Joseph Goebbels would now sell the war to the German people as he had earlier sold the Nazi Party and its leader Adolf Hitler, and he would leave little to chance with blanket radio coverage, newsreels running in every cinema, and 1,500 mobile film units employed to ensure that no part of the country would be deprived of the message.
War is grist to the mill of propaganda, and Goebbels knew it but even so he believed it would be a hard sell.
But the German Army’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, despite the British and French declarations of war that swiftly followed, could not have gone better with Polish resistance collapsing in a month, victory sealed when as part of the earlier Nazi-Soviet Pact Russian forces invaded from the East.
A long period of relative inactivity followed the war at sea and the invasion of Norway aside, but when the Germans did launch their Blitzkrieg on the Low Countries and France the victory was no less swift and decisive than it had been in Poland.
To all intents and purposes the war appeared won; Germany’s ancestral enemy France had been vanquished and though a Britain, whose army had been forced to flee in haste and no little disarray, remained defiant it could surely only be a matter of time before she too was forced to sue for an ignominious peace.
With her armies victorious, to those many Germans who recalled so vividly the long dawn-out torment of the Great War and had feared the looming conflict it was nothing short of a miracle and they flocked onto the streets to herald the man responsible.
Goebbels and his camera crews were there to capture every moment of the frenzied scenes of unbounded joy and adoration for the Fuhrer that were of such fever pitch it seemed they might overwhelm the newsreels themselves.
It was a spontaneous outpouring as much of relief that it was over as it was a celebration of victory and for once it did not require Goebbels intervention or orchestration.
For the time being at least, though the conflict rumbled on and there were casualties, the war seemed far away and with goods plentiful and the shops still full it seemed as if the good times had returned to Germany as the newsreels relayed images not of war but of peace with the German people going about their business as usual, enjoying the summer holiday, sunbathing on the beach, picnicking by the lake, and shopping on the Unter den Linden.
But Goebbels still had urgent work to do.
In November 1939, following the collapse of Poland, Goebbels became the first leading Nazi to visit the Warsaw Ghetto where 400,000 Jews were forced to live in an area barely 1.3 square miles in diameter with nothing but the clothes they stood up in, no medicine made available to cope with illness, and sustained on just 184 calories a day.
He wrote of his disgust, not at conditions in the Ghetto but of those forced to reside within it.
(Diary Entry 2 November, 1939) A trip through the Ghetto, we got out and inspected everything closely, its indescribable, they aren’t human, they are animals, this is therefore not a humanitarian task but a surgical one.
We must make incisions here, quite radical ones.
He had taken on board Hitler’s earlier criticism that the coarse tone adopted in much of the anti-Semitic propaganda was counter-productive and that to mould the German people into accepting, or at least turning a blind eye to the harsher measures required for the resolution of the Jewish Question a subtler approach was required.
Goebbels turned to cinema, the most popular form of entertainment as his means of so doing, and he had earlier commissioned a series of films to drive home his anti-Semitic message with his visit to the Ghetto only confirming in his own mind the urgency of his latest intended production – The Eternal Jew.
Couched in the comforting world of romantic historical fiction there was little complaint regarding any anti-Semitic message portrayed on screen, as for example in the popular Jud Suss, but stripped of its sugar-coated gloss and seen for what it is racism is repellent to most even those who may be conducive to its message.
But Goebbels could not resist the temptation to bludgeon, even though he had himself expressed doubts as to its effectiveness.
Filmed largely in the Jewish Ghettos of Poland and in the style of a documentary The Eternal Jew focussed on stereotypical Nazi images of those they disparagingly referred to as descendants of the Tribe of Israel – their sharp mean features dirty and unwashed, their rapacity, their sinister rituals, and compared them to a plague of rats.
But images of filth, squalor and vermin do not make good cinema and was to prove too much for a great many people and reports were received of disquiet among audiences and that theatres were emptying long before the film reached its climax.
As the message of the film circulated ticket receipts declined and it has been estimated that fewer than a million people ever saw The Eternal Jew and that most of these were fully paid-up members of the Nazi Party who felt obliged to do so, or serving members of the SS who attended screenings on the express orders of Heinrich Himmler.
Disappointed though he was at the response to The Eternal Jew, Goebbels like many others in the Nazi hierarchy took time out to bask in the glory of victory in the West visiting Paris in the company of Hermann Goering where dining on fine French cuisine and feasting his eyes on its nightlife he wrote admiringly of its erotica and nakedness before dismissing it as inappropriate for Germans.
H also attended the Venice Film Festival where jealous of the city’s architecture and grandeur he nonetheless mocked Italian pretensions to having any talent for cinema.
Yet for all the pomp of a grand tour, with the ever-glamorous Magda at his side, and the plaudits heaped upon him it remained a deeply frustrating time. He could not be self-indulgent like Goering and repose in luxury while the war went on around him – he had to be active.
Yet he remained excluded from the decision making process.
He constantly badgered Hitler to allow him to deport Berlin’s Jews to camps in the East but was rebuffed told again and again when the time was right. He had no say in military strategy, he wanted a role in running the war economy, it was denied him. Was he to be confined entirely within the remit of his Ministry? Even here he was being challenged by the Foreign Secretary Joachim von Ribbentrop who was demanding of the Fuhrer that he be given control of that propaganda produced for overseas consumption.
Albert Speer remained the Fuhrer’s friend, Hermann Goering his right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler his most devoted disciple, Martin Bormann always at his side.
Where did Joseph Goebbels appear in this pecking order? Where did he fit in?
The war dragged on however – there had after all been no swift victory – and though Germany remained largely unaffected on the domestic front the need to maintain morale in a conflict with no resolution in sight was ever the priority.
Wars need heroes and Goebbels took their exploits and writ them large, none more so than those of the close family friend Erwin Rommel whose brilliant battlefield victories in the North African Desert were exaggerated in their strategic importance and repeated ad-nauseum to a then still receptive audience to acts of derring-do.
In the meantime, he oversaw the production of anti-British propaganda and films along with the sickly-sweet romantic comedies of which the Fuhrer was particularly fond.
Although, Goebbels sometimes wearied of such things these were the happy times – war would soon return to Germany.
At 03.15 on 22 June 1941, Germany and its Axis Allies invaded the Soviet Union and Goebbels was given the honour of broadcasting, over a suitably dramatic soundtrack, the Fuhrer’s words:
“At this moment a march is taking place that, for its extent, compares with the greatest the world has ever seen. I have decided today to place the fate and future of the Reich and our people in the hands of our soldiers. May God aid us in this hour . .
(Diary Entry 22 June, 1941) I read out the Fuhrer’s proclamation, it was a momentous occasion for me as well.
The world held his breathe, and so did Joseph Goebbels. In private he expressed his doubts:
“We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals.”
Yet throughout the late summer and autumn of 1941, the Wehrmacht swept all before them in a series of crushing victories the scale of which had never been seen before as one Russian Army after another was surrounded and destroyed.
In just five months the German Army had swept across the heartland of Russia to the very gates of Moscow inflicting enormous damage and taking more than 3,500,000 prisoners, so many that some Generals expressed disbelief that the Russian could still find the wherewithal to resist.
And Goebbels newsreels were there to capture it all.
But it had been success achieved at great cost, 800,000 casualties and 170,000 dead and victory still not yet secured but it was the job of propaganda to gloss over such things and focus instead on the vanquished.
(Diary Entry 16 September, 1941) In calculating the potential of the Bolsheviks we were completely wrong.
Just as he had earlier instructed his camera crews to do in the Ghettos of Poland they were to concentrate on those who fitted the Nazi world view and supported their specious racial theories.
Russian prisoners with supposedly Jewish features, of Asiatic origin, or just ugly and stupid looking were filmed dishevelled, unshaven, and pleading with their Aryan masters – the Jewish Bolshevik Mongol Horde in close up – the Untermensch.
It seemed the right time for Goebbels to once again approach Hitler regarding those Jews still in Berlin.
(Diary Entry 20 August, 1941: The Fuhrer has told me that I can deport the Jews from Berlin immediately the Eastern campaign is over. Berlin must be Jew free, it is an outrage and a scandal that 18,000 Jews, most of them parasites, can roam happily in the capital of the German Reich.
But in December, the German Army advancing on Moscow was not only halted but forced to retreat.
It was the Wehrmacht’s first defeat of the war and it would not be its last, the high watermark had been reached and the ebbing of the tide would be long, painful, and relentless.
That same December following the attack by Germany’s ally Japan upon the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Adolf Hitler declared war on America.
The Fuhrer’s European War had become a World War and like Germany’s Armed Forces, Goebbels Propaganda Ministry was now fighting on many fronts but it did not distract him from issues nearer home.
(Diary Entry 14 February, 1942) The Fuhrer once again expressed his determination to clean up the Jews in Europe pitilessly. There must be no squeamish sentimentalism about it. The Jews have deserved the catastrophe that has overtaken them . . . we must hasten this process with cold ruthlessness.
There had been no representative from the Propaganda Ministry at the Wannsee Conference held the previous January under the auspices of Reinhard Heydrich which decided upon the physical extermination of all the Jews in Europe.
Once again he had been excluded from a major decision but he had almost certainly been made aware of it.
(Diary Entry 27 March, 1942) A judgement has been visited upon the Jews that, while barbaric is fully deserved. The prophecy which the Fuhrer made about them for having brought on a new World War is beginning to come true in a most terrible manner. One must not be sentimental in these matters. If we did not fight the Jews they would destroy us.
It is a life and death struggle between the Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus.
The vagaries and prerequisites of war must not prove an impediment to the pursuit of racial hygiene and the Final Solution – they must facilitate them.
The defeat before the Gates of Moscow had ended any illusion of a swift victory but it was considered a setback only and so in 1942 the advance into Russia would continue but this time south towards the oil-rich Caucasus and the city that bore the Soviet dictator’s name – Stalingrad.
The vast sweeping pincer movements that had so nearly annihilated the Red Army in the early months of Operation Barbarossa were abandoned at Stalingrad as the German Sixth Army became bogged down in vicious and protracted street-fighting for which it had neither trained nor prepared.
On 19 November, the Russians launched a series of offensives on both flanks of the German positions.
Defended by the poorly equipped and only partially dug-in Axis armies of Romania, Hungary, and Italy they quickly broke through.
As the pincers closed the Sixth Army found itself in danger of encirclement.
Like most catastrophes the one that now loomed at Stalingrad could have been avoided but Hitler refused permission for the Sixth Army to withdraw while they still could and by the time a breakout was attempted the half-starved troops were too, exhausted, weak, and ill-equipped to do so.
As the Battle for Stalingrad dragged on people in Germany became increasingly apprehensive, this was not the quick victory they had become used to and propaganda images of soldiers making light of the harsh weather skating, romping in the snow, and taking iced baths did not tarry with the urgent appeal for warm winter clothing.
A Christmas message supposedly broadcast from the ‘Front on the Volga’ but in fact faked in a Berlin studio provided little reassurance.
They braced themselves for bad news.
But few could convey bad news quite like Joseph Goebbels.
He did not believe the people should be spared the truth and did little to conceal the scale of a disaster that with more than 150,000 men killed and 91,000 captured could not in any case be kept secret for long.
Instead, in a broadcast on 3 February 1943 he focused on the heroism, self-sacrifice, and National Socialist zeal of the individual soldier fighting against impossible odds.
Then no sooner had the defeat been announced than it was forgotten – the less said the better – but the tide of war had turned decisively against Germany and the years of victory had passed, from now on it would be a fight for national survival.
On 12 February, following the Casablanca Conference President Roosevelt announced in a radio broadcast that the Allies would accept nothing less than the Unconditional Surrender of the Axis Powers.
It was the opportunity that Goebbels had been waiting for. He had often complained that the Germans were both bad Nazis and even worse anti-Semites now there could be no turning back, they would either have to commit to the cause or perish.
On 18 February at the Sportpalast in Berlin, in an event that was uniquely suited to his peculiar talents, he gave his response.
In an auditorium draped in Nazi flags and banners bearing the slogans of anti-Bolshevism and Total War before a carefully selected audience of military personnel and Nazi Party functionaries, an animated Goebbels, described as like a puppet on a string with his trademark sarcasm and acid tongue manipulated, enthused, and cajoled those present into a frenzy of devotion and defiance.
He concluded his oration with the words:
“German people rise up, and let storm break loose!”
The acclamation was deafening as people rose to their feet and to cries of Heil! Heil! The national anthem was sung.
It was his finest moment.
(Diary Entry 19 February, 1943) I was I believe in very good speaking form, and elevated the rally into a form of total spiritual mobilisation.
Not that the German people really needed telling that they were in a state of total war, for almost a year they had been under savage aerial bombardment from the Royal Air Force by night and the United States Army Air Force by day.
Originally targeting industrial areas in the Ruhr Valley and elsewhere the inaccuracy of high-level bombing had proved such as to render it largely ineffective so the strategy was changed to area bombing, the target now the cities and densely populated areas – the aim to break the morale and will to resist of the German people.
In March 1942, the port of Lubeck became the first victim of this new strategy to be followed soon after by Rostock. The first Thousand Bomber Raid took place at Cologne in May, then again at Bremen and Essen.
In July 1943, an attack upon the city of Hamburg and its resultant firestorm left 43,000 civilians dead.
But the morale of the German people did not break – the fight was a good fight.
The British were a treacherous people fighting for money, Jews by nature if not by race; the Russians savages, the Americans gangsters. The aerial bombardment proved this they were not interested in fighting but were intent on murdering innocent women and children. It was barbarism and only the Germans stood between salvation and the collapse of Western Civilisation.
But further bad news was to follow however, on 13 May the Axis Army in North Africa, including Rommel’s much-vaunted Afrika Korps, was forced to surrender at Tunis and some 240,000 men taken into captivity half of them German.
It was a defeat on the scale of Stalingrad, though perhaps of less strategic significance.
By now the Germans were becoming inured to bad news with the sombre music that preceded the announcement of every latest denouement preparing them well in advance, which was perhaps fitting for a regime that increasingly resembled some sort of Wagnerian grotesque.
On the morning of 6 June 1944, the Western Allies landed in force on the beaches of Normandy.
The Second Front had been expected for sometime but even so had retained its element of surprise, though not according to its High Priest of Propaganda.
(Diary Entry 7 June, 1944) Yesterday, during the night first reports starting arriving about the Allied invasion of the West. The Fuhrer was in an exceptionally lively mood, the invasion was taking place exactly where we had anticipated, unless absolutely everything goes wrong we should be able to cope.”
It wasn’t true they had expected any landings to take place in the Pas de Calais.
Even so, the intense fighting and the struggle to break out from the Normandy beachheads made it appear for a time at least that they might indeed cope.
Moreover, the Nazis had a surprise in store – the V1 Rocket.
(Diary Entry 18 June, 1944) Our weapons of retaliation are the number subject around the globe, the English may be doing everything within their power to counter our new secret weapon but they are not succeeding. The people of London are panic stricken.
Secret weapons that would turn the tide of the war were to dominate much of German propaganda. But Goebbels already knew better.
(Diary Entry 7 July, 1944) Enthusiasm has subsided dramatically. Both the V1 and our attempts to repel the invasion in the West have proved disappointing. Nor is anyone holding out much hope in the East.
For all his hard work and slavish devotion Goebbels still could not break back into the Fuhrer’s inner-circle where he had once been before his affair with the Czech actress Lida Barova, and it wasn’t until the July Bomb Plot which Hitler had barely escaped with his life and his brutal crushing of the conspiracy in Berlin that he at last regained the Fuhrer’s absolute trust.
On 23 July he was rewarded for his loyalty when he was appointed Plenipotentiary for War – at last a proper job!
He threw himself into his new role but opposed by Goering, thwarted by Speer, and afraid to cross Heinrich Himmler who barely disguised his loathing of him it was tough going but impeded or not he would get things done.
He at last convinced Hitler that German women should be incorporated into the war effort and disabled soldiers were recycled to work in munitions factories and elsewhere replacing the Hitler Youth who were now armed to fight.
In October 1944, he raised the Volksturm, or Home Guard of men previously deemed unfit for military service – 500,000 new men for the Wehrmacht!
He addressed them enthusiastically, they would be the first in the national uprising he had so often called for but they were old men, tired of limb and short of breath with little desire to be sacrificial lambs in a lost cause.
They would parade better than they would fight – there would be no storm let loose.
Despite the extra workload he remained firmly in control of the Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda where in the closing months of the war 80% of its budget and output were devoted to the making of films, historical epics of courage and resistance with the vagaries of Frederick the Great becoming a much mined resource.
The newsreels still ran of course, and in typical fashion he did not hide the facts from the people, he manipulated them. The barbarity of the Mongolian Horde from the East, the massacres, burnings, lootings, and violation of German women were stressed time and again.
But such savagery could not triumph civilisation would overcome its tormentors as long as the people fought on. The Fuhrer would find a way, he had done so before, the British and Americans would see the light and come to their aid, and if Goebbels never doubted ultimate victory and wasn’t afraid why should they be?
With Hitler confined to his Bunker and rarely seen or heard, Goering retired to his country retreat, and Himmler having booked himself into a sanatorium Joseph Goebbels had become the face and voice of German resistance. He visited the front-line, he toured the bombed-out and destroyed cities visiting the victims and addressing the crowds. He did not turn his face away from the carnage of war he embraced it and in doing so had become the star of his own newsreels.
The man often referred to as ‘Poison Dwarf’ for his venom and the toxicity of his bile was now applauded on the streets. He may not have won the love of the people but he had earned their respect.
But he remained ruthless in crushing dissent – to voice criticism of the Regime risked death, to suggest resistance was futile would see you hanged while soldiers who displayed any reluctance to follow orders were summarily shot.
Upon learning that people in the towns along the Rhine, even in his hometown of Rheydt, were hanging white flags of surrender from their windows he vowed to recapture one of these towns and make an example of it. He even drew up plans to have the Mayor of Rheydt assassinated.
In the final months of the war 28,000 Germans were to be killed by their fellow countrymen, and they were not to be the only victims. Those Germans who captured downed Allied airmen were encouraged to take the law in to their own hands, and the deportation of Jews still in Germany did not cease but was speeded up – a war of conquest had long since become one of murder.
On 21 April 1945, he broadcast to the German people for the last time:
“The moment of truth has come. I am remaining with my staff in Berlin. My wife and my children are here to, and will remain here. I will do everything within my power to mobilise the defences of the Reich’s capital. My thoughts and deeds will always be with you, and we will repel our common enemy. The hordes of the Mongols must be stopped at our city walls. Our struggle will be the symbol for the entire nation to rise up and fight with iron resolution consumed as we are with the fanatical desire never to let the capital of the Reich fall into Bolshevik hands.”
The following day Joseph, Magda, and their six children joined the Fuhrer in his bunker beneath the Reichstag.
Hitler had in fact ordered that Magda and the children stay away but the presence of the children at least provided him with some relief from the febrile atmosphere of the Bunker. He enjoyed their company feeding them chocolate cake and balancing the youngest Heidrun, on his knee.
The same could not be said for the sycophantic Joseph and overbearing Magda.
Around mid-afternoon on the 30 April, having earlier married his long-time mistress Eva Braun, Hitler and his new bride committed suicide. Before doing so he had dictated his Political Will and Testament in which he named Joseph Goebbels as his successor as Reich Chancellor – recognition at last.
Even so, it had not been overwhelming endorsement, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz had been appointed Reich President and Martin Bormann leader of the Party.
But it was in any case all over, existence in a world without the Fuhrer was meaningless and futile so Joseph and Magda would die as he had done, by their own hand, and the children would die also.
Goebbels wrote that his wife had chosen to die alongside him and that had the children been old enough to make the decision they would do the same.
Learning of this some tried to dissuade them from killing the children with a few even offering to take them from the Bunker. But Magda remained adamant:
“Merciful God will understand me when I give them their salvation.”
The likelihood is that Magda administered the poison herself after Helmut Kunz agreed to drug the children but would not murder them and SS Doctor Ludwig Stumpfegger who was expected to do so was found to be blind drunk and incapable.
Later that evening as darkness descended Joseph and Magda entered the Chancellery garden accompanied by SS guards carrying cans of gasoline – the time had come.
Magda was shaking uncontrollably and could not bring herself to bite into the cyanide tablet she had been provided with so Joseph took out his pistol and shot her in the head before turning the gun on himself.
As ordered their bodies were then set alight but their cremation was not afforded the same care as had the Fuhrer’s and Eva Braun’s. Burned to a crisp but left unburied they were still recognisable in their death throes.
Propaganda in wartime was nothing new from the mockery of the Mercurius Aulicus during the conflict between the King and his Parliament, to the anti-Napoleonic satire of Rowlandson and Gilroy, and the Beastly Hun of World War One but rarely had it been used as the instrument with which to mould public opinion in peacetime in such an all-embracing way to create a society from new.*
Goebbels used propaganda to crush dissent, cement prejudice, generate fear, and to prepare for war but also much more.
There was the grandeur of the Nuremburg Rally, the physical expression of Albert Speer’s architectural constructs articulated in form and design, choreographed by Goebbels and captured in all its majesty by the awe-inspiring cinematography of Leni Reifenstahl.
And it was indeed in the skilfully orchestrated set-piece political rally, which have since become such an integral part of democratic politics that Nazi propaganda was to excel.
The auditorium with its podium set high was draped with strategically placed flags and banners carrying key-note phrases; the Fuhrer would arrive late, he would always arrived late it built up tension; entering from the rear of the auditorium as the lights were dimmed he walked through the carefully selected audience as they swiveled in their seats and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him, and he spoke quietly at first, barely audible before increasing the tempo and bringing the crowd to a crescendo, a fever pitch little short of hysteria.
The entire performance had been rehearsed beforehand, every gesture perfected, every pause deliberate, and Goebbels captured every moment for the newsreels with panoramic views and providing his own commentary for the simultaneous radio broadcast.
This was Goebbels arena, and though many of the ideas were Hitler’s it was he who made them a reality.
Elsewhere however his propaganda could appear crude and clumsy either exalting or hating with nothing in-between; with the press, cinema, theatre, and radio having no independence of thought or deed it was bland, dull, and one-dimensional which in a highly educated population provided little stimulation indicated in the attendance at cultural events and in the sale of newspapers which declined by as much as 50%.
But playing incessantly upon already well-established prejudices and over time it succeeded in its aims with many of those who once lived in fear of a brutal regime in the end coming to believe in it – there were few dissenters.
Goebbels, who had often been frustrated by his role in Government and the Nazi Party hierarchy learned to appreciate his contribution:
“What would have become of this movement without its propaganda? And where would our country be heading if lively creative propaganda did not provide its spiritual identity?”
*It is of course possible to point to Soviet Russia and the Cult of Stalin as another example but this was very much built upon the worship of the Tsar simply replacing one for the other and reinforced rather than manipulated the understanding of a largely uneducated population for whom little had changed.