Joseph Goebbels
Joseph Goebbels; drawing by David Levine

The diaries of Joseph Goebbels are an extraordinary find, for many reasons, including their size and their history. Goebbels was a truly compulsive writer as well as speaker—an unusual combination. He began to write a regular diary in July 1924 (there are indications of an irregular diary even earlier) at the age of twenty-six. The last entry is probably that of April 9, 1945, three weeks before his suicide along with his wife and children, and the complete collapse of the Third Reich. The total of the retrieved hand-and typewritten material may amount to more than 60,000 pages. When completed, their publication will comprise ten large volumes, of which the first four have now been published by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in cooperation with the West German Federal Archives. These four volumes of Goebbels’s diaries from July 1924 to July 1941 are a unit by themselves. Goebbels wrote them by hand, often every day, even when he was at his frenzied work as the minister of propaganda and culture in the Third Reich.

He turned to dictating them to a first-rate stenographer in July 1941. A few months earlier he had the written diaries transported to an underground safe and commissioned the same man to begin transcribing them on a typewriter. Thus there are portions of these diaries of which two or even more transcripts exist. This is one guarantee of their authenticity, about which there should be no question. The extensive introductions of Elke Fröhlich, their compiler and editor, describe the extreme care and precision of their analysis and transcription. (Goebbels’s handwriting became increasingly difficult; besides, many of the retrieved pages were damaged by moisture.) In reading these nearly three thousand large printed pages I found only a few, very minor, errors in the annotations.

The story of the recovery and the detection of these manuscripts is long and complicated. Elke Fröhlich has given an account within her 103-page introduction in Vol. 1 (and in an article in the October 1987 number of the Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte). Some of the material was found by a German woman who had been ordered by the Russians to clean up the Führerbunker soon after the fall of Berlin; another portion was found within a mass of paper sold by a junk dealer a year later; much of the material, in large aluminum boxes, was carted away by the Russians; more boxes were found by the East Germans in the late 1960s. The Russians eventually turned over microfilm rolls to the East German authorities, who, after some of the material was leaked to a West German publisher, agreed to their publication. One odd detail is Goebbels’s request to a German phototechnician in November 1944 to begin the photographic reduction of these thousands of pages (“I may lose everything, but these personal papers of mine must be preserved for posterity”): the technician was the man who either invented or at least was a pioneer of what much later became known as microfiche to librarians and archivists around the world. By a strange coincidence this man, who is still alive, bears the name of Dr. Joseph Goebel.1

What is remarkable, significant, and new in this enormous mass of papers? The answer to the first question is obvious: their bulk. I know of no comparable example of such extensive continuous diaries by any political leader of any country at any time. (There are a few important gaps, in 1938 and 1939.) But obviously, too, quantity and quality are different matters. There are not many truly startling revelations in these pages. Most of the interesting revelations involve Goebbels himself. But apart from what these diaries may tell about this frantic and compulsive diarist there are at least two elements—elements, rather than specific individual items—of these diaries that should make historians rethink some matters.

One of these concerns the political history of the German people before, not after, the Depression. The accepted view is that the sudden rise in Nazi votes (the tremendous, ninefold increase in September 1930 from 12 to 108 Nazi seats in the Reichstag) was a result of the economic crisis that befell Germany soon after the New York stock market crash in October 1929. Most historians have attributed most of the Nazi successes to the Depression in Germany. Yet in 1929—which was a prosperous time in the history of the Weimar Republic—the appeal of the Nazis had already begun to grow. In the communal elections of Saxony, Apolda, Coburg, Mecklenburg, and Berlin Nazi votes doubled and trebled. Goebbels of course records these minor (though significant) electoral events. But what is astonishing is the absolute confidence—and, alas, the foresight—that Goebbels and Hitler possessed and that they demonstrated about their prospects, even before the economic and political crisis of the Weimar Republic: that is, before the late summer of 1930, at a time when the Nazi party was only an extremist faction, holding fewer than 3 percent of the seats in the Reichstag. Once the people speak up, we’ll be in power—this was Goebbels’s conviction as early as 1929.


Later, a year before Hitler’s astounding rise to the chancellorship, Goebbels writes (February 4, 1932): “It is wonderful to observe how sure and unhesitating the Führer looks at the coming assumption of power. He does not doubt that for a second, not even in his private thoughts. He speaks and acts and thinks as if we were in power already.” He goes on: “Gröner [the anti-Nazi minister of war] must fall. Then Brüning. Then Schleicher”—the exact sequence of what happened. On April 14, 1932, “we are discussing questions of personnel, as if we were already in power.” Alas, these were not the daydreams of fanatics. Goebbels and Hitler understood the tides of German popular sentiment. This suggests the need not only to revise (and drastically diminish) the economic interpretation of the crisis of German democracy in the years between 1930 and 1933 but to recognize the political savvy of Hitler and of his cohorts—and also to recognize that National Socialist propaganda well before 1932 and 1933, had struck deep chords in the consciousness of increasing numbers of Germans, involving sentiments and inclinations that were more powerful and older and deeper than the novel responses to economic need.

Another potential revision suggested by these diaries involves Hitler’s relationship to Goebbels. (The converse, that is, Goebbels’s relationship to Hitler, is a different matter, to which I shall return.) The accepted opinion is that Goebbels was one of Hitler’s closest advisers, and surely his intellectual adviser. But from the evidence of these diaries there can be no question that Goebbels was subordinate to Hitler in every way: not only administratively or psychologically but also intellectually—a condition that Goebbels admits throughout his career, again and again. More important: it appears from the mass of evidence of these diaries that, Hitler’s need for Goebbels’s propaganda activities notwithstanding, Goebbels’s influence on Hitler’s decisions—decisions and choices on all levels—was minimal.

Perhaps even more important is the evidence accumulated here that confirms something that few people (one exception was General Jodl) remarked: despite his more than occasional volubility, Hitler was a very secretive man. His frequent, and often cunningly planned, monologues and haranguings were not always the result of self-indulgence. He used them to influence, inspire, overwhelm, and, at times, intimidate others. Yet some of his most important political and military decisions he kept entirely to himself. It was Jodl who said in 1946 (and a few fragments of evidence since then support this view) that, contrary to the accepted view, Hitler knew before almost anyone in his circle that he would lose the war: but how could one expect that he would admit this to his staff, let alone to the German people at large? Goebbels’s diaries confirm Hitler’s secretiveness, well before the war. Yes, he was close to Hitler; but for Hitler to tell him what he, Hitler, was about to do (except for his sometimes dreamy speculations and long-range designs) happened very seldom.

One example is Hitler’s decision to attack Russia. Hitler ordered the planning for the invasion to begin nearly eleven months before it took place, and he gave the definite directive for it six months later; but Goebbels was not privy to these plans except shortly before the actual attack. In this respect the meeting of the two men on June 16, 1941, as recorded in these diaries, is significant. It may be the longest of these thousands of diary entries. It contains yet another revelation of Hitler’s brutal and amoral convictions of what war was supposed to accomplish (“Right or wrong does not matter. We must conquer [siegen]”); but it is another confirmation, too, of the fact that Hitler was less certain about the prospects of a rapid collapse of Russia than were Goebbels and his generals—which may explain why, for once, he was compelled to harangue Goebbels and others about this.

And now: what about Goebbels himself? Again there is reason, supplied by these diaries, to correct the accepted view that this master of propaganda was something of a genius, and “the most interesting of the men around Hitler.” This was the view of Alan Bullock, Hitler’s first serious biographer, whose views about Hitler have not quite stood the test of time. That this is still the accepted view should appear from the fact that, next to Hitler, none of the Nazi leaders has been the subject of as many biographies as Goebbels (of these Helmut Heiber’s2 is the best); and during the last forty years at least four portions of Goebbels’s diaries—fragmentary, incomplete, and, at least on one occasion, pirated editions—have been published by American and English commercial houses. Was Goebbels really the most interesting man among the Nazis? There was an extraordinary consistency in the vision of this man, the very shape and sound of whose name suggests, like a small rubber ball, the bounce of compressed energy. Yet these diaries show how his mind was more limited in its scope and more shallow than one has been inclined to think.


Goebbels was addicted to the diary form. His two books (the novel Michael,3 written in 1923 and published in 1929, and his account of Hitler’s achievement of power, Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei, published in 1934) were also written in the form of diaries—it is significant how the text of the latter corresponds largely to his diaries of the same period. For many years he scribbled these long diary entries at night, often ending them with sentimental exclamations, and calling his diary “My father confessor!” He appears early as a prototypical example of an unhappy German neo-idealist, a radical revolutionary youth with a Spenglerian cast of mind, an extreme nationalist with sympathies for a nationalist bolshevism. Tearing himself away from his lower-middle-class Catholic family, critical of his father, a factory foreman who rose to be a clerk, filling his mind with a hatred for anything that is middle-class bourgeois, he is extremely moody, too; and his moods, very frequently, involve women.

Large portions of his diaries during the Twenties are devoted to his love affairs. Here, again, a minor revision is in order. Goebbels has had the reputation of an obsessed womanizer, a physically unattractive man who would use his powerful position and prestige to bed women, including young movie actresses. This is not altogether untrue; yet everything indicates that this partially maimed man (it is odd how much Goebbels looked like Joel Grey in Cabaret: a swarthy, energetic little man, with a diabolical grin and large, popping eyes) attracted all kinds of women early in life, probably because of his immediately apparent dynamic personality. He needed women (the platitude “women are the motor of life” he repeated often). Yet it was the women who flocked to him, including his future wife, Magda Quandt, the second great love of his life (the first, Anka Stahlherm, kept returning to him after her marriage). Until now it had seemed that the beautiful Frau Quandt, who was something of an upper-middle-class woman, was courted by Goebbels and served as his means of rising in society. It now appears that it was she who seduced Goebbels, not the reverse. (With all of the importance of his erotic drive the only entry in these diaries in which a physical consummation is even suggested occurs when Magda appears at his apartment on the night of February 15, 1931: “And she stays very late.”) But—and this is more important—his sexual ambitions were wholly subordinated to his political ones. On June 17, 1931, he wrote: “First comes the Party, then Magda. Love does not restrict me; it drives me on.” Around that time he made “a solemn agreement” with Magda that they will not marry “until we have conquered the Reich.” (Actually their marriage took place before this.)

But by that time the style and the very purpose of his diary had changed. He wrote less and less about his private life, more and more about his public life. He was much happier than before. Like Hitler, he discovered his talent for public speaking. His references to his speeches are full of self-praise. The fairly vulgar word “Bombenerfolg” (whose English translation, “an explosive success,” is but a pale version) recurs, over and over again. He now saw himself as the great chronicler of the party; and, after that, of the Third Reich. He said that his diaries will provide his children a substantial inheritance (in 1934 he received a very large advance for their eventual publishing rights); he became more obsessed with his self-appointed task as chronicler of the Reich. The result is a gradual decrease of interesting material.4 There are two reasons for this. One is his increasing habit of beginning each diary entry with a summary of the military and political events of the previous day. (By this time he was writing his diary every morning, and not at night.) This is especially evident in the later portions, after 1941. Yet these summaries tell us relatively little that is new.5 The other reason is the already mentioned secretiveness of Hitler.

At this point we must say something about Goebbels’s adulation of Hitler. In one of the earliest entries in his diary, on July 4, 1924, Goebbels wrote (it is not certain whether he had met Hitler by that time): “Germany is longing for the One, the Man, as the earth in summer is longing for rain…. Could a miracle still save us? Lord, show the German people a miracle! A miracle!! A man!!!” The miracle was coming. It was Hitler. (On July 19: “The people’s movement needs an ideal, a great Führer personality. Yes, we are looking for the born Führer.”) Then he met Hitler. On October 14, 1925, having finished reading Mein Kampf: “Who is this man? Half plebeian, half god! Is he in fact The Christ, or only the John [the Baptist]?”

Yes, there are a few—very few—instances in which the diaries record disappointment with Hitler’s tactics. They do not last. From the very beginning Goebbels is wholly under Hitler’s sway. The adulatory passages are copious. But they do not only refer to Hitler’s ideas. They refer to his private personality. (November 6, 1925: “Hitler now jumps up, he stands before us. He grasps my hand. Like an old friend. And those great, blue eyes. Like stars. He is glad to see me. I am very happy…. This man has everything to be a king. The born tribune of a people. The coming dictator.” April 13, 1926: “At the end Hitler embraces me. Tears in his eyes. I am so happy…. He is our host. And how great he is in that too!” July 31, 1928: “Hitler is a universal human being. He is a glorious storyteller.”) Much later, when Hitler chooses to telephone him on New Year’s Eve, Goebbels is in tears. It appears that Hitler knew very well how to deal with him. Goebbels was only eight years younger than Hitler but “he is like my father.” (June 22, 1929: “His fatherliness is touching. I love him very much. Of all men I love him most, because he is so good. He has a great heart.” Nine years later, August 16, 1938: “The Führer is like a father to me. I am so thankful to him for that.”)

Goebbels was not a particularly loyal character, but his loyalty to Hitler remained unbroken until the end. Some time after 1929 his references to Hitler begin to change. He no longer refers to him as “der Chef.” Now he writes “der Führer.” It was not only National Socialist fanaticism but Goebbels’s adulation of Hitler that made him (contrary to Hitler’s request that Goebbels abandon the Führerbunker) accompany Hitler beyond the end, into death. In their twenty years together there are a few times when Goebbels is disconcerted with Hitler’s hesitations. The brutalities of Hitler, his vulgarities, do not trouble Goebbels for a moment. He admires Hitler for them. Hitler is the stronger character and—it is Goebbels who says this—the greater mind.

This tells us something not only about Goebbels’s character but about his mind. Was he altogether a good judge of people? It does not seem so. He was very vain. His reactions varied extremely according to how he was seen and treated by others. There was a time when he despised Göring and liked Ribbentrop; later he would reverse himself. His assessments of foreign statesmen were very poor. He knew little of the world beyond Germany. In Michael he wrote about the German people: “We are the most intelligent but, alas, also the stupidest nation in the world.” If by “intelligent” we mean the original meaning of that word, the ability to read between the lines, then Goebbels does not come out very well. He had a quick mind, and his self-discipline was often amazing. (In 1931 he could write—besides his diary—three hundred typewritten pages in fourteen days.) But his mind was both fanatical and superficial. He wrote his diaries in a feverish haste, with a minimum of contemplation. He had read much in his youth, but after 1929 his main intellectual pleasure and interest were directed to films. (He was an admirer of American movies, especially of Gone With the Wind: “a great achievement of the Americans,” which he showed several times in his private movie-room, including the agitated night before the invasion of Russia.)

If there was a glimmer of genius in his insights it was in his ideas about propaganda. (February 8, 1932: “The intellectuals think that the more often a theme is repeated the less its effect on the public. This is not true. It depends how one treats that theme. If one has the ability to repeat the same theme over and over again but in different ways, from different sides, with ever increasing drastic arguments, then its [acceptance] by the public will never fade; to the contrary, it will become stronger.”)

Goebbels was not a simple person. There were dualities in his character. There was his obsessive erotic drive; yet his relationship to the many women in his life seems fairly normal. He broke away from his Catholic parents early; yet he remained a good son, often to the point of sentimentality. He was a cynic about people (September 25, 1924: “90 percent of people are the gutter, 10 percent halfway decent”); yet his admiration for and faith in German soldiers and workers were excessively strong. Much of the prose of his diaries is sentimental and petty, with many expressions of kitsch; often it seems almost a caricature of German middle-class sentimentalities. Yet the most consistent element in his ideology was his hatred of the sentiments of the bourgeoisie, of the middle-class mentality (which is why both in the beginning and near the end of his public career he favored an alliance with Russia and Communists). Even at the end of the war (which he never opposed, and into which he had thrown himself with enthusiasm), looking at the destruction of German cities, he took some comfort by saying that at least the bourgeois world of Europe had been destroyed forever. He was, fortunately, wrong.

It is a curious coincidence that Goebbels ended his antibourgeois novel Michael with “that catastrophic day, January 30” when his hero Michael died. Ten years later, in 1933, January 30 was to become the culmination, the greatest triumph, in Goebbels’s life, the day Hitler became the chancellor of Germany. From the consequences of that catastrophic thirtieth of January we have not yet recovered—leading as it did to the world war in the shadows of which we still live.

This Issue

July 21, 1988