Joseph Goebbels

goebells and children

Joseph Goebbels and his children (Bundesarchiv)

Joseph Goebbels was born on 29 October 1897, in Rheydt, in the Rhineland into a working class, strict Catholic family. He was educated at a Roman Catholic school and went on to study history and literature at the University of Heidelberg, under Professor Gundolf, a Jewish literary historian renowned as a scholar of Goethe and a close disciple of the poet Stefan George. Joseph Goebbels had been rejected for military service during the First World War, because of a crippled foot - the result of contracting polio as a child - and a sense of physical inadequacy tormented him for the rest of his life, reinforced by resentment of the reactions aroused by his diminutive frame, black hair and intellectual background. Bitterly conscious of his deformity and fearful of being regarded as a 'bourgeois intellectual,' Goebbels overcompensated for his lack of physical virtues of the strong, healthy, blond, Nordic type by his ideological rectitude and radicalism once he joined the Nazi Workers Party (NSDAP) in 1922. The hostility to the intellect of the 'little doctor,' his contempt for the human race in general and the Jews in particular, and his complete cynicism were an expression of his own intellectual self-hatred and inferiority complexes, his overwhelming need to destroy everything sacred and ignite the same feelings of rage, despair and hatred in his listeners.

At first Goebbels hyperactive imagination found an outlet in poetry, drama and a bohemian life-style, but apart from his expressionist novel, 'Michael: ein Deutsches Schicksal in Tagebuchblattern (1926), nothing came of these literary efforts. It was in the Nazi Party that Goebbel's sharp, clear-sighted intelligence, his oratorical gifts, and flair for theatrical effects, his un-inhibited opportunism and ideological radicalism blossomed in the insatiable will-to-power.

In 1925, he was made Business Manager of the NSDAP in the Ruhr district and at the end of the year was already the principal collaborator of Gregor Strasser, leader of the social-revolutionary North German wing of the Party. Goebbels founded and edited the Nationalsozialiststischen Briefe (NS Letters) and other publications of the Strasser brothers, sharing their proletarian anti-capitalist outlook and call for a radical revaluation of all values. His National Bolshevik tendencies found expression in his evaluation of Soviet Russia - which he regarded as both nationalist and socialist - as Germany's natural ally against the devilish temptations and corruption of the West.

It was at this time that Goebbels who had co-authored the draft programme submitted by the Nazi Left at the Hannover Conference of 1926, called for the expulsion of 'petty-bourgeois' Adolf Hitler from the National Socialist Party. Goebbels shrewd political instincts and his opportunisms were demonstrated by his switch to Adolf Hitler side later in 1926, which was rewarded in November of the same year as Nazi district leader for Berlin-Brandenburg.  Placed at the head of a small, conflict-ridden organisation, Goebbels rapidly succeeded in taking control and undermining the supremacy of the Strasser brothers in northern Germany and their monopoly of the Nazi Party press, founding in 1927, and editing his own weekly newspaper, 'Der Angriff' (The Attack). Goebbels designed posters, published his own propaganda, staged impressive parades, organised his bodyguards to participate in street brawls, bar-hall fights, as a means to further his political ambitions.

By 1927, the 'Marat of Red Berlin - a nightmare and goblin of history' had already become the most feared demagogue of the capital city, exploiting to the full his deep powerful voice, rhetorical fervour and unscrupulous appeal to primitive instincts. A tireless, tenacious agitator with the gift of paralysing opponents by a guileful combination of venom, slander and insinuation. Goebbels knew how to mobilise the fears of the unemployed masses as the Great Depression hit Germany, playing on the national psyche with 'ice-cold calculation.' With the skill of a master-propagandist he transformed the Berlin student and pimp, Horst Wessel, into a Nazi martyr and provided the slogans, the myths, and images, the telling aphorisms which rapidly spread the message of National Socialism.

Hitler was deeply impressed by Goebbels and his success in Berlin, in turning around the small section of Berlin into a powerful part of the Nazi organisation and in 1929, Hitler appointed Goebbels as the Reich Propaganda Leader of the NSDAP. Hitler had indeed cause to be grateful to his Propaganda Leader who was the true creator and organiser of the Fuhrer- myth, of the image of the Messiah-redeemer, feeding the theatrical element in the Nazi leader, while at the same time inducing the self-surrender of the German masses through skilful stage management and manipulation. Goebbels was a cynic, devoid of genuine inner convictions, Goebbels found his mission in selling Hitler to the German public, in projecting himself as his most faithful shield-bearer and orchestrating a pseudo-religious cult of the Fuhrer, as the saviour of Germany from Jews, profiteers and Marxists.

As a Reichstag deputy from 1928, he no less cynically gave open voice to his contempt for the Republic declaring, ' We are entering the Reichstag in order that we may arm ourselves with the weapons of democracy from its arsenal. We shall become Reichstag deputies in order that the Weimar ideology should itself help us to destroy it.'

Goebbels deeply rooted contempt for humanity, his urge to sow confusion, hatred,his lust for power and his mastery of techniques of mass persuasion were given full vent in the election campaigns of 1932, when he played a crucial role in bringing Hitler to the centre of the political stage. He was rewarded on 13 March 1933, with the position of Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which gave him total control of the communication media - that is radio, press, publishing, cinema and the other arts. Goebbels achieved the Nazi co-ordination of cultural life very quickly, astutely combining propaganda, bribery and terrorism, 'cleansing' the arts in the name of the volkisch ideal, subjecting editors and journalists to State control, eliminating all Jews and political opponents from positions of influence.  On 10 May 1933, Goebbels staged the infamous ritual of 'burning of the books' in Berlin, where the works of Jewish, Marxists and other 'subversive' authors were publically burned in huge bonfires. 

Goebbels became a relentless Jew-baiter, demonising the stereotyped figure of the 'International Jewish Financier' in London and Washington allied with the 'Jew-Bolsheviks' in Moscow, as the chief enemy of the Third Reich. At the Party Day of Victory in 1933, Goebbels attacked the 'Jewish penetration of the professions' claiming that the foreign Jewish boycott of Germany had provoked Nazi counter-measures.

For five years Joseph Goebbels strained at the leash as the Nazi regime sought to consolidate itself and win international recognition. His opportunity came with the Crystal Night pogrom of 9-10 November 1938, which he orchestrated after kindling the flame with a rabble-rousing speech to Party-Leaders assembled in the Munich Altes Rathaus -Old Town Hall - for the annual celebration of the Beer-Hall putsch. The Crystal Night pogrom saw synagogues set alight throught the Greater German Reich, and numbers of Jews arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. 

Goebbels was one of the chief secret figures of the 'Final Solution' personally supervising the deportations of Jews from Berlin in 1942, and proposing that Jews along with Gypsies should be regarded as ' unconditionally exterminable.' He combined verbal warnings that, as a result of the war, 'the Jews will pay with extermination of their race in Europe and perhaps beyond' with careful avoidance in his propaganda material of discussing the actual treatment of the Jews. Goebbels anti-Semitism was one factor which brought him closer to Adolf Hitler, who respected his political judgement as well as his administrative and propagandist skills. However, in his private diary entry for 27 March 1942, Goebbels made this entry:

'Beginning with Lublin, the Jews in the General Gouvernement are now being evacuated Eastward. The procedure is pretty barbaric and is not to be described here more definitely. Not much will remain of the Jews. About sixty per cent of them will have to be liquidated. Only about forty per cent can be used for forced labour. The former Gauleiter of Vienna (Globocnik), who is to carry out this measure, is doing it with considerable circumspection and in a way that does not attract much attention..... the ghettos that will be emptied in the cities of the General Gouvernement will now be refilled with Jews thrown out of the Reich. The process is to be repeated from time to time.'

Joseph Goebbels married divorcee Magda Quandt on 19 December 1931, and the couple and their six children were welcome guests at the Fuhrer's Alpine retreat of Berchtesgaden. In 1938, when Magda tried to divorce Joseph, because of his endless love affairs with beautiful actresses, it was Hitler who intervened to prevent the divorce.

During the Second World War relations between Hitler and Goebbels grew closer, especially when the tide of war turned against the Germans, and the Minister of Propaganda encouraged the German people to even greater efforts and sacrifices. After the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender, Goebbels turned this in the Nazis favour, convincing his audience that there was no choice except victory or destruction. In a famous speech on 18 February 1943, in the Berlin Sportpalast, Goebbels created an atmosphere of wild emotion, winning the agreement of his listeners to mobilise for 'Total War.' Playing adroitly on German fears of the 'Asiatic hordes,' using his all-pervasive control of the press, film and radio to maintain morale, inventing mythical secret weapons and impregnable fortresses in the mountains, where the last stand would be made. Goebbels never lost his nerve, or his fighting spirit.

It was his quick thinking and decisive action on the afternoon of 20 July 1944, when he isolated the conspirators of the failed bomb attack on Hitler at his headquarters in Rastenburg, in the War Ministry with the help of detachments of loyal troops, which saved the Nazi regime. Shortly afterwards he achieved his ambition to be a warlord on the domestic front, following his appointment in July 1944, as General Plenipotentiary for Total War.

Given the widest powers to move and direct the civilian population and even to redistribute manpower within the armed forces, Goebbels imposed an austerity programme and pressed for ever greater civilian sacrifice. But with Germany already close to collapse, it was too late to accomplish anything beyond further dislocations and confusion. As the war neared its end, Goebbels the supreme opportunist, emerged as Hitler's most loyal follower, spending his last days, together with his family, in the Fuhrerbunker, under the Chancellery, in Berlin.

Convinced that the Nazis had finally burnt all their bridges and increasingly fascinated by the prospect of a final apocalypse, Goebbels last words on dismissing his associates were, 'When we depart, let the earth tremble!' Following Hitler's suicide, Goebbels disregarded Hitler's political testament, which had appointed him as Reich Chancellor, and decided to follow Hitler's example.

He had his six children poisoned by a lethal injection given by an SS doctor and then his wife Magda and himself were killed by shots from an SS orderly on 1 May 1945. With characteristic pathos and egomania, he declared not long before his death, 'We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all times, or as the greatest criminals.'  


R.S. Wistrich, Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, published by Routledge, London and New York 1995

G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution, published by Sphere Books Ltd, London 1971

Photograph – Bundesarchiv  

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