Hitler’s Impresario

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…

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