[OCTOBER 29, 1897–MAY 1, 1945]
Nazi propagandist and close associate of Hitler
Joseph Goebbels was second only to Adolf Hitler as a propagandist of the Nazi movement. Small and sickly as a child, he was deemed ineligible for military service because of a clubfoot. His able and agile mind nonetheless led him to obtain a doctoral degree in German literature in 1921.
Goebbels joined the Nazi Party in 1924, entering a milieu where his talents were quickly recognized. Hitler appointed him as head of the Nazi Party in Berlin in 1926. In that city the party was in chaos, but within a year, Goebbels had expelled a third of the membership, put those remaining to work in creating effective propaganda, and begun a weekly newspaper titled Der Angriff (The attack). He made Bernhard Weiss (whom he nicknamed "Idisor"), the Jewish deputy commissioner of the Berlin police, his particular target. Although support for the Nazi Party remained small, it was not long before all of Berlin was keenly aware of the Brownshirts' presence. As Goebbels said, "Making noise is an effective means of propaganda" (Bramsted, 1965, p. 22).
Soon after the Nazi takeover on January 30, 1933, Hitler named Goebbels Minister of People's Enlightenment and Propaganda, in charge of a new ministry made to order for him. This position gave him a major say in most matters relating to propaganda, but Hitler's habit of establishing jobs with overlapping responsibilities meant that Goebbels had to constantly contend with other Nazi leaders for power. During World War II Goebbels's influence gradually increased. His Total War speech in February 1943 was an attempt to mobilize mass support for the war effort after the defeat at Stalingrad, but also to increase his own power. As a propagandist, Goebbels followed Hitler's thinking. Propaganda was a collection of methods to be judged only on the basis of their effectiveness. Methods that worked were good; those that failed were bad. Academic theorizing was useless. Through natural ability and experience the skilled propagandist developed a feeling for what was effective and what was not. Propaganda had to be founded on a clear understanding of the audience. One could not persuade people of anything without taking existing attitudes and building on them.
Goebbels wanted Nazi propaganda to be easy to understand. It had to appeal to the emotions and repeat its message endlessly (but with variations in style). He favored holding to the truth as much as possible. However, Goebbels had no compunction about lying—although he thought it safer to selectively present or distort material rather than completely fabricate it.
Goebbels was a prime mover in the Nazis' anti-Semitic campaign. He regularly issued orders to intensify the campaign against the Jews. At the book burning in Berlin in May 1933, he announced the end of an "era of Jewish hyperintellectualism" (Reuth, 1993, pp. 182–183) and worked to eliminate Jews from German cultural life. He played a central role in the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) on November 9, 1938. He wanted Berlin to be one of the first major German cities to be "free of Jews."
Goebbels took a particular interest in film, especially the two vehement anti-Semitic films released in the fall of 1940: Jud Suess and Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The former was a so-called historic film set in the eighteenth century that accused Jews of financial and sexual crimes, the latter a documentary-style film based largely on footage filmed after the German invasion of Poland. It compared Jews to rats and suggested that they were responsible for most of the world's ills.
In his final major anti-Semitic essay in January 1945, Goebbels wrote: "Humanity would sink into eternal darkness, it would fall into a dull and primitive state, were the Jews to win this war. They are the incarnation of that destructive force that in these terrible years has guided the enemy war leadership in a fight against all that we see as noble, beautiful and worth keeping" (p. 3). After Hitler committed suicide as the Russian siege of Berlin raged, Goebbels and his wife decided to also end their lives on May 1, 1945, to avoid capture, but only after administering a fatal dose of poison to their six children. To their way of thinking, death, even that of their children, was preferable to life under a government other than the Third Reich.
Although Goebbels did not succeed in persuading all Germans to be strongly anti-Semitic, his propaganda intensified existing attitudes and made it easier for Germans to believe that the persecution of the Jews was at least partially justified. The Holocaust would not have been possible in 1933. Ten years of unremitting anti-Semitic propaganda established the foundation on which the concentration camps were built.
Bramsted, E. K. (1965). Goebbels and National Socialist Propaganda. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
German Propaganda Archive. Translations of Goebbels's speeches and articles are available from http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa.
Goebbels, Joseph (1945). "Die Urheber des Unglücks der Welt." Das Reich (January 21):1, 3.
Reuth, R. G. (1993). Goebbels. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Randall L. Bytwerk