Joseph Goebbels Essay - Critical Essays

Goebbels, Joseph


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.

Principal Works

Michael (novel) 1929

Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei [My Part in Germany's Fight] (diary) 1934

"Sports Palace Speech" (speech) 1943

Goebbels Tagebücher aus den Jahren 1942-43 [The Goebbels Diaries 1942-43] (diaries) 1948

Das Tagebuch von Joseph Goebbels 1925-26 (diaries) 1960

The Early Goebbels Diaries (diaries) 1962

Tagebücher 1945. Die letzten Aufzeichnungen [Final Entries 1945: The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels] (diaries) 1978

The Goebbels Diaries 1939-41 (diaries) 1982

Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels: Sämtliche Fragmente (diaries) 1987


William Solzbacher (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: Review of The Goebbels Diaries: 1942-1943, in The Commonweal, Vol. XLVIII, No. 11, June 25, 1948, pp. 260-62.

[In the following review, Solzbacher contends that Goebbels's diaries from 1942 and 1943 were designed to further the Nazi cause upon their publication.]

A comparison of this volume with Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei, the diary which Dr. Joseph Goebbels published in 1934, produces two conclusions: (1) It disperses any doubts regarding the authorship of these diaries; (2) it demonstrates the absurdity of the statement on the publisher's blurb. "As he fabricated his network of lies to the German people and to the world by day, he...

(The entire section is 1706 words.)

Helmut Heiber (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Introduction," The Early Goebbels Diaries: The Journal of Joseph Goebbels from 1925-1926, edited by Helmut Heiber, translated by Oliver Watson, Weid enfeld and Nicolson, 1962, pp. 15-26.

[In the following essay, Heiber focuses on Goebbels's diaries for the years 1925 and 1926.]

Throughout his life—it is said, from the time he was twelve—Joseph Goebbels kept a diary. Later, when in power, he probably even kept two diaries—his private notes and also voluminous daily records, dictated to a stenographer and containing descriptions of events and comments; these, for all their candour, were clearly addressed to posterity that would judge his actions....

(The entire section is 4039 words.)

Werner J. Dannhauseer (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Goebbels's Nature," in Commentary, Vol. 34, No. 3, March, 1963, pp. 272-76.

[In the following review of The Early Goebbels Diaries, Dannhauser details Goebbels's shortcomings as a diarist.]

To readers of history, [The Early Goebbels Diaries 1925-1926] will prove disappointing. There is little new historical information to be gained from them, and there are even occasional distortions of the facts we already have. We know, for instance, that during the period spanned by the diary entries—August 24, 1925, to October 30, 1926—the Nazi party was still small and disorganized. But the impression Goebbels gives is the opposite: the entire...

(The entire section is 2498 words.)

Joachim C. Fest (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Joseph Goebbels: Man the Beast," in The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership, translated by Michael Bullock, Pantheon Books, 1970, pp. 93-7.

[In the following essay, Fest analyzes Goebbels's effectiveness as a propagandist for the Third Reich.]

Propaganda was the genius of National Socialism. Not only did it owe to propaganda its most important successes; propaganda was also its one and only original contribution to the conditions for its rise and was always more than a mere instrument of power: propaganda was part of its essence. What National Socialism meant is far less easily grasped from the contradictory and nebulous conglomerate of...

(The entire section is 8388 words.)

Viktor Reimann (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "From National Bolshevik to Hilterite" and "From Reich Minister to Reich Chancellor," in Goebbels, translated by Stephen Wendt, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976, pp. 13-66, 210-26.

[In the following excerpt, Remain examines Goebbels's novel Michael and his diaries for the years 1942 and 1943.]


Goebbels' literary output from 1921-24 included several plays, most of them unfinished: one about Christ, Judas Iscariot; another, Heinrich Kämpfert; and plays called The Sowing and The Wanderer. The Wanderer was produced on November 6, 1927, by the National Socialist...

(The entire section is 3281 words.)

Dan Jacobson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The End of the Road," in Commentary, Vol. 66, No. 1, July, 1978, pp. 78-80.

[In the following review, Jacobson considers the historical value of Final Entries 1945: The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels.]

Not even the publishers of Final Entries 1945 claim that the diaries which Joseph Goebbels kept during the last two months of his life, and which have belatedly been made available by the East German government, contain new historical facts of any importance. How could they? By the time these entries begin, the Nazis were in effect defeated; nothing that Adolf Hitler's Minister of Propaganda could say—and little enough that his master could...

(The entire section is 1944 words.)

Peter L. Haratonik (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Propagandist as Propagandee," in ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 204-08.

[In the following essay, Haratonik considers the extent to which Goebbels himself believed in the principles and ideas that he fostered as propaganda minister for the Third Reich.]

Diaries are a curious form of literary endeavor. They are simultaneously both a private and public document; private in that the material is quite often initially meant for the use of the author exclusively; public in that, once committed to the page, by that very act, all information is accessible. "Diary"; the very word has always conjured up the image of a small...

(The entire section is 1917 words.)

Dieter Saalmann (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Fascism and Aesthetics: Joseph Goebbel's Novel Michael: A German Fate Through the Pages of a Diary (1929)," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 41, No. 3, 1986, pp. 213-28.

[In the following essay, Saalmann uses Goebbels's novel Michael to illustrate parallels between fascist social and political principles and theories of aesthetics.]

In a recent publication, Adolf Muschg, the Swiss author, literary critic, and Germanist, defines fascism as "the aesthetic façade of politics." He further elaborates by ascribing to 'aesthetic' fascism the phenomenon of "holistic phantasies foisted upon society." It is this attempt to artistically shape the masses...

(The entire section is 5352 words.)

Tom Clark (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Nazi Wrote a Novel," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 25, 1987, p. 7.

[In the following review of Michael, Clark discusses Goebbels's novel as a reflection of his Nazi principles and attitudes.]

Joseph Goebbels wrote [Michael] in 1923, at age 26, two years after he'd taken his Ph. D in literature. The book was originally—and rather appropriately, as things turned out—called Michael: Pages From a German Destiny, but the subtitle may have caused some queasy moments for the publishers of this first English edition, who have left it off. Variously rejected by German publishers before the author had made a name...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

John Lukacs (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "In Love with Hitler," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXV, No. 12, July 21, 1988, pp. 14-16.

[In the following essay, Lukacs analyzes Goebbels's characteristics as a man and writer.]

The diaries of Joseph Goebbels are an extraordinary find, for many reasons, including their size and their history. Goebbels was a truly compulsive writer as well as speaker—an unusual combination. He began to write a regular diary in July 1924 (there are indications of an irregular diary even earlier) at the age of twenty-six. The last entry is probably that of April 9, 1945, three weeks before his suicide along with his wife and children, and the complete collapse of...

(The entire section is 5929 words.)

Michael H. Kater (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Inside Nazis: The Goebbels Diaries, 1924-1941," in Canadian Journal of History, Vol. XXV, No. 2, August, 1990, pp. 233-43.

[In the following essay, Kater discusses the public and private aspects of Goebbels's life as reflected in his diaries.]

Elke Fröhlich of the Munich-based Institut für Zeitgeschichte has done historians of National Socialism and the Third Reich an immense service by transcribing, editing, and publishing all hitherto known fragments of Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels's surviving diary, which he kept from October 17, 1923, to the spring of 1945. The five volumes, including a register, are marketed by the K. G. Saur publishing company, with...

(The entire section is 4425 words.)

Ronald Smelser (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Review of Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels: Samtliche Fragmente, Part 1, in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 63, No. 4, December, 1991, pp. 819-21.

[In the following essay, Smelser examines the scholarly importance of the 1987 German edition of Goebbels's diaries.]

The editor offers us here [in Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels: Sämtliche Fragmente, Part 1] the definitive edition of Goebbels's diaries—exhaustive, authoritative, well-edited, and user friendly. When the project is completed—six additional volumes are scheduled to complete the wartime period—it will replace all the various previously published fragments,...

(The entire section is 1180 words.)

Further Reading


Manvell, Roger and Heinrich Fraenkel. Dr. Goebbels: His Life and Death. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960, 306 p.

Details Goebbels's life before and during the Nazi ascendancy in Germany using data from first-hand accounts, letters, and diaries.

Reuth, Ralf Georg. Goebbels, translated by Krishna Winston. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993, 471 p.

Chronicle of Goebbels's life based upon more recently available primary sources.

Riess, Curt. Joseph Goebbels. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1948, 367 p.

Early biography that recognizes the importance...

(The entire section is 532 words.)