- "Some people think that we haven’t noticed how the Jews are trying once again to spread themselves over all our streets. The Jews ought to please observe the laws of hospitality and not behave as if they were the same as us."
- "Do you want total war? Do you want a war, if necessary, more total and radical than anything we can even imagine today?"
- —Joseph Goebbel's Total War speech 1943
Goebbels was born to a Catholic family in Rheydt, his father was a factory clerk and his mother was originally a farmhand. Goebbels had four siblings and was educated at a Christian Gymnasium, where he completed his Abitur (university entrance examination) in 1916.
He had a deformed right leg, the result either of club foot or osteomyelitis. William L. Shirer, who was in as a journalist in Berlin in the 1930s and was acquainted with Goebbels, wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) that the deformity was from a childhood attack of osteomyelitis and a failed operation to correct it. Goebbels wore a metal brace and special shoe because of his shortened leg, but nevertheless walked with a limp. He was rejected for military service in World War I, which he bitterly resented. He later sometimes misrepresented himself as a war veteran and his disability as a war wound. He did act as an "office soldier" from June 1917 to October 1917 in Rheydt's "Patriotic Help Unit".
Goebbels attended the boarding school of German Franciscan brothers in Bleijerheide, Kerkrade in the Netherlands. Gradually losing his Catholic faith he studied literature and philosophy at the universities of Bonn, Würzburg, Freiburg and Heidelberg, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on the 18th century romantic novelist Wilhelm von Schütz. Despite the atrocities Goebbels would commit later in life his two most influential teachers, Friedrich Gundolf and his doctoral supervisor at Heidelberg, Max Freiherr von Waldberg, were both Jews. His intelligence and political astuteness were doubtlessly great and even his enemies admitted such.
After completing his doctorate in 1921, Goebbels worked as a journalist and tried for several years to become a published author, writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Michael, two-verse plays, and quantities of romantic poetry. In these works, he revealed the psychological damage his physical limitations had caused. "The very name of the hero, Michael, to whom he gave many autobiographical features, suggests the way his self-identification was pointing: a figure of light, radiant, tall, unconquerable," and above all "'To be a soldier! To stand sentinel! One ought always to be a soldier,' wrote Michael-Goebbels." Goebbels found another form of compensation in the pursuit of women, a lifelong compulsion he indulged "with extraordinary vigor and a surprising degree of success." His diaries reveal a long succession of affairs, before and after his marriage before a Protestant pastor in 1931 to Magda Quandt, with whom he had six children.
Goebbels was embittered by the frustration of his literary career; his novel did not find a publisher until 1929 and his plays were never staged. He found an outlet for his desire to write in his diaries, which he began in 1923 and continued for the rest of his life.
He later worked as a bank clerk and a caller on the stock exchange. During this period, he read avidly and formed his political views - being influenced by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the British-born German writer who was one of the founders of "scientific" anti-Semitism, and whose book "The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century" was one of the standard works of the extreme right in Germany. Goebbels spent the winter of 1919–20 in Munich, where he witnessed and admired the violent nationalist reaction against the attempted communist revolution in Bavaria. His first political hero was Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley, the man who assassinated the Bavarian prime minister Kurt Eisner. Hitler was in Munich at the same time and entered politics as a result of similar experiences.
The culture of the German extreme right was violent and anti-intellectual, which posed a challenge to the physically frail University graduate.
Like others who were later prominent in the Third Reich, Goebbels came into contact with the Nazi Party in 1923, during the campaign of resistance to the French occupation of the Ruhr. Hitler’s imprisonment following the failed November 1923 "Beer Hall Putsch" left the party temporarily leaderless, and when the 27-year-old Goebbels joined the party in late 1924 the most important influence on his political development was Gregor Strasser, who became Nazi organizer in northern Germany in March 1924. Strasser ("the most able of the leading Nazis" of this period) took the "socialist" component of National Socialism far more seriously than did Hitler and other members of the Bavarian leadership of the party.
"National and socialist! What goes first, and what comes afterwards?" Goebbels asked rhetorically in a debate with Theodor Vahlen, Gauleiter (regional party head) of Pomerania, in the Rhineland party newspaper National-sozialistische Briefe (National-Socialist Letters), of which he was editor, in mid-1925. "With us in the west, there can be no doubt. First socialist redemption, then comes national liberation like a whirlwind… Hitler stands between both opinions, but he is on his way to coming over to us completely."
Goebbels, with his journalistic skills, thus soon became a key ally of Strasser in his struggle with the Bavarians over the party program. The conflict was not, so they thought, with Hitler, but with his lieutenants, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher and Hermann Esser, who, they said, were mismanaging the party in Hitler’s absence. In 1925, Goebbels published an open letter to "my friends of the left," urging unity between socialists and Nazis against the capitalists. "You and I," he wrote, "we are fighting one another although we are not really enemies." In February 1926, Hitler, having finished working on Mein Kampf, made a sudden return to party affairs and soon disabused the northerners of any illusions about where he stood. He summoned about 60 gauleiters and other activists, including Goebbels, to a meeting at Bamberg, in Streicher’s Gau of Franconia, where he gave a two-hour speech repudiating the political program of the "socialist" wing of the party. For Hitler, the real enemy of the German people was always the Jews, not the capitalists.
Goebbels was bitterly disillusioned. "I feel devastated," he wrote. "What sort of Hitler? A reactionary?" He was horrified by Hitler’s characterization of socialism as "a Jewish creation", his declaration that the Soviet Union must be destroyed, and his assertion that private property would not be expropriated by a Nazi government. "I no longer fully believe in Hitler. That’s the terrible thing: my inner support has been taken away." Hitler, however, recognized Goebbels’ talents and in April he brought Goebbels to Munich, sending his own car to meet him at the railway station, and gave him a long private audience. Hitler berated Goebbels over his support for the "socialist" line, but offered to "wipe the slate clean" if Goebbels would now accept his leadership. Goebbels was quick to oblige, offering Hitler his total loyalty – a pledge that was clearly sincere, and that he adhered to until the end of his life. "I love him ... He has thought through everything," Goebbels wrote. "Such a sparkling mind can be my leader. I bow to the greater one, the political genius. Later he wrote: "Adolf Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple at the same time. What one calls a genius."
Propagandist in Berlin
In October 1926, Hitler decided to reward Goebbels for his new loyalty by making him the party "Gauleiter" for the Berlin section of the National Socialists. Goebbels was then able to use the new position to indulge his literary aspirations in the German capital, which he perceived to be a stronghold of the socialists and communists. Here, Goebbels discovered his talent as a propagandist, writing such tracts as 1926's The Second Revolution and Lenin or Hitler. Here, he was also able to indulge his latent taste for violence, if only vicariously through the actions of the street fighters under his command. History, he said, "is made in the street," and he was determined to challenge the dominant parties of the left – the Social Democrats and Communists – in the streets of Berlin. Working with the local S.A. (stormtrooper) leaders, he deliberately provoked beer-hall battles and street brawls, frequently involving firearms. "Beware, you dogs," he wrote to his former "friends of the left": "When the Devil is loose in me you will not curb him again." When the inevitable deaths occurred, he exploited them for the maximum effect, turning the street fighter Horst Wessel, who was killed at his home by enemy political activists, into a martyr and hero. In Berlin, Goebbels was able to give full expression to his genius for propaganda, as editor of the Berlin Nazi newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack) and as the author of a steady stream of Nazi posters and handbills. His propaganda techniques were totally cynical: "That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result," he wrote. "It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success." Among his favorite targets were socialist leaders such as Hermann Müller and Carl Severing, and the Jewish Berlin Police President, Bernhard Weiß0, whom he subjected to a relentless campaign of Jew-baiting in the hope of provoking a crackdown he could then exploit. The Social Democrat city government obliged in 1927 with an eight-month ban on the party, which Goebbels exploited to the limit.
When a friend criticized him for denigrating Weiss, a man with an exemplary military record, "he explained cynically that he wasn’t in the least interested in Weiss, only in the propaganda effect." Goebbels also discovered a talent for oratory, and was soon second in the Nazi movement only to Hitler as a public speaker.
Where Hitler’s style was hoarse and passionate, Goebbels’ was cool, sarcastic and often humorous: he was a master of biting invective and insinuation, although he could whip himself into a rhetoric frenzy if the occasion demanded. Unlike Hitler, however, he retained a cynical detachment from his own rhetoric. He openly acknowledged that he was exploiting the lowest instincts of the German people – racism, xenophobia, class envy and insecurity. He could, he said, play the popular will like a piano, leading the masses wherever he wanted them to go. "He drove his listeners into ecstasy, making them stand up, sing songs, raise their arms, repeat oaths – and he did it, not through the passionate inspiration of the moment, but as the result of sober psychological calculation." Goebbels’ words and actions made little impact on the political loyalties of Berlin. At the 1928 Reichstag elections, the Nazis polled less than 2% of the vote in Berlin compared with 33% for the Social Democrats and 25% for the Communists.
At this election Goebbels was one of the 10 Nazis elected to the Reichstag, which brought him a salary of 750 Reichsmarks a month and immunity from prosecution. Even when the impact of the Great Depression led to an enormous surge in support for the Nazis across Germany, Berlin resisted the party’s appeal more than any other part of Germany: at its peak in 1932, the Nazi Party polled 28% in Berlin to the combined left’s 55%. But his outstanding talents, and the obvious fact that he stood high in Hitler’s regard, earned Goebbels the grudging respect of the anti-intellectual brawlers of the Nazi movement, who called him "our little doctor" with a mixture of affection and amusement. By 1928, still aged only 31, he was acknowledged to be one of the inner circle of Nazi leaders. "The S.A. would have let itself be hacked to bits for him," wrote Horst Wessel in 1929. The Great Depression led to a new resurgence of "left" sentiment in some sections of the Nazi Party, led by Gregor Strasser’s brother Otto, who argued that the party ought to be competing with the Communists for the loyalties of the unemployed and the industrial workers by promising to expropriate the capitalists. Hitler, whose dislike of working class militancy reflected his social origins in the small-town lower middle class, was thoroughly opposed to this line. He recognized that the growth in Nazi support at the 1930 elections had mainly come from the middle class and from farmers, and he was now busy building bridges to the upper middle classes and to German business. In April 1930, he fired Strasser as head of the Nazi Party national propaganda apparatus and appointed Goebbels to replace him, giving him control of the party’s national newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer), as well as other Nazi papers across the country. Goebbels, although he continued to show "leftish" tendencies in some of his actions (such as co-operating with the Communists in supporting the Berlin transport workers' strike in November 1932), was totally loyal to Hitler in his struggle with the Strassers, which culminated in Otto’s expulsion from the party in July 1930.
Despite his revolutionary rhetoric, Goebbels’ most important contribution to the Nazi cause between 1930 and 1933 was as the organizer of successive election campaigns: The Reichstag elections of September 1930, July and November 1932 and March 1933, and Hitler’s presidential campaign of March–April 1932. He proved to be an organizer of genius, choreographing Hitler’s dramatic airplane tours of Germany and pioneering the use of radio and cinema for electoral campaigning. The Nazi Party’s use of torchlight parades, brass bands, massed choirs, and similar techniques caught the imagination of many voters, particularly young people. "His propaganda headquarters in Munich sent out a constant stream of directives to local and regional party sections, often providing fresh slogans and fresh material for the campaign."
Although the spectacular rise in the Nazi vote in 1930 and July 1932 was caused mainly by the effects of the Depression, Goebbels as party campaign manager was naturally given much of the credit.
During The War
In the years 1936 to 1939, Hitler, while professing his desire for peace, led Germany firmly and deliberately towards a confrontation.
Goebbels was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of aggressively pursuing Germany's territorial claims sooner rather than later, along with Himmler and Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop.
He saw it as his job to make the German people accept this and if possible welcome it. At the time of the Sudetenland crisis in 1938, Goebbels was well aware that the great majority of Germans did not want a war, and used every propaganda resource at his disposal to overcome what he called this "war psychosis," by whipping up sympathy for the Sudeten Germans and hatred of the Czechs.
After the western powers acceded to Hitler's demands concerning Czechoslovakia in 1938, Goebbels soon redirected his propaganda machine against Poland. From May onwards, he orchestrated a "hate campaign" against Poland, fabricating stories about atrocities against ethnic Germans in Danzig and other cities. Even so, he was unable to persuade the majority of Germans to welcome the prospect of war.
Once war began in September 1939, Goebbels began a steady process of extending his influence over domestic policy.
After 1940, Hitler made few public appearances, and even his broadcasts became less frequent, so Goebbels increasingly became the face and the voice of the Nazi regime for the German people. With Hitler preoccupied with the war, Himmler focusing on the "final solution to the Jewish question" in eastern Europe, and with Hermann Göring’s position declining with the failure of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), Goebbels sensed a power vacuum in domestic policy and moved to fill it.
Since civilian morale was his responsibility, he increasingly concerned himself with matters such as wages, rationing and housing, which affected morale and therefore productivity. He came to see the lethargic and demoralized Göring, still Germany’s economic supremo as head of the Four Year Plan Ministry, as his main enemy. To undermine Göring, he forged an alliance with Himmler, although the SS chief remained wary of him. A more useful ally was Albert Speer, a Hitler favorite who was appointed Armaments Minister in February 1942. Goebbels and Speer worked through 1942 to persuade Hitler to dismiss Göring and allow the domestic economy to be run by a revived Cabinet headed by themselves.
However, in February 1943, the crushing German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad produced a crisis in the regime. Goebbels was forced to ally himself with Göring to thwart a bid for power by Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Secretary to the Führer. Bormann exploited the disaster at Stalingrad, and his daily access to Hitler, to persuade him to create a three-man junta representing the State, the Army, and the Party, represented respectively by Hans Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the OKW (armed forces high command), and Bormann, who controlled the Party and access to the Führer. This Committee of Three would exercise dictatorial powers over the home front. Goebbels, Speer, Göring and Himmler all saw this proposal as a power grab by Bormann and a threat to their power, and combined to block it. However, their alliance was shaky at best. This was mainly because during this period Himmler was still cooperating with Bormann to gain more power at the expense of Göring and most of the traditional Reich administration; Göring's loss of power had resulted in an overindulgence in the trappings of power and his strained relations with Goebbels made it difficult for a unified coalition to be formed, despite the attempts of Speer and Göring's Luftwaffe deputy Field Marshal Erhard Milch, to reconcile the two Party comrades.
Goebbels instead tried to persuade Hitler to appoint Göring as head of the government. His proposal had a certain logic, as Göring – despite the failures of the Luftwaffe and his own corruption – was still very popular among the German people, whose morale was waning since Hitler barely appeared in public since the defeat at Stalingrad. However, this proposal was increasingly unworkable given Göring’s increasing incapacity and, more importantly, Hitler’s increasing contempt for him due to his blaming of Göring for Germany's defeats. This was a measure by Hitler designed to deflect criticism from himself.
The result was that nothing was done – the Committee of Three declined into irrelevance due to the loss of power by Keitel and Lammers and the ascension of Bormann and the situation continued to drift, with administrative chaos increasingly undermining the war effort. The ultimate responsibility for this lay with Hitler, as Goebbels well knew, referring in his diary to a "crisis of leadership," but Goebbels was too much under Hitler’s spell ever to challenge his power.
Goebbels launched a new offensive to place himself at the center of policy-making. On 18 February, he delivered a passionate "Total War Speech" at the Sports Palace in Berlin. Goebbels demanded from his audience a commitment to "total war," the complete mobilization of the German economy and German society for the war effort. To motivate the German people to continue the struggle, he cited three theses as the basis of this argument:
1. If the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) were not in a position to break the danger from the Eastern front, then Nazi Germany would fall to Bolshevism, and all of Europe would fall shortly afterward; 2. The German Armed Forces, the German people, and the Axis Powers alone had the strength to save Europe from this threat; 3. Danger was a motivating force. Germany had to act quickly and decisively, or it would be too late.
Goebbels concluded that "Two thousand years of Western history are in danger," and he blamed Germany's failures on the Jews.
Goebbels hoped in this way to persuade Hitler to give him and his ally Speer control of domestic policy for a program of total commitment to arms production and full labor conscription, including women. But Hitler, supported by Göring, resisted these demands, which he feared would weaken civilian morale and lead to a repetition of the debacle of 1918, when the German army had been undermined (in Hitler's view) by a collapse of the home front. Nor was Hitler willing to allow Goebbels or anyone else to usurp his own power as the ultimate source of all decisions. Goebbels privately lamented "a complete lack of direction in German domestic policy," but of course he could not directly criticize Hitler or go against his wishes.
Heinrich Himmler, one of the architects of the Holocaust, preferred that the matter not be discussed in public. Despite this, in an editorial in his newspaper "Das Reich" in November 1941 Goebbels quoted Hitler’s 1939 "prophecy" that the Jews would be the loser in the coming world war. Now, he said, Hitler’s prophecy was coming true: "Jewry," he said, "is now suffering the gradual process of annihilation which it intended for us ... It now perishes according to its own precept of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’!" In 1939, in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler had said:
If international finance Jewry in and outside Europe should succeed in thrusting the nations once again into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the earth and with it the victory of Jewry, but the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.
The view of most historians is that the decision to proceed with the extermination of the Jews was taken at some point in late 1941, and Goebbels’ comments make it clear that he knew in general terms, if not in detail, what was planned. The decision in principle to deport the German and Austrian Jews to unspecified destinations "in the east" was made in September. Goebbels immediately pressed for the Berlin Jews to be deported first. He traveled to Hitler’s headquarters on the eastern front, meeting both Hitler and Reinhard Heydrich to lobby for his demands. He got the assurances he wanted: "The Führer is of the opinion," he wrote, "that the Jews eventually have to be removed from the whole of Germany. The first cities to be made Jew-free are Berlin, Vienna and Prague. Berlin is first in the queue, and I have the hope that we’ll succeed in the course of this year."
Deportations of Berlin Jews to the Łódź ghetto began in October, but transport and other difficulties made the process much slower than Goebbels desired. His November article in Das Reich was part of his campaign to have the pace of deportation accelerated.
In December, he was present when Hitler addressed a meeting of Gauleiters and other senior Nazis, discussing among other things the "Jewish question." He wrote in his diary afterward:
"With regard to the Jewish Question, the Führer is determined to make a clean sweep of it. He prophesied that, if they brought about another world war, they would experience their annihilation. That was no empty talk. The world war is here [this was the week Germany declared war on the United States]. The annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence. The question is to be viewed without any sentimentality. We’re not there to have sympathy with the Jews, but only sympathy with our own German people. If the German people has again now sacrificed around 160,000 dead in the eastern campaign, the originators of this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives."
During 1942, Goebbels continued to press for the "final solution to the Jewish question" to be carried forward as quickly as possible now that Germany had occupied a huge swathe of Soviet territory into which all the Jews of German-controlled Europe could be deported. There they could be worked into extinction in accordance with the plan agreed on at the Wannsee Conference convened by Heydrich in January. It was a constant annoyance to Goebbels that, at a time when Germany was fighting for its life on the eastern front, there were still 40,000 Jews in Berlin. They should be "carted off to Russia," he wrote in his diary. "It would be best to kill them altogether." Once again, there is no doubt that Goebbels knew what would happen to the Jews who were to be "carted off." Although the Propaganda Ministry was not invited to the Wannsee Conference, Goebbels knew by March what had been decided there. He wrote:
"The Jews are now being deported to the east. A fairly barbaric procedure, not to be described in any greater detail, is being used here, and not much more remains of the Jews themselves. In general, it can probably be established that 60 percent of them must be liquidated, while only 40 percent can be put to work […] A judgment is being carried out on the Jews which is barbaric, but fully deserved."
Struggles For German Victory
Goebbels struggled in 1943 and 1944 to rally the German people behind a regime that faced increasingly obvious military defeat.
The German people’s faith in Hitler was shaken by the disaster at Stalingrad, and never fully recovered. During 1943, as the Soviet armies advanced towards the borders of the Reich, the western Allies developed the ability to launch devastating air raids on most German cities, including Berlin. At the same time, there were increasingly critical shortages of food, raw materials, fuel and housing. Goebbels and Speer were among the few Nazi leaders who were under no illusions about Germany’s dire situation. Their solution was to seize control of the home front from the indecisive Hitler and the incompetent Göring. This was the agenda of Goebbels’s "total war" speech of February 1943. But they were thwarted by their inability to challenge Hitler, who could neither make decisions himself nor trust anyone else to do so. After Stalingrad, Hitler increasingly withdrew from public view, almost never appearing in public and rarely even broadcasting. By July, Goebbels was lamenting that Hitler had cut himself off from the people – it was noted, for example, that he never visited the bomb-ravaged cities of the Ruhr. "One can’t neglect the people too long," he wrote. "They are the heart of our war effort." Goebbels himself became the public voice of the Nazi regime, both in his regular broadcasts and his weekly editorials in Das Reich. As Joachim Fest notes, Goebbels seemed to take a grim pleasure in the destruction of Germany’s cities by the Allied bombing offensive: "It was, as one of his colleagues confirmed, almost a happy day for him when famous buildings were destroyed, because at such time he put into his speeches that ecstatic hatred which aroused the fanaticism of the tiring workers and spurred them to fresh efforts."
In public, Goebbels remained confident of German victory: "We live at the most critical period in the history of the Occident," he wrote in Das Reich in February 1943. "Any weakening of the spiritual and military defensive strength of our continent in its struggle with eastern Bolshevism brings with it the danger of a rapidly nearing decline in its will to resist ... Our soldiers in the East will do their part. They will stop the storm from the steppes, and ultimately break it. They fight under unimaginable conditions. But they are fighting a good fight. They are fighting not only for our own security, but also for Europe's future." In private, he was discouraged by the failure of his and Speer’s campaign to gain control of the home front. Goebbels remained preoccupied with the annihilation of the Jews, which was now reaching its climax in the extermination camps of eastern Poland. As in 1942, he was more outspoken about what was happening than Himmler would have liked: "Our state’s security requires that we take whatever measures seem necessary to protect the German community from [the Jewish] threat," he wrote in May. "That leads to some difficult decisions, but they are unavoidable if we are to deal with the threat… None of the Führer's prophetic words has come so inevitably true as his prediction that if Jewry succeeded in provoking a second world war, the result would be not the destruction of the Aryan race, but rather the wiping out of the Jewish race. This process is of vast importance." Following the Allied invasion of Italy and the fall of Benito Mussolini in September, he and Joachim von Ribbentrop raised with Hitler the possibility of secretly approaching Joseph Stalin and negotiating a separate peace behind the backs of the western Allies. Hitler, surprisingly, did not reject the idea of a separate peace with either side, but he told Goebbels that he should not negotiate from a position of weakness. A great German victory must occur before any negotiations should be undertaken, he reasoned. The German defeat at Kursk in July had, however, ended any possibility of this. Goebbels knew by this stage that the war was lost. As Germany’s military and economic situation grew steadily worse during 1944, Goebbels renewed his push, in alliance with Speer, to wrest control of the home front away from Göring. In July, following the Allied landings in France and the huge Soviet advances in Belarus, Hitler finally agreed to grant both of them increased powers. Speer took control of all economic and production matters away from Göring, and Goebbels took the title Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War (Reichsbevollmächtigter für den totalen Kriegseinsatz an der Heimatfront). At the same time, Himmler took over the Interior Ministry. This trio – Goebbels, Himmler and Speer – became the real center of German government in the last year of the war, although Bormann used his privileged access to Hitler to thwart them when he could. In this Bormann was very successful, as the Party Gauleiters gained more and more powers, becoming Reich Defense Commissars (Reichsverteidigungskommissare) in their respective districts and overseeing all civilian administration. The fact that Himmler was Interior Minister only increased the power of Bormann, as the Gauleiters feared that Himmler, who was General Plenipotentiary for the Administration of the Reich, would curb their power and set up his higher SS and police leaders as their replacement. Goebbels saw Himmler as a potential ally against Bormann and in 1944 is supposed to have voiced the opinion that if the Reichsführer SS was granted control over the Wehrmacht and he, Goebbels, granted control over the domestic politics, the war would soon be ended in a victorious manner. However, the inability of Himmler to persuade Hitler to cease his support of Bormann, the defection of SS generals such as Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the Chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and his powerful subordinate Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo, to Bormann, soon persuaded Goebbels to align himself with the Secretary to the Führer at the end of 1944, thus accepting his subordinate position. When elements of the army leadership tried to assassinate Hitler in the July 20 plot shortly thereafter, it was this trio that rallied the resistance to the plotters. It was Goebbels, besieged in his Berlin apartment with Speer and secretary Wilfred von Oven beside him but with his phone lines intact, who brought Otto Ernst Remer, the wavering commander of the Berlin garrison, to the phone to speak to Hitler in East Prussia, thus demonstrating that the Führer was alive and that the garrison should oppose the attempted coup. Goebbels promised Hitler that he could raise a million new soldiers by means of a reorganisation of the Army, transferring personnel from the Navy and Luftwaffe, and purging the bloated Reich Ministries, which satraps like Göring had hitherto protected. As it turned out, the inertia of the state bureaucracy was too great even for the energetic Goebbels to overcome. Bormann and his puppet Lammers, keen to retain their control over the Party and State administrations respectively, placed endless obstacles in Goebbels’s way. Another problem was that although Speer and Goebbels were allies, their agendas in fact conflicted: Speer wanted absolute priority in the allocation of labor to be given to arms production, while Goebbels sought to press every able-bodied male into the army. Speer, allied with Fritz Sauckel, the General Plenipotentiary for the Employment of Labor from 1942, generally won these battles. By July 1944, it was in any case too late for Goebbels and Speer’s internal coup to make any real difference to the outcome of the war. The combined economic and military power of the western Allies and the Soviet Union, now fully mobilized, was simply too great for Germany to overcome. A crucial economic indicator, the ratio of steel output, was running at 4.5:1 against Germany. The final blow was the loss of the Romanian oil fields as the Soviet Army advanced through the Balkans in September. This, combined with the U.S. air campaign against Germany’s synthetic oil production, finally broke the back of the German economy and thus its capacity for further resistance. By this time, the best Goebbels could do to reassure the German people that victory was still possible was to make vague promises that "miracle weapons" such as the Me 262 jet airplane, the Type XXI U-boat, and the V-2 rocket could somehow retrieve the military situation.
Defeat And Death
In the last months of the war, Goebbels’ speeches and articles took on an increasingly apocalyptic tone and by the beginning of 1945, with the Soviets on the Oder and the western Allies crossing the Rhine, Goebbels could no longer disguise the fact that defeat was inevitable.
He knew what that would mean for himself: "For us," he had written in 1943, "we have burnt our bridges. We cannot go back, but neither do we want to go back. We are forced to extremes and therefore resolved to proceed to extremes."
In his diaries, he expressed the belief that German diplomacy should find a way to exploit the emerging tensions between Stalin and the West, but he proclaimed foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, whom Hitler would not abandon, incapable of such a feat. When other Nazi leaders urged Hitler to leave Berlin and establish a new center of resistance in the National Redoubt in Bavaria, Goebbels opposed this, arguing for a last stand in the ruins of the Reich capital. By this time, Goebbels had gained the position he had wanted so long – at the side of Hitler, albeit only because of his subservience to Bormann, who was the Führer's de facto deputy.
Göring was utterly discredited, though Hitler refused to dismiss him until 25 April. Himmler, whose appointment as commander of Army Group Vistula had led to disaster on the Oder, was also in disgrace, and Hitler rightly suspected that he was secretly trying to negotiate with the western Allies. Only Goebbels and Bormann remained totally loyal to Hitler. Goebbels knew how to play on Hitler's fantasies, encouraging him to see the hand of providence in the death of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12th, 1945.
On 22 April, largely as a result of Goebbels' influence, Hitler announced that he would not leave Berlin, but would stay and fight, and if necessary die, in defence of the capital.
Unlike many other leading Nazis at this juncture, Goebbels proved to have strong convictions, moving himself and his family into the Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery building in central Berlin. He told Vice-Admiral Hans-Erich Voss that he would not entertain the idea of either surrender or escape: "I was the Reich Minister of Propaganda and led the fiercest activity against the Soviet Union, for which they would never pardon me," Voss quoted him as saying. "He couldn't escape also because he was Berlin's Defence Commissioner and he considered it would be disgraceful for him to abandon his post," Voss added. On 30 April, with the Soviets advancing to within a few hundred meters of the bunker, Hitler dictated his last will and testament. Goebbels was one of four witnesses. Not long after completing it, Hitler shot himself. Of Hitler's death, Goebbels commented: "The heart of Germany has ceased to beat. The Führer is dead." In his last will and testament, Hitler named no successor as Führer or leader of the Nazi Party. Instead, Hitler appointed Goebbels Reich Chancellor; Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who was at Flensburg near the Danish border, Reich President; and Martin Bormann, Hitler's long-time chief of staff, Party Minister. Goebbels knew that this was an empty title. Even if he was willing and able to escape Berlin and reach the north, it was unlikely that Dönitz, whose only concern was to negotiate a settlement with the western Allies that would save Germany from Soviet occupation, would want such a notorious figure as Goebbels heading his government. As it was, Goebbels had no intention of trying to escape. Voss later recounted: "When Goebbels learned that Hitler had committed suicide, he was very depressed and said: 'It is a great pity that such a man is not with us any longer. But there is nothing to be done. For us, everything is lost now and the only way left for us is the one which Hitler chose. I shall follow his example'." On May 1st, within hours of Hitler's suicide on 30 April, Goebbels completed his sole official act as Chancellor of Germany (Reichskanzler). He dictated a letter and ordered German General Hans Krebs, under a white flag, to meet with General Vasily Chuikov and to deliver his letter. Chuikov, as commander of the Soviet 8th Guards Army, commanded the Soviet forces in central Berlin. Goebbels' letter informed Chuikov of Hitler's death and requested a ceasefire, hinting that the establishment of a National Socialist government hostile to Western plutocracy would be beneficial to the Soviet Union, as the betrayal of Himmler and Göring indicated that otherwise anti-Soviet National Socialist elements might align themselves with the West. When this was rejected, Goebbels decided that further efforts were futile. Shortly afterward he dictated a postscript to Hitler's testament:
"The Führer has given orders for me, in case of a breakdown of defense of the Capital of the Reich, to leave Berlin and to participate as a leading member in a government appointed by him. For the first time in my life, I must categorically refuse to obey a command of the Führer. My wife and my children agree with this refusal. In any other case, I would feel myself ... a dishonorable renegade and vile scoundrel for my entire further life, who would lose the esteem of himself along with the esteem of his people, both of which would have to form the requirement for further duty of my person in designing the future of the German Nation and the German Reich."
Later on 1 May, Vice-Admiral Hans-Erich Voss saw Goebbels for the last time: "Before the breakout from the bunker began, about ten generals and officers, including myself, went down individually to Goebbels's shelter to say goodbye. While saying goodbye I asked Goebbels to join us. But he replied: 'The captain must not leave his sinking ship. I have thought about it all and decided to stay here. I have nowhere to go because with little children I will not be able to make it'." At 8 pm on the evening of 1 May, Goebbels arranged for a SS dentist, Helmut Kunz, to kill his six children by injecting them with morphine and then, when they were unconscious, crushing an ampule of cyanide in each of their mouths.
According to Kunz's testimony, he gave the children morphine injections but it was Magda Goebbels and Stumpfegger, Hitler's personal doctor, who then administered the cyanide. Shortly afterward, Goebbels and his wife went up to the garden of the Chancellery, where they killed themselves. The details of their suicides are uncertain.
- In The Book Thief, there is a cat called Little Goebbels, which was named after this man.
- Goebbels was born and raised in a Catholic household by his parents, Friedrich Goebbels and Katharina Odenhausen. Later in life Joseph turned his back on Roman Catholicism and claimed his religion to be Nazism.
- Goebbels was Chancellor of Germany for just one day as he committed suicide on May 1st, 1945; the day after Hitler. He was succeeded by Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk.
- His favorite film was reportedly Gone with the Wind (1939).
- Despite having a Ph.D in literature and philosophy, Goebbels struggled to get a job. Much of his own writing wasn't accepted by publishers including his autobiographical novel, "Michael". He also failed as a playwright as both his scripts were turned down by producers.
- Goebbels suffered from osteomyelitis which affects the bone marrow. As he developed this at the age of seven the disease affected his growth. He stood at just 5 foot 4 inches (roughly 163cm) and had one leg which was far shorter than the other. He had to wear a leg brace for most of his life and this caused him to be at the centre of ridicule throughout his schooldays, but whilst attending university in Heidelberg he told fellow students that he had been injured in battle despite the fact he had been turned down for military service.
- Goebbels was one of the few certified intellectuals working in the upper echelons of the Nazi Party, which was actually vehemently anti-intellectual. Goebbels wrote his doctoral thesis on 19th century romantic drama. Even his enemies admitted that he was certainly a very intelligent man. The problem of course was that the Nazi Party he was attached was more fond of killing intellectuals than working for them, so he had a constant love-hate relationship with himself (combined with the fact that as a stunted rat-like man with a limp, he wasn't even close to the Aryan physical ideal). After completing his doctorate in 1921, Goebbels worked as a journalist.
- Unlike Hitler's propaganda style of impassioned speeches that appeared to bare his soul, Goebbels' style was calculated and biting sarcasm. Also unlike Hitler, on multiple occasions Goebbels admitted that he didn't believe in his own propaganda. Hitler honestly believed that there was a vast global Jewish conspiracy out to destroy Germany. Goebbels knew there wasn't, but nonetheless he'd make vicious propaganda speeches to cynically manipulate the German people into a malleable state of hyper-paranoia, just to achieve his political goals.
- Goebbels and Hermann Goring hated each other.
- Joseph Goebbels once demanded that Adolf Hitler be expelled from the Nazi Party.
- This happened many years before Hitler's rise to power, when Goebbels was far more concerned with opposing capitalism than people of Jewish descent. Repeatedly urging the socialists and Nazis to unite against the capitalists, he was horrified by Hitler's antagonization of socialism as a "Jewish creation" and his assertion that the Soviet Union should be destroyed. At the time, Hitler was still jailed and had finished work on Mein Kampf. Goebbels demanded that the jailed Hitler "be expelled from the Nazi Party". However, after his release, Hitler granted Goebbels a private audience, offering to overlook Goebbels's previous support for socialism if he would accept Hitler's leadership. From this point on, Goebbels was completely loyal to Hitler.