As a central figure in the government of Adolf Hitler, the role of Paul Joseph Goebbels in world history cannot be understated. Goebbels was born in Catholic family in the Rhineland, Germany in 1897 and went ahead to become Germany’s minister of Propaganda from 1933-1945. His aspirations in his youth days were to become a novelist but the parents wanted him to be a priest. However, his lack of success in writing made him discover his true qualities in public relations and propaganda. After joining the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1923, he rose fast to become the party leader of Berlin in 1926 (Gauleiter). He held this post until when he committed suicide in 1945. His devotion to Adolf Hitler and his propaganda contributed heavily towards overthrowing the Weimar Republic. As a party leaders Goebbels increased popularity of the Nazi movement through his slogans, songs, symbols, and banners. Additionally, he spearheaded part rallies and mass marches at Nuremberg and the Host Wessel song.
As minister of Propaganda, Goebbels rapidly brought the mass media, radio, filmmaking, theater, the arts, and book publishing under the control of the Nazis. Politically undependable people including all the Jews were removed from their professions. Those professions, which include journalists, artists, and writers that cooperated with the new regime were spared. One of the most significant propagandas developed by Goebbels, in the 1930’s included Triumph of Will that documented the Nuremberg Party rally in 1934 (done by LeniReifenstal). Further, Goebbels was able to use the 1936 Olympics to create a good picture of the new regime to the international visitors and observers. Goebbels authority and influence increased during the war period. This was especially the case after the defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, where declared to the Germans to fight to the death against the Soviet armies. He later adopted this, as one of his major subjects of his propaganda Germany was defeated, in 1945. Goebbels also played a part in convincing Hitler in committing suicide, inside his bunker on April 30, 1945. Goebbels killed his six children before he and his wife committed suicide. I chose Dr. Goebbels because of the significant role he played during the holocaust bearing in mind the effects this infamous event has had in world history. Studying him provides a good basis or strong foundation into world of politics, as a political figure. Genghis Khan, one of the top warriors classified by historians, killed millions of people and ruled 30% of the earth yet some historians regard him as a top warrior. Thus, though he was a killer, I find reason to believe that Goebbels contributed much in the world of politics.
Goebbels has never really been a subject for ‘heroification’ in the sense that James Loewen meant in that historians generally do not idealize him or omit all the negative aspects of his personality and political ideology. He described this process as “making flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest”, but this has definitely not occurred with Dr. Goebbels (Loewen, 1995, p. 29). Loewen was thinking more of historical figures like Helen Keller being portrayed as a heroic young girl who overcame deafness and blindness while the textbooks generally ignored her later career as a radical feminist and socialist and made her seem “uncontroversial and one-dimensional” (Loewen, p. 35). Interestingly, Goebbels knew all this about her, which is why her books were among the thousands that he had burned on the great bonfires in Berlin when the Nazis took power, a scene that shocked the world at that time. Another example of glorification was Christopher Columbus, with textbooks describing his famous 1492 voyage while completely ignoring his time as governor of Santo Domingo, where millions of Taino Indians were enslaves, exterminated or wiped out in epidemics (Loewen, p. 45). Goebbels knew all about the atrocities of the Nazi regime, including the extermination of the Jews, slave labor, concentration camps and mass murder in Poland and Russia. Not only did he know about all this, but he encouraged and supported it in every possible way, and used his propaganda to justify these crimes. Unlike the case of Columbus, though, the history books generally discuss all this in great detail when they describe the Nazi regime and his role in it.
Very few scholars in history and the social sciences praise Dr. Goebbels and the Nazi Party or try to cover up the crimes of the regime. They recognize that he had a great talent for propaganda and manipulation of the masses, and for organizing the Germany media and culture to support the Nazi state, but all of these were employed for strictly negative ends: conquest, wars or aggression and genocide. It was the propaganda machine of Dr. Goebbels that played a large part in destroying democracy in Germany before 1933, and encouraging murderous hatred of the Jews, Slavs and other “non-Aryans”. Even during the Second World War, Goebbels constantly urged the German people to make greater sacrifices and fight to the death, even when he knew perfectly well that the war was lost. As a person, he is often described not as a ‘hero’ but a corrupt and cynical manipulator who sold the Nazi ‘brand’ like detergent or toothpaste and turned Hitler into a messiah-figure. Even though he often sneered at his own propaganda and the low intelligence of the masses. He was an intellectual who had contempt for rationality and believed that most people could be easily swayed by simple slogans, fears and hatreds. To a frightening degree, he was proved right in that conviction, but it has hardly made him a subject for glorification in history.
Analysis of Joseph Goebbels
For anyone who believes in democracy and human rights, it would be impossible to turn a man like Joseph Goebbels into a hero, not unless they secretly admire Nazism and its policies that led to tens of millions of deaths. It was one of the most murderous regimes in human history and Goebbels played a key role in bringing it to power and supporting all of its crimes and atrocities. Most people in the Western democracies regard him as one of the great villains of history, as an evil genius who used his talents to bring misery and destruction upon the world. Of all people, he understood that Nazism was not a rational ideology or party platform, but an emotional experience that is best understood by its “propagandist stage management” (Fest, 1999, p. 83). Goebbels was the producer, director and stage manager who sold Nazism to the German people with its banners, marches, songs, films and radio speeches all aimed at a mass audience. He even learned to appreciate the future potential of television, although this was not yet available in Germany before the Second World War began in 1939. During the Weimar Republic, particularly after the beginning of the Great Depression, he demonized the Jews and opposition parties while turning Hitler into a mass media celebrity and Savior-figure for the German people. Although he idolized Hitler and turned Nazism into a substitute religion for the lost Catholic faith of his youth, he also had a deeply skeptical and cynical side, and “nothing that his longing for faith could construct stood up to the probing of his inquisitional intelligence” (Fest, p. 86). One story about Goebbels has it that he once tossed a coin to decide if he would join the Nazi or the Communist Party, and throughout his career he took the socialist aspect of Nation Socialism very seriously. He always considered himself a radical and revolutionary who was alienated from the established social order and found non place in it. In part, his hatred of Jews lessened from his belief that they had too large a role in the cultural and financial life of Germany and he tended to blame them for his lack of success as a writer just as Hitler blamed them for wrecking his career as an artist in Vienna.
Initially at least, Goebbels thought that Hitler was too conservative to lead the new Nazi movement. But, by 1926 he had become personally very devoted to the Fuehrer. Hitler rewarded his loyalty with the appointment as Party leader (Gauleiter) in Berlin, and he remained in that position until his suicide in 1945. At that time, the Nazi Party was tiny and disorganized in Berlin, while the socialists and communists were dominant, but Goebbels was able to use propaganda very effectively to organize the masses there. Because of the demoralization of defeat in World War I and the collapse of the economy during the Great Depression, “the German sense of security, community, and common decency was weakened” (Spielvogel and Redles, 2009, p. 295). Hitler’s Third Reich left in the wake of this modern collapse, but the Nazi empire in the end had no “redeeming values” and only offered the “constant repetition of inhumane acts” (Spielvogel and Redles, p. 295). Like all Nazis, he openly proclaimed that his goal was to destroy the Weimar Republic, and he constantly mocked, demeaned and berated its leaders in speeches, posters and his own newspaper Der Angriff (Attack). Throughout his career, Goebbels was utterly ruthless and amoral in appealing to the fears, resentments and hatreds of the masses and stated that “propaganda has absolutely nothing to do with truth” (Fest, p. 91). He turned a Nazi street thug named Horst Wessel into a great Nazi hero and martyr, and in fact no one in history ever had a better understanding of the process of heroification. That Weesel had been killed by another man in a fight over a prostitute meant nothing to Goebbels, who found him far more useful in death than he had ever been in life, and made the Horst Wessel Song the anthem of the Nazi Party (Fest, p. 92).
Hitler rewarded Goebbels for his efforts by naming him Minister of Propaganda in March 1933, and he remained in this position until his death in 1945. Goebbels had an instinctive understanding that “the very essence of totalitarian government lies in its combination of propaganda and terrorism” and the Nazi regime used both with great effectiveness (Fest, p. 93). In the glory years of Nazism, “women and young people, in particular, were apparently enthusiastic about the new regime” and about Hitler, while Nazi organizations dominated all professional, labor and community life, leaving those who were “disaffected with the regime isolated and ineffective” (Sax and Kuntz, 1991, p. 516). Through the Reich Chamber of Culture, Goebbels rapidly brought the mass media of Germany under his personal control, including radio, movies, theater, newspapers, book publishing, music and the arts. As the chief producer and director of the Third Reich, Goebbels literally reviewed all the scripts, performances, and exhibitions, and no one worked in these professions without his approval. All Jews and people who are considered politically unreliable were removed from the media and cultural life of Germany as if they had never existed, while those who were enthusiastic for the Nazi regime like the documentary filmmaker LeniRiefenstal and the actor Emil Jannings found that their careers prospered. In addition, the Nazi state also purchased the loyalty of artists, performers and mass media figures through regular pensions and stipends (Cuomo, 1995, p. 2).
In the war years, the influence of Goebbels increased even more as his propaganda machine celebrated all the early triumphs of the Blitzkrieg in 1939-41, and then called on the German people to wage total war and fight to the death after the tide turned in 1942-43. As Goebbels stated in 1943 “we shall down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals”, and history has of course judged them to be the latter (Fest, p. 97). More and more, as Hitler went into seclusion, Goebbels became the public face of the Nazi state, appearing at the front and in bombed out cities while Hitler sought to avoid any public association with defeat and mass destruction of the country. Even when the Russians had Berlin surrounded in April 1945, Goebbels was still urging the masses forward to fight to the death and promising total victory, even when he fully realized that the war was lost. In the end, he decided that he simply did not wish to exist at all in a world without Hitler or a dominant “Aryan-Race”, and had he been taken enough the Allies would have undoubtedly tried and executed him as a major war criminal. Instead Goebbels and his wife Madga committed suicide, afterafter first killing their own six children, which could hardly be considered a heroic end by any sane person.
Cuomo, G.R. (1995). National Socialist Cultural Policy. NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Fest, J. (1999).The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership. De Capo Press.
Loewen, J.W. (1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. NY: Simon and Schuster.
Sax, B. and D. Kuntz.(1991). Inside Hitler’s Germany: A Documentary History. D.C. Health Publishing.
Spielvogel, J. T. and D.Redles. (2009). Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History, 6th Edition. Prentice Hall.