(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Joseph Goebbels 1897-1945

Full name, Paul Joseph Goebbels. German politician, propagandist, diarist, editor, novelist, and playwright.

Nazi propaganda minister between the years 1933 and 1945, Goebbels was the only intellectual, next to Adolf Hitler, among the leaders of the German Third Reich. A failed novelist and playwright, Goebbels founded and edited the political newspaper Der Angriff in the early years of the Nazi regime. As Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, he headed one of the most pervasive and powerful government-controlled propaganda machines in history. With near total authority over all forms of mass media in Nazi Germany, including newspapers, radio, film, theatre, and book publishing, Goebbels manipulated the opinions of millions of Germans. During World War II he was responsible for maintaining public morale through lies and fabrications, delivered almost daily by print and broadcast media. Intensely anti-Semitic and violently opposed to both the bourgeoisie and Catholic Church, Goebbels organized the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and, overall, endeavored to legitimize the slaughter of more than six million Jews between the years 1938-1945 by disseminating the Nazi myth of Aryan racial superiority among the German people. A member of the left-wing of the Nazi Party, he sympathized to a degree with the efforts and methods of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, but was nevertheless fanatically loyal to Hitler and played a key role in promulgating the cult of the Führer. His love of Hitler, however, was equally matched by his disdain for most of his fellow Nazi leaders.

Biographical Information

Goebbels was born on October 29, 1897, in Rheydt, Germany, into a working-class, Catholic household. A clubfoot prevented him from joining the army during World War I, so Goebbels instead pursued the study of German literature and philology at the University of Bonn, and later at the University of Heidelberg. He received his doctoral degree from the latter in 1921 and, embittered by his failure to find a publisher for his novel Michael, joined the Nazi party. Moving rapidly through the ranks, Goebbels was made gauleiter or "district leader" of Berlin in 1927, and founded the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff ("The Attack") that same year. He continued to edit the periodical, which was designed to stir popular support for the party, and later acted as Adolf Hitler's campaign manager until 1933, when Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and appointed Goebbels as his Minister of Public Enlightenment. The job put Goebbels in control of the mass media, allowing him to launch a sustained campaign of anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-bourgeois propaganda. In November, 1938, he orchestrated the Kristallnacht pogrom, in which German synagogues were burned, Jewish storefronts destroyed, and thousands of Jews arrested. After the outbreak of war in 1939, Goebbels stepped up his propaganda efforts, providing assurances of a quick German victory; later he attempted to allay fears of defeat by alluding to the existence of powerful super weapons and to the strength of the German people as the modern manifestation of the Aryan or "Master" race. In February of 1943, after the German defeat at Stalingrad, Goebbels—a brilliant speaker, though lacking the extraordinary charisma of Hitler—delivered his "Sports Palace Speech" in which he called for "total war." A little over a year later, as the conflict began to steadily turn against Germany, he was appointed General Commissioner for Total War Measures. He remained by Hitler's side in Berlin as the Soviets began their assault on the German capital in 1945. On May 1, 1945, shortly after Hitler had taken his own life, Goebbels ordered his children poisoned and, along with his wife, committed suicide.

Major Works

The novel Michael, adapted from Goebbels's early diaries and reworked after Hitler's rise to power to emphasize Nazi values, has been universally panned by critics as dull and maudlin. The primary source of interest to scholars of Goebbels's works are the numerous volumes of his diary recovered from the ruins of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin after his death. Goebbels had intended to publish his journals after the war, but instead left behind the unrevised and unexpurgated fragments of his daily thought covering much of his adult life. Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei (My Part in Germany's Fight, 1934) details his role in the Nazi ascension to power in Germany, and represents one of the few works Goebbels had the opportunity to edit before publication. Among his diaries now translated into English are entries spanning the war years 1939 to 1945 as well as a collection of fragments from the 1920s, most of which were composed in Goebbels's characteristically over-blown style. While the war entries provide summaries of military and political events, critics note that their scholarly value lies in relation to the mass of misleading information that Goebbels and the Ministry of Propaganda presented to the German public during this period. The diaries also reveal Goebbels's self-delusion, his intense feelings of hatred, contempt, and revenge, as well as a his near-fanatical worship of Adolf Hitler alongside emotionally detached observations of the war and the contemporary social and political situation in Germany. The wartime diaries additionally chronicle Goebbels's shifting state of mind as the fighting turned against the Germans, his contempt for his rivals among the Nazi leadership, particularly for the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering, who he perceived as incompetent, and his deep respect for Stalin's political acumen, if not for his ideological beliefs. Among the most compelling aspects of the diaries, scholars note, are Goebbels's records of his activities as Propaganda Minister—ingenious lies and misrepresentations, subversive attacks against the British, French, Russians, and Americans in print and over the airwaves, hatred campaigns against Jews, and indignant denunciations of those who differed with his opinions. Countless examples of the methods that Goebbels developed to undermine his political and military opponents fill the diaries of a man considered to be among the most gifted and cunning propagandists in history.