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Hitler’s Impresario

Joseph Goebbels has been described as “the only really interesting man in the Third Reich beside Hitler.” The other Paladins of Nazism who, like him, were with the Führer from beginning to end—Göring, Himmler, Bormann, Ley—were made by Hitler’s power. In themselves they were, at best, commonplace men. Without them, Hitler and Nazism would probably have been the same, for substitutes would have been found. Goebbels was different. Although he needed Hitler in order to rise, he also contributed significantly to Hitler’s power. He transformed his image, gave him public appeal, his charisma. He also sought to perpetuate that appeal for posterity. He set out to predetermine the future history of Nazism, its myth. Even after its complete failure, historians will still have to contend with that myth.

To those who lived through the years of Nazism, Goebbels will always be remembered as Hitler’s “Minister for Propaganda and Enlightenment,” the unscrupulous propagandist whose shameless brilliance as a mob orator and a manipulator of the news vindicated the statement of Hitler, in Mein Kampf, that the greater the lie, the more chance it had of being believed. First as a demagogic speaker at Party functions, then as an organizer of censorship and propaganda, finally as master of the media throughout the Reich, he saw to it that nothing was heard or seen on party platforms, on the radio, in the cinema, or in the press, except what he judged useful for immediate political purposes. Moreover, this uniform propaganda, disseminated at every level and through all the media, was not dull and predictable. Though crude and violent in form, utterly unscrupulous in substance, and quite indifferent to truth, it was managed with an agility and a sophistication which extorted a reluctant admiration even from its enemies and its victims. There was nothing dead or mechanical about it: with its un-German clarity, its accurate assessment of the potentialities of the medium, the need of the moment, and the taste of the audience, it became a deadly and flexible instrument of power. In this it accurately reflected the mind of its director. Goebbels was an impresario of genius, the first man to realize the full potentialities of mass media for political purposes in a dynamic totalitarian state.

But if this was the public image of Goebbels in his lifetime, it does not represent the sum of his contribution to Nazism. His importance was greater than this. He was also an efficient administrator, a radical political adviser to Hitler, and, to historians, an important (though dangerous) source.

Perhaps the best account of Goebbels’s services to the Nazi movement was given by himself. On December 12, 1941, when victory on all fronts still seemed likely, Goebbels told his assistants in the Ministry of Propaganda that he had vitally strengthened that movement in four decisive ways. First, as leader of the National Socialists in Rhine and Ruhr, he had converted Nazism from a middle-class nationalist movement, based in Munich, into a Socialist working-class party, able to capture and hold the workers of the industrial Rhineland. Secondly, he had won Berlin and thereby prepared the way for the “seizure of power” in the Reich; for “without control of Berlin the Party would have remained a provincial movement.” Thirdly, he had worked out the style and technique of the Party’s public ceremonies: the mass demonstrations, the marches with standards, the ritual of the great Party occasions. Anyone, he remarked, could measure that achievement by comparing the annual commemorative gatherings in the beer-cellar at Munich with the giant demonstrations in the Sportpalast in Berlin. Finally, he had created the “myth” of the Führer. He had given to Hitler “the halo of infallibility,” the charisma which enabled him to rise above the Party and be “the Führer,” blindly followed by the German people.1

It is difficult to fault this complacent claim by Goebbels. That lucid mind, which seldom unconsciously deceived, was accurate even in self-perception. To the end, he could distinguish the objective truth from his own propaganda. To the end, he combined fanaticism with detachment: a politically calculated fanaticism with an intellectual detachment. That indeed is why his propaganda was so effective.

The character of Goebbels is clearly revealed by his early history, a vital part of which is illustrated by his personal diary: for throughout his life he was a compulsive diarist. A Rhinelander, the son of devout Catholic parents from the lower middle class, handicapped from childhood by a club-foot, he showed early intellectual promise and acquired—thanks to a Catholic charitable organization—a university education. He had intellectual and literary ambitions, and at first sought self-expression by writing novels and plays, in which however there is no substance, only self-idealization, romantic attitudes—and a streak of nihilism. Failing to make any mark at the university, blaming the Jewish monopoly for his inability to prosper in literature, he toyed with one political credo after another and then, early in 1925, joined the Nazi Party in the Rhineland. That branch of the Party was controlled by the most radical of the early Nazi leaders, Gregor Strasser.

Goebbels was in one sense always true to his origins. He was always a radical in the Party, and there remained always in him a recurrent streak of nihilism, arising, originally, from hatred of the society around him and from a certain inner emptiness: for he was a man of postures, not ideas or beliefs. However, he had also another characteristic, which would also serve him well: opportunism. With his complete freedom from conviction, and his remarkable mental agility, he was able to anticipate events and change course with great dexterity and to justify the change by nimble arguments. An occasion to exercise these gifts arose within a year of his joining the Party. It was to have a decisive influence on his career.

The matter at issue was the compensation or the expropriation of the Hohenzollern princes. The Munich party, led by Hitler, who had been chastened by the failure of his 1923 Putsch, urged compensation; the Rhineland party, led by Strasser, demanded expropriation. The battle became fierce, and Goebbels committed himself entirely to Strasser’s camp. He attacked the Munich party, and Hitler personally, in violent terms. At one time he is said to have demanded that “the petty bourgeois Adolf Hitler be expelled from the Nazi Party.” However, at a meeting at Bamberg, Goebbels was won over by Hitler and soon he would dramatize his convêrsion, or apostasy. Hitler would become, to him, “the creative instrument of Fate and Deity,” a man who had “everything to be King,” “a born tribune of the people, the coming dictator.” From now on, Goebbels would be faithful to Hitler, building up his image as the man of destiny. Hitler, and the cult of Hitler, would supply him with the central ideal, the necessary conviction which was lacking in his own mentality, and around which the brilliant impresario could organize the ritual of devotion. For Hitler was power, and Goebbels, as his biographers have written, “was always loyal to power.”2 Gregor Strasser he would leave to be murdered, with his fellow “radicals,” in the great purge of June 30, 1934.

Goebbels was rewarded for his “apostasy” by being made Gauleiter of Berlin, and this office he held to the end, for nearly twenty years. An able and vigorous administrator, he soon captured the capital for Nazism. He did so by his usual combination of ruthlessness and skill. He purged the local party, streamlined the administration, and maintained Nazi power in the city by effective propaganda, frightening demonstrations of power and unscrupulous persecution of scapegoats. At first he had affected not to wish for the post; but he was too intelligent not to see its value. “Whoever can conquer the streets,” he wrote, “will one day conquer the State, for every form of power politics and any dictatorially run state has its roots in the streets.” Besides, in the jungle of the Nazi Party, Berlin was a great fief: whoever ruled it could hold his own against any other of the great feudatories. By combining it with the command of the media, which he used to denigrate and destroy those who resisted his power, he had—at least during the years of struggle, the “Kampfzeit“—a stronger base than any of them.

Once in control of the Party in Berlin, Goebbels never allowed that control to slacken. He reinforced it by continual demonstrations and organized, almost ceremonial violence. “We cannot have enough of demonstrations,” he wrote, “for that is far and away the most emphatic way of demonstrating one’s will to govern.” Some of his demonstrations were notorious: the funeral of Horst Wessel, a radical Nazi student killed in a brawl in 1930; the exploitation of the Reichstag Fire in 1933; the barbarous ceremony of “the burning of the books” on May 10, 1933; and, on November 9, 1938, the so-called Kristallnacht, an allegedly “spontaneous” outburst of anti-Semitism in which the windows of Jewish shops in Germany were smashed—with disastrous financial consequence to good Aryan insurance companies. Some of these demonstrations were counterproductive: the burning of the books outraged foreign opinion at a time when it was being wooed, and the Kristallnacht was deplored by other Nazi leaders, like Himmler, who wanted silent elimination of the Jews, not spectacular pogroms. But Goebbels never lost Hitler’s support as Gauleiter. In 1942 Hitler paid a notable tribute to his achievement. Goebbels, he wrote, was the man for whom he had long been waiting; he was the ideal man for that difficult task; he had “worked like an ox” to destroy opposition; “I have never regretted giving him the powers he asked for. When he started, he found nothing particularly efficient as a political organization to help him; nevertheless, in the literal sense of the word, he captured Berlin.”3

In the autumn of 1939, when Hitler prepared to launch his war, Goebbels was among those who sought to avert it. As he had no positive ideals, Hitler’s vast plans of Eastern empire made no special appeal to him: it was not for them that he had joined the Party. Albert Speer tells us that “we who were members of Hitler’s personal circle considered him, as well as Goering, who also counselled peace, as weaklings who had degenerated in the luxury of power and did not want to risk the privileges they had acquired.”4 Moreover, with the outbreak of war, Goebbel’s position necessarily shrank. Hitler himself (we are told) declared that, for the duration of the war, the Propaganda Minister must be kept in the background.5 Of course Berlin still had to be controlled and propaganda still had to be made. But military victory ensured the loyalty of Berlin and spoke louder than any propaganda.

In those years of victory, therefore, Goebbels ceased to make the pace. He became a mere commentator, carried with the tide. In his radio programs, his victory films, his own paper Der Angriff, and his regular leading articles in the Party organ Das Reich, he celebrated the triumph of German arms, ridiculed the enemy, and built up the picture of Hitler, not now as a revolutionary leader but as a national hero, the reincarnation of Frederick the Great, “the greatest war-lord of all time.” He also organized victory parades and enjoyed a life of feverish activity as the advertiser, friend, and counselor of the dictator whose frequent dilettantism and uncertainty he did so much to disguise.

  1. 1

    Rudolf Semler, Goebbels, The Man Next to Hitler (1947), p. 56. I have not hesitated to cite Semler as a source in spite of Mr. David Irving’s judgment (Hitler’s War, Viking, 1977, p. xx) that his diaries are “phony.” Mr. Irving bases this judgment on one entry—an account of a visit by Hitler to the Goebbels family on January 12, 1945—which is clearly misdated in the printed text. Semler’s dates are not always reliable, but his matter remains valid. The visit itself is confirmed by Werner Naumann, who was there (Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels, Heinemann, 1960, p. 262). Other entries by Semler have been confirmed in detail by documents unavailable at the time of publication, including the Goebbels Diaries. In my opinion Semler’s notes are authentic, although perhaps not kept in diary form.

  2. 2

    Manvell and Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels, p. 134.

  3. 3

    Hitler’s Table Talk, edited by H. Trevor-Roper (1953), p. 532.

  4. 4

    Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (Macmillan, 1970), pp. 162-3.

  5. 5

    Alfred Rosenberg, Politische Tagebuch, September 3, 1939.

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