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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.