Joseph Goebbels
Joseph Goebbels; drawing by David Levine

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.

Goebbels’s routine as propagandist during the war is shown by the minutes of the regular, almost daily conferences in which he gave directives to his officials. His activity as a minister was incessant. Constant action was a psychological necessity to him—again, it seems, an escape from inner emptiness—and no detail was too small for his attention. Often he laid down his general rules. “The fundamental principle of all propaganda,” he declared, was “the repetition of effective arguments”; but those arguments must not be too refined—there was no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted and would anyway always yield to the stronger, “and this will always be the man in the street.”6 Arguments must therefore be crude, clear, and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not to the intellect. Truth was unimportant, and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology, but convenient lies (“poetic truth,” as he once called them) must always be made credible. In accordance with these general directives, precise instructions were issued. Hatred and contempt must be directed at particular individuals; only such expressions were to be used as would generate the required emotion; specific lies were to be disseminated. These instructions were mandatory: officials who failed to follow them were regularly threatened with the concentration camp.

Meanwhile Goebbels sought to ensure that the exigencies and distractions of war did not weaken his influence at court. Here he had one great advantage, for although never one of Hitler’s intimate circle, he was closer to him than any other of the old guard of Nazism. Hitler used Göring, Bormann, Himmler, but he was never familiar with them, never relaxed in their company or revealed to them his unguarded thoughts. He saw himself as a universal genius, an artist as well as a statesman, and he was impatient of that philistine, froth-blowing, class-bound world of early Nazism. Hence his affection for Speer, his architect, who, because of his “artistic” interests, could claim to be his only friend. Among politicians, Goebbels, with his command over the media, came closest to Speer. He could supply Hitler with films and film actresses, he could talk of art and music, and, like Speer, he came from an educated background. It was he who, externally at least, had raised Hitler above the vulgar level of his first associates in the beer-halls of Munich.

In fact, of course, Goebbels was not a cultivated man. He had no aesthetic interests. He burned the German classics and destroyed “decadent” art. He closed the Berlin theaters during the war. He was indifferent to the State Opera. He never went to concerts. His tastes were as banal and trivial as those of Hitler himself. But to Hitler he counted as an intellectual. Besides, Hitler liked presentable, admiring women. Frau Goebbels was an elegant woman from a rich family; she worshipped Hitler; and Hitler was glad to have her worship. Hitler had been best man at Goebbels’s marriage, and when that marriage nearly broke down owing to Goebbels’s numerous amours with actresses and secretaries, Hitler positively forbade divorce and personally imposed a reconciliation.

In private life, Goebbels again separated himself from the other old Nazis and sought to advertise his superior character as an intellectual. He was fastidious in his dress, wore wellcut clothes, and kept a huge wardrobe. His palatial residence near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and his villa at Schwanenwerder on the Wannsee were luxuriously furnished; but the luxury was combined with a certain austerity. He hated the gross display of opulence made by some of the Party bosses, and particularly by that greatest of vulgarians and faux bonhommes, “the Reich Marshal,” Hermann Göring, whose extravagance of dress and gluttony for material things only aggravated, in Goebbels’s eyes, his crime of inefficiency as commander in chief of the Luftwaffe. Goebbels’s outward life was, by contrast, almost puritanically simple. The frugality of his entertainment was notorious, and much resented by his officials who expected something better from their tyrannical and exacting master.

This very austerity was to serve him well and to provide him with a program in the later years of the war. The earlier years had been the years of victorious Blitzkrieg, when all Germany grew fat on the spoils of Europe and Göring stacked his palaces with the most priceless treasures and the costliest wines looted from the conquered West. But after the winter of 1941 the conditions of war changed, and by the end of 1942 it was clear that the years of easy victory were over. Germany had now roused against itself a world coalition. Its armies were on the defensive on three fronts. They had been defeated in Africa, halted in Russia, and feared invasion in the West. Then came the disaster at Stalingrad: the encirclement and, in the end, the capture of the entire Sixth Army, whose generals, to make the disgrace even more bitter, instead of committing suicide according to their instructions, surrendered and, in captivity, became propagandists for the Russians, broadcasting to the German troops and urging universal surrender. This was a great humiliation to the master propagandist in Berlin: a humiliation made worse by the fact that victory at Stalingrad had been confidently predicted and elaborate arrangements had been made to celebrate its fall.

The disasters of the winter of 1942-1943, which transformed the character of the war, brought Goebbels back into the forefront of German politics. Hitherto much of his energy had been devoted to the suppression rather than the publication of the radical doctrines and policies which he secretly favored, and his instructions to his own officials were often negative. The euthanasia program, for instance, was never to be mentioned by the media. The war against the Church, unseasonably pressed by the fanatical anti-Christian Martin Bormann, was to be put off until after victory. The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem, which Goebbels himself supported, “whatever the cost,” was similarly under a strict taboo. And it was hardly possible to make propaganda to the Russian people by describing German war aims in the East since those war aims were simply conquest, extermination, and exploitation. As Goebbels himself remarked with cynical candor, even the German people would never have voted for the Nazis if they had known what they intended to do. However, the disasters of the second Russian winter marked a change. Damaged by defeat, the Party leadership had to reassert itself and command new efforts by the German people. This return to the spirit of the Kampfzeit gave the minister a new opportunity to deploy his old arts and to raise his old voice: the arts of the impresario, the virtuoso master of ceremonies; the voice of radicalism, nihilism, destruction.

For a long time Goebbels had been the prophet of “total war.” Unlike Hitler, who remained emotionally wedded to the concept of the Blitzkrieg and who had never envisaged, or prepared for, a long struggle, Goebbels, with the absolutism of the intellectual, retained a lifelong preference for radical measures and had advocated, in particular, the mobilization of women. Periodically he had convinced Hitler, but always, when his back was turned, Hitler had relapsed into his old habit. Now, in defeat, Goebbels saw his chance. He returned to the attack. Hitler was by this time entirely surrounded by a “Committee of Three” consisting of Bormann, Lammers, and Keitel—which meant, effectively, Bormann; but in December 1942 Goebbels broke through this ring and submitted a memorandum to Hitler proposing measures of total mobilization. In the exigency of the time, Hitler approved the memorandum and next month signed a decree accordingly.

Goebbels now threw himself into action. He saw Stalingrad as Germany’s Dunkirk and he tried to rouse in Germany the same spirit as Churchill had roused in Britain after Dunkirk. “At that time,” Goebbels declared, “Winston Churchill displayed admirable frankness in drawing the necessary conclusions and telling the British people the absolute truth. At the time, we did not understand this”—and indeed, he did not, for at that time he had ordered all broadcasts to Britain to be prefaced by the “catchy slogan” “Churchill is a fool”—but with these tactics Churchill had aroused the nation. Now Nazi Germany must do the same. Only, he added, we must not seem to be imitators: “Churchill’s slogan of ‘blood, sweat and tears’ must not be taken up: we must think of a slogan of our own.”7

It is pleasant to see the great master of the lie suddenly discovering the tactical advantages of “absolute truth.” Goebbels’s first application of this novel doctrine was a frank admission of the catastrophic nature of the German defeat. On February 3, 1943, he ordered three days of national remembrance for Stalingrad. All places of entertainment were to be shut, and there was to be a complete standstill of traffic for one minute on the first and last day. There was to be no mourning, no sentimentality, only a dignified and resolute devotion to further effort. Goebbels even ordered—again a new departure—that the press should not publish cartoons which belittle the enemy: “we have no reason at the present moment to portray our opponents as being smaller than in fact they are.”8

Meanwhile Goebbels was exploiting to the full Hitler’s decree ordering “the extreme totalization of the war which he, the minister, has been demanding for the past eighteen months.” On February 18 he mounted a great demonstration in the Sportpalast in Berlin. He himself made one of his most famous speeches, in which he demanded even greater efforts and promised that blood, sweat, and tears (though not of course in those words) would bring ultimate victory. In the course of the speech he gave vent to the usual hysterical radicalism. Speer, who was there, afterward said that he had never seen an audience so effectively roused to fanaticism. Goebbels pulled out all the old stops and screamed abuse at the Jews who, he declared, were behind all Germany’s enemies. Implicitly, he also used his opportunity to show his rivals at court that he could direct against them the terrible engine of a fanatical mob. At the climax of the speech, he posed ten carefully prepared questions and extracted (with the aid of canned applause on gramophone records) a hideous chorus of rhythmical assent. After his speech, he was carried shoulder-high from the hall; then he relaxed in the company of Albert Speer who was ultimately to be the effective organizer of the total war of which Goebbels was merely the trumpeter. To Speer’s astonishment, Goebbels quietly and complacently analyzed, as a purely technical exercise, the speech which, at the time, had seemed a spontaneous emotional outburst. Even at his most fanatical, Goebbels was always the dispassionate realist, observing, with detached, professional expertise, the effect of his own carefully rehearsed mob oratory.9

Having thus whipped up the radicalism of the masses, Goebbels turned, by natural instinct, to acts of destruction. As Gauleiter of Berlin, he ordered the closure of all expensive restaurants. This, predictably, led to a clash with Göring, who was a regular patron, and protector, of the most famous and luxurious of such restaurants, Horcher’s in the Lutherstrasse. Göring attempted to exempt Horcher’s from what he called “the crazy Goebbels regulations,” and provided a guard to defend the place. Thereupon Goebbels organized a “spontaneous” demonstration. The windows of the restaurant were smashed; Goebbels refused the proprietor’s request for police protection, and after long and bitter recriminations Göring was obliged to yield—for a time. This minor “Kristallnacht” was Goebbels’s one concrete contribution to the “totalization of the war.”

Like so many of his gestures, it was ill-timed; for precisely at this moment Goebbels needed, or thought that he needed, the help of Göring. In the excitement generated by the new program of total war, Goebbels and Speer, now closely allied (“Speer is entirely mine,” wrote Goebbels), believed that, with Göring’s help, they might displace Bormann’s “kitchen cabinet,” the Committee of Three. Goebbels himself had hopes of replacing Ribbentrop, the asinine foreign minister whom Hitler persisted in regarding as a second Bismarck. So, for a few weeks, there was a buzz of high-powered intrigue. In the interest of the new alliance, the Horcher affair was redressed: the restaurant was reopened as a Luftwaffe club under the high patronage of the Reich Marshal as commander in chief; and Goebbels suddenly found himself praising Göring’s open-hearted geniality. “His dress,” he admitted, “is somewhat baroque, and would, if one did not know him, strike one as almost laughable. But that’s the way he is, and one must put up with his idiosyncrasies; they sometimes even have a charm about them.”10

The attempt by Speer and Goebbels to use Göring and oust Bormann from the center of power was a complete failure. In fact, as Speer afterward discovered, it had been doomed from the start, for Bormann had already seduced Göring with a gift of six million marks from Party funds. So Göring sank back into his usual self-indulgent lethargy, from which (as Speer writes) “he only awoke at Nuremberg.” Goebbels had to admit defeat and settle for a modus vivendi with Bormann. It was an uneasy settlement: Goebbels privately referred to Bormann as “a primitive OGPU type”; but in view of Bormann’s absolute control over access to Hitler it was a necessity; and Goebbels kept it, reluctantly, to the very end.

However Goebbels did not give up his ambitions of greater political power and, with each new misfortune, he tried to reassert the necessity of greater radicalism in all things, and of himself as the director of it. In pursuit of such aims he was forced into alliance not only with the hated Bormann but also with the equally hated Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Being himself, in his own view, “a man of fine feeling,” Goebbels could not bear the “inartistic” Himmler, with his “Asiatic” slanting eyes, his short fat fingers, his dirty nails.11 Still, he was attracted by the radicalism and the brutality of that terrible ogre who had built (as he remarked) “the greatest power organization that one can imagine”; he approved wholeheartedly of the extermination of the Jews which Himmler was so efficiently carrying out; and he followed his own infallible nose for power. By July 1943 Goebbels went so far as to urge Hitler to replace Göring as commander in chief of the Luftwaffe—only to incur a rebuff: to his disgust, Hitler absolutely refused to dismiss his old comrade.

As the war news worsened—when the Allies invaded Italy and Mussolini was overthrown—Goebbels even turned against Hitler himself. As in 1925, he began again to think that “the petty bourgeois Adolf Hitler” was not radical enough, and he blamed himself for having built up his image and created the legend of his infallibility. One of his assistants noted that he now mentioned the Führer less often. “He feels himself superior to Hitler: he cannot admit any longer the sole and unconditional authority of a man whom he himself made great.” He no longer thought Hitler capable of mastering the difficulties of the time, and regularly sighed that “if I were the Führer,” things would be different. Rumors were put about that he was to be vice chancellor or prime minister. However, this mood did not last. As in 1925, Hitler’s powerful personality, and Goebbels’s own inner emptiness, would once again bring him around. He needed an object of devotion and could not long reject the idol he had made. So, as the clouds gathered more thickly around its base, he would build up the image of the Führer higher than ever, to tower above them.

This psychological process was described by one of Goebbels’s assistants. “Whenever Goebbels goes to Hitler’s headquarters,” wrote Rudolf Semler, “he starts off full of distrust of the Führer’s genius, full of irritation, criticism and hard words. Each time he is determined to tell Hitler just what he thinks. What happens in their talks, I don’t know; but every time that Goebbels returns from these visits, he is full of admiration for the Führer and exudes an optimism which infects us all.”

The political post which Goebbels coveted for himself most of all was that of foreign minister, and in April 1944 he once again sought to attain it. By now he despaired of winning the war and looked to diplomacy to save something from the wreck. But on which front, he asked, could peace be made? Since Churchill and Roosevelt seemed implacable, he argued that attempts should be made to buy off Russia. He therefore wrote a forty-page memorandum urging a return to the position of 1939-1940 under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and submitted it to Hitler. In the present parlous conditions, when the life of Germany was at stake, it would be wrong, he said, to let ideology lead us into ruin, and he proposed to surrender to Russia all Eastern Europe from Northern Norway to Greece inclusive. So radical a change in foreign policy, he admitted, would entail changes at the Foreign Office. Ribbentrop, as the man responsible for Germany’s present diplomatic isolation, must go. Goebbels then assured Hitler of his own disinterested loyalty and offered to shoulder the heavy burden of this daring experiment in foreign policy.12

Having submitted his memorandum, he waited anxiously for a call to the Führer’s headquarters. It was strangely delayed. When it did come, Hitler never mentioned the memorandum. Finally Goebbels asked him about it. “What memorandum?” asked Hitler. After a search, it was found, buried in Bormann’s in-tray.13 Bormann had suppressed it because it was contrary to Party doctrine. Hitler was committed to a policy of Eastern conquest and could hardly be expected to go suddenly into reverse. Goebbels, who was committed to no doctrine, was capable of greater flexibility. To the very end he would be willing to make peace—of a kind—with Russia rather than with the West; but to the very end Ribbentrop would remain foreign minister of the Reich.

Three months later Goebbels made another, and this time a decisive, intervention in politics. On July 20, 1944, a group of conspirators in the Army General Staff sought to assassinate Hitler by placing a bomb under the conference table at his headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia. The attempt failed, but the conspirators went ahead: they announced his death and in the confusion which followed they might still have succeeded in seizing power in Berlin. The crucial moment came when a crack regiment of guards was ordered to cordon off the Ministries of the Reich and effectively imprison the government. The commander of the regiment, Major Remer, a loyal Nazi, had his doubts and took the precaution of making contact with the Gauleiter, Goebbels. Goebbels informed him that Hitler was alive and then, to prove that this time he was telling the truth, telephoned to the Führer’s headquarters. Hitler spoke personally to Remer and told him to place himself under Himmler’s orders and suppress the revolt ruthlessly. From that moment, the revolt was doomed. Goebbels himself addressed the troops in his office garden. Remer accepted his new duties with alacrity and led his troops to capture not the Reich government but the War Ministry, the headquarters of the conspirators. By the evening all was over. Goebbels’s prompt action had saved the day, and Nazism itself, for another nine months.

It also enabled Goebbels to gratify once again his taste for revenge and destruction. That same night he turned his house into “a prison, headquarters and court rolled into one”; Goebbels himself headed a commission of investigation; and he and Himmler cross-examined the arrested generals throughout the night. Those condemned, then or thereafter, were executed with revolting cruelty. They were hanged from meat-hooks and slowly strangled. Goebbels ordered a film to be made of their trial and execution: it was to be shown, in terrorem, to Wehrmacht audiences. However, the reaction of the first audience was so hostile that it had to be suppressed.14 The purge spread throughout Germany, and some of the victims were still being executed in the last days of the Reich.

Goebbels also exploited the plot to demand, once again, a totalization of war. He went himself to Rastenburg and told Hitler that it was partly the faults of the leadership which had led to the plot; that the war could not go on in the present desultory way; and that there was now no alternative to total war. Once again he offered himself to undertake the thankless task, and guaranteed, in three months, to raise a new army of a million men. Hitler agreed. He appointed Goebbels Reich Commissioner for Total Mobilization of Resources for War. As he traveled back by train to Berlin, Goebbels said to his assistant, “If I had received these powers when I wanted them so badly”—that is, in January 1943—“victory would be in our pockets today and the war would probably be over. But it takes a bomb under his arse to make Hitler see reason.”15

Once again, Goebbels’s measures were largely negative. While Speer stream-lined the armaments industry, Goebbels imposed restrictions on travel, closed theaters and luxury shops, stopped publications. He also organized violence against defeatism and preached nihilism, “scorched earth,” self-immolation. As the war became more desperate, he positively gloated in the destruction of German cities—the less we possess, he cried, the freer we are to fight. Meanwhile, all traitors must be rooted out and all restraints on the savagery of war removed. He called for more and more executions. He urged Hitler to use a deadly poison gas, Tabun;16 and in February 1945 he proposed that he denounce the Geneva Convention and order that all British and American pilots in prisoner-of-war camps be shot. This, he said, would both stop the Allied bombing and deter German soldiers from surrendering in the West, lest they be treated likewise. Those already captured, apparently, could be written off. At the same time he was still seeking to enlarge his own political power. He would have Ribbentrop removed, Göring tried before a People’s Court, and would himself take over complete control. He would raise armies, re-create the extinct Luftwaffe. Why should he not rule all Germany as he ruled Berlin? He would be prime minister, foreign minister, chancellor of the Reich….17

In the end, he would obtain his wishes. Hitler would dismiss Göring. He would drop Ribbentrop. He would give Goebbels full power to reform the Luftwaffe. He would appoint him chancellor of the Reich. But by then it would all be too late, far too late. For months the great realist had been the victim of his own propaganda. He had believed that, somehow, the war could still be won.

How was it to be won? Not militarily: that was now clearly impossible. With the enemy advancing from the east and west, and in complete command of the air, Germany was overpowered. But if only the fronts could hold out a little longer, perhaps diplomacy would succeed where arms could not. Had not Frederick the Great, Hitler’s hero and therefore also his own, once been in precisely such a position? And had he not, by holding firm, even when the military situation seemed hopeless, in the end, by an unpredictable diplomatic revolution, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat? That revolution, “the miracle of the House of Brandenburg,” had been the death of the Czarina Elizabeth, which had caused Russia to abandon the coalition against Prussia. And then there was the second Punic War, 2000 years earlier, when Hannibal, having crossed the Alps, and won the battles of Trasimene and Cannae, was at the gates of Rome, and yet Rome, by playing for time, had in the end defeated him and so gone on to rule the world…. Such were the hopes on which Goebbels, in the last months of the war, fed Hitler, the German people, and himself.

From January 16, 1945, when Hitler returned to Berlin after directing the Ardennes offensive, the last German counterattack in the west, Goebbels had regular access to the Führer and was able to exert all his personal influence on him. That is, he was able to encourage him in his fantasies of victory, and give to those fantasies the gloss and edge of his own. So, in the intervals of denouncing his own rivals for their incompetence or defeatism, he read Carlyle’s Life of Frederick the Great, Dr. Frank on the second Punic War, the history of Prussia’s fight against Napoleon. From history, or his own news bulletins, he snatched at every straw of comfort and often stopped to hear, and admire, the echo of his own propaganda. To infect Hitler with his own radicalism he pressed upon him photographs of bombed cities and ruined architectural monuments—for Hitler himself had never visited a bombed city. He urged Hitler, who had fallen silent since July 20, 1944, to address the nation. He demanded a new diplomatic initiative. The war, he insisted, would go on for a long time: why should not Russia be detached from the enemy alliance and converted into an ally to roll back the Western front? Meanwhile, he looked forward to the future. Publicly, he assumed that it would be a Nazi future. But even if that should fail, it must be a future that would be interested in Nazism, a future that would be reached by his own propaganda, and would see Hitler, and Nazism, and himself, through his eyes.

So he continued to write. Even in the last weeks of the war, when the enemy armies were closing in, he was still writing: books, articles, diaries. In March 1945 we find him correcting the proofs of a new book, The Law of War. Even later, he is writing an article on “History as Teacher”—no doubt on the Punic War or Frederick the Great. And every day, now as before, he dictated his diary: that diary that was to be—and will still be, in spite of everything—a primary source for the detailed history of the years of Nazism.

The newly published volume, Final Entries, contains the last surviving part of the diary. It begins before the Western Allies had crossed the Rhine and when Hitler could still hope to counter-attack against the Russians in Hungary. It ends with the evident collapse of Nazism, hostile armies in the heart of the Reich, and Hitler relying, since all else had failed, on horoscopes and his star.

Goebbels, on every page, is true to himself. Here we see his opportunism, his radicalism, his nihilism, his hatred of humanity; but also his incredible mental energy, his unfailing flair for propaganda, and his personal courage. Most prominent of all, perhaps, is his passion for destruction. In these last weeks, he is still raging against Göring and Ribbentrop, denouncing those who—like Speer—wish to save anything of Germany independently of Nazism, castigating whole classes, whole groups, whole nations: the miserable bourgeoisie, the generals, the Luftwaffe, the Churches, the Jews, the Swiss, the Swedes. In particular, it is Göring, Ribbentrop, and the generals whom he detests: Göring for his sybaritic indolence, which has left Germany helpless in the air, Ribbentrop for his diplomatic uselessness which has allowed the world to unite against it, the generals for treasonable reluctance to fight a revolutionary war.

Why, he asks, did we not shoot the generals instead of the SA in 1934! Stalin was right: he purged his entire General Staff. Stalin indeed is the only man to be praised in these pages. Fortunately, Hitler now agrees that peace should be made with Stalin. Stalin at least is a realist. Of course, the Führer admits, we could not now attain our war aims of 1941—the permanent occupation of Russia up to the Urals, the total demolition of Leningrad and Moscow—but we would settle for Hungary, Croatia, and half of Poland, and then join Russia to destroy the West…. “This program,” comments Goebbels, “is grandiose and persuasive. The only objection is that there is no means of achieving it.” Goebbels is at least more realistic than the Führer.

Perhaps it is not saying much. The reader of these diaries is more likely to be struck by the unreality than the reality of Goebbels’s mental picture of the war. Everywhere he sees the liberated countries of the West about to revolt against their liberators, preferring German domination. The French, he says, are listening as eagerly to German as formerly to English broadcasts: already Europe regrets us. Industrial action is paralyzing the West: we “must hang on till all Europe sinks in chaos.” The Anglo-Americans are hopelessly incompetent: they understand neither war psychology nor war propaganda; how silly of the German people (and Himmler) to prefer them to the Russians! Stalin must be our model: the worse the military situation, the more ruthlessly the Party must secure its control over the whole country. Meanwhile there is room for diplomacy.

Goebbels shows no inkling of an understanding of the plain fact that German diplomacy had lost all credibility, thanks to its control by the Nazi Party. It was not merely Ribbentrop who had failed: Nazism was now totally bankrupt. As Speer wrote, “There were differences of degree in the flight from reality,” and Goebbels was “many times closer to recognizing actualities” than the other leaders; “but these differences shrink to nothing when we consider how remote all of us…were from what was really going on.”18

On April 6, when Goebbels’s own commentary on events breaks off, he is still hoping against hope for a miraculous break-up of the enemy alliance. A week later he believed that such a break-up was imminent. On the evening of April 13 the news came that President Roosevelt had died. Goebbels was away from Berlin at the time, visiting the headquarters of General Busse’s Ninth Army. There he had assured the officers that, if only the German army and people stood firm, a miracle might yet save them, like “the miracle of the House of Brandenburg” in 1762.

The officers, it seems, had been skeptical: what kind of a miracle, they asked, could be expected now? On his return to Berlin, Goebbels was told the news. He was overjoyed. This, he declared, was the turning point!…. It was like the death of the Empress Elizabeth in the Seven Years War. He telephoned Busse’s headquarters to rub home his point. He and Hitler were both, for a time, in ecstasy. They now looked to see America withdraw from the war. Goebbels told the press to do nothing to irritate the new president: “our rejoicing at Roosevelt’s death we must keep to ourselves.”19

These hopes were quickly dashed. Roosevelt’s death, it soon became clear, made no difference to American policy, and the armies of East and West closed remorselessly in on German soil. Four days later Goebbels had given up hope of miracles and decided to prepare for the end. But even the end must be dramatized, turned into propaganda. On April 17 Goebbels summoned his staff together. Some fifty men were there, and many of them were demanding to be released to the fighting forces in order to escape from the doomed capital. Goebbels spoke to them about a new color film, Kolberg, which had recently been released. Then he spoke of another even more splendid color film which would be shown a hundred years hence. It would be the film of the Twilight of the Gods in 1945. Did they not wish to appear with credit in that film? “I can assure you it will be a fine and elevating picture, and for the sake of this prospect it is worth standing fast. Hold out now, so that a hundred years hence the audience does not hoot and whistle when you appear on the screen!” His staff were not impressed by these heroic gestures. They looked at him with amazement and concluded that he had gone off his head.20

Five days later, on April 22, 1945, when the Russians had almost encircled Berlin, the Propaganda Ministry, like other government offices, broke up. Those who did not wish to feature post-humously in Goebbels’s imaginary film flew to Obersalzberg in order to fall into Western hands. Goebbels himself, after dictating his last (and now lost) diary entry, moved into the Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery, thence to direct the last battles of Hitler’s war and his own propaganda. There, with Martin Bormann, his uneasy partner to the end, he witnessed the last convulsions of Nazism and attended to its last ceremonies; the marriage of Hitler and Eva Braun, their suicide, the lurid funeral in the Chancellery garden. Then, with all his family, he too committed suicide, having first seen to it that a manifesto should reach the world to put the correct propagandist gloss on this final gesture of annihilation. He destroyed himself, typically, in the shadow of his leader, whose votive lamp he had tended, making himself visible only by its rays.

For Goebbels was essentially a man of words, images, gestures. He had no ideas, no beliefs of his own. Positive aims he had none: even the positive aims of Nazism—race, blood, an empire in the East—meant nothing to him. His life consisted entirely of reactions, not actions. Hence his need of perpetual motion. He depended on external stimulus because he had no inner impulse, and needed incessant activity as an escape from inner emptiness. Hence also his intellectual and political agility. He piqued himself on his objectivity, his freedom from prejudice; but his very freedom from prejudice was a function of his own lack of beliefs, and he valued his perception of reality only as a means toward its distortion. The ideas which he assumed were entirely borrowed. Until he discovered Hitler, he lived in a void, clutching at changing ideologies, feeding on nihilism and resentment.

Thereafter, he lived on Hitler, and although he could detach himself from Hitler, and the image of Hitler which he had created, he could not detach himself for long: his own essential nullity always drove him back. Even the trappings of his intellectual world were imitated from Hitler: he, the university graduate, the doctor of philosophy, would read and quote only the books, or the subjects, recommended by that self-taught genius: Schopenhauer, Frederick the Great, The Punic War. Left to himself, his only ideal was destruction. His great theatrical gestures were always an incitement to destruction: hymns of hate against the bourgeoisie, the bolsheviks, the Jews. His chosen form of action was destructive violence: organized street riots, broken plate-glass windows, bonfires of books. His chosen ceremonial was the funeral: the funeral of Horst Wessel, regular funerals of SS men, the funeral march for Stalingrad. His funeral oratory was proverbial: he was known as “the Reich Funeral Master.”

In the last months, it was natural that he should direct his destructive spirit against Germany itself; that his last ceremony should be the funeral of Hitler; and that then, when the necessary host had gone, the parasite should quietly extinguish itself. He would happily have extinguished Germany too. After the extinction of its ruling class, he said, the German people could not live. As Hitler himself said, it was not worthy to live.

Copyright © 1978 by H.R. Trevor-Roper

This Issue

June 1, 1978