Of the numerous high-powered functionaries of the Third Reich, all of whom owed their careers to Adolf Hitler, only a few remained faithful to the Führer until the bitter end. Shortly after Hitler and Eva Braun died by suicide in the bunker beneath the ruins of the Berlin Chancellery on April 30th, 1945, Dr Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s minister of propaganda, and his wife, Magda, murdered their six children before taking their own lives. Loyal to Hitler and his twisted ideology until death, they could not envisage their children growing up in a world without Nazism.
Goebbels’s path to murder and suicide in the bunker was impossible to predict from his life’s humble beginnings. Born in 1897 in the industrial town of Reydt, Goebbels came from a poor Rhineland Catholic family of factory workers. Young Joseph, one of six siblings, was a highly intelligent child, hindered only by economic deprivation and a club foot, which gave him a permanent limp. Rejected for military service in the first World War because of his disability, Goebbels finished high school with distinction and went on to study literature, but he subsequently struggled to make a living as an author of fiction.
Unmarried, unemployed and still living with his parents, Goebbels, like so many young men in Germany at the time, faced a bleak future. The severe political and economic crisis Germany experienced as a result of the lost war led to his politicisation. Gradually he moved to the extreme right. He also became, and always remained, a radical anti-Semite. Until the end of his life Goebbels viewed Jews as the root cause of all of Germany’s misfortunes.
Goebbels’s political career began in 1924, when he became a founding member of the local branch of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in his hometown. At this point working for the Nazis was not an obvious career choice. Both before and after the failed Hitler putsch in Munich in November 1923 the Nazi Party remained an insignificant, deeply divided group on the radical fringe of German right-wing politics.
Among the small group of fanatics that made up Hitler’s early followers, Goebbels stood out. With ruthless energy and considerable rhetorical talent, he quickly earned the respect of his superiors and rose through the ranks. His ability to communicate the Nazis’ ideological objectives soon caught the attention of Hitler himself, who in 1926 dispatched Goebbels to Berlin, where he was to revitalise the struggling party.
Becoming Gauleiter, or regional party leader, in the working-class stronghold of Berlin was a challenging task. Deep divisions within the party and entrenched political milieus in the capital made it difficult for the Nazis to win support. Yet thanks in part to Goebbels's managerial skills and oratorical gifts the Berlin branch of the party survived the Weimar Republic's brief period of stability between 1924 and 1929, and prospered after the Great Depression devastated Germany's economy.
Shortly after the Nazi seizure of power, in 1933, Goebbels’s past achievements and unquestioning loyalty to Hitler secured him the post of propaganda minister, a post he would hold until his death.
Goebbels’s life and demise in the waning days of the Third Reich are the subject of the latest biography by Peter Longerich, a distinguished historian of Nazi Germany whose previous works, including a life of Heinrich Himmler, have received much critical acclaim. One of the distinguishing features (and greatest strengths) of the book is Longerich’s skill in analysing the diaries that Goebbels kept from 1923 until mid April 1945. As large portions of the diaries were taken to Moscow after the Red Army’s victory, a complete edition was not available until 2008, when they were published in 32 volumes. Longerich’s biography is thus the first to make use of the complete edition.
What emerges from Longerich’s portrait of Goebbels is a man whose political life was dominated by an unquestioning loyalty to Hitler. Goebbels was a narcissist who needed to be admired by everyone he met, but his addiction to Hitler’s admiration was particularly extreme. Longerich convincingly argues that Hitler was aware of Goebbels’s narcissism, exploiting his insatiable appetite for approval. Nonetheless, Goebbels also greatly benefited from his personal connection to the Führer. Longerich describes in considerable detail Hitler’s close relationship with the entire Goebbels family, especially Magda, whom Goebbels met at a Nazi rally in 1930.
Originally married into the Quandt family, who would later go on to found the BMW car empire, Magda was a recent divorcee when she met and subsequently married Goebbels. But, although she was a devoted wife and committed Nazi, Magda was never the only woman in his life. Goebbels’s enormous sexual appetite grew with his power. As his propaganda ministry oversaw virtually all aspects of cultural production in Germany, he was in a position to decide which actors were to become stars in plays and movies.
Goebbels exploited this position of power to the full and slept with countless aspiring actors. His wife tolerated the affairs until one woman, the Czech actor Lida Baarova, posed a serious threat to their marriage, in 1938. Magda complained to Hitler, who immediately intervened and insisted that Goebbels stay with his wife. Goebbels complied, once again underlining that pleasing Hitler was one of his greatest desires.
Longerich provides a vast amount of information about Goebbels’s place in the Nazi elite and his efforts, as the Third Reich’s propaganda chief, to rally the nation – a task that became ever more difficult when the fortunes of war turned against Germany in 1942-43. The result is a painstakingly detailed biography that could have done with some tightening.
At times Longerich also relies a little too heavily and uncritically on Goebbels’s diaries, which were written with the barely disguised purpose of shaping the author’s posthumous image. But these quibbles aside, Longerich’s magisterial life of Goebbels will stand the test of time as the most authoritative account available of a deeply unpleasant but historically significant man.
Robert Gerwarth is professor of modern history at University College Dublin