The first study of Joseph Goebbels based on his recently-published diaries yields important insightsby Richard J Evans / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
In April 1983, the Sunday Times, together with the German magazine Stern, revealed to an astonished world the diaries of the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Running to a total of 60 volumes, the diaries had been authenticated by two leading historians of the period, Gerhard Weinberg and Hugh Trevor-Roper. “I am now satisfied,” declared Trevor-Roper after examining the documents in a Swiss bank vault, “that the documents are authentic; that the history of their wanderings since 1945 is true; and that the standard accounts of Hitler’s writing habits, of his personality and, even, perhaps, of some public events, may in consequence have to be revised.”
This was certainly true, or would have been had the diaries been genuine. Hitler was well known for his irregular lifestyle, staying up into the small hours watching movies, getting up late, and preferring to make decisions on the hoof rather than ploughing through the mountains of documents that usually confront heads of state. Was he, then, confounding everyone’s view of his character by writing down an account of his thoughts and deeds day after day for years on end? After the German Federal Archives had finally obtained samples of the diaries, they discovered that the ink and paper had been manufactured long after Hitler’s death, and that most of the diaries’ content was copied from his speeches. As the forger Konrad Kujau was sent to prison, it seemed the standard account of Hitler’s writing habits and personality would not have to be revised after all.
Even before the decisive intervention of the archivists, however, there was good reason to doubt that the Hitler diaries were authentic. There had been no mention of them before. Nobody, neither his friends and acquaintances nor his secretaries and assistants, had betrayed even the slightest suspicion that they existed. By contrast, the fact that his chief of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was writing a diary had been well known for many years. Goebbels published edited extracts in a chronicle of the rise and triumph of Nazism and the party’s coming to power in 1933. Then at the end of the war, some of the pages were found amid the ruins of the Reich Chancellery, and subsequently published by an American journalist. Towards the end of the war, as he became concerned about the fate of the (by now voluminous) diaries, Goebbels had them filmed on to glass microfiche plates, taken to Potsdam, just outside the German capital, and buried. Here, however, the Red Army discovered them and shipped them off to the KGB Special Archive in Moscow, where they remained, unread, until the archive was opened up after the fall of communism.
Since then, a team from the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, led by Elke Fröhlich, has been transcribing the often difficult handwriting and publishing it in 29 volumes, the last of which appeared in 2008. A few extracts have appeared in English, but the vast majority of the diaries are only accessible in this German edition. The historian Peter Longerich, author of a major study of the Holocaust and a biography of Schutz-Staffel (SS) leader Heinrich Himmler, has now delivered the first study of Goebbels to be based on an exhaustive and critical evaluation of the whole run of the diaries, augmented where appropriate by the use of other sources ranging from official documents to Goebbels’s own propaganda productions. It is an impressive achievement.
And it’s an achievement that has immediately got Longerich into legal difficulties. Extracts from the diaries appear on almost every page. But the diaries were still legally in copyright at the time Longerich’s book was published, since European law states that copyright expires 70 years after an author’s death, which in Goebbels’s case means 1st May 2015. Who exactly are the copyright owners? Longerich and his publishers, Random House, had assumed that Nazi documents were free for anyone to quote, as indeed should be the case. But there were people who disagreed. Last year, a successful lawsuit was brought in a Munich court against Random House for breach of copyright. The lawyer bringing the case was Cordula Schacht, daughter of Goebbels’s colleague in the Hitler Cabinet, Reich Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht; it seemed as if the old Nazi regime was rearing its head again from beyond the grave to lay claim to ownership of these crucial documents.
Cordula Schacht has form in this area, as legal advisor of the late François Genoud, a Swiss banker who had met Hitler in the 1930s and become financial advisor to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a fanatical anti-Semite who wanted to exterminate Jewish emigrants to Palestine. Genoud was close to the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and advised the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in an airplane hijacking in 1972. An active Holocaust denier and admirer of Hitler, Genoud once told the journalist Gitta Sereny: “The truth is, I loved Hitler.” He gave financial support to old Nazis trying to evade capture, and contributed money to the defence of Adolf Eichmann in his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Genoud bought some of the papers of Hitler’s factotum Martin Bormann, although some of the documents he published from them are widely thought to be forgeries.
In 1955, he purchased the rights to the diaries from the Goebbels family. Goebbels, he said, was a “great man.” Shortly before his suicide in 1996, Genoud made over his share to Cordula Schacht, who since then has claimed to be the copyright holder. The case was complicated by the fact that the Bavarian State also claimed to own the copyright, since it had taken ownership of the Nazi publishing house which Goebbels had intended should publish the diaries after his death. True, no written contract has ever been found. But a 1936 entry in the diary suggests there was an oral agreement. On this basis, Random House has refused to pay Schacht for the right to quote from the diary. It is the first publisher to take this stand; previously, for decades, publishers had to crawl to Genoud for permissions, on occasion being forced to allow him to write a preface or introduction expressing his own obnoxious views. On 23rd April this year, a higher Munich court accepted Random House’s appeal against last year’s ruling. Schacht has appealed against this, demanding payment of just over €6,500 (the publisher offered to pay if the money went to a Holocaust-related charity, but Schacht refused). On 9th July the case will come before the courts for a final decision.
Random House is taking its admirable stand on the principle that the writings of a Nazi criminal should not be made the subject of commercial exploitation. As the diaries show, there can be no doubt about Goebbels’s responsibility for murders, expropriations and much more besides. He began his career as a poet and novelist. His PhD in German literature earned him the title “Dr Goebbels,” by which he was invariably known in the Nazi years—few leading Nazis were as well educated or as well read: Fyodor Dostoevsky, as his early diaries show, was a particular passion. But he did not embark on an academic career or find success as an author. His two verse plays were never performed, and he could not find a publisher for his semi-autobiographical novel Michael for several years. Plagued by feelings of inferiority, generated not least by the club foot that left him with a heavy limp, he earned a meagre living as a journalist and for a while as a bank clerk, and found a sense of self-worth in numerous affairs with women, a kind of self-validation that continued throughout his life.
Whether or not Goebbels was, as Longerich claims, a narcissist, he certainly sought to compensate for his low self-esteem by passionately attaching himself to Hitler. Already by 1923, he had formed his deeply anti-Semitic and anti-democratic political views, which he found expressed by the early Nazi party. Lacking any real power base, Goebbels profiled himself as a radical when he became politically active in the Nazi party in April 1924, using violent and inflammatory language to make a name for himself. Although he found Hitler’s views on some issues “reactionary,” he was won over by the Nazi leader on a visit to Munich, and his ascent up the Nazi hierarchy began. Soon Hitler put him in charge of the Nazi party in Berlin, difficult territory in view of the fact that the communists and socialists were extremely strong in the capital. Goebbels’s diaries, however, lay bare the feuding between Hitler’s acolytes, during which Goebbels conceived a bitter hatred for his rival Hermann Goering. Partly because of this, his position remained insecure for a long time. Hitler, he wrote on one occasion, was his only friend in the party.
The diaries provide graphic details of Goebbels’s rabble-rousing tactics in Berlin, where he was unscrupulous in his use of violence, physical as well as verbal, to win attention for the Nazis. Incidents where communists were attacked and Jews beaten up on the streets landed Goebbels in court on numerous occasions. The published version of the diaries for the early 1930s were heavily doctored, as a comparison with the originals shows; Goebbels, to take just one example, altered the entries before publication to make it look as if his rival Gregor Strasser had opposed Hitler’s political tactics for much longer than he had in reality. Strasser’s eventual resignation gave Goebbels control of the Nazi propaganda apparatus and, following Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor, he was soon put in charge of an entirely new department of government as Reich Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. Well before this, he had developed sophisticated techniques of appealing to the masses, with spectacular torchlit parades, mass meetings, sloganising, radio broadcasts and sensational stories in the press. As a member of the government, he now brought the full resources of the state to bear on winning over the half or more of the German electorate who had never voted for the Nazis or their coalition partners in a free election.
By this time, Goebbels had married Magda Quandt, a middle-class woman with whom he had an enduring marriage despite the fact that both of them had affairs—Goebbels, notoriously, with the Czech actress Lída Baarová. The scandal in the end became so damaging that Hitler ordered Goebbels to put a stop to it. The couple had six children and made sure all their names began with an H. They provided a substitute family for Hitler, who depended on them emotionally, and did not want to see the couple break up. The diaries reveal a continuing string of extramarital affairs and lingering feelings for earlier girlfriends. Goebbels’s restless energy found an outlet above all, however, in his ceaseless political activism. He created for the propaganda ministry an elaborate structure of cultural management headed by the Reich Chamber of Culture with subdivisions such as the Reich Chamber of Music and so on. And yet, as the diaries reveal, he was unable to eliminate his rivals in the party in this area of operations, notoriously the ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, whose radical Fighting League for German Culture frequently cut across the lines of the ministry’s policy, but also the Reich press chief, Otto Dietrich. Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious propaganda film Triumph of the Will was made behind Goebbels’s back, to a direct commission from Hitler. Longerich is particularly illuminating here on the continued infighting that characterised the Nazi regime from start to finish. There was no perfectly disciplined, efficiently coordinated machinery of government in Nazi Germany: as Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out long ago, it was riven with feuding and backstabbing.
For all his notoriety, Goebbels was never really a member of the central decision-making group within the Nazi leadership. Time and again, the diaries show how he only learned of major events at second hand. The “Night of the Long Knives,” for instance, when at the end of June 1934 Hitler ordered the murder of the leader of the radical Nazi stormtroopers, Ernst Röhm, and scores of his leading henchmen, came as a complete surprise to Goebbels, who was expecting Hitler only to strike against the conservative clique around Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen. And Goebbels was kept well away from crucial foreign policy decisions.
The diaries are a source of the first importance for many key events of the Third Reich. Writing first thing every morning about the previous day’s events, Goebbels had little time or opportunity to doctor or manipulate his account either at the time or later on. These were not considered, elaborate justifications but rapid-fire, staccato, often abbreviated diary entries written down in haste. Longerich uses the diaries intelligently as evidence for many episodes in the history of Nazism, taking account of their biases, but recognising that they were generally truthful in their recounting of events. There is not a hint in them, for example, that the leading Nazis knew anything in advance about the fire that destroyed the Reichstag building on the night of 27th February 1933 and was used by Hitler as a pretext to suspend civil liberties, permanently as it turned out, using the excuse, vigorously propagandised by Goebbels, that it was the signal for a communist uprising.
It is clear from the diaries’ account of the nationwide pogrom of the “Reich Night of Glass Shards” (Reichskristallnacht), Longerich notes, that Hitler personally ordered the trashing of thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned shops across Germany. Goebbels’s record of the flight of Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess to Scotland on a harebrained “peace mission” in April 1941 is another episode on which the diaries are clear: “The Führer is completely shattered… One wants to laugh and weep simultaneously.” Hess’s letters, left behind in justification of his actions, were “a chaotic confusion of primary school dilettantism.” The flight came as a surprise and left the Nazi leadership hopelessly embarrassed.
Once he began dictating the diaries to a secretary, in June 1941, Goebbels became more circumspect, and references to his private life grow more discreet. But the diaries leave no doubt about Hitler’s central role in the extermination of European Jews. On 14th February 1942, for example, Goebbels recorded Hitler saying that “the Jews have deserved the catastrophe they are experiencing today. As our enemies are annihilated so they will experience their own annihilation too.” A few weeks later, on 27th March 1942, the process of extermination clearly came through Goebbels’s cautious and circumspect diary entry, where he refers to the Jews being deported to the east in “a pretty barbaric procedure… not to be described in any more detail, and not much is left of the Jews themselves. In general one may conclude that 60 per cent of them must be liquidated, while only 40 per cent can be put to work… Here too the Führer is the persistent pioneer and spokesman of a radical solution.”
Goebbels managed to secure appointment as Plenipotentiary for Total War following his demagogic “Do you want total war?” speech in the wake of the catastrophic defeat of the German army at Stalingrad in February 1943 (“Yes!” the hand-picked crowd in the Berlin Sports Palace roared back). But this was as much a propaganda exercise as anything else, and the real command over the economy was falling increasingly into the hands of Hitler’s Armaments Minister Albert Speer. Goebbels, true to the last, continued to support Hitler while Goering and Himmler deserted him. In the final days of the war, Goebbels urged resistance to the last drop of blood. But even he had to concede that defeat was now overwhelmingly probable. On 28th February 1945, he announced over the radio that if Nazi Germany was defeated, life would no longer be worth living, neither for himself nor for his children. The family moved into the bunker underneath the Reich Chancellery, where Magda Goebbels had her children sedated with morphine, then killed them by placing cyanide capsules in their mouths. With her husband she then committed suicide on 1st May 1945.
Goebbels’s life, as Longerich shows convincingly, was one of restless self-aggrandisement, a constant search for self-validation. In the end, there was nothing behind the propaganda minister’s fanatical exterior but emptiness, a soul devoid of content. Yet perhaps because of this, we learn less about Joesph Goebbels from this very long biography than we might. Part of the reason is that Longerich’s book is less a biography than an extended critical commentary on the diaries. Too often, he fails to round out his account of a diary entry into a full depiction of the events it records and thus an assessment of Goebbels’s place in them. Time and again, he assumes too much background knowledge in the reader, and fails to set the diaries in their broader context. His book, regrettably, is unlikely to appeal to anyone coming to the history of Nazi Germany for the first time. But it will be indispensable to historians and students who want rapid access to one of the major sources on the history of Nazi Germany without having to plough through all the millions of words of the original.