could believe in so he read not just Spengler, Chamberlain, and the great works of literature but also Marx and Engels looking for a solution, but to what exactly? In the meantime, he chased skirt as both a distraction and as a triumph over adversity.
By the end of October 1923, he was unemployed, living at home with his parents and writing the diary that he would keep until the end of his life.
Scrabbling around to find a home for his still half-baked ideas on radical nationalism he alighted upon a vocal but still electorally insignificant far-right organisation the National Socialist German Workers Party and its pugnacious leader Adolf Hitler but it wasn’t until the failed Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923 in Munich and his subsequent trial for treason that Goebbels joined the party becoming Member 8762.
Merely being s member and supporter of a political party was never going to be enough for a man with big dreams he wanted a job and he got one doing menial tasks for the party newspaper in the Rhineland. But he was nothing if not energetic and determined to get himself noticed, and he did quickly rising through the ranks of the regional party but he was also working for Gregor Strasser, the only man who posed a serious threat to Hitler’s continuing leadership of the party and it was an association that could have ended Goebbels political career prematurely. But in the ensuing battle between Hitler and Strasser for the soul of the party Goebbels had the good sense to change sides, but then he had met Hitler and been impressed, though he would later express doubts.
Like many young men within the movement Goebbels was attracted to the Socialist in its name and the more radical elements of the party platform and was disappointed to discover that for Hitler they were merely the means to an end but such idealism soon dissipated under the gaze of the charismatic leader:
(Diary Entry 6 November, 1925): And those big blue eyes like stars, he is pleased to see me, I am filled with happiness, he is there, he shakes my hand, then he talks for half-an-hour with wit, irony, humour, sarcasm, earnestness, fire, passion. This man has all the qualities of a King, a true champion of the people, the future dictator.
Goebbels, who had proven his loyalty by abandoning Strasser at the Party Conference called to decide its future, had also impressed with his devotion, work ethic and confrontational attitude. His willingness to take on tasks others declined had also brought him to Hitler’s attention. In August 1926, he was offered the post of Gauleiter, or leader of the party in Berlin.
He had been seeking a truly significant role within the party and here was his opportunity but it was a poison chalice as everybody knew for with the possible exception of Hamburg there was no city in Germany more hostile to the Nazis than, ‘Red’ Berlin.
Having a strong presence in the de-facto capital of the nation was essential to Hitler and Nazi Party ambitions but was Goebbels the man to secure it? Hitler thought he was but Goebbels less so and he delayed his decision until October in the hope of being offered something else and even when no such opportunity materialised he only accepted after receiving assurances that he would have total control including over the SA Brown-Shirts and would be answerable only to Hitler himself.
He had demurred for reasons of personal ambition but he wanted a role in the decision making process of the party and now he had one but it was a daunting prospect taking on the Communists in Berlin. It was a challenge to be overcome and he would be unorthodox n the methods he adopted to do so.
The party had barely 1,000 members in the city but he immediately trimmed this down to 600 wanting as he did only active Nazis, no fellow travellers and he soon put them to work festooning all public spaces with Nazi posters. He then demanded the funds to publish his own weekly newspaper Der Angriff (The Assault) and received them. Those who wished to attend party meetings or rallies would in future have to pay to do so while the SA he organised to march and confront the Communists on the streets.
Always aggressive and confrontational Goebbels worked tirelessly to make Berlin a fiefdom of the Nazi Party but his repeated attacks upon the decadence of the Weimar Republic and corrupt capitalism with its Jewish backers met with little success. Indeed, his unrestrained anti-Semitism which saw him blame the Jews for everything preached only to the already converted and made little headway in a cosmopolitan city that was beginning to enjoy the fruits of economic recovery. In the General Election of 1928, the Nazis polled just 2.6% of the vote nationally, in Berlin only 1.4%. Despite himself being elected to the Reichstag it was a personal humiliation for Goebbels who feared his career might be over.
But he had increased party membership and shown a talent for propaganda with eye-catching posters, banners, parades and torch lit processions. He also dabbled in controversy making headlines which created a profile for the party in the city that had previously been absent – it had not gone unnoticed. Hitler had long pondered removing the still troublesome Gregor Strasser from his role in overseeing publicity for the party and replacing him with Goebbels, who had at least shown a talent for such things but the rumour that this might occur filled him only with despair and no little paranoia.
(Diary Entry 1 August, 1929) Latest news, I am supposed to resign my Berlin post and move to Munich as new Head of Propaganda. They want to strip me of any real power, so that’s their game.
But for the moment he remained in charge of the party in Berlin.
On 23 February 1930, 22 year old Horst Wessel, a troop commander in the SA was assaulted and killed by communists. A week later Goebbels turned his funeral into a pageant of National Socialist martyrdom as his coffin draped in a swastika was paraded through the streets of Berlin with flags at half-mast and a band playing sombre music. Standing at the graveside surrounded by brown-shirted storm troopers Goebbels provided the funeral oration: Horst Wessel was a fine young man, the son of a Lutheran Minister who had sacrificed his life for the sake of a better Germany, a Germany free of the corruption of Judaism who had been murdered in a confrontation with Godless sub-human communists.
It wasn’t entirely true - Horst Wessel was in fact a street thug and a pimp who had indeed been killed by communists but in an argument over a prostitute not politics. But then if honesty was the template for reality then there would be no need for propaganda.
The entire event had been filmed for cinematic distribution and the words added to the music of a traditional folksong created the Horst Wessel Lied, the future anthem of the Nazi Party, proving if any further proof were needed that the devil does indeed have all the best tunes. It was a great publicity coup for Goebbels, and in April 1930, Hitler appointed him to oversee propaganda for the entire party.
Conscious that despite all of his hard work he had failed to establish the Nazis as the dominant political party in Berlin it was at least recognition of sorts for his endeavours but it was evident that a hard path lay ahead and it would be the impact of the Great Depression and the economic carnage it wrought that would propel the Nazis to power not the manipulations of Joseph Goebbels or the supposed political genius of their leader, Adolf Hitler.
Later that year he met a slim, blonde elegant and polished 30 year old woman of wealth and privilege who had recently joined the party and was helping out in his private office. She was like no woman he had ever met before and he was simply overwhelmed with passion and desire:
(Diary Entry 15 February, 1931): Magda Quandt came round this evening and stayed for a very long time. She is becoming a ravishingly sweet blonde, my lovely Queen, a beautiful, truly beautiful woman. I know I will love her deeply.
To the roughly-hewn petite-bourgeois from a small town on the Rhine, Magda was a dream, his fantasy woman and he was not only smitten from the first but desperate to walk her up the aisle as quickly as possible, not that her seduction of him would be a guarantee of any fidelity on his part. For Magda, who had also been smitten marriage to a rising star of the Nazi Party would bring her one step closer to the man she truly loved, Adolf Hitler.
Goebbels was aware of Magda’s feelings for Hitler but it made him only more determined to possess her for himself and it wasn’t long before they were romantically involved. He gushed like a love-struck teenager.
(Diary Entry 17 June, 1931): Magda gives me strength and imagination. I am overjoyed to possess her, she is now my own, now I know I have someone who belongs to me completely and will always stand by me, and I belong to her as well, the Party comes first, then Magda.
Joseph and Magda married on 19 December 1931, with Hitler in attendance. It was a wonderful occasion, everyone was so happy for them, Goebbels was overjoyed and would later record that even Hitler had tears in his eyes, and Magda was so radiant and photogenic that even the sallow skinned little Gauleiter with a limp was seen to shine in her presence.
Magda was soon pregnant and with Hitler a confirmed bachelor they would in time become the First Family of the Third Reich (much to Hermann Goering’s annoyance) and a model for others to emulate but it was to be a stormy relationship.
Still, there remained other fish to fry.
On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He had not been elected by the people but appointed to the post as the result of a backroom deal that saw him lead not a Nazi but a Coalition Government in which if anything his party was under-represented. The many marches and parades, banging of drums and waving of Nazi flags that followed in the immediate aftermath of his elevation had somewhat of a hollow ring to them.
But this had been no fault of Goebbels who had worked tirelessly to promote Hitler and the Party throughout the previous year and its many elections. It was he who had coined the slogan The Fuhrer Over Germany to describe Hitler’s decision to tour the country by air and he ensured the cameras were there to capture every moment of the campaign - Hitler the innovator, Hitler the war hero, Hitler the ladies man, Hitler the lover of children, Hitler the man of the people, Hitler the leader of the future. . .Every word spoken was saved and preserved for re-broadcast and the message repetitive and exhaustive was supplemented by images violent and destructive of the smashing of the blood-sucking capitalist, the annihilation of the Bolshevik menace, and the constant denunciation of the Jews and demands for their expulsion. No one could make a noise quite like Joseph Goebbels and he would ensure that the Nazi message did not go unheard.
Parades were the order of the day with street-battles their inevitable aftermath, fanfares preceded everything, posters and banners emblazoned street corners, and then there were the speeches, endless speeches. But the sound and fury did not always achieve the results expected or required.
Hitler had fought the Presidential Election of March 1932 more in hope than expectation but even so had been soundly defeated by the aged Paul von Hindenburg by some 6 million votes.
The election of July had seen the Nazi Party vote double to 37.3% from two years earlier but the second election held in November the same year saw a significant drop to 33.1%, they remained the largest party in the Reichstag but were well short of a majority hence the need for shady bargains made in smoke-filled rooms and a coalition government.
The failure of the Nazi Party to sweep all before them despite its charismatic leader and the modern campaigning techniques it adopted had taught Goebbels a valuable lesson - success could not be guaranteed through access, proliferation and hard work alone it took control, absolute control of absolutely everything. Still, he could not contain his excitement at the turn of events:
(Diary Entry 31 January, 1933): We’ve made it, we’ve set up shop in Wilhelmstrasse, Hitler is Chancellor, it is like a fairytale come true.
Not quite perhaps, and his enthusiasm would soon be tempered when he did not receive the seat in Government he had expected and believed was his due.
(Diary Entry 10 February, 1933): Rumours to the affect that I will be appointed Head of Broadcasting. I have been sidelined.
The Nazis were not yet in full control but they soon would be.
On 27 February 1933, the Reichstag went up in flames and a young Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe discovered at the scene was arrested and charged. Rumours have since persisted that the Nazis set the fire themselves and it has to be said that if they did not then it was certainly convenient.
Hitler demanded that he be given emergency powers to deal with internal dissent and the threat of communist insurrection, the increasingly senile President Hindenburg agreed. On 23 March he signed into law the Enabling Act which provided the Chancellor with plenary powers and the right to act in defence of the people without recourse to the German Parliament or the Courts. The suspension of civil rights (for the period of four years, to be renewed) meant Hitler now had the power to suppress, silence, and imprison those who posed a threat to the regime. It was the beginning of the Nazi Dictatorship.
In early March, Goebbels was at last rewarded for his years of unswerving devotion and loyalty when he was appointed to head the recently created Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and with it a seat in the Cabinet.
Six days after the Reichstag Fire the German people cast their ballots once more in a General Election but despite a virtual monopoly of all media outlets and widespread intimidation including the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of their political opponents the Nazis still only polled 43% of the vote. When not long after some of the defendants in the Reichstag Fire Trial were acquitted it became evident to Goebbels that he still had much to do if he was to make the German people into good National Socialists. But now he had the means to do so.
(Diary Entry 8 March, 1933): I now have a structure for my Ministry, it is divided into five major departments covering radio, the press, film, propaganda, and theatre.
Goebbels immersed himself in his work busily re-making Germany in the Fuhrer’s image and no dissent would be tolerated in the creation of the Gleichschaltung, or coordination, the process by which every aspect of German political, economic, civil, and even domestic life would be brought into line with National Socialist beliefs, values, and philosophy.
It was his role to publicise, promote, and convince where a brown-shirted thug was unavailable to enforce compliance, he would intimidate with words.
On 1 May, with great delight and in stark contrast to his earlier professed radicalism he informed German workers that Labour Day would now be National Socialist Day, the clenched fist had been replaced by the Nazi salute.
He also initiated the Book Burning Campaign casting to the flames thousands of works by Jewish, Liberal and Marxist authors declaring no to moral decadence and corruption. This was more than a symbolic gesture he told students from Berlin University, together they would cleanse German culture of Jewish intellectualism.
(Diary Entry 11 May, 1933): Worked until late at home, in the evening I gave a speech at the Opera House in front of the bonfire while the filthy, trashy books were being burned by the students. I was at the top of my form.
On 2 August, he announced over the radio the death of Hindenburg and that Adolf Hitler intended to combine the role of President with that of Chancellor would henceforth be referred to as Fuhrer.
His voice was by now becoming as familiar to the German people as Hitler’s own and aware of his growing profile he began to imitate the Fuhrer’s techniques and methods of presentation striking dramatic poses before a mirror, learning his speeches by heart beforehand, and training his voice to be heard over the pandemonium that would often ensue whenever he spoke. He was also intensely protective of his role as chief promoter of the Nazi Regime and never more so than when it came to Leni Riefenstahl the enfant-terrible of German cinema.
Although, he and the architect Albert Speer were responsible for the look and organisation of the 1934 Nuremburg Rally it was Riefenstahl who would bring it to the screen and project it around the world in her sinister but brilliantly contrived Triumph of the Will which did more to create the image of Hitler as the charismatic man of destiny leading a united people on their path to world domination than any amount of crude and often clumsy propaganda.
Here was a woman who understood film and its power to influence, a cinematic genius of independent mind who was deaf to Goebbels advice, ignored his suggestions and spurned his advances. She also had Hitler’s ear and he didn’t like that one bit complaining to anyone who would listen of her arrogance, hysterical outbursts, and little girl tantrums.
But despite the infringement upon what he considered his personal brief he would have to endure the rising star of German cinema a little longer.
In 1936, Berlin hosted the Olympic Games which produced another much acclaimed documentary film by Leni Riefenstahl, Olympiad, which captured a sporting event as it had never been seen before. But it did not impress Goebbels, neither did its creator.
(Diary Entry 6 November, 1936): Miss Riefenstahl is treating me to her histrionics again, there is no way I can work with a lunatic like her, and there is something wrong, now she wants half-a-million more to make a second film. I remained as cold as ice towards her, she started sobbing, women always do this. It doesn’t work with me anymore.
He needn’t have been concerned, his organisation and propagandising of the Olympics was exemplary. He filmed it also but for the newsreels not the sake of art and events were broadcast live on the radio; all traces of anti-Semitism were eradicated for the duration of the Games, Jews Forbidden, and No Jews Permitted signs were removed from cafes and parks, they were could ride the trams once more, and the German people were instructed to be on their best behaviour.
And the focus throughout remained on Hitler who was shown smiling, applauding, shaking hands with and congratulating the winning athletes most of whom were German, a hollow success perhaps as the only man anyone was talking about was the black American sprinter Jesse Owens and his four Gold Medals. Goebbels was angered by the hero worship afforded Owens by the most mostly German spectators as it had been his job to teach them otherwise. Nonetheless, his stock had never been higher.
Upon the conclusion of the Olympic Games, when the eyes of the world had been on Germany, Goebbels wasted no time in resuming the campaign of anti-Semitism of which he remained very much at the forefront, so for all the comforting images of peoples coming to together in pursuit of sporting excellence no one could be in doubt that Germany was to be an Aryan Nation unsullied by the impure blood of inferior races and no one exemplified this new Germany more than Joseph and Magda Goebbels.
Although, Joseph himself could never be considered the paradigm of Aryan masculinity Magda fulfilled the role of the German woman to perfection and with their ever-increasing brood of blonde, blue-eyed children the newsreels were rarely absent making them the First Family of the Third Reich and the model for others to aspire to.
(Diary Entry 3 December, 1937) Magda was a little sick but so kind and patient. The children were so sweet, I love them all dearly. We chatted, played, and messed around, it was great fun. In the evening I monitored some films in Berlin, Maidenhood, a Prague film with Lida Baarova.
But the Goebbels house was never the scene of domestic bliss it appeared.
Marriage had never prevented Joseph from pursuing the habits of a lifetime and he would regularly seduce those starlets he met on film sets, at least those for whom a leg up entailed a leg over. Magda was aware of her husband’s errant ways but was willing to turn a blind eye as long as they remained unknown and unspoken about but public humiliation was another matter.
When in August 1938 she discovered that he was having an affair with the well known Czech actress Lida Barova and that others knew it too in high dudgeon she took the matter directly to Hitler and demanded that he allow her to divorce. The Fuhrer who had been a witness at the marriage and had colluded in their promotion as the ideal Nazi Family refused - he would not countenance a scandal, neither would he see himself so embarrassed. But a hysterical Magda was not an easy woman to make see reason. Finally, in the presence of Magda he scolded his Propaganda Minister, decrying his behaviour and ordering he change his ways, reconcile with his wife, and remain with his family. In the meantime, this Slav actress would be banished from the country and not permitted to return.
Hitler was neither impressed nor tolerant of the peccadilloes of others whether it be a liking for alcohol or a weakness for the flesh - Goebbels was out of the loop and no longer a trusted member of the Fuhrer’s inner-circle. He had shown himself to be just another man incapable of retaining a tight enough grip on his belt buckle and would spend the rest of his life trying to regain his Fuhrer’s favour.
(Diary Entry 18 August, 1938) A tough day, a long heart-to-heart with Magda in the evening which was the ultimate humiliation for me, I shall never forgive her.
An opportunity for redemption came when on 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish student aggrieved at the treatment of his parents who had recently been deported to Poland, entered the German Embassy in Paris and shot dead the diplomat Ernst vom Rath.
As the news reached Germany anti-Jewish riots broke in cities and towns across the country (mostly provoked and pre-planned) with Jewish shops stoned, Synagogues burned, and Jews arrested on the streets or dragged from their homes and beaten up.
(Diary Entry 10 November, 1938) I mentioned the Jewish matter to the Fuhrer, he said, let the demonstrations continue and withdraw the police. The Jews need to experience the people’s fury at first hand, just this once. It is only right and proper.
It seemed to Goebbels who had been whipping up anti-Jewish violence for some time now had the Fuhrer’s endorsement for having done so and he was delighted, seizing his opportunity he ratcheted up the anti-Jewish rhetoric, the police were ordered not to intervene, and the flames were only doused when the fires threatened other buildings.
But Hitler was to be disappointed at the reaction to Kristallnacht for it was widely condemned abroad and the response of the German people had been less than enthusiastic. It was also accompanied by a surge in the numbers of those arrested for expressing anti-Nazi sentiments. It confirmed him in the view that Goebbels should adopt a subtler approach to his eradication of the Jewish menace and that street thuggery on its own was not enough.
That Hitler could express such a view brought into even greater focus the virulence and brutality of Goebbels own anti-Semitism. As a result, his relationship with Hitler remained strained and he played little significant role in the run-up to war beyond his specific remit. He was not involved in the military planning, the diplomatic manoeuvring, or the economic preparations. He remained the piper playing the tune but not one of its, composer though he performed his role with relish. It would now be his job to sell war to the German people just as he had previously sold the party and its philosophy.
(Diary Entry, 1 September, 1939) Yesterday at noon the Fuhrer issued the order to attack at around 5pm. It seems the die is now cast.
Joseph Goebbels would now sell the war to the German people as he had earlier sold the Nazi Party and its leader Adolf Hitler, and he would leave little to chance with blanket radio coverage, newsreels running in every cinema, and 1,500 mobile film units employed to ensure that no part of the country would be deprived of the message. War is after all grist to the mill of propaganda, and Goebbels knew it but he also knew it would be a hard sell.
But the German Army’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, despite the British and French declarations of war that swiftly followed, could not have gone better with Polish resistance collapsing in a month, victory sealed when as part of the earlier Nazi-Soviet Pact Russian forces invaded from the East. A long period of relative inactivity followed the war at sea and the invasion of Norway aside, but when the Germans did launch their Blitzkrieg on the Low Countries and France the victory was no less swift and decisive than it had been in Poland. To all intents and purposes the war appeared won; Germany’s ancestral enemy France had been vanquished and though a Britain, whose army had been forced to flee in haste and no little disarray, remained defiant it could surely only be a matter of time before she too was forced to sue for an ignominious peace.
With her armies victorious, to those many Germans who recalled so vividly the long dawn-out torment of the Great War and had feared the looming conflict it was nothing short of a miracle and they flocked onto the streets to herald the man responsible.
Goebbels and his camera crews were there to capture every moment of the frenzied scenes of unbounded joy and adoration for the Fuhrer that were of such fever pitch it seemed they might overwhelm the newsreels themselves. It was a spontaneous outpouring as much of relief that it was over as it was a celebration of victory and for once it did not require Goebbels intervention or orchestration.
For the time being at least, though the conflict rumbled on and there were casualties, the war seemed far away and with goods plentiful and the shops still full it seemed as if the good times had returned to Germany as the newsreels relayed images not of war but of peace with the German people going about their business as usual, enjoying the summer holiday, sunbathing on the beach, picnicking by the lake, and shopping on the Unter den Linden.
But Goebbels still had work to do.
In November 1939, following the collapse of Poland, Goebbels became the first leading Nazi to visit the Warsaw Ghetto where 400,000 Jews were forced to live in an area barely 1.3 square miles in diameter with nothing but the clothes they stood up in, no medicine made available to cope with illness, and sustained on just 184 calories a day.
He wrote of his disgust, not at conditions in the Ghetto but of those forced to reside within it.
(Diary Entry 2 November, 1939) A trip through the Ghetto, we got out and inspected everything closely, its indescribable, they aren’t human, they are animals, this is therefore not a humanitarian task but a surgical one. We must make incisions here, quite radical ones.
He had taken on board Hitler’s earlier criticism that the coarse tone adopted in much of the anti-Semitic propaganda was counter-productive and that to mould the German people into accepting, or at least turning a blind eye to the harsher measures required for the resolution of the Jewish Question a subtler approach was required. Goebbels turned to cinema, the most popular form of entertainment as his means of so doing, and he had earlier commissioned a series of films to drive home his anti-Semitic message with his visit to the Ghetto only confirming in his own mind the urgency of his latest intended production - The Eternal Jew.
Couched in the comforting world of romantic historical fiction there was little complaint regarding any anti-Semitic message portrayed on screen, as for example in the popular Jud Suss, but stripped of its sugar-coated gloss and seen for what it is racism is repellent to most even those who may be conducive to its message. But Goebbels could not resist the temptation to bludgeon, even though he had himself expressed doubts as to its effectiveness.
Filmed largely in the Jewish Ghettos of Poland and made in the style of a documentary The Eternal Jew focussed on stereotypical Nazi images of those they disparagingly referred to as descendants of the Tribe of Israel, their sharp mean features dirty and unwashed, their rapacity and their sinister rituals before comparing them to a plague of rats. But images of filth, squalor and vermin do not make for good cinema and was to prove too much for a great many people and reports were received of disquiet among audiences and that theatres were emptying long before the film reached its climax.
As the message of the film circulated ticket receipts declined and it has been estimated that fewer than a million people ever saw The Eternal Jew and that most of these were fully paid-up members of the Nazi Party who felt obliged to do so, or serving members of the SS who attended screenings on the express orders of Heinrich Himmler.
Disappointed though he was at the response to The Eternal Jew, Goebbels like many others in the Nazi hierarchy took time out to bask in the glory of victory in the West visiting Paris in the company of Hermann Goering where dining on fine French cuisine and feasting his eyes on its nightlife he wrote admiringly of its erotica and nakedness before dismissing it as inappropriate for Germans. He also attended the Venice Film Festival where jealous of the city’s architecture and grandeur he nonetheless mocked Italian pretensions to having any talent for cinema.
Yet for all the pomp of a grand tour and with the ever-glamorous Magda at his side it remained a deeply frustrating time. He could not be self-indulgent like Goering and repose in luxury while the war went on around him. He had to be active. Yet he remained excluded from the decision making process.
He constantly badgered Hitler to allow him to deport Berlin’s Jews to camps in the East but was rebuffed told again and again that the time was not right. He had no say in military strategy, he wanted a role in running the war economy, it was denied him. Was he to be confined entirely within the remit of his Ministry editing cartoons and providing cheap entertainment for the masses? Even here he was being challenged by the Foreign Secretary Joachim von Ribbentrop who was demanding that he be given control of that propaganda produced for overseas consumption.
Albert Speer remained the Fuhrer’s friend, Hermann Goering his right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler his most devoted disciple and Martin Bormann his omnipresent factotum. Where was Joseph Goebbels in the pecking order, where did he fit in?
The war dragged on, there had been no swift victory after all, and though Germany remained largely unaffected on the domestic front the need to maintain morale in a conflict with no resolution in sight was always a priority. Wars need heroes and Goebbels took their exploits and writ them large, none more so than those of close family friend Erwin Rommel whose brilliant battlefield victories in the North African Desert were exaggerated in their strategic importance and repeated ad-nauseum to a then still receptive audience to acts of derring-do.
In the meantime, he oversaw the production of anti-British propaganda and films along with the sickly-sweet romantic comedies of which the Fuhrer was particularly fond. Although, Goebbels sometimes wearied of such things these were the happy times for war would soon return to Germany.
At 03.15 on 22 June 1941, Germany and its Axis Allies invaded the Soviet Union and Goebbels was given the honour of broadcasting, over a suitably dramatic soundtrack, the Fuhrer’s words: At this moment a march is taking place that, for its extent, compares with the greatest the world has ever seen. I have decided today to place the fate and future of the Reich and our people in the hands of our soldiers. May God aid us in this hour.
(Diary Entry 22 June, 1941) I read out the Fuhrer’’s proclamation, it was a momentous occasion for me as well.
The world held his breathe, and so did Joseph Goebbels. In private he expressed his doubts: We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals.
Yet throughout the late summer and autumn of 1941, the Wehrmacht swept all before them in a series of crushing victories the scale of which had never been seen before as one Russian Army after another was surrounded and destroyed. In just five months the German Army had swept across the heartland of Russia to the very gates of Moscow inflicting enormous damage and taking more than 3,500,000 prisoners, so many that some Generals expressed disbelief that the Russian could still find the manpower to resist. And Goebbels newsreels were there to capture it all.
But it had been success achieved at great cost, 800,000 casualties and 170,000 dead and victory still not yet secured but it was the job of propaganda to gloss over such things and focus instead on the vanquished.
(Diary Entry 16 September, 1941) In calculating the potential of the Bolsheviks we were completely wrong.
Just as he had earlier instructed his camera crews to do in the Ghettos of Poland they were to concentrate on those prisoners who fitted the Nazi racial view of the Slav as a sub-species fit only for the role of slave. So they concentrated on those with Jewish features or of Asiatic origin, or were ugly and stupid looking. They were the Jewish Bolshevik Mongol Horde in close up – the Untermensch.
It seemed the right time for Goebbels to once again approach Hitler regarding those Jews still in Berlin.
(Diary Entry 20 August, 1941): The Fuhrer has told me that I can deport the Jews from Berlin immediately the Eastern campaign is over. Berlin must be Jew free, it is an outrage and a scandal that 18,000 Jews, most of them parasites, can roam happily in the capital of the German Reich.
In December, the German Army advancing on Moscow was not only halted but forced into retreat. It was the Wehrmacht’s first defeat of the war and it would not be its last, the high watermark had been reached and the ebbing of the tide would be long, painful, and relentless. That same December following the attack by Germany’s ally Japan upon the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Adolf Hitler declared war on America.
The Fuhrer’s European War had become a World War and like Germany’s Armed Forces, Goebbels Propaganda Ministry was now fighting on many fronts. Even so, it did not distract him from issues nearer home.
(Diary Entry 14 February, 1942) The Fuhrer once again expressed his determination to clean up the Jews in Europe pitilessly. There must be no squeamish sentimentalism about it. The Jews have deserved the catastrophe that has overtaken them . . . we must hasten this process with cold ruthlessness.
There had been no representative from the Propaganda Ministry at the Wannsee Conference held the previous January which under the auspices of Reinhard Heydrich and his assistant Adolf Eichmann had decided upon the physical extermination of all the Jews in Europe.
Once again he had been excluded from a major decision but he had almost certainly been made aware of it:
(Diary Entry 27 March, 1942) A judgement has been visited upon the Jews that, while barbaric is fully deserved. The prophecy which the Fuhrer made about them for having brought on a new World War is beginning to come true in a most terrible manner. One must not be sentimental in these matters. If we did not fight the Jews they would destroy us. It is a life and death struggle between the Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus.
The vagaries and prerequisites of war he declared must not prove an impediment to the pursuit of racial hygiene and the Final Solution - they must facilitate them.
The defeat before the Gates of Moscow had ended any illusion of a swift victory but it was considered a setback only and so in 1942 the advance into Russia would continue but this time south towards the oil-rich Caucasus and the city that bore the Soviet dictator’s name Stalingrad.
The vast sweeping pincer movements that had so nearly annihilated the Red Army in the early months of Operation Barbarossa were abandoned at Stalingrad where the German Sixth Army became bogged down in vicious and protracted street-fighting for which it had neither trained nor prepared. On 19 November, the Russians launched a series of offensives on both flanks of the German positions. Defended by the poorly equipped and only partially dug-in Axis armies of Romania, Hungary, and Italy they quickly broke through. As the pincers closed the Sixth Army found itself in danger of encirclement.
Like most catastrophes the one that now loomed at Stalingrad could have been avoided but Hitler refused permission for the Sixth Army to withdraw while they still could and by the time a breakout was attempted the half-starved troops were too, exhausted, weak, and ill-equipped to do so.
As the Battle for Stalingrad dragged on people in Germany became increasingly apprehensive, this was not the quick victory they had become used to and propaganda images of soldiers making light of the harsh weather skating, romping in the snow, and taking iced baths did not tarry with the urgent appeal for warm winter clothing. A Christmas message supposedly broadcast from the Front on the Volga but in fact faked in a Berlin studio provided little reassurance. They braced themselves for bad news but then few could convey bad news quite like Joseph Goebbels.
He did not believe the people should be spared the truth and did little to conceal the scale of a disaster that with more than 150,000 men killed and 91,000 captured could not in any case be kept secret for long. Instead, in a broadcast on 3 February 1943 he focused on the heroism, self-sacrifice, and National Socialist zeal of the individual soldier fighting against impossible odds.
Then no sooner had the defeat been announced than it was forgotten - the less said the better but the tide of war had turned decisively against Germany and the years of victory had passed, from now on it would be a fight for national survival.
On 12 February 1943, following the Casablanca Conference President Roosevelt announced in a radio broadcast that the Allies would accept nothing less than the Unconditional Surrender of the Axis Powers. It was the opportunity that Goebbels had been waiting for. He had often complained that the Germans were both bad Nazis and even worse anti-Semites now there could be no turning back, they would either have to commit to the cause or perish.
On 18 February at the Sportpalast in Berlin, in an event that was uniquely suited to his peculiar talents he would give a bravura declamatory finger wagging performance so theatrical it bordered on the camp. And the message was clear. It caught the moment exactly and proved the ideal response to the threat of annihilation, and it was greeted with a chorus of approval.
In an auditorium draped in Nazi flags and banners bearing the slogans of anti-Bolshevism and Total War before a carefully selected audience of military personnel and Nazi Party functionaries, an animated Goebbels, described as like a puppet on a string with his trademark sarcasm and acid tongue manipulated, enthused, and cajoled those present into a frenzy of devotion and defiance. He concluded his oration with the words: German people rise up, and let storm break loose! The acclamation was deafening as people rose to their feet and to cries of Heil! Heil! The national anthem was sung - it was his finest moment.
(Diary Entry 19 February, 1943) I was I believe in very good speaking form, and elevated the rally into a form of total spiritual mobilisation.
Modesty did not become him not that the German people really needed telling that they were in a state of total war, for almost a year they had been under savage aerial bombardment from the Royal Air Force by night and the United States Army Air Force by day.
Originally targeting industrial areas in the Ruhr Valley and elsewhere the inaccuracy of high-level bombing had proved such as to render it largely ineffective so the strategy was changed to area bombing, the target now the cities and densely populated areas the aim to break the morale and will to resist of the German people.
In March 1942, the port of Lubeck became the first victim of this new strategy to be followed soon after by Rostock. The first Thousand Bomber Raid took place at Cologne in May, then again at Bremen and Essen. In July 1943, an attack upon the city of Hamburg and its resultant firestorm left an estimated 43,000 civilians dead. But the morale of the German people did not break. It was nonetheless a vengeance of sorts.
Goebbels was relentless in his condemnation; the British were a treacherous people fighting for money, Jews by nature if not by race; the Russians savages, the Americans gangsters. The aerial bombardment proved this they were not interested in fighting but were intent on murdering innocent women and children. It was the savagery he had warned them off and only the German people stood between barbarism and the collapse of Western Civilisation.
But further bad news was to follow however, when on 13 May the Axis Army in North Africa, including Rommel’s much-vaunted Afrika Korps, was forced to surrender at Tunis and some 240,000 men were taken into captivity half of them German. It was a defeat on the scale of Stalingrad, though perhaps of less strategic significance.
By now the Germans were becoming inured to bad news with the sombre music that preceded the announcement of every latest denouement preparing them well in advance, which was perhaps fitting for a regime that increasingly resembled some sort of Wagnerian grotesque.
On the morning of 6 June 1944, the Western Allies landed in force on the beaches of Normandy. The Second Front had been expected for sometime but even so had retained an element of surprise, though not according to its High Priest of Propaganda.
(Diary Entry 7 June, 1944) Yesterday, during the night first reports starting arriving about the Allied invasion of the West. The Fuhrer was in an exceptionally lively mood, the invasion was taking place exactly where we had anticipated, unless absolutely everything goes wrong we should be able to cope.
It wasn’t true they had expected any landings to take place in the Pas de Calais.
Even so, the intense fighting and the struggle to break out from the Normandy beachheads made it appear for a time at least that they might indeed cope. Moreover, the Nazis had a surprise in store the V1 Rocket.
(Diary Entry 18 June, 1944) Our weapons of retaliation are the number subject around the globe, the English may be doing everything within their power to counter our new secret weapon but they are not succeeding. The people of London are panic stricken.
Secret weapons that would turn the tide of the war were to dominate much of German propaganda. But Goebbels already knew better.
(Diary Entry 7 July, 1944) Enthusiasm has subsided dramatically. Both the V1 and our attempts to repel the invasion in the West have proved disappointing. Nor is anyone holding out much hope in the East.
For all his hard work and slavish devotion Goebbels still could not break back into the Fuhrer’s inner-circle where he had once been before his affair with the Czech actress Lida Baarova, and it wasn’t until the July Bomb Plot which Hitler had barely escaped with his life and his brutal crushing of the conspiracy in Berlin that he at last regained the Fuhrer’s absolute trust.
On 23 July he was rewarded for his loyalty when he was appointed Plenipotentiary for War. At last a proper job!
He threw himself into his new role but opposed by Goering, thwarted by Speer, and afraid to cross Heinrich Himmler who barely disguised his loathing for him it was tough going but impeded or not he would get things done. He at last convinced Hitler that German women should be incorporated into the war effort and disabled soldiers were recycled to work in munitions factories and elsewhere replacing the Hitler Youth who were now armed to fight.
In October 1944, he raised the Volksturm, or Home Guard of men previously deemed unfit for military service - 500,000 new men for the Wehrmacht! He addressed them enthusiastically, they would be the first in the national uprising he had so often called for but they were old men, tired of limb and short of breath with little desire to be sacrificial lambs in a lost cause. They would parade better than they would fight - there would be no storm let loose.
Despite the extra workload he remained firmly in control of the Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda where in the closing months of the war 80% of its budget and output were devoted to the making of films, historical epics of courage and resistance with the exploits of Frederick the Great becoming a much mined resource.
The newsreels still ran of course, and in typical fashion he did not hide the facts from the people, he manipulated them. The barbarity of the Mongolian Horde from the East, the massacres, burnings, lootings, and violation of German women were stressed time and again.
But such savagery could not triumph civilisation would overcome its tormentors as long as the people fought on. The Fuhrer would find a way, he had done so before, the British and Americans would see the light and come to their aid, and if Goebbels never doubted ultimate victory and wasn’t afraid why should they be?
With Hitler confined to his Bunker and rarely seen or heard, Goering retired to his country retreat, and Himmler having booked himself into a sanatorium Joseph Goebbels had become the face and voice of German resistance. He toured the bombed-out and destroyed cities visiting the victims and addressing the crowds. He did not turn his face away from the carnage of war he embraced it and in doing so had become the star of his own newsreels.
The man often referred to as ‘Poison Dwarf’ for the toxicity of his bile was now applauded on the streets. He may not have won the love of the people but he had earned their respect. Yet he remained ruthless in crushing dissent - to voice criticism of the Regime risked death, to suggest resistance was futile would see you hanged while soldiers who displayed any reluctance to follow orders were summarily shot. Upon learning that people in the towns along the Rhine, even in his hometown of Rheydt, were hanging white flags of surrender from their windows he vowed to recapture one of these towns and make an example of it. He even drew up plans to have the Mayor of Rheydt assassinated.
In the final months of the war 28,000 Germans were to be executed by their fellow countrymen, and they were not to be the only victims. Those Germans who captured downed Allied airmen were encouraged to take the law in to their own hands, and the deportation of Jews still in Germany did not cease but was speeded up - a war of conquest had long since become one of murder. On 21 April 1945, he broadcast to the German people for the last time:
The moment of truth has come. I am remaining with my staff in Berlin. My wife and my children are here to, and will remain here. I will do everything within my power to mobilise the defences of the Reich’s capital. My thoughts and deeds will always be with you, and we will repel our common enemy. The hordes of the Mongols must be stopped at our city walls. Our struggle will be the symbol for the entire nation to rise up and fight with iron resolution consumed as we are with the fanatical desire never to let the capital of the Reich fall into Bolshevik hands.
The following day Joseph, Magda, and their six children joined the Fuhrer in his bunker beneath the Reichstag.
Hitler had in fact ordered that Magda and the children stay away but the presence of the children at least provided him with some relief from the febrile atmosphere that prevailed and he enjoyed their company feeding them chocolate cake and balancing the youngest Heidrun on his knee. The same could not be said for the sycophantic Joseph and overbearing Magda.
Around mid-afternoon on the 30 April, having earlier married his long-time mistress Eva Braun, Hitler and his new bride committed suicide. Before doing so he had dictated his Political Will and Testament in which he named Joseph Goebbels as his successor as Reich Chancellor, recognition at last. Even so, it had not been overwhelming endorsement, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz had been appointed Reich President and Martin Bormann leader of the Party.
But it was in any case all over, existence in a world without the Fuhrer was meaningless and futile so Joseph and Magda would die as he had done, by their own hand, and the children would die also.
Goebbels wrote that his wife had chosen to die alongside him and that had the children been old enough to make the decision they would do the same. Learning of this some tried to dissuade them from killing the children with a few even offering to take them from the Bunker. But Magda remained adamant: Merciful God will understand me when I give them their salvation.
The likelihood is that Magda administered the poison herself after Helmut Kunz agreed to drug the children but would not murder them and SS Doctor Ludwig Stumpfegger who was, expected to do so was found to be blind drunk and incapable.
Later that evening as darkness descended Joseph and Magda entered the Chancellery garden accompanied by SS guards carrying cans of gasoline - the time had come.
Magda was shaking uncontrollably and could not bring herself to bite into the cyanide tablet she had been provided with so Joseph took out his pistol and shot her in the head before turning the gun on himself. As ordered their bodies were then set alight but their cremation was not afforded the same care as had the Fuhrer’s and Eva Braun’s. Burned to a crisp but left unburied they were still recognisable in their death throes.
Propaganda in wartime was nothing new from the mockery of the Mercurius Aulicus during the conflict between the King and his Parliament, to the anti-Napoleonic satire of Rowlandson and Gilroy, and the Beastly Hun of World War One but rarely had it been used as the instrument with which to mould public opinion in peacetime in such an all-embracing way to create a society from new. Joseph Goebbels had used propaganda to crush dissent, cement prejudice, generate fear, and to prepare for war but also much more. There was the grandeur of the Nuremburg Rally, the physical expression of Albert Speer’s architectural vision articulated in form and design, choreographed by Goebbels, and captured in all its majesty by the awe-inspiring cinematography of Leni Reifenstahl. And it was indeed in the skilfully orchestrated set-piece political rally, which have since become such an integral part of democratic politics that Nazi propaganda was to excel.
The auditorium with its podium set high was draped with strategically placed flags and banners carrying key-note phrases; the Fuhrer would arrive late, he would always arrived late it built up tension; entering from the rear of the auditorium as the lights were dimmed he walked through the carefully selected audience as they swivelled in their seats and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him, and he spoke quietly at first, barely audible before increasing the tempo and bringing the crowd to a crescendo, a fever pitch little short of hysteria. The entire performance had been rehearsed beforehand, every gesture perfected, every pause deliberate, and Goebbels captured every moment for the newsreels with panoramic views and providing his own commentary for the simultaneous radio broadcast.
This was Goebbels arena, and though many of the ideas were Hitler’s it was he who made them a reality.
Elsewhere however his propaganda could appear crude and clumsy either exalting or hating with nothing in-between; with the press, cinema, theatre, and radio having no independence of thought or deed it was bland, dull, and one-dimensional which in a highly educated population provided little stimulation indicated in the attendance at cultural events and in the sale of newspapers which declined by as much as 50%.
But playing incessantly upon already well-established prejudices it succeeded over time in its aims with many of those who once lived in fear of a brutal regime in the end coming to believe in it - there were few dissenters.
Goebbels, who had often been frustrated by his role in Government and the Nazi Party hierarchy learned to appreciate his contribution:
What would have become of this movement without its propaganda? And where would our country be heading if lively creative propaganda did not provide its spiritual identity?
*It is of course possible to point to Soviet Russia and the Cult of Stalin as another example but this was very much built upon the worship of the Tsar and simply replaced the one for the other reinforcing rather than manipulating the understanding of a largely uneducated population for whom little had changed.
Share this post: