Joseph Goebbels Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Goebbels was the propaganda master of the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler’s minister of culture during the twelve-year Third Reich. One of the few intellectuals in the Party leadership, Goebbels was largely responsible for the success of the Nazi program.

Early Life

Paul Joseph Goebbels was born into a strict Catholic working-class home, but his surprisingly fine intellect, combined with frail health, rescued him from a drab life of farming or factory work and pointed him toward higher education. Following early training at a Roman Catholic school, where he considered the priesthood, young Goebbels went on to study literature and history at a string of universities: Bonn, Freiburg, Würzburg, and Munich. He finished his studies in 1921 at the University of Heidelberg. Money was scarce, and Goebbels survived on odd jobs and generous loans from the Catholic Albertus Magnus Society (which he never repaid). Ironically, considering his lifelong virulent anti-Semitism, Goebbels studied under a renowned Jewish literary historian, Friedrich Gundolf, from whom he eventually earned a doctorate degree in history. Goebbels was rejected for military service in World War I, since a childhood bout with polio had left him with a crippled leg and a weak constitution. The frustration of having missed participation in the searing experience of his generation tormented him for the rest of his life. In fact, he usually lied about serving in the war and implied that his lameness was the result of a battle wound. He overcompensated by his worship of the blond, blue-eyed Nordic type (borrowed from Nietzsche) and became an early and ardent supporter of Marxism and later National Socialism.

In 1922, Goebbels joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP), in which his keen political instincts, shameless opportunism, and genuine charisma propelled him to the top. The “little doctor,” as he was called behind his back, blossomed in the new movement. He discovered a remarkable ability to sense the moods of his audiences and to sway them. By many accounts, Goebbels was a better orator than Hitler himself. In 1925, he was made business manager of the NSDAP in the Ruhr Valley. The Nazi Party was still far from monolithic, and Goebbels made one of his few political errors by joining the wrong faction. Goebbels threw his lot in with the Strasser brothers, Otto and Gregor, who controlled the social-revolutionary North German wing of the Party. He was enamored of their proletarian socialism and went so far as to join the Strassers in a call for Hitler’s expulsion from the NSDAP before his political instincts warned him that it was time to switch sides. In 1926, Goebbels deserted the Strasser brothers and joined Hitler, for which he was rewarded with the leadership (Gauleiter) of the Berlin Party section.

Life’s Work

Berlin was a formidable challenge and not much of a prize. The Party apparatus was in disarray, the Strasser brothers had seriously eroded Hitler’s support among the cadres, and the streets belonged to the Communists and the Socialists. Goebbels proved to be equal to the task. He founded a weekly newspaper, Der Angriff (the attack), through which he hammered at the Jews, the Weimar Republic, and wayward members of his own party. The “little doctor” was everywhere: He designed the posters, organized the street brawls, and created the editorial campaigns. He directed every aspect of the Party’s efforts, from the cartoons in his newspaper to beatings, bombings, and assassinations. The Party structure was modeled after the Catholic church, whose discipline, order, and splendor both he and Hitler admired.

In many respects, Goebbels created Hitler and defined the Nazi Party’s platforms, methods, and goals. Women, newly enfranchised after World War I, were encouraged to leave the marketplace and have babies; the Weimar Republic, blamed for Germany’s defeat in 1918, was pilloried at every opportunity; and the Jews were likened to a virus attacking a healthy Aryan body and were destined for isolation. The Nazi vision of education was a Spartan life-style punctuated by political and military training, polished by a stint in the labor service or armed forces, not the university. Hitler distrusted and despised intellectuals (Goebbels being an exception) and free thought. The purpose of education—indeed, life itself—was to produce healthy, obedient servants of the state. Most important, Goebbels portrayed Hitler as a new Christ—the answer to Germany’s problems and the defender of the mythical Aryan race. Goebbels left little doubt about the identity of Christ’s messenger to Berlin.

In 1928, Goebbels was elected as a deputy to the Reichstag, representing the NSDAP. In 1929, Hitler was so impressed with Goebbels’ overall success in Berlin that he named him the Party’s minister of propaganda. In October of that year, the disastrous stock market crash in the United States reverberated across Europe and plunged the West into the Great Depression. Hitler’s party capitalized on the crisis and within a year garnered almost 6.5 million votes, and 107 seats in the Reichstag. The result largely of Goebbels’ hugely successful propaganda efforts, the NSDAP was the third strongest party in Berlin (after the Communists and the Social Democrats). It was at a Nazi rally that Goebbels met a twenty-nine-year-old divorcée, Magda Quandt, wealthy, bored, and in search of a cause. Goebbels was a surprisingly romantic figure, and, whether for...

(The entire section is 2266 words.)