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The True Believer

Goebbels

by Ralf Georg Reuth, translated by Krishna Winston
Harcourt Brace, 471 pp., $27.95

Joseph Goebbels: ein nationaler Sozialist

by Ulrich Höver
Bouvier Verlag, 496 pp., DM 98

The top echelons of the National Socialist party were by no means bereft of literary talent. Adolf Hitler, after all, wrote two books, and Alfred Rosenberg was an indefatigable pamphleteer and the author of an anti-Semitic and anti-Christian treatise called The Myth of The Twentieth Century that was tedious but widely read. While imprisoned in Spandau after the war, Albert Speer kept a diary and later wrote an account of the inner workings of the Third Reich as he had seen them, and after the verdicts were announced at Nuremberg Joachim von Ribbentrop was heard to lament that now he wouldn’t be able to finish his “beautiful memoirs.” But far and away the most productive of Nazi writers was Joseph Goebbels, who even as an adolescent was experimenting with poetry, plays, and auto-biographical novels, who started writing for newspapers as early as 1922, a habit that persisted, and who in 1924 began the diary that he continued faithfully until his death.

Written in the first years by hand, three or four times a week, in excerpts that rarely exceeded a page and a half, after 1941 this was dictated daily, a chore that generally took an hour’s time and sometimes yielded twenty-five or thirty pages of type-script. As a whole, the enterprise represents a major investment of time and care. Even allowing for a degree of narcissism in the first volumes and a certain amount of self-delusion throughout, most often in its accounts of Goebbels’s relations with Hitler, it is clearly the most important document left by the Nazi movement, the richest source of information about the party’s internal feuds and debates and crises, as well as, of course, about its author’s life, character, and ideas.

For a long time the diary was available to historians only in very restricted form. In 1934 Goebbels himself published an edited version of the excerpts for the years 1932 and 1933 under the title Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei,1 but during the takeover of Berlin in 1945 most of the rest of the diary fell into Soviet hands, where it was inaccessible to scholarship for over a quarter of a century. Some parts of the diary for the war years reached the United States and formed the basis of Louis Lochner’s edition of the Tagebucher for 1942–1943, published three years after the war.2 Other accidental discoveries resulted in editions of the diaries for 1925 and 1926 and for 1945,3 but taken altogether these publications amounted to a relatively small portion of the complete work. In 1969, however, the government of the GDR, for reasons that are not quite clear, received from the Soviet Union films of a large part of the still missing diaries, and in 1972 it became amenable to the idea of having these published in the West. Commercial publication proving inexpedient, the West German Federal Archives and the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich undertook this task, and since 1987, when the work of transcription and verification was completed, the Institute has published in four stout volumes the parts of the handwritten diaries that have been recovered, and the typescript parts, now in process of publication, will comprise six or more additional ones. The editors have designated the contents of these as “fragments,” but they calculate that they include at least two thirds, and probably three quarters, of the whole of Goebbels’s handwritten diary, and rather more than that of the typescript volumes.4

This tremendous achievement is significantly altering the historical picture of the diary’s author. Early writing about Goebbels was based on very modest documentation, a circumstance that lent itself to an unfortunate reductionism in characterization. Thus we had portraits of Goebbels as the Loki in Hitler’s Wagnerian ensemble or the Machiavellian par excellence or the pure technician of propaganda with no ideas of his own, while analyses of his politics and thought were scarce. It is only during these last few years that more thorough and diversified studies have become possible. Good examples are the books of Ralf Georg Reuth and Ulrich Höver—the first a self-styled chronicle of Goebbels’s life, which is particularly enlightening on his youth and political development, and the second a study of the genesis and consistency of his political ideas—while Russel Lemmons’s book on Der Angriff demonstrates how the political history of the period can be illuminated by combining the study of Goebbels’s diaries with that of his newspaper writing.

1.

Joseph Goebbels was born in 1897 in Rheydt, an industrial town between Dusseldorf and Cologne. His father, an ardent Catholic, was a clerk in a local factory who was advanced to bookkeeper and, during the Great War, to plant manager. He had great expectations for his sons. Joseph, who was the youngest, had the misfortune shortly after the turn of the century of contracting osteomyelitis and, although the family exhausted the resources of local medicine, he was left with a lame right leg that developed into a club foot. This threw a shadow over his life and was the main source of his later misanthropy, but he compensated for his inability to take part in athletic activities or to serve in the army by omnivorous reading, which led his father to encourage him to go to the university and to persist, despite considerable financial difficulty, until he had received his doctoral degree.

This happened in November 1921, not the most propitious time for someone with nothing to commend him to an employer but a dissertation on a long-forgotten nineteenth-century dramatist of the Romantic school. Germany was still traumatized by the defeat of 1918; the newly established Republic was suffering from a dearth of republicans; and the German mark, which had been valued at 4.2 to the dollar in July 1914, was now 190 to the dollar and was plummeting downward with accelerating speed. In the introduction to his dissertation, Goebbels had written of the emptiness of his time and of the simultaneous “fervor and yearning for something nobler and finer than that for which we now live and strive.” Where, he asked, was there “a powerful genius that can lead the way over new billows from the chaos of the times to a new era?”

In a constant state of depression and penury, he held long discussions with his sweetheart, Else Janke, about the preconditions of the “new age,” and in 1923 bundled all of his ideas together in a novel called Michael Voormann: A Man’s Fate in Pages From a Diary. Strongly influenced by literary expressionism, this work, in Höver’s words, expressed

all of the longing of the generation that came home from the war…for absolute values, for timeless humanity and a new meaning to life, all of their turning away from the “bourgeois” and toward the proletariat, their rejection of rationality and objectivity, their penchant for the “daemonic,” for ectasy and delirium, for despair and vitalism, for surrender to feeling and readiness for action.

The work was marked by a repudiation of the kind of party politics characteristic of the Weimar Republic, and an insistence that Europe would “be reconstructed by peoples who will…overcome the mass madness and find their way back to the principle of personality.”5 There was also a first intimation of what became Goebbels’s strongest passion, hatred of the Jews.

Reuth tells us that there was no family reason for this: Goebbels’s father and mother were rather proud of their Jewish friends, who were wealthier and better established than they were. Goebbels himself had hoped to do his doctoral work under the eminent literary critic Friedrich Gundolf, and was disappointed when he could not. His change of attitude seems to have been prompted by his having found a job with the Cologne branch of the Dresdener bank, in January 1923, at the same time that the French invaded the Ruhr, in order to force the payment of reparations, and caused a decided worsening of the inflation. Goebbels somehow concluded that the heartbreaking scenes that he witnessed during his working day and others that he read about in the newspapers were the fault of the Jews. The fact that he himself failed to secure employment with the Jewish publishers Mosse and Ullstein was undoubtedly also a factor. In any case, by 1924, he was as much an anti-Semite as Adolf Hitler, although it is worth noting that, in contrast to Hitler’s emphasis on race, Goebbels hated the Jews because he identified them with capitalism and materialism, which he saw as diseases destroying his country.

Goebbels’s entrance into politics was not long delayed. He had been stirred by Adolf Hitler’s failed putsch in Munich in November 1923 and his subsequent trial and imprisonment in Landsberg. He began to contribute articles to a populist sheet called the Völkische Zeitung, which was read by Hitler’s followers, and in 1924 a friend took him to a great gathering of völkisch and Nazi leaders in Weimar, where he met Erich von Ludendorff and Julius Streicher, the editor of the anti-Semitic paper Der Stürmer, and Gregor Strasser, the leader of the North German Nazis. He was much impressed. He had a feeling, he wrote in his diary, of belonging to “an elite of the honest and true…It is so heart-warming and provides a great sense of security and satisfaction. A sort of grand-scale brotherhood. In the spirit of the Volk…Front-line soldiers. Under the sign of the swastika.” This was the beginning of Goebbels’s political career. He founded a branch of the National Socialist Freedom Movement and in its meetings discovered that he was a gifted speaker. He became editor of the Völkische Zeitung, most of the contents of which he was writing by this time, and on November 8, 1924, devoted a whole issue to Adolf Hitler, whom he hailed as “our helmsman in need, our apostle of truth, our leader to freedom, our fanatic of love, our voice in battle.”

We have no record of Goebbels’s first meeting with Hitler, which probably took place in July 1925, but his reaction after the next two, on November 6 in Braunschweig and again at a Nazi rally in Plauen two weeks later, confirmed all his early predispositions. “This man has everything it takes to be a king,” he wrote. “The born tribune of the people…The coming dictator.” And again, “How I love him!” And to Hitler himself two weeks after Plauen, “Until then you were my Führer. There you became my friend. A friend and master with whom I feel bonded to the very end in a shared idea.”

In all of the contorted feuding and backbiting that went on between the various Nazi and völkisch groups in the years that followed, which Reuth describes in some detail, this remained Goebbels’s position, and, whenever major differences occurred in policy discussions with Hitler, he deferred to “the chief,” as he called him, even if this meant violating pledges to others, like his early associates Gregor and Otto Strasser. For this he was accused at the time, and later in the historical literature, of lack of principle, treachery, and a willingness to sacrifice the basic populism of the völkisch movement to the whims of the dictator. Reuth himself comes very close to adopting this position. It is true that it would never have occurred to Goebbels to resign from the movement because Hitler wouldn’t accept his ideas, as Otto Strasser did, after a discussion of future economic policy, when Hitler said to him, “Do you think I’d be so crazy as to destroy German heavy industry?…They are an elite; they have a right to lead.”6

  1. 1

    The English version was My Part in Germany’s Fight (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1935).

  2. 2

    The Goebbels Diaries, 1942–1943, edited by Louis P. Lochner (Doubleday, 1948).

  3. 3

    Das Tagebuch von Joseph Goebbels, 1925–1926, edited by Helmut Heiber (Stuttgart: DVA, 1960); Tagebucher 1945: Die letzten Aufzeichnungen, with an introduction by Rolf Hochhuth (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1977.) The first of these was published in English by Weidenfeld in 1962 with a foreword by Alan Bullock, and an edition of the second, edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper, by Putnam in 1978.

  4. 4

    See Elke Frohlich’s introduction to Die Tagebucher von Joseph Goebbels: Sämtliche Fragmente, edited by Elke Frohlich for the Institut der Zeitgeschichte, Munich, in collaboration with the Bundesarchiv, Part I, Volume I (K. G. Saur, 1987).

  5. 5

    I am indebted to Alan E. Steinweis of the University of Nebraska for calling my attention to this passage. Alan E. Steinweis, “Hitler and Historical Greatness,” conference paper from the American Historical Association, meeting in San Francisco, January 6–9, 1994.

  6. 6

    Helmut Heiber, Adolf Hitler (Berlin: Colloquium Verlag, 1960), p. 68.

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