Published June 10, 2015
Goebbels: A Biography
By Peter Longerich
Random House, 906 pages
The word propaganda has come to represent politics at its most corrupt. Although the term originated with Pope Gregory XV, who founded the Congregatio de propaganda fide (the Office for the Propagation of the Faith), it has long since outgrown such holy intentions. In 1922, Walter Lippmann distilled the modern understanding of propaganda; it occurs, he said, when “a group of men who can prevent independent access to the event arrange the news of it to suit their purpose.” One such man, Paul Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, would befoul the word beyond redemption. Goebbels (1897–1945) commanded the full arsenal of incendiary rhetoric. His tactics were perfectly suited to a nation whose rage at its perceived subjugation and impoverishment by its supposed inferiors required only a knowing touch to ignite. Goebbels made a grand appeal to German self-pity, whose obverse was a lust for vengeance and imperial fantasy beyond all measure. He organized mass rallies during which heroic speakers bayed for blood and the crowd learned to appreciate its capacity for evil as the rarest good. With the aid of Goebbels’s pathological commitment to the cause, Jews were targeted for destruction and Hitler was made into a virtual god.
In Goebbels: A Biography, Peter Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway University of London and an accomplished scholar of the Holocaust, depicts a man consumed by personal ambition, the fate of German culture, and the raving hatred propagated by his master. Goebbels, as Longerich shows in detail, came to worship Hitler. But first he floundered for a time in traditional metaphysical speculation and religious belief. In his Heidelberg doctoral dissertation, for example, Goebbels eulogized the “younger generation of God-seekers, mystics, romantics,” and he recorded in his diary 10 commandments that included “Get up at 8 and go to bed at 10” and “Try to come to terms with God.”
The God-problem confronted Goebbels at every turn, no matter how much sleep he got. His unproduced play Prometheus celebrated the assault on Olympian tyranny by the half-human, half-divine upstart; his equally unsuccessful drama The Wanderer brought Christ back to earth to witness the terrible extent of human suffering, which his original mission did not alleviate. Goebbels honored Vincent van Gogh as “a Christ-person,” and plunged with Dostoevsky into the depths of spiritual tribulation. As a young man, he ached for redemption from trivial modernity. That triviality pointedly included political life: “To practice politics,” he told his diary, “is to enchain the spirit, to know when to speak and when to be silent, to lie for the greater good: My God, what a dreadful business.” For a time, Goebbels thought of himself, soulful artist that he was, as redeemer material.
When he found his true redeemer, however, that would change. The Nazi movement first enchanted him as a new means of approaching the same old Christian divinity. “Socialism and Christ. Ethical foundations,” he wrote. “Back to devotion and to God!” Soon his yearning shrieked with volkisch hysteria: “O Lord, give your German people a miracle! A miracle!! A man!!! Bismarck, arise!” Reading Mein Kampf after Das Kapital provoked both ecstasy and misgiving: Goebbels had a hard time getting over his admiration for Communist Russia, which Hitler of course loathed as the homeland of Jew-Bolshevism. But in due course, Hitler convinced through his mere presence, and thereafter Goebbels never strayed far from mad adulation. “We wrangle. We question,” he wrote. “His answers are brilliant. I love him.” Hitler was soon the indispensable prophet and perhaps even the messiah: “Who is this man? Half-plebeian, half-god!” Goebbels proclaimed. “Is this really Christ or just John the Baptist?” Subsequent experience would convince Goebbels that Hitler was indeed nothing less than the Chosen One. At a party rally, the apparition of a swastika in the sky announced the sanctity of the Führer and the cause; evidently this vision was vouchsafed to Goebbels alone.
What made Goebbels, an intelligent and educated man, so readily corruptible? Longerich adduces the clubfoot that made him an inferior by nature and established his need to lose himself in love for the most perfect man there was. This explanation sounds uncomfortably close to the Maureen Dowd and Molly Ivins school of psycho-political insight, but we shouldn’t discount it altogether. Kaiser Wilhelm II had a withered arm that every able-bodied man in Germany could not help but notice, and wince at; and the Kaiser, too, had something to prove and the tragic compulsion to prove it. Still, while the psychic wounds caused by such deformities ought to be taken into account, they are hardly the whole story.
Even less cogent is Longerich’s reliance on a group of Hamburg psychoanalysts who attributed Goebbels’s moral deficiencies to a narcissism that formed in him when he was but two or three years old. Here, supposedly, lay the origins of Goebbels’s charmed subservience to Hitler, whose favor satisfied his creature’s pathetic need for fame, glory, luxury, and sexual conquest. Longerich’s eagerness to credit this approach with definitive understanding bears the traces of Hannah Arendt’s infamous report on the “banality of evil,” or of Simon Wiesenthal’s suspicion that Hitler in his youth was infected with syphilis by a Viennese Jewish prostitute, an insult and injury for which all Jews would have to pay. Longerich’s Goebbels is just another case of everyday psychopathology that timely psychoanalytic intervention could well have corrected. This provides no explanation for Hitler’s uncanny ability to tap into Goebbels’s genocidal hatred and imperious pride, which the expert propagandist broadcast in turn among his countrymen.
Goebbels adored Hitler and loved his work, and Longerich’s antiseptic explanations for this don’t convince. Hannah Arendt never said so directly, but her account of Adolf Eichmann conveyed a man who supposedly took no pleasure in the killing of Jews or in seeing them dead. He was an arch-bureaucrat who fulfilled his role in the chain of slaughter with the indifference of the listless functionary at the DMV counter. That is what Arendt called banal, as though such indifference deserved a place in hell less hot than that reserved for the maniacal true believers. Goebbels was a consummate bureaucrat, but he was also one of the maniacs. The Führer occupied the god-shaped hole in what passed for the proud underling’s soul, and Goebbels never again felt a pang for his youthful infatuation with the peaceable Galilean. He revered the beast in man, wished that human beings could summon more of it, and delighted in the thought of the predator perfected for killing. “Fight, fight is the cry of the creature. Nowhere is there peace, just murder, just killing, all for the sake of survival,” he wrote. “As it is with lions, so it is with human beings. We alone lack the courage to openly admit the way things are. In this respect wild animals are the better human beings.”
Goebbels’s mission accordingly was to produce better human beings. When the lesser breeds were about to overrun Berlin and cut short the Thousand Year Reich, Hitler and his bride of one day committed suicide. Goebbels was granted the privilege of seeing their corpses burn. With the only god worthy of the name dead and gone, life was purposeless and beyond endurance. A day later Goebbels and his wife poisoned their six children and killed themselves. What else could they do? The faith, dutifully propagated, had failed.