The War That Hitler Won

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Recent studies of Nazi Germany have confirmed that ruthless advances in the techniques and content of propaganda were perhaps the most revolutionary feature of the Nazi dictatorship. Effective propaganda techniques had helped bring the Nazis to power, and a successful propaganda offensive was absolutely vital for the consolidation of the regime. After 1933, Nazi leaders had to use skillful propaganda to convince the German people that a genuine, dynamic revolution had taken place. It was imperative that the Germans be prepared to fight to the end for that final Nazi objective, total war. Above all, with the coming of World War II a collapse of the home front, as had occurred in Germany in 1918, had to be avoided at all costs. Propaganda would play a key role in sustaining morale and revitalizing the nation. Although the Nazis lost the war, they won the propaganda battle, for most Germans did fight to the bitter end. By 1945, both the consciousness and the conscience of the German people had been successfully altered.

Robert Edwin Herzstein’s study is the most in-depth analysis of Nazi propaganda to appear in recent years. In provides a fascinating, detailed study of the supremely important Minister of Propaganda, Paul Joseph Goebbels. It analyzes and compares a wide variety of mass media: pamphlets, films, speeches, and even “word of mouth propaganda” initiated by the government. It provides a comprehensive survey of the propaganda apparatus and its operation, and it evaluates the effectiveness of this vast propaganda offensive on the Germans themselves.

The book would be of value alone for the opening chapters on Goebbels. With great insight, Herzstein explores the many contradictions of Goebbels’ personality and thought and shows how these contradictions both mirrored and shaped the Nazi regime. It is no accident that Goebbels was named Adolf Hitler’s successor in the last days of World War II. Though Herzstein’s contention that Goebbels was a “far better Nazi than Hitler” is a moot point, there is no doubt that Goebbels was Hitler’s indispensable servant to the end. The “emotional adolescent” and failed novelist with the club foot was a microcosm of Nazi attitudes. He was cynical and manipulative, but idealistic and sentimental as well. As a reject from the German Army in World War I, he had to atone for the shameful defeat of 1918 with perhaps even more fanaticism than that exhibited by the average right-wing German. As was the case with many Nazis, his petit-bourgeois background made him resentful of both the masses and the aristocracy. Goebbels’ personal discovery of Hitler resulted in his full conversion to Nazi ideals, meeting what Herzstein aptly calls Goebbels “need to believe.”

Goebbels had to prove his loyalty to Hitler in extra measure, for he had earlier opposed him in the internecine disputes that had threatened to break up the Nazi Party between 1923 and 1926. Goebbels played a large part in mobilizing enthusiasm for Hitler after 1926, and Hitler never forgot it. Hitler’s support became a key factor in Goebbels’ subsequent successes. The Führer gave him the important post of Gauleiter (party leader) of Berlin.

Unlike other Nazi leaders (with the exception of the pedantic Alfred Rosenberg), Goebbels was a quasiintellectual with a doctorate in literature. Though not an original thinker, he proved to be a resourceful and inventive ideologue. According to Herzstein, Goebbels was primarily responsible for such horrors as the “Crystallnacht” pogroms inflicted on the Jews in 1938. Herzstein convincingly argues that Goebbels’ anti-Semitism resulted both from his need to find a scapegoat for his and Germany’s failures and from his drive to prove his fanatical loyalty to his Führer. Goebbels initiated the use of weekly newsreels using sound and invented the concept of “plutocracy” with which to accuse the British ruling classes of greed at home and imperialism abroad. He became the chief advocate of “total war” in 1942, before Germany had become totally committed to this policy. As Hitler dropped out of the public eye to direct the war after 1941, Goebbels’ popularity soared. He became a dynamo of Nazi activity, visiting bombed areas, organizing a sixty-hour work week, and giving countless speeches both to exhort and to bully the Germans. Like Hitler, he wavered between elation and despair. He became ultimately convinced that the collapse of Nazi Germany would be turned to good account as a heroic myth for future generations of Germans. By 1945, his slogan “victory or death” might well have been “victory in death.” His suicide in 1945 was intended to serve as a dramatic affirmation of his faith and sacrifice. Death was the ultimate political and social policy of Nazism, and it was the fate freely chosen by the Minister of Propaganda....

(The entire section is 1994 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

American Academy of Political and Social Science. Annals. CDXXXIX, September, 1978, p. 165.

Antioch Review. XXXVI, Fall, 1978, p. 510.