"It is almost immaterial what we believe in, so long as we believe in something."
The life of Joseph Goebbels is an example of the fact that morality does not necessarily go along with high intelligence. This very well educated man, who influenced the minds of millions of Germans, used his talents to spread hate and violence. Having no respect for people whose ideas differed from his own, he ordered the large-scale burning of books and the murder of political opponents of German leader Adolf Hitler before and during World War II (1939-45).
Joseph Goebbels (pronounced yo-seff goor-bulz), the son of working-class German Catholic parents, was born on October 29, 1897, in Rheydt, Germany. His hard-working family of seven managed to budget carefully and buy a small house. To maintain their middle-class status, the whole family made wicks for oil lamps. Despite efforts to correct the problem, the boy grew up with a club foot, a deformity that prevented him from walking properly.
As a result, Goebbels developed an inferiority complex and spent a great deal of time alone in his room, often reading. Goebbels was an excellent student, and his affectionate parents encouraged him to develop his intellectual gifts. He was not popular at school, where he kept aloof from the other students, but showed a talent for acting. According to Goebbels's biographer Ralf Georg Reuth, "Powerful displays of emotion, dramatic facial expressions and gestures were his [specialty]." A favorite teacher helped him to develop his language skills.
In 1917, Goebbels enrolled at the University of Bonn in Germany to study literature. When he developed money problems, a Catholic organization provided him with loans for several semesters. Later, the group found it very difficult to get the loans repaid.
In 1914, at the beginning of World War I (1914-18), Goebbels had eagerly volunteered to fight for Germany. He had been disappointed when he was rejected because of his severe limp, and the fact that he was only five feet tall and weighed barely 100 pounds. These physical conditions were to remain for the rest of his life. In 1917, with the war raging, the military was less selective, and Goebbels was called, but merely to do paperwork. He interrupted his college studies to serve.
After the war, Goebbels returned to college and wrote several plays and an autobiographical novel, titled Michael Voorman's Youth. In this book, he wrote about his own self-hatred, how he had worked so hard at school to try to make up for his physical disabilities, and his tendency to become "arrogant and tyrannical." In 1922, Goebbels received his Ph.D. in literature from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. His attempts to become a playwright and a novelist proved to be a failure, however.
Early days with Nazis
In 1924, Goebbels began to write and edit political journals, and in 1925 he joined the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi for short), led by Adolf Hitler. Goebbels was at first a follower of Gregor Strasser, a Nazi who believed Hitler was not extreme enough in his ideas for social and economic change. After meeting Hitler on several occasions, however, Goebbels became enchanted with him. Hitler, realizing this, flattered Goebbels and cultivated his loyalty. Goebbels became the Nazi's district leader for the Berlin-Brandenberg area in 1926. His task was to reorganize the Nazi Party there. "I recognize [Hitler] as my leader quite unconditionally," he wrote. "He is the creative instrument of Fate and Deity [God] ... good and kind, but also clever and shrewd."
"Yes-man" is a perfect description of Goebbels, at least in his relationship to Hitler. A story is told about the Nazis leaders viewing a film that Goebbels referred to as magnificent. A short time later, when Hitler entered the room and stated his opinion that it was absolutely no good, Goebbels was heard to exclaim, "Yes, my Führer. It was feeble, very feeble." Führer (pronounced fyoor-uhr) was a popular name for Hitler, meaning "leader."
Rises in Nazi Party
By 1928, Goebbels had become one of twelve Nazi deputies. The most intellectual of the Nazis, Goebbels was charming and witty and possessed a deep, musical voice. He had black hair, dark eyes, and high cheekbones, as well as a long nose and wide mouth. Hitler appointed the gifted communicator head of party propaganda and public information in 1930. Propaganda is official government communications to the public that are designed to influence opinion. The information may be true or false. Goebbels was also in charge of the Nazis' chaotic election campaigns from 1930 through 1933.
Goebbels's public speaking abilities earned him the office of Reichsminister of Propaganda following Hitler's rise to dictator in 1933. Goebbels was responsible for the impressive torchlight parades and well-orchestrated Nazi rallies. Peter Neville wrote in Life in the Third Reich that "Goebbels' most important task was to reinforce the iron grip of the Nazi Party on the lives of ordinary German people." He controlled the media, and in 1933 organized a burning of books disliked by the Nazis. He also imposed Nazification (the promotion of only Nazi values) on the artistic and cultural branches of German life. Goebbels helped fashion what historian Thomas Fuchs refers to as the "Führer myth." This myth held that Hitler was superior to all other human beings, lived a simple life with no luxuries, and was infallible (he couldn't make a mistake). Fuchs says that the Führer myth "insured that Hitler remained unsullied, uncriticized, and perfectly free to undertake whatever course of action he chose." It was Goebbels's idea to have thousands of small record players produced so that supporters could listen to Hitler's speeches.
Goebbels grew to be extremely anti-Jewish or antisemitic, although he was raised in a home with no particular anti-Jewish feelings. His strong Jewish beliefs developed during the mid-1920s when he began to see Jews as the perpetrators of economic ideas that he opposed.
As the Nazis were growing more powerful in the mid-1930s, Goebbels played a large role in fighting the Nazis' political opponents within Germany. By the time World War II (1939-45) began, Hitler was Germany's dictator and no longer had those enemies to fight. That is, with one exception—the Jews. By then, Goebbels was known to be an extreme antisemite (hater of the Jews, who are sometimes called Semites). He was responsible for an infamous event that took place on November 9, 1938. That night, several thousand Jews were brutally rounded up and sent to concentration camps, and all their worldly goods taken from them. Concentration camps are places where the Nazis confined people they regarded as "enemies of the state." As an added injury, the Jews were made to pay an enormous fine. This event, which came to be called Kristallnacht (meaning "Crystal Night" or "The Night of Broken Glass"), was also something for which Goebbels took credit. The name Kristallnacht refers to the tons of windows from Jewish-owned stores that lay shattered in the streets. Kristallnacht resulted in the death of more than 90 Jews and the destruction of nearly 300 synagogues (Jewish places of worship).
The historian Robert Hirzstein wrote: "Goebbels had all along been the one high Nazi leader who had insisted upon the necessity of actually exterminating the Jews." Like Hitler, Goebbels was very fond of the movies. He produced films that glorified Nazi heroes, and portrayed Jews as ugly and sinister. Goebbels reveled in violence and did not hesitate to use the SA or storm troopers (Hitler's private army) to attack and murder people. Once the war began, he did his best to worsen the living conditions of the Jews in Berlin. The first transport of Jews from Berlin to a ghetto in the city of Lódz, Poland, was in fulfillment of his promise to the Führer to make Berlin "cleansed of Jews." (Ghettos were crowded, walled parts of a city where Jews were forced to live in inferior conditions.) The Nazis enjoyed being especially brutal to the Jews on Jewish holidays, and these days became known as "Goebbels's calendar."
Master of propaganda
During World War II, Goebbels played a key role in influencing the minds of the German people. Sometimes called the "father of lies," he believed that people would only believe lies if they were repeated often enough. He also said that the bigger the lie, the more likely people were to believe it. Goebbels's campaigns were always built around causing the German people to hate some particular person or group. Germans were kept from knowing the truth of how the war was progressing, saw defeats portrayed as victories, and heard an endless stream of official lies—for example, that Winston Churchill, Great Britain's prime minister, was a drunk or that U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was Jewish. Goebbels's last big lie was that Hitler died near the end of the war, leading his troops in battle, rather than committing suicide as he actually did in his underground bunker.
Helps Hitler overcome plot
Goebbels played a very important role as Hitler's savior in a situation that occurred in 1944. A group of Nazi officers, realizing that the Nazis were losing the war, attempted to assassinate Hitler. They hoped to spark an overthrow of the Nazi government. They might have succeeded in their plans had Goebbels not stepped in and taken charge. He brought together troops for support, and soon had most of the plotters jailed or murdered.
Relationships with women
Goebbels was married and the father of six children. Despite that, he was known for having many romances with women—especially the young actresses under his control as head of the Nazi movie industry. At one point his adulterous behavior was so bold, Hitler told him to stop it. Hitler said Goebbels was harming the image of wholesomeness that the Nazis liked to portray. Goebbels did as he was ordered for a short time, then secretly resumed his former behavior.
Murder and death
Hitler's suicide took place in the spring of 1945, once it was obvious that the Nazis were going to lose the war. Goebbels intended to commit suicide right after Hitler, but could not bring himself to do so. Goebbels refused to accept the position of Reich chancellor, an appointment that Hitler had specified for him in his will. With the approach of the Soviets (Russians), he sent a Nazi general to talk with the Soviet troop commander and attempt to negotiate a peace treaty. The Soviets were not interested.
Many historians believe that, as the war ended, the lives of Goebbels's six children could have been saved. There is no doubt that the children, ages four to twelve, would have suffered some difficult times, though. Before his death, Hitler had advised Goebbels's wife, Magda, to leave Germany by plane. Ever loyal to the Führer, however, this was not what Joseph and Magda Goebbels wanted. On May 1, 1945, Goebbels and his wife sedated their children, and then killed each of them with injections of poison, finally killing themselves. As Goebbels had instructed before his death, his own body and that of his wife were then burned.
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