Final Entries, 1945

It has been thirty-four years since Russian tanks rolled into Berlin, and American, British, and French troops crossed the Rhine and conquered central Germany. It has been that many years since Adolf Hitler and his Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, and their families swallowed poison in the bunker under the rubble of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin and finally abandoned their dream of controlling the world. Yet the memory of the vast destruction they caused is still vivid, and it remains the most important touchstone for the West. The fact that people who share our culture could produce evil of this magnitude brings into question our entire way of life, for with the weapons of death now available, a repetition of the Nazi experience threatens to end that life altogether. Knowledge of the past has never been sufficient to change the future; nevertheless, an awareness of what human beings have done is one of the few fragile tools we have with which to try to learn enough to preserve the civilization which has made human existence something more than a mere struggle for survival. This is what is now at stake.

It is fortunate, therefore, that a microfilm copy of the daily diary kept by Joseph Goebbels has passed to the West from East Germany, where it was recovered, and can now be published. The first segment, issued in 1978 under the title Final Entries, 1945, will not by itself explain how Nazism could have occurred; but it does add a piece to the jigsaw puzzle by providing a revealing first-hand look at one of its leading practitioners at the moment of truth, when it was clear that his movement was being defeated and he himself was going to die.

The roots of Nazism were buried deep in Germany’s past. At its origins lay the political institutions of feudalism and absolutism. Although extant throughout Europe, they were particularly pronounced in Prussia, where the Junker landlords maintained serfdom into the nineteenth century, and the monarchy required unflinching duty to the state. Thus, the social and political values which prevailed were far different from those of France or England, where more liberal relationships were established generations earlier. Furthermore, the fact that the German lands were divided into obsolete political entities made them vulnerable to foreign intervention and meant that the German people remained untrained in the management of their affairs on an international level.

The most extensive foreign intervention came during the Napoleonic wars when the French overran Germany. This traumatic experience, combined with the growing awareness of the commonality of all Germans helped produce the chauvinistic nationalism which maintained that the Germans were superior to all other peoples. Unification did not come until Prussia, under the guidance of the Junker nobleman Otto von Bismarck, defeated Austria in 1866 and France in 1870. Thus, the old Prussian autocratic order remained the dominant social structure in the new Germany. At the same time, however, industrialization was revolutionizing the living conditions of large numbers of peasants who moved into the cities and entered factories, breaking the ties which had been the base of this traditional order. The discrepancy between the new economic system and the Prussian values created unresolved tensions which were one of the contributing causes of World War I.

Germany’s loss of this bitterly fought contest and the resultant collapse of the monarchy produced both a power vacuum and a generalized disorientation. The constitutional government set up at Weimar won the support of large numbers of Germans, but important and highly visible groups were disloyal. On the left, Communists, spurred on by the revolution in Russia, were active in street demonstrations and vocal in their calls for an overthrow of the government. On the right were grouped conservatives who hoped for a return to the monarchy, patriots of all classes who were humiliated by the defeat and the Treaty of Versailles, and citizens who were disturbed by the Communist demonstrations and the manuevers of opportunistic politicians in a multiparty system.

The agitation on the right might not have gotten out of hand had it not been for the economic disasters which fell one on top of the other. First came the inflation of 1923 which destroyed the currency and thus monetary savings; and then in 1929 the depression hit, leaving six million men unemployed and further shaking the belief that the established institutions of society were capable of assuring a tolerable life. For twenty years, from 1914 to 1933, a Germany fissured by deep economic and social cleavages was exposed to a succession of extremely demoralizing crises, radicalizing millions of citizens.

These were the circumstances which enabled the racist and simple-minded ideology of National Socialism to flourish. By blaming the economic troubles on the Jews, calling for a revision of the peace treaty and a return to a völkish way of life and elevating the Führer cult to a dogma, the Nazi world view provided shelter for those distraught by the turmoil of the 1920’s and eager for a belief system which absolved them of responsibility and offered hope for a quick return to stability.

For its leaders, however, Nazism was more than a convenient ideology; it was the means by which they could take over absolute control of the state and eventually the world. Yet one of the most unsettling aspects about this fanatic leadership is that it emerged from the most ordinary backgrounds imaginable. In coming to terms with Nazi megalomania, therefore, one must recognize that the destructive impulse which drove it on is not the preserve of any one class, profession, or region.

Goebbels is a good example. The son of a hard-working clerk who was a devout Catholic, he was born in 1897 in the Rhineland, the most westernoriented region of Germany. Through sheer industry, the Goebbels family had painfully climbed into the middle class, and in his secure foyer, young Joseph was lovingly...

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Atlantic. CCXLII, July, 1978, p. 88.

Book World. May 21, 1978, p. E1.

Kirkus Reviews. XLVI, April 15, 1978, p. 473.

New York Times Book Review. May 14, 1978, p. 9.

Newsweek. XCI, June 5, 1978, p. 100.

Saturday Review. V, May 27, 1978, p. 48.

Village Voice. XXIII, May 1, 1978, p. 78.