Goebbels, Josef (1897–1945)

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GOEBBELS, JOSEF (1897–1945)


Nazi minister for public enlightenment and propaganda.

Josef Goebbels was born in the Rhenish town of Rheydt, the pampered son of lower-middle-class Catholics. He was loved by his parents and four siblings but his childhood and adolescence were characterized by painful social marginalization that resulted from his physical shortcomings, most notably a clubfoot. Goebbels graduated from secondary school in 1917 and, having been exempted from service in the German military as a consequence of his disability, he matriculated that same year at the University of Bonn. In 1921 he was awarded a doctorate from the University of Heidelberg after completing a dissertation on a German Romantic playwright under the supervision of the Jewish Germanist Max von Waldberg. Goebbels spent the next several years in an unsuccessful effort to establish himself as a journalist and writer.


In the summer of 1924, Goebbels attended a meeting of several völkisch (nationalist-racist) groups, including the still politically marginal National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) Party. Convinced that he had found his calling in life, Goebbels began devoting his energies to Germany's political situation, writing and lecturing on behalf of National Socialism. Over the course of the next couple of years, Goebbels's success as a public speaker, as well as his intensive involvement in publications such as the National Socialist Letters, established him as an important representative of the north German, left-wing (i.e., pro-worker) branch of the Nazi movement around Gregor Strasser.

A series of meetings with Adolf Hitler in Munich in the spring of 1926 proved to be a turning point in Goebbels's life. Despite previous misgivings regarding Hitler and the south German branch of the Nazi movement, Goebbels returned to Berlin under Hitler's spell, convinced of his genius and leadership abilities. Hitler rewarded Goebbels's change of allegiances by appointing him head of the Nazi Party for the Berlin district. It was here that Goebbels developed the style and substance of his propaganda. As founder and editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff, he liberally peppered his articles with slanderous statements and insults of city and state officials in an effort to mobilize, rather than simply inform, his readers. Slandering was a means, as he stated in an article in 1929, "to unleash volcanic passions, outbreaks of rage, to set masses of people on the march" (Fest, p. 92). Nor was mobilization to be accomplished solely by inflammatory articles and speeches; Goebbels regularly organized street and beer-hall brawls between Nazi stormtroopers and political opponents such as communists and socialists. In 1930 Nazi thugs disguised as ordinary moviegoers disrupted the Berlin premiere of All Quiet on the Western Front; this was one of many episodes intended to demonstrate to Germans the dynamism and audacity of National Socialism.


The creation of the Nazi dictatorship in 1933 provided Goebbels with the opportunity to apply his propaganda skills to the entire country. Appointed minister for public enlightenment and propaganda in March 1933, Goebbels sought to transform the German people into ardent National Socialists so that they would "think uniformly, … react uniformly, and … place themselves body and soul at the disposal of the government" (Reuth, p. 172). He subjected the country to a highly orchestrated program of suggestive National Socialist spectacles, slogans, and images intended to engage the German audience primarily on an emotional level. Goebbels's ministry organized public book burnings and festivals celebrating new National Socialist holidays, such Hitler's birthday, as well as special events, such as the Olympic Games in 1936. Popular media, including newspapers and the radio, were put under government control, and the ministry also supported the "Nazification" of German culture, including the purge of "un-German" and "degenerate" attitudes and individuals. The National Chamber of Culture, created by Goebbels in the fall of 1933, determined which authors, musicians, journalists, artists, and actors would be permitted to practice their professions, rewarding the regime's racial and political supporters and blacklisting its opponents. In 1937 Goebbels organized an exhibition of "degenerate" art by artists such as Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, and Oskar Kokoschka. Goebbels's direct involvement in cultural and artistic matters was especially strong in the film industry; he often involved himself at every stage of production, selecting the movies that were to be made, casting particular actresses and actors, and supervising the film's editing and distribution.

Goebbels's most important contribution to the Third Reich was his role in the development and dissemination of a pseudo-religious cult worshiping Hitler. According to this Hitler myth, Hitler—the personification of the German Volk, or people—was responsible for Germany's economic successes and its diplomatic and military victories during the 1930s and early 1940s. The Hitler myth played a crucial role in binding the German people to Hitler as well as holding together the disparate elements of the Nazi Party.

The German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 signaled the beginning of the Third Reich's destruction but also provided Goebbels with the opportunity to reestablish himself as one of the most important men in the Nazi state after having been politically sidelined as Germany prepared for and fought the initial campaigns of the war. In response to the increasingly worsening military and economic situation, Goebbels used his propaganda skills to mobilize Germans to fight the "total war" until the absolute end. On 30 April 1945, following the suicides of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, Goebbels and his wife, Magda (who had earlier that day poisoned their six children), committed suicide.

Although historical scholarship since the 1980s has uncovered a high degree of contemporary popular German approval for the Nazi state and its policies and has thereby significantly changed historians' understanding of how the Third Reich functioned, it remains to be seen whether scholars will continue to see Goebbels as either a chameleon-like opportunist or a fanatical Nazi who used propaganda to brainwash a nation.

See alsoBeckmann, Max; Hitler, Adolf; Nazism; Stalingrad, Battle of; World War II.


Crew, David F., ed. Nazism and German Society, 1933–1945. New York, 1994.

Fest, Joachim C. The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership. Translated by Michael Bullock. New York, 1970.

Low, Alfred D. The Men around Hitler: The Nazi Elite and Its Collaborators. Boulder, Colo., 1996.

Reuth, Ralf Georg. Goebbels. Translated by Krishna Winston. New York, 1993.

Smelser, Ronald, and Rainer Zitelmann, eds. The Nazi Elite. Translated by Mary Fischer. New York, 1993.

Charles Lansing