GOEBBELS: A BIOGRAPHY
By Peter Longerich
Translated by Alan Bance, Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe
Random House, $40, 964 pages
Hannah Arendt had Adolf Eichmann in mind when she coined the term “Banality of Evil,” but she might as well have been thinking of Joseph Goebbels. As the fuhrer’s propaganda minister, “Dr.” Goebbels — he was always reminding everyone of his Ph.D. — was almost as banal as he was evil, a man with little in the way of original talent or ideas, but with a narcissist’s desire for praise and power and a totally ruthless determination to achieve both. Unfortunately, at a twisted time in German history, his personal frustrations and delusions were a perfect match for the dark side of the German psyche, humiliated in World War I, bullied at the Versailles peace table, and desperately searching for a new national identity.
Convinced that he was a superior person held back by inferior, opportunistic “others,” Goebbels channeled his private rage into a message that resonated with many Germans. To judge from his diaries, while he had few clearly articulated political or spiritual convictions, he was still a true believer, a man convinced of his own superiority and that of the Hitler he served. In this sense Goebbels was a victim of his own propaganda; in the words of the great longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer, “Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.”
One of the few socially sophisticated members of Hitler’s early entourage, Harvard-educated Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, would later describe Goebbels as a “mocking, jealous, vicious, satanically gifted dwarf,” and as the “pilot-fish of the Hitler shark.” Crippled by a deformed left foot which left him limping and requiring a metal brace, Goebbels had been raised as a devout Catholic. His father, a lowly factory clerk, intended his son for the priesthood and Goebbels may have seriously considered taking orders himself. Like many true believers before him, however, when the old social order collapsed, so did his traditional faith. Later, he would play a key role in the Nazi regime’s persecution of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. One is reminded of another true believer of the period; Josef Stalin started his adult life as an Orthodox seminarian only to transfer his loyalty — and ambition — to atheist Marxism.
After earning his doctorate of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, where at least one of his academic mentors was Jewish, Goebbels wrote a bad autobiographical novel that nobody would publish and did hack work as a journalist, suffering from long bouts of depression but always convinced that he was a persecuted genius. In ordinary times, that would probably have been the end of his story. But the times were anything but ordinary, which may be why German historian Peter Longerich chose to begin his exhaustive, meticulously researched new Goebbels biography where he did.
“The year 1923,” he writes, “sees Goebbels as a failure and as someone in despair. Despite having studied and acquired a doctorate, his plans to play a leading role in the reordering of the intellectual landscape of his fatherland had failed as a consequence of his own lack of ability; [and] of his social background, which meant that he lacked an entree into the middle class intelligentsia … .”
Having lost his Catholic faith, Goebbels was “seeking ‘redemption’ or rather a ‘redeemer’ figure, which, after several detours, he finally found in Adolf Hitler.” Mr. Longerich documents Goebbels’ metamorphosis from “a seeker after Christ to a follower of a political Messiah, Hitler” in considerable detail. This transformational phase of his subject’s life, he argues, “could function as a textbook for the phenomenon of political religion.”
Just as Stalin tried to replace God with Lenin — once the latter was conveniently dead and Stalin held undisputed sway as his arch priest — Hitler and Goebbels tried to erect an altar to a murky mixture of tribalism, racism and frustrated nationalism to replace Germany’s Christian humanist past, with Jews — falsely cast as a corrupt elite, the “One Percenters” of their day — serving as convenient economic scapegoats.
One of the funnier ironies of Nazism, with its idolization of a supposed race of blond, Aryan supermen, is the fact that hardly any of the Nazi high command fit their own invented stereotype. Goebbels, stunted, envious, physically deformed; Heinrich Himmler, a puffy-faced, bespectacled chicken farmer with a crackpot mystical streak; Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, a social-climbing champagne salesman who had bought his title and accompanying “von” from an impoverished noble family and then stiffed them over the payment; Hermann Goering, a World War I flying ace turned corrupt, porcine voluptuary with a morphine addiction; and Hitler himself, a rather drab little man who dined on bland vegetarian fare washed down with Fachinger mineral water and (in private) preferred schmaltzy operetta music to Wagnerian heroic opera: There wasn’t a Aryan superman in the lot.
Yet, as Mr. Longerich shows, by pandering to public prejudices, constant repetition of lies big and little, and by grasping of the new power of mass media, this dysfunctional bunch ushered in an Orwellian nightmare. One of the secrets of their success was acknowledged by Goebbels in 1933 when he wrote that, “It is no exaggeration to say that the German revolution, at least in the form it took, would have been impossible without … the radio.”
By imposing a state media monopoly, Goebbels was able to control most of what the German people heard, read and saw in a way no earlier tyranny could. Many of the demagogic, anti-religious propaganda techniques used today by some so-called “progressives” are eerily reminiscent of the not-so-good doctor’s endlessly repeating slogans, factoids and fictions and trying to impose their version of political correctness — what we should be allowed to say, think, eat and drink — on the rest of us: Big Brother knows best.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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