Goebbels and National Socialist Propaganda 1925-1945
The Track of the Wolf: Essays on National Socialism and its Leader, Adolf Hitler
It is surely here to stay, Harold Lasswell wrote in 1934 in his entry on “propaganda” for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. How right he was. We have all been taught about the origins of the word in its modern sense—Urban VIII, the Jesuits and all that. But if the term is of relatively modern date, propaganda itself surely is not, for what were the Crusades if not a masterfully envisaged (if poorly executed) exercise in propaganda and political warfare? Napoleon, too, was no mean practitioner of the art. On a wide scale propaganda was first used in World War One; in 1917-18 the Entente dropped some 100 million leaflets over the German lines. Their content, their make-up, the means of distribution, were extremely primitive by modern standards, but they had some effect on the morale of the German troops. Above all, they had a profound impact on those Germans who after the end of the war pondered the causes of the defeat. Lord Northcliffe became a magic name in right-wing extremist circles in Munich and Berlin; Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: “I have learned a tremendous lot (unendlich viel) from enemy propaganda in the first world war.” (He also learned from socialist propaganda and ridiculed the bourgeois parties to whom the “art of propaganda is almost entirely unknown.”) He did not need Le Bon to make him realize that the masses were stirred not by logical argument but by appeals to passion; he also seems to have understood fairly early that a lie that goes undetected for a long time, acts as a truth. Above all, Hitler was firmly convinced that propaganda was a terrible weapon in the hands of the experts. He was thinking primarily of the spoken word; there was always the danger that newspaper articles would be clever and sophisticated, i.e., the very opposite of what effective propaganda should be, the crude and persistent hammering home of a single theme (kill the Jews, destroy Marxism, defeat the enemy).
Hitler was fortunate in finding a very able lieutenant in Joseph Goebbels, an agile and fertile mind, a competent writer and excellent speaker, who combined organizational know-how with a total lack of inhibitions. He was a cripple who looked even less than Hitler himself the part of the ideal Nordic hero which played such a great part in Nazi doctrine; his only heroic exploits were in the beds of movie stars. His enemies inside the party called him a “shrunken Teuton gone dark” (nachgedunkelter Schrumpfgermane). For all that his was the best mind among the Nazi leaders; he was critical of his colleagues, but boundlessly devoted to the Fuehrer to the very end. Goebbels was the creator and chief operator of the Nazi propaganda machine from the very beginning, supervising each phase and every field of activity; unlike Mussolini, he realized the tremendous importance of the radio as a means of carrying propaganda to the last hamlet and cottage in the country and thus reaching a far wider public than ever before in history.
Dr. Bramsted, a native of Germany who worked in London in the Thirties with Karl Mannheim and now teaches at the University of Sydney, has produced in this massive tome the most thorough study of the house that Goebbels built and which, together with Himmler’s terror machine and the Wehrmacht, was one of the three pillars of Nazi power. His book is based on much hitherto untapped documentary material; if some of the observations that follow are critical in character, it ought to be stressed at once that Goebbels and National Socialist Propaganda is an important book which will be consulted as a standard reference work by all students of modern German history for many years to come. (To my own surprise I find myself recommending many recent books on Germany; it has been an uncommonly good year as far as Central Europe is concerned, and Dr. Bramsted’s book takes its place in this series.) The author, rightly I believe, takes Northcliffe as his starting point and then passes on, wrongly I think, to a discussion of the influence of one almost totally forgotten right-wing Munich publicist, Paul Cossman. Cossman, whose origins were partly Jewish (which probably caused his arrest in the third Reich), was an old-fashioned extreme nationalist. There was literally a world of difference between a spokesman of the old order like Cossman and a semi-nihilist like Goebbels, who had on various occasions expressed great admiration for Lenin and Bolshevism and ridiculed the “stupid antisemitism” and anti-Bolshevism of the traditional German right.
The core of Bramsted’s book is devoted to an analysis of the organization of Nazi propaganda, the coordination of the press, the radio, the cinema, the theater, and all other means of mass communication. He examines the treatment of foreign correspondents, the tactics of soft-pedaling for foreign consumption while Germany was as yet unprepared, and subsequently, the all-out preparation for Hitler’s conquests (Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland). In wartime the main task of German propaganda was, as before, the projection of the Hitler image; in addition the belief in German invincibility had to be strengthened and, after Stalingrad and El Alamein, morale had to be kept up on the home front by, among other things, appeals to fear. Separate chapters in the book are devoted to Nazi attitudes towards Britain, the anti-Jewish propaganda, and (somewhat incongruously), to a very detailed discussion of the counter-propaganda of the British Broadcasting Corporation in wartime.
The general conclusion, not quite surprisingly, is that Goebbels’s propaganda was more effective while German armies were advancing than when they retreated. Even so, with its promises of miracle weapons, a sudden break in the Allied coalition, and references to sudden changes of fortune that had happened before in German history, it helped to prevent a breakdown in German morale up to a very late stage in the war. The strong effect of this propaganda, its aggressive character, its utter mendacity, and the impact produced on the masses by constant repetition are unlikely to emerge from a scholarly book. It is fortunate that some of Goebbels’s main performances are now available on records; the spoken word, the frenetic applause, the whole atmosphere transmitted in sound conveys to those who did not live through that period a far more tangible impression than any literary description.
That Goebbels was a cynic appears for instance from his campaign in the late Twenties against Dr. Weiss, the Jewish deputy commander of the Berlin police at the time. Goebbels relentlessly attacked Dr. Weiss, bestowing on him the Jewish nickname “Isidor”; he became in the Nazi press the very symbol of the sinister Jewish forces which were brutally abusing the German people. Years later Goebbels admitted that the propagandistic transformation of this “harmless fool” into some super-Frankenstein had been one of his greatest achievements. But Goebbels was not only a cynic; there was in him a great deal of blind belief, and it is the difficult task of the historian to establish where the one ended and the other began.
It is an exaggeration to argue, as some have done, that in National Socialism propaganda filled the place of a doctrine. But it is certainly true that in Nazism and in Nazi propaganda Weltanschauung played a much smaller role than, for instance, in Communism. Precisely for that reason an “apparatchik,” a top executive, would not have been able to conduct Nazi propaganda; a brilliant and malignant mastermind like Goebbels was needed. He was also, incidentally, a very hardworking man; I do not know of anyone in a similar position in our time who produced each week both a newspaper article and a broadcast script as Goebbels did over and above his other duties during the last years of the war.
There is no lack of documentary evidence on the Nazi era; on the contrary, there is an embarras de richesse of millions of files and frames of microfilm: It is almost impossible not to lose one’s way from time to time in this maze of documents, and Dr. Bramsted, too, seems occasionally to have been overwhelmed. This shows in the organization of the material, a certain sketchiness, a concentration on some admittedly very interesting and revealing aspects, to the detriment of a full coverage of the subject. He wrongly attributes to Goebbels the authorship of the phrase “Iron Curtain”; Winston Churchill is said to have adapted the phrase from him. But in fact the term is much older. To give but one example—Ethel Snowden, who went to Russia with the first Labor delegation, wrote in 1920: “We were behind the ‘iron curtain’ at last…” (Through Bolshevik Russia, London, 1920, p.32).
Messrs. Manvell and Fraenkel have produced over the last few years biographies of Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, and the men who tried to kill Hitler in 1944 (which I reviewed in these pages not long ago). These biographies are workmanlike and well written; to the best of my knowledge there are no better biographies in existence. They have come in for some attacks of late because they are, as some purists argue, not up to the highest historical standards. I do not attribute too much weight to such criticism; it is doubtful whether the basic picture to emerge would have been essentially different even if Manvell and Fraenkel had worked for ten more years on each volume. For my own uneasiness about these books, and particularly about the Himmler and Goering biographies, there are different reasons; it is exceedingly difficult to write a biography of anyone but the supreme leader in a totalitarian dictatorship; I am not convinced that it is worthwhile to try to write about the others. The life of the great dictator himself can usually be well documented; about his lieutenants we mostly do not know enough for a study in depth. All the important decisions, moreover, are taken by the great dictator himself, not his lieutenants, who were, so to speak, merely dancing the Gopak. Himmler as a person is not that interesting, and I think the authors could have shown in a long essay rather than a book how this unprepossessing youth grew into an obsessively scrupulous and very superstitious man with a schoolmasterish attitude to life. Biographers of the men “next to Hitler” (or Stalin or Mussolini) are almost certainly bound to inflate the importance of their villain-hero; there will be much general politics and little biography. A book on Goering, in other words, will deal mainly with the German air force, a book on Molotov with Soviet foreign policy. This Himmler biography deals largely with the S.S., its main figures and activities. This is a legitimate subject, for the definitive work on the Nazi terror machine remains to be written. Manvell and Fraenkel’s new book has all the good qualities of their previous biographies, but it adds few new facts or fresh insight—and it is certainly not the long-needed definitive study of the S.S.
Professor McRandle’s book is the most ambitious and the most exasperating of the three reviewed here. In his five long essays on Nazism and its leaders he is above all concerned with Hitler’s destructiveness as opposed to his creative powers, with his suicidal tendencies, and with the origins of his ideas. In “Warrior and Worker” he deals with two stereotyped figures of German twentieth-century literature which later became part and parcel of Nazi ideology. Professor McRandle, in other words, wants to find out what made Hitler tick; this kind of book, needless to say, is a far more courageous enterprise than the attempt to write a historical monograph on some little known aspect of the history of the Third Reich. The writer of the specialized monograph is bound to come up with something that is new, provided his subject is sufficiently obscure; with the authors of studies that want to go straight to the core of a great problem and to explain it it is very often all or nothing; they are either great successes or miserable failures. I admire Professor McRandle’s daring spirit, but I do not think his book is a success.
He writes well and knows the literature about Nazism. I agree with some of his arguments—he stresses, for instance, the central importance of the personality of the Fuehrer in the history of Nazism: elsewhere he emphasizes that the Nazis were not just an extreme right-wing group as some historians still believe. I sympathize with his attempt to apply the psychoanalytical method to shed light on Hitler’s real motives. But these valuable approaches and ideas are more than offset by an uncanny tendency to ask the wrong questions and to complicate simple issues. One of the main essays, which gives its title to the whole book, is “the track of the wolf.” Professor McRandle describes how Hitler, when hiding in Bavaria in 1922, once used the pseudonym “Herr Wolf” while visiting a friend in a neighboring village. The choice of this nickname (McRandle thinks) is most significant, nor was it pure coincidence that his headquarters during World War Two were called Wolfsschanze and Wolfsschlucht. On this Professor McRandle builds his theory about Hitler’s dual character—the dawdling dreamer with aspirations towards the artistic life, and the ravening wolf hungering for and attaining political power. Thus a small grain of truth becomes the basis of an elaborate theory. I felt prejudiced from the very beginning; for reasons which are of no public interest I once chose “Wolf” as a first name and I can assure Professor McRandle from my own experience that unconscious motives are not the only ones that matter in the choice of a name or a pseudonym. There is in history as in psychoanalysis the danger of missing a clue, but the pitfall of reading deep significance into meaningless action has also to be avoided. Lenin, I believe, once chose the pseudonym “Herr Richter.” I wonder what Professor McRandle would have made of this. Was Lenin really a judge manqué? was he basically a right-winger?
The longest essay, “The Suicide,” is even more startling. It asks why Hitler committed suicide. The obvious answer to this question, namely, that he had no alternative, is far too simple for the author, and so we are told, 100 pages and 213 footnotes later, that we shall never know exactly why Hitler killed himself. In between there are statistics about suicide in Japan and Egypt, in urban areas, in Catholic countries, in West and East Berlin since the last war. We learn that artists have a higher suicide rate than non-artists, and soldiers commit suicide more often than civilians. We are given to understand that according to Ringel’s fundamental study about married persons committing suicide, those having marital difficulties are high—an unstartling conclusion, if there ever was one. We learn that Hitler committed suicide on a Monday at 3:30 in the afternoon; according to Ellis and Allen’s investigation, more people commit suicide on a Monday than on any other day of the week, and in Europe most people commit the fatal deed either in the morning or the early afternoon. We are told what Stengel, Zilboorg, and Menninger think about suicide; Hitler’s performance at his secondary school, which was quite wretched (he failed in German, mathematics, and shorthand) is also discussed in detail. Professor McRandle has even studied the literature on suicide in Dutch—and yet one remains firmly unconvinced. There may have been a suicidal streak in Hitler, and over the years he may have made some vague threats or announcements pointing in this direction. If so, what a roundabout way for a man to achieve his aim! I have the greatest admiration for the authorities on suicide quoted by Professor McRandle, but I suspect he invoked them unnecessarily. Hitler really had no alternative on that Monday afternoon: his situation therefore radically differed from that of all other people who took their lives on the afternoon of that day. If someone is still looking for a pattern to understand Hitler’s behavior during the last few weeks of his life, I recommend a study of the “Song of the Nibelungs,” which, I submit, is likely to shed more light than—with due respect—an article on “automobile accidents, suicide and unconscious motivation.”
Wolf August 26, 1965