Master propagandist of the Nazi regime and dictator of its cultural life for twelve years, Joseph Goebbels was born into a strict Catholic, working-class family from Rheydt, in the Rhineland, on 29 October 1897. He was educated at a Roman Catholic school and went on to study history and literature at the University of Heidelberg under Professor Friedrich Gundolf, a Jewish literary historian renowned as a Goethe scholar and a close disciple of the poet Stefan George.
Goebbels had been rejected for military service during World War I because of a crippled foot - the result of contracting polio as a child - and a sense of physical inadequacy tormented him for the rest of his life, reinforced by resentment of the reactions aroused by his diminutive frame, black hair and intellectual background. Bitterly conscious of his deformity and fearful of being regarded as a "bourgeois intellectual," Goebbels overcompensated for his lack of the physical virtues of the strong, healthy, blond, Nordic type by his ideological rectitude and radicalism once he joined the NSDAP in 1922.
The hostility to the intellect of the "little doctor," his contempt for the human race in general and the Jews in particular, and his complete cynicism were an expression of his own intellectual self-hatred and inferiority complexes, his overwhelming need to destroy everything sacred and ignite the same feelings of rage, despair and hatred in his listeners.
At first Goebbels's hyperactive imagination found an outlet in poetry, drama and a bohemian life-style, but apart from his expressionist novel, Michael: ein Deutsches Schicksal in Tagebuchblattern (1926), nothing came of these first literary efforts. It was in the Nazi Party that Goebbels's sharp, clear-sighted intelligence, his oratorical gifts and flair for theatrical effects, his uninhibited opportunism and ideological radicalism blossomed in the service of an insatiable will-to-power.
In 1925 he was made business manager of the NSDAP in the Ruhr district and at the end of the year was already the principal collaborator of Gregor Strasser, leader of the social-revolutionary North German wing of the Party. Goebbels founded and edited the Nationalsozialistischen Briefe (NS Letters) and other publications of the Strasser brothers, sharing their proletarian anti-capitalist outlook and call for a radical revaluation of all values. His National Bolshevik tendencies found expression in his evaluation of Soviet Russia (which he regarded as both nationalist and socialist) as "Germany's natural ally against the devilish temptations and corruption of the West."
It was at this time that Goebbels, who had co-authored the draft programme submitted by the Nazi Left at the Hanover Conference of 1926, called for the expulsion of "petty-bourgeois Adolf Hitler from the National Socialist Party." Goebbels's shrewd political instinct and his opportunism were demonstrated by his switch to Hitler's side in 1926, which was rewarded by his appointment in November of the same year as Nazi district leader for Berlin-Brandenburg.
Placed at the head of a small, conflict-ridden organization, Goebbels rapidly succeeded in taking control and undermining the supremacy of the Strasser brothers in northern Germany and their monopoly of the Party press, founding in 1927 and editing his own weekly newspaper, Der Angriff (The Attack). He designed posters, published his own propaganda, staged impressive parades, organized his bodyguards to participate in street battles, beer-hall brawls and shooting affrays as a means to further his political agitation.
By 1927 the "Marat of Red Berlin, a nightmare and goblin of history" had already become the most feared demagogue of the capital city, exploiting to the full his deep, powerful voice, rhetorical fervour and unscrupulous appeal to primitive instincts. A tireless, tenacious agitator with the gift of paralysing opponents by a guileful combination of venom, slander and insinuation, Goebbels knew how to mobilize the fears of the unemployed masses as the Great Depression hit Germany, playing on the national psyche with "ice-cold calculation."
With the skill of a master propagandist he transformed the Berlin student and pimp, Horst Wessel, into a Nazi martyr, and provided the slogans, the myths and images, the telling aphorisms which rapidly spread the message of National Socialism.
Hitler was deeply impressed by Goebbels's success in turning the small Berlin section of the Party into a powerful organization in North Germany and in 1929 appointed him Reich Propaganda Leader of the NSDAP. Looking back many years later (24 June 1942), Hitler observed: "Dr. Goebbels was gifted with the two things without which the situation in Berlin could not have been mastered: verbal facility and intellect.. . . For Dr. Goebbels, who had not found much in the way of a political organization when he started, had won Berlin in the truest sense of the word."
Hitler had indeed cause to be grateful to his Propaganda Leader, who was the true creator and organizer of the Fuhrer myth, of the image of the Messiah-redeemer, feeding the theatrical element in the Nazi leader while at the same time inducing the self-surrender of the German masses through skilful stage management and manipulation. A cynic, devoid of genuine inner convictions, Goebbels found his mission in selling Hitler to the German public, in projecting himself as his most faithful shield-bearer and orchestrating a pseudo-religious cult of the Fuhrer as the saviour of Germany from Jews, profiteers and Marxists.
As a Reichstag deputy from 1928, he no less cynically gave open voice to his contempt for the Republic, declaring: "We are entering the Reichstag, in order that we may arm ourselves with the weapons of democracy from its arsenal. We shall become Reichstag deputies in order that the Weimar ideology should itself help us to destroy it."
Goebbels's deeply rooted contempt for humanity, his urge to sow confusion, hatred and intoxication, his lust for power and his mastery of the techniques of mass persuasion were given full vent in the election campaigns of 1932, when he played a crucial role in bringing Hitler to the centre of the political stage. He was rewarded on 13 March 1933 with the position of Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which gave him total control of the communications media - i.e. radio, press, publishing, cinema and the other arts.
He achieved the Nazi 'co-ordination' of cultural life very quickly, astutely combining propaganda, bribery and terrorism, "cleansing" the arts in the name of the volkisch ideal, subjecting editors and journalists to State control, eliminating all Jews and political opponents from positions of influence. On May 10, 1933 he staged the great ritual "burning of the books" in Berlin, where the works of Jewish, Marxist and other "subversive" authors were publicly burned in huge bonfires.
He became a relentless Jew-baiter, demonizing the stereotyped figure of the "International Jewish Financier" in London and Washington allied with the "Jew-Bolsheviks" in Moscow, as the chief enemy of the Third Reich. At the Party Day of Victory in 1933, Goebbels attacked the "Jewish penetration of the professions" (law, medicine, property, theatre, etc.), claiming that the foreign Jewish boycott of Germany had provoked Nazi "counter-measures."
Goebbels's hatred of the Jews, like his hatred of the privileged and clever, stemmed from a deep-rooted sense of inferiority and internalization of mob values; at the same time it was also opportunist and tactical, based on the need to create a common enemy, to feed popular resentment and to mobilize the masses.
For five years Goebbels chafed at the leash as the Nazi regime sought to consolidate itself and win international recognition. His opportunity came with the [Kristallnacht] Crystal Night pogrom of November 9-10, 1938, which he orchestrated after kindling the flame with a rabble-rousing speech to Party leaders assembled in the Munich Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) for the annual celebration of the Beer-Hall putsch. Later, Goebbels was one of the chief secret abettors of the "Final Solution," personally supervising the deportation of Jews from Berlin in 1942 and proposing that Jews along with gypsies should be regarded as "unconditionally exterminable."
He combined verbal warnings that, as a result of the war, "the Jews will pay with extermination of their race in Europe and perhaps beyond" with careful avoidance in his propaganda material of discussing the actual treatment of the Jews, i.e., any mention of the extermination camps. Goebbels's anti-Semitism was one factor whichbrought him closer to Hitler, who respected his political judgement as well as his administrative and propagandist skills. His wife Magda and their six children were welcome guests at the Fuhrer's Alpine retreat of Berchtesgaden. In 1938, when Magda tried to divorce him because of his endless love affairs with beautiful actresses, it was Hitler who intervened to straighten out the situation.
During World War II relations between Hitler and Goebbels became more intimate, especially as the war situation deteriorated and the Minister of Propaganda encouraged the German people to ever greater efforts. After the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender, Goebbels turned this to advantage, convincing his audience that there was no choice except victory or destruction. In a famous speech on February 18, 1943 in the Berlin Sportpalast, Goebbels created an atmosphere of wild emotion, winning the agreement of his listeners to mobilization for total war. Playing adroitly on German fears of the "Asiatic hordes," using his all-pervasive control of press, film and radio to maintain morale, inventing mythical "secret weapons" and impregnable fortresses in the mountains where the last stand would be made, Goebbels never lost his nerve or his fighting spirit.
It was his quick thinking and decisive action on the afternoon of July 20, 1944, when he isolated the conspirators in the War Ministry with the help of detachments of loyal troops, which saved the Nazi regime. Shortly afterwards he achieved his ambition to be warlord on the domestic front, following his appointment in July 1944 as General Plenipotentiary for Total War.
Given the widest powers to move and direct the civilian population and even to redistribute manpower within the armed forces, Goebbels imposed an austerity programme and pressed for ever greater civilian sacrifice. But with Germany already close to collapse, it was too late to accomplish anything beyond further dislocations and confusion. As the war neared its end, Goebbels, the supreme opportunist, emerged as the Fuhrer's most loyal follower, spending his last days together with his family, in the Fuhrerbunker under the Chancellery. Convinced that the Nazis had finally burnt all their bridges and increasingly fascinated by the prospect of a final apocalypse, Goebbels's last words on dismissing his associates were: "When we depart, let the earth tremble!"
Following the Fuhrer's suicide, Goebbels disregarded Hitler's political testament, which had appointed him as Reich Chancellor, and decided to follow suit. He had his six children poisoned with a lethal injection by an SS doctor and then himself and his wife Magda shot by an SS orderly on May 1, 1945. With characteristic pathos and egomania he declared not long before his death: "We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals."
Source: Wistrich, Robert S. Who's Who in Nazi Germany, Routledge, 1997. USHMM photo.