He was the man who would fuse propaganda and art until the one was indistinguishable from the other only to come to believe in the very myth that he himself had created; he would in time come to be the voice of resistance for an entire nation and the epitome of devotion to a lost cause in doing so rising to be more than the sum of his parts but only in the expression of his absolute obedience to another.
Paul Joseph Goebbels was born on 29 October 1897, in the town of Rheydt near Dusseldorf in the industrialised Rhineland the fourth of six children to an office worker and stay-at-home mother of modest means in the petite-bourgeois sense of the term.
He was a sickly child short and pitifully thin who not only suffered from a lung disorder that often left him breathless but a deformed right foot for which he had to wear a metal brace, caused him to limp, and often caused him great pain.
It was disability that would keep him out of the First World War, a further blow to a young man who had grown up as a boy in isolation unable as he was to join in the games of the other children his head full of dreams, now deemed too crippled to serve his country.
Blighted by deformity as he saw it, he could never be a soldier and though he would come to wear the uniform he could never hide the physical imperfection – and he hated it.
Raised a Catholic the young Joseph’s parents were eager for him to train as a priest, a career that he did not dismiss out of hand but why tend to the spiritual needs of others when one’s own remained so unfulfilled and for a God who had disadvantaged him so?
Educated at Catholic School, Goebbels studied literature and history at various institutions before completing his Doctorate in Philosophy at Heidelberg University but his academic accomplishments did not provide a pathway to success and by 1923 he was working as a lowly bank clerk in Cologne, a job he hated and found demeaning – he wished to be a writer.
His ambition to be a man of letters was leading nowhere however, in 1921 he wrote a novel* that was in large part autobiographical but others finding his life story far less interesting than he evidently did himself ensured it remained unpublished. His career as a playwright similarly stalled and the few articles he did have published in a local newspaper were not particularly well-received.
He was 27 years old and had achieved nothing, lonely and frustrated in those hours he had to himself he read right-wing accounts of German history and absorbed the mystical roots of Aryan nationalism whilst developing his already violent hatred of the Jews into something like a cogent anti-Semitism.
More than anything he was searching for ideas, a purpose to his life, a concept he could believe in so he read not just Spengler, Chamberlain, and the great works of literature but also Marx and Engels looking for a solution – but to what exactly?
In the meantime, he chased skirt as a distraction or as a triumph over adversity.
By the end of October 1923, he was unemployed, living at home with his parents and writing the diary that he would keep until the end of his life.
Scrabbling around to find a home for his still half-baked ideas on radical nationalism he alighted upon a vocal but still electorally insignificant far-right organisation the National Socialist German Workers Party and its pugnacious leader Adolf Hitler but it wasn’t until the failed Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923 in Munich and his subsequent trial for treason that Goebbels joined the party becoming Member 8762.
Merely being s member and supporter of a political party was never going to be enough for a man with big dreams he wanted a job and he got one doing menial tasks for the party newspaper in the Rhineland.
But he was nothing if not energetic and determined to get himself noticed, and he did quickly rising through the ranks of the regional party but he was also working for Gregor Strasser, the only man who posed a serious threat to Hitler’s continuing leadership of the party and it was an association that could have ended Goebbels political career prematurely.
But in the ensuing battle between Hitler and Strasser for the soul of the party Goebbels had the good sense to change sides, but then he had met Hitler and been impressed, though he would later express doubts.
Like many young men within the movement Goebbels was attracted to the Socialist in its name and the more radical elements of the party platform and was disappointed to discover that for Hitler they were merely the means to an end but such idealism soon dissipated under the gaze of the charismatic leader:
(Diary Entry 6 November, 1925): And those big blue eyes like stars, he is pleased to see me, I am filled with happiness, he is there, he shakes my hand, then he talks for half-an-hour with wit, irony, humour, sarcasm, earnestness, fire, passion. This man has all the qualities of a King, a true champion of the people – the future dictator.”
Goebbels, who had proven his loyalty by abandoning Strasser at the Party Conference called to decide its future, had also impressed with his devotion to the cause, unstinting work rate, confrontational attitude, and willingness to take on those tasks others declined reports of which had brought him to Hitler’s attention.
In August 1926, he was offered the post of Gauleiter, or leader of the party in Berlin.
He had been seeking a truly significant role within the party and here was his opportunity but it was a poison chalice as everybody knew for with the possible exception of Hamburg there was no city in Germany more hostile to the Nazis than, ‘Red’ Berlin.
Having a strong presence in the de-facto capital of the nation was essential to Hitler and Nazi Party ambitions and he was determined to seize it but was Goebbels the man to do so? Hitler thought he was but Goebbels less so and he delayed his decision until October in the hope of being offered something else and even when no such opportunity materialised he only accepted after receiving assurances that he would have total control including over the SA Brown-Shirts and would be answerable only to Hitler himself.
He had demurred for reasons of personal ambition, he wanted a role in the decision making process of the party, not because of the seemingly daunting prospect of taking on the Communists in Berlin which he saw as a challenge to be overcome, and he would be unorthodox n the methods he adopted to do so.
The party had barely 1,000 members in the city but he immediately trimmed this down to 600 wanting as he did only active Nazis, no fellow travellers. He then demanded the funds to publish his own weekly newspaper Der Angriff (The Assault) and received them. Those who wished to attend party meetings or rallies would in future have to pay to do so, the SA he organised to march and confront the Communists on the streets, and Nazi posters soon festooned all public spaces.
Always aggressive and confrontational Goebbels worked tirelessly to make Berlin a fiefdom of the Nazi Party but his repeated attacks upon the decadence of the Weimar Republic and corrupt capitalism with its Jewish backers met with little success. Indeed, his unrestrained anti-Semitism that saw him blame the Jews for everything was for the most part preaching to the already converted and made little headway in a cosmopolitan city that was beginning to enjoy the fruits of economic recovery.
In the General Election of 1928, the Nazis polled just 2.6% of the vote nationally, in Berlin only 1.4%. Despite himself being elected to the Reichstag it was a personal humiliation for Goebbels who feared his career might be over.
But he had increased party membership and shown a talent for propaganda with eye-catching posters, parades and banners, torch lit processions, and causing controversies that made headlines thereby creating a profile for the party in the city that had previously been absent – it had not gone unnoticed.
Hitler pondered removing the still troublesome Gregor Strasser from his role in overseeing publicity for the party and replacing him with Goebbels, who had at least shown a talent for such things but the rumour that this might occur filled him only with despair and no little paranoia.
(Diary Entry 1 August, 1929) Latest news, I am supposed to resign my Berlin post and move to Munich as new Head of Propaganda. They want to strip me of any real power – so that’s their game.
For the time being however, he remained in charge of the party in Berlin and with his finest moment yet to come.
On 23 February 1930, 22 year old Horst Wessel, a troop commander in the SA who had earlier impressed Goebbels with his fanaticism died from the wounds he had received in an attack.
A week later Goebbels turned his funeral into a pageant of National Socialist martyrdom as his coffin draped in a swastika was paraded through the streets of Berlin with flags at half-mast and a band playing sombre music.
Standing at the graveside surrounded by brown-shirted storm troopers Goebbels provided the funeral oration – Horst Wessel was a fine young man, the son of a Lutheran Minister who had sacrificed his life for the sake of a better Germany, a Germany free of the corruption of Judaism who had been murdered in a confrontation with Godless sub-human communists.
It wasn’t entirely true – Horst Wessel was a street thug and a pimp who had indeed been killed by communists but in an argument over a prostitute not politics.
But then if honesty was the template of reality then there would be no need for propaganda.
The entire event had been filmed for cinematic distribution and the words added to the music of a traditional folksong to create the Horst Wessel Lied, the future anthem of the Nazi Party, proving, if it needed to be, that the devil has all the best tunes.
It was Joseph Goebbels first great publicity coup and in April 1930, Hitler appointed him to oversee propaganda for the entire party.
Conscious that despite all of his hard work he had failed to establish the Nazis as the dominant political force in Berlin it was at least recognition of sorts for his endeavours but it was evident that a hard path lay ahead and it would be the impact of the Great Depression and the economic carnage it wrought that would propel the Nazis to power not the manipulations of Joseph Goebbels or the supposed political genius of their leader, Adolf Hitler.
Later that year he met a slim, blonde elegant and polished 30 year old woman of wealth and privilege who had recently joined the party and was helping out in his private office. She was like no woman he had ever met before and he was simply overwhelmed with passion and desire.
(Diary Entry 15 February, 1931): Magda Quandt came round this evening and stayed for a very long time. She is becoming a ravishingly sweet blonde, my lovely Queen, a beautiful, truly beautiful woman. I know I will love her deeply.
To the roughly-hewn petite-bourgeois from a small town on the Rhine, Magda was a dream, his fantasy woman and he was not only smitten from the first but desperate to walk her up the aisle as quickly as possible, not that this would prove a guarantee of any fidelity on his part.
For Magda, who had also been smitten marriage to a rising star of the Nazi Party would bring her one step closer to the man she truly loved – Adolf Hitler.
Goebbels was aware of Magda’s feelings for Hitler but it made him only more determined to possess her for himself and it wasn’t long before they were romantically involved. He gushed like a love-struck teenager.
(Diary Entry 17 June, 1931): Magda gives me strength and imagination. I am overjoyed to possess her, she is now my own, now I know I have someone who belongs to me completely and will always stand by me, and I belong to her as well – the Party comes first, then Magda.
Joseph and Magda married on 19 December 1931, with Hitler in attendance. It was a wonderful occasion, everyone was so happy for them, Goebbels was overjoyed and would later record that even Hitler had tears in his eyes, and Magda was so radiant and photogenic that even the sallow skinned little Gauleiter with a limp was seen to shine in her presence.
Magda was soon pregnant and with Hitler a confirmed bachelor they would in time become the First Family of the Third Reich (much to Hermann Goering’s annoyance) and a model for others to emulate – but it was in truth to be a stormy relationship.
Still, there remained bigger fish to fry.
On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He had not been elected but appointed to the post as the result of a squalid backroom deal, and the Nazis had not yet come to power. He was to head a Coalition Government in which the Nazi Party was if anything under-represented. The many marches and parades, banging of drums and waving of Nazi flags that were the immediate aftermath of his elevation to power still had somewhat of a hollow ring to them.
But this had been no fault of Goebbels who had worked tirelessly to promote Hitler and the Party throughout the previous year and its many elections. It was he who had coined the slogan ‘The Fuhrer Over Germany’ to describe Hitler’s decision to tour the country by air and he ensured the cameras were there to capture every moment of the campaign – Hitler the innovator, Hitler the war hero, Hitler the ladies man, Hitler the lover of children, Hitler the man of the people, Hitler the leader of the future. . .
Every word spoken was saved and preserved for re-broadcast and the message repetitive and exhaustive was supplemented by images violent and destructive – the smashing of the blood-sucking capitalist, the annihilation of the Bolshevik menace, and the constant denunciation of the Jews and demands for their expulsion.
No one could make a noise quite like Joseph Goebbels and he would ensure that the Nazi message did not go unheard.
Parades were the order of the day with street-battles their inevitable aftermath, fanfares preceded everything, posters and banners emblazoned street corners, and then there were the speeches, endless speeches.
But the sound and fury did not always achieve the results expected or required.
Hitler had fought the Presidential Election of March 1932 more in hope than expectation but even so had been soundly defeated by the aged Paul von Hindenburg by 6 million votes.
The election of July had seen the Nazi Party vote double to 37.3% from two years earlier but the second election held in November the same year saw a significant drop to 33.1%, they remained the largest party in the Reichstag but were well short of a majority hence the need for shady bargains, nod and a wink agreements, and coalition government.
The failure of the Nazi Party to sweep all before them despite its charismatic leader and the modern campaigning techniques it had adopted had nonetheless taught Goebbels a valuable lesson – success could not be guaranteed through access, proliferation and hard work alone it took control, absolute control of absolutely everything.
Still, he could not contain his excitement at the turn of events.
(Diary Entry 31 January, 1933): We’ve made it, we’ve set up shop in Wilhelmstrasse, Hitler is Chancellor, it is like a fairytale come true.
Not quite perhaps, and Goebbels enthusiasm would soon be tempered when he did not receive the seat in Government he had expected and believed was his due.
(Diary Entry 10 February, 1933): Rumours to the affect that I will be appointed Head of Broadcasting. I have been sidelined.
The Nazis were not yet in full control however, but they soon would be.
On 27 February 1933, the Reichstag went up in flames and a young Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe discovered at the scene was arrested and charged.
Rumours have since persisted that the Nazis set the fire themselves and it has to be said that if they did not it was certainly convenient.
Hitler demanded that he be given emergency powers to deal with internal dissent and the threat of communist insurrection, the increasingly senile President Hindenburg agreed. On 23 March he signed into law the Enabling Act which provided the Chancellor with plenary powers and the right to act in ‘defence of the people’ without recourse to the German Parliament or the Courts.
The suspension of civil rights (for the period of four years, to be renewed) meant Hitler now had the power to suppress, silence, and imprison those who posed a threat to the regime – it was the beginning of the Nazi Dictatorship.
In early March, Goebbels was at last rewarded for his years of unswerving devotion and loyalty when he was appointed to head the recently created Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and with it a seat in the Cabinet.
Six days after the Reichstag Fire the German people cast their ballots once more in a General Election but despite a virtual monopoly of all media outlets and widespread intimidation including the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of their political opponents the Nazis still only polled 43% of the vote. When not long after some of the defendants in the Reichstag Fire Trial were acquitted it became evident to Goebbels that he still had much to do if he was to make the German people into good National Socialists.
And he had the means to do so.
(Diary Entry 8 March, 1933): I now have a structure for my Ministry, it is divided into five major departments covering radio, the press, film, propaganda, and theatre.
Goebbels immersed himself in his work busily re-making Germany in the Fuhrer’s image and no dissent would be tolerated in the creation of the Gleichschaltung, or coordination, the process by which every aspect of German political, economic, civil, and even domestic life would be brought into line with National Socialist belief, values, and philosophy.
It was his role to publicise, promote, and convince where a brown-shirted thug was unavailable to enforce compliance – he would intimidate with words.
On 1 May, with great delight and in stark contrast to his earlier professed radicalism he informed German workers that Labour Day would now be National Socialist Day – the clenched fist had been replaced by the Nazi salute.
He also initiated the Book Burning Campaign casting to the flames thousands of works by Jewish, Liberal and Marxist authors declaring “no to moral decadence and corruption.” This was more than a symbolic gesture he told students from Berlin University, together they would cleanse German culture of Jewish intellectualism.
(Diary Entry 11 May, 1933): Worked until late at home, in the evening I gave a speech at the Opera House in front of the bonfire while the filthy, trashy books were being burned by the students. I was at the top of my form.
On 2 August, he announced over the radio the death of Hindenburg and that Adolf Hitler intended to combine the role of President with that of Chancellor would henceforth be referred to as Fuhrer.
His voice was by now becoming as familiar to the German people as Hitler’s own and aware of his growing profile he began to imitate the Fuhrer’s techniques and methods of presentation striking dramatic poses before a mirror, learning his speeches by heart beforehand, and training his voice to be heard over the pandemonium that would often ensue whenever he spoke.
He was also intensely protective of his role as chief promoter of the Nazi Regime and never more so than when it came to Leni Riefenstahl the enfant-terrible of German cinema.
Although, he and the architect Albert Speer were responsible for the look and organisation of the 1934 Nuremburg Rally it was Riefenstahl who would bring it to the screen and project it around the world in her sinister but brilliantly contrived Triumph of the Will which did more to create the image of Hitler as the charismatic man of destiny leading a united people on their path to ultimate glory than any amount of crude and often clumsy propaganda.
Here was a woman who understood film and its power to influence, a cinematic genius of independent mind who ignored Goebbels advice, refuted his suggestions, and proved immune to his charms. She also had Hitler’s ear and he didn’t like it one bit complaining of her arrogance, hysterical outbursts, and little girl tantrums.
Solipsism and bitter self-yearning were never far from the surface.
But despite the infringement upon what he considered his personal brief he would have to endure the rising star of German cinema a little longer.
In 1936, Berlin hosted the Olympic Games which produced another much acclaimed documentary film by Leni Riefenstahl, Olympiad, which captured a sporting event in detail that had never been seen before. It did not impress Goebbels, neither did its creator.
(Diary Entry 6 November, 1936): Miss Riefenstahl is treating me to her histrionics again, there’s no way I can work with a lunatic like her, and there is something wrong, now she wants half-a-million more to make a second film. I remained as cold as ice towards her, she started sobbing, women always do this. It doesn’t work with me anymore.
He needn’t have been concerned, his organisation and propagandising of the Olympics was exemplary. He filmed it also but for the newsreels not the sake of art and events were broadcast live on the radio; all traces of anti-Semitism were eradicated for the duration of the Games – Jews Forbidden, and No Jews Permitted signs were removed from cafes and parks, they were could ride the trams once more, and the German people were instructed to be on their best behaviour.
And the focus throughout remained on Hitler who was shown smiling, applauding, shaking hands with and congratulating the winning athletes most of whom were German, a hollow success perhaps as the only man anyone was talking about was the black American sprinter Jesse Owens and his four Gold Medals.
Goebbels was somewhat aggrieved at the hero worship afforded Owens by the most mostly German spectators as it had been his job to teach them otherwise.
Nonetheless, his stock had never been higher.
Upon the conclusion of the Olympic Games, when the eyes of the world had been on Germany, Goebbels wasted no time in resuming the campaign of virulent anti-Semitism of which he remained very much at the forefront, so for all the comforting images of peoples coming to together in pursuit of sporting excellence no one could be in doubt that Germany was to be an Aryan Nation unsullied by the impure blood of inferior races and no one exemplified this new Germany more than Joseph and Magda Goebbels.
Although, Joseph himself could never be considered a paradigm of Aryan masculinity, Magda did and she played the role to perfection and with their ever-increasing brood of blonde, blue-eyed children the newsreels were rarely absent making them the First Family of the Third Reich and the model for others to aspire to.
(Diary Entry 3 December, 1937) Magda was a little sick but so kind and patient. The children were so sweet, I love them all dearly. We chatted, played, and messed around, it was great fun. In the evening I monitored some films in Berlin – Maidenhood, a Prague film with Lida Baarova.
But it was never the scene of domestic bliss it appeared.
Marriage had not prevented him from continuing the habits of a lifetime and he would regularly seduce those starlets he met of film sets to whom a leg up constituted a leg over.
Magda was aware of her husband’s errant ways but was willing to turn a blind eye as long as they remained unknown and unspoken about but public humiliation was another matter.
When in August 1938 she discovered that he was having an affair with the well known Czech actress Lida Baarova and that others knew it too in high dudgeon she took the matter directly to Hitler and demanded that he permit her to divorce.
The Fuhrer who had been a witness to the marriage and had colluded in their promotion as the ideal Nazi Family refused – he would not countenance a scandal, neither would he see himself so embarrassed.
But a hysterical Magda was not an easy woman to make see reason.
Finally, in the presence of Magda he scolded his Propaganda Minister, decrying his behaviour and ordering he change his ways, reconcile with his wife, and remain with his family. In the meantime, this Slav actress would be banished from the country and not permitted to return.
Hitler was neither impressed nor tolerant of the peccadilloes of others whether they were a liking for alcohol or a weakness for the flesh – Goebbels was out of the loop and no longer a trusted member of Hitler’s inner-circle.
He had shown himself to be just another powerful man incapable of retaining a tight enough grip on his belt buckle and trousers and would spend the rest of his life trying to regain his Fuhrer’s favour.
(Diary Entry 18 August, 1938)A tough day, a long heart-to-heart with Magda in the evening which was the ultimate humiliation for me, I shall never forgive her.
An opportunity came when on 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish student aggrieved at the treatment of his parents who had recently been deported to Poland, entered the German Embassy in Paris and shot dead the diplomat Ernst vom Rath.
As the news reached Germany anti-Jewish riots broke in cities and towns across the country (many provoked and pre-planned) with Jewish shops stoned, Synagogues burned, and Jews arrested on the streets or dragged from their homes and beaten up.
(Diary Entry 10 November, 1938) I mentioned the Jewish matter to the Fuhrer, he said, let the demonstrations continue and withdraw the police. The Jews need to experience the people’s fury at first hand, just this once. It is only right and proper.
It seemed to Goebbels who had been whipping up anti-Jewish violence for some months that he now had the Fuhrer’s endorsement for having done so and he was delighted, seizing his opportunity he ratcheted up the anti-Jewish rhetoric, the police were ordered not to intervene, and the flames were only doused when the fires threatened other buildings.
But Hitler was to be disappointed at the reaction to Kristallnacht, it was widely condemned abroad and the response of the German people was less than enthusiastic and was accompanied by a surge in the numbers of those arrested for expressing anti-Nazi sentiments.
It confirmed him in his view that Goebbels should adopt a subtler approach to his eradication of the Jewish menace and that street thuggery alone was not enough.
That Hitler could express such a view only brought into greater focus the virulence and brutality of Goebbels own anti-Semitism.
His relationship with Hitler remained strained and he played little significant role in the run-up to war beyond his specific remit, not in the military planning, the diplomatic manoeuvring, or the economic preparations.
He remained the piper playing the tune not its composer, though he did so with relish. It would now be his job to sell war to the German people just as he had previously sold the party and its philosophy.
(Diary Entry, 1 September, 1939) Yesterday at noon the Fuhrer issued the order to attack at around 5pm. It seems the die is now cast.