Paul Joseph Goebbels, Chief of Nazi Propaganda

    September 2011          
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Goebbels during his early days with the Nazi Party.


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Hitler’s Misanthrope

By Peter Bjel © 2011

Hitler’s Third Reich embodied propaganda because it was the regime’s lifeline. Central to Nazi propaganda was the misanthropic figure of Paul Joseph Goebbels. He put aside all inhibitions and individuality, taking on the role within the Nazi façade that he had constructed and institutionalized as Propaganda Minister. This is the first of three articles.

The Nazi period in Germany continues to stand out as a case in which propaganda propped up the very regime that had created it. Propaganda, and its manifestations and usage, in itself, are not unique in modern states, but the Third Reich embodied propaganda because it was the regime’s lifeline.

As the late historian Joachim C. Fest put it, “Carrying it to an extreme, one might say that National Socialism was propaganda masquerading as ideology, that is to say, a will to power which formed its ideological theorems according to the maximum psychological advantage to be derived at any given moment, and drew its postulates from the moods and impulses of the masses, in the sensing of which it was abnormally gifted.”1

The use of ubiquitous propaganda was crucial for Nazi rule, and Paul Joseph Goebbels, its chief proponent and driver, is regarded as the second most important figure in the Third Reich after Hitler in part for this very reason.2 Nazi propaganda was a masquerade and disseminator of Nazi ideology, without which the events and manifestations emanating from the Third Reich could not have happened. When, in April 1945, this apparatus fell apart, its parent regime’s fate was not long in following.

This three-part series of articles is concerned with three aspects of the Nazi propaganda phenomenon and its centrality to the Third Reich’s policies and ideology. No analysis of the subject is complete without a consideration of the figure Goebbels, as the Third Reich’s propaganda scope and apparatus owed its genesis to him. A unique figure in the Nazi hierarchy, endowed with remarkable intelligence that paralleled his countering sense of physical inadequacy, he nonetheless channelled his energies and allegiance to National Socialism, supremacy and his ‘Fuehrer,’ eventually meshing with the very façade and political masquerading he had created.

A professionally trained intellectual himself, the Propaganda Minister was fascinated by culture, and once he was in the position to do so and the circumstances so warranted, crucially went about creatively and subtly disseminating the Nazi ethos via cultural routes – through film, theatre, literature, visual art, music, and the press. At the same time, Goebbels sought to systematically undermine, censor and eliminate cultural creativity that precluded contrariness or dissent in the arts.

In the realms of what has come to be known as the geopolitical arena, Goebbels remained “the brain behind this manipulation of minds,” and his propaganda extended, working at spewing forth the political, military and, eventually, racial policies that have all come to define Nazism in a broader historical perspective.3 At its centre was militant altruism, epitomized but not solely confined to the Horst Wessel legend: the absence of individuality and an emphasis on collective strength and self-sacrifice for nation, the Fuehrer and Vaterland that faced peril and danger. Myths became reality, underpinning Nazi policies and conduct. Hitler became a divine force, expansionism and world war became defence, and even genocide, however much it was meant to be concealed from citizenry, stemmed from this same urgency of necessity and progression.

* * *

According to Fest, Paul Joseph Goebbels, editor of the early Party organ Der Angriff, Gauleiter of Berlin, Minister for Propaganda and Enlightenment, Minister and Plenipotentiary for Total War – and a host of other positions he acquired by his position in the central Nazi governmental hierarchy and Hitler’s inner circle – was an integral personality to Nazism. He was “…one of the few real powers in the movement’s leadership, not merely a figurehead drawn into the light of history ‘in the wake of the victorious cause.’”4

Outsiders that witnessed his conduct and roles within the Nazi movement, like Sir Neville Henderson, the British Ambassador to Germany from 1933-1939, had this to say:

The ‘little doctor’ was probably the most intelligent, from a purely brain point of view, of all the Nazi leaders. He never speechified; he always saw and stuck to the point; he was an able debater and, in private conversation, astonishingly fair-minded and reasonable. Personally, whenever I had the chance, I found pleasure in talking to him. In appearance and in character he was a typical Irish agitator….When, however, he was on a public platform or had a pen in his hand no gall was too bitter and no lie too blatant for him.5

This was a man that was among the “practitioners and technicians of totalitarian rule” grouped in Fest’s work: capable of consciously acting and thinking for himself, as he did before his encounter with National Socialism, but also fully capable of putting aside all individual inhibition to take on the role within the Nazi façade he had constructed and institutionalized as Hitler’s Propaganda Minister. Goebbels had a duality about him that benefited the Nazi movement. “Even at his most fanatical, Goebbels was always the dispassionate realist, observing, with detached, professional expertise, the effect of his own carefully rehearsed mob oratory.”6

His origins in the Rhineland town of Rheydt were relatively underprivileged, made worse by a childhood bout of what later was identified as osteomyelitis, leaving his right foot underdeveloped and clubbed. This began a lifelong insecurity and physical inferiority complex that would grow to shape the nature and extent of his misanthropy and the ease with which he channelled these energies to his responsibilities within the Nazi movement.7

His socio-economic origins, a lapsed Catholicism that had once played an important part in his life… Rejection from the military in the First World War on account of his clubfoot… An eventual Doctorate of Philosophy from Heidelberg, on 21 April 1921, that was earned at the beginning of the interwar period of economic meltdown in Germany, forcing him into menial work… All of these things critically shaped Goebbels before, and even far into his involvement with the fledgling National Socialists.8 Upon his involvement in politics, his past experiences emboldened him to excel and become an opportunist:

Because his intellectualism and his physical deformity combined to make him particularly vulnerable among his rivals for power, he developed into an uninhibited opportunist with an exceptional nose for the power relationships in his circle. In the internal conflicts of direction within the party Goebbels, by virtue of his temperament and his intellectual consistency, often found himself on the ideological wing, yet he always managed to switch in good time to the side of the majority.9

In 1925, after having attended some of the Nazi Party’s rallies and being told about them from friends who joined, he enlisted in the movement shortly after it was outlawed following the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” of November 1923. The Nazis were an underground movement that had split into regions, according to German geography. The leader of the movement’s Rhineland wing, Gregor Strasser, needed assistance in Elberfeld, and it was here that Goebbels began working for the Nazis and joined the party.10 Soon, he heard Hitler speak at a conference in Bamberg, and was converted to Hitler’s Nazism, much to Strasser’s chagrin.11

For Goebbels, what would become his own unique stamp to the propagating of Nazism for all of Germany fleshed out upon his involvement with Hitler. “The secret of Goebbels is that he must always be loved and admired, a feminine trait in his nature which was so strongly pronounced that he loved only those who openly and emphatically loved him. Hitler was astute enough to discover and exploit this weakness, whereas both Kaufmann [another of Goebbels’ acquaintances that introduced him to Nazism] and the Strassers grew weary of his intrigues and tantrums.”12

Practicality crept into such an arrangement, for there was a mutual reliance at work between Hitler and Goebbels. “Hitler, and the cult of Hitler, would supply him with the central ideal, the necessary conviction which was lacking in his own mentality, and around which the brilliant impresario could organize the ritual of devotion.”13 On 26 October 1926, Hitler made him Gauleiter of Berlin, a post that he was to maintain until the end of the Second World War.14

Goebbels at his desk.

From the period of October 1926, to the Nazis’ electoral victory and Hitler’s becoming Chancellor on 30 January 1933 (a time period that the Nazis would collectively remember as the ‘time of struggle,’ or Kampfzeit), Goebbels’ main task was to win Berlin over to Nazi support. This was a difficult task, given that the German Communists had a firm foothold in the city.

In light of Hitler’s electoral successes in Berlin, Goebbels two principle means by which he accomplished this task was by publishing and disseminating a Nazi Party weekly, Der Angriff (“The Attack”), and by honing the craft of image-making and myth-converting into the propaganda Hitler had demanded while dictating Mein Kampf, and which he would be in charge of governing after 1933.

To do this, Goebbels utilized his own eloquent oratory, often deliberately set in working class districts of Berlin to destabilize Communist meetings, provoking and inciting street and beer hall riots – often with the help of the steadily growing ‘Sturmabteilung’ (SA) paramilitaries – which he then twisted and portrayed as non-Nazi aggression. “He purged the local party, streamlined the administration, and maintained Nazi power in the city by effective propaganda, frightening demonstrations of power and unscrupulous persecution of scapegoats.”15

Like Hitler, Goebbels practiced his political, oratorical and propagandistic skills, learning the contours and subtleties of audiences and listeners that he could then grasp:

He always considered his audience first – how to affect them, how to incite them. He developed little or no personal emotion while speaking, but he gave everything he had, physically and vocally, to rouse emotion in his audience. He pushed his fine, sonorous voice to its limits, and the effort of speaking to mass audiences for prolonged periods of up to two hours cost him a great deal…. In this respect he was the reverse of Hitler. Goebbels always calculated his effect, and to those he knew well he was prepared to boast about this, saying, for example, before a meeting, ‘Well, which record shall I put on now?’ He also cultivated the capacity to adapt himself to audiences, particularly those likely to be hostile. He became, in other words, completely professional, the master of his audience, proud and vain of his ability to establish himself immediately with the people in front of him. His effrontery dazzled his own adherents and those who came to his meetings out of curiosity. He was a success.16

Fest described Goebbels’ responsibilities during this time as both bestowed on him by Hitler, but also as a “self-imposed task” to rally his listeners to Nazism: “With diabolical flair, continually thinking up new tricks, he drove his listeners into ecstasy, made 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 at the desk.”17

With diabolical flair, continually thinking up new tricks, he drove his listeners into ecstasy.”

The weekly paper Der Angriff, which had a purposeful value only until 1933, after which it quietly dissolved, was significant during these formative years. On 5 May 1927, Goebbels was banned by the Berlin police from speaking because of the spate of violent political clashes between the SA and Communists that had taken place. Devising an alternative way of keeping in contact with Nazi Party members, he came up with the idea of a weekly newspaper: “All of a sudden I had a brain wave: surely there could be one name only for our paper: Der Angriff. The very name had its propagandistic value, since to attack was really all we wanted.”18

Under Goebbels and Julius Lippert, who became the paper’s editor-in-chief, Der Angriff became an alternative to the existing Nazi press organs, notably Der Stuermer, in that it sought to define, first and foremost, what National Socialism meant and, in a morale-boosting intent, that it was still active in Berlin despite the police ban.19 After the ban on Goebbels was retracted, the paper continued to function, as per Goebbels’ intention to win Berlin over to the Nazis. It was often the epicentre of intense attacks against the Weimar government then in power, and several prominent anti-Nazi figures in the government, always casting them in a negative light. The paper glorified and propagated fallen SA or Nazi Party figures, portrayed Hitler as a populist and ally of the working class, and articulated the ubiquitous anti-Semitism that was a staple of the Nazi movement.

By 1930, “Der Angriff had helped to keep the party together during the difficult months of the prohibition. In addition, the paper had grown from its relatively modest origins to become the second largest Nazi-operated newspaper. This was quite an accomplishment.”20 It was yet another sign of the future that Goebbels used Der Angriff in the political conquest of Berlin, and attested to the abilities he had honed in these formative years. “He adapted his propaganda to local conditions. Further, if the Nazis really wanted to create a mythical Volksgemeinschaft [people’s community, though in Nazi ideology the term meant a greater German nation-state of ideological and racial oneness], they would need the support of Germany’s proletariat. In this respect, Goebbels was looking ahead to the years after Hitler came to power. The Gauleiter clearly believed that the Third Reich was approaching. He, with the aid of his newspaper, was able to convince tens of thousands of Berliners of this as well.”21

After the Nazi victory in January 1933, Goebbels, newly minted in March of that same year as the Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment, had grown. The Nazi victory was a personal victory for him as much as it was for the movement, but it had now ushered in a new period and responsibility. Boastfully, the Propaganda Minister reported that his tireless campaigning and efforts “…had not only operated directly by winning over millions of supporters; equally important was its effect in paralysing opponents. Many had become so tired, so fearful, so inwardly despairing as a result of his onslaughts that in the end they regarded Hitler’s chancellorship as fated.”22 Goebbels himself penned:

We are not of the opinion that the struggle is over; no, tomorrow morning we shall begin with the new work and the new struggle. We are firmly convinced that the day will come when in Germany not only the National Socialist movement but an entire Volk will rise up, an entire Volk will recall its ancient values, and an entire Volk will set out marching toward a new future. For work and for bread, for freedom and for honor we must struggle, and we will see this struggle through, for we believe that it will bring blessings and happiness to the German nation…. One can rightfully say: Germany is awakening.23

He never allowed his newly acquired control of Berlin – and, dare we say, Germany itself – to be relinquished.24 After the Reichstag Fire of 27 February 1933, an ailing President Paul von Hindenburg acquiesced to Hitler the permanent state of emergency that granted him dictatorial powers and a suspension of civil liberties via the Enabling Act. A wave of arrests swept through Germany, and the Communist movement was decimated.

An issue of Der Angriff.

Goebbels, in Der Angriff, railed: “Now rise up, German nation! Rise up and cast your judgment! On March the fifth let God’s punishment smite the Red world plague! Hitler wants to act! Hitler will act! Give him the power to do so!”25 At this point, according to the biographer Viktor Reimann, Goebbels underwent a political transition and epiphany of his own. Following the death of Hindenburg, the 30 June 1934 anti-SA purges, and Hitler’s ultimate rise to power, Goebbels saw that the revolutionary tactics that he had utilized in the pre-1933 days had become antiquated. That which Goebbels had mythologized had now become reality, making his past role obsolete. Yet the opportunism he had acquired was alive and well: “Henceforth he would simply carry out his master’s orders, regardless of whether he was asked to play the sweet tunes of peace or blow the harsh trumpet calls of war.”26

Goebbels’ drive to prove himself, whether in the company of his family, his many lady friends, Hitler, or his fellow Nazis, were open and graphic visuals attesting the depths to which he had descended in order to get even with his insecurities and play up to the never-ebbing misanthropy that drove him. Reimann writes that, in the mid-1920s, when Goebbels’ radical political consciousness was still in its infancy, there was a time when he had sympathized with the Bolshevik Revolution and looked up to both Lenin and Stalin as revolutionaries, thereby denoting his socialist tendencies.

During his time with the Strasser wing, he had written that both Bolshevik Russia and socialism were rejections of materialism and the Western worship of capitalism. “That is why we look toward Russia, because she is the most likely to show us the way to socialism. She is our most natural ally against the diabolical temptations and corruption of the West….we can see in the building of a truly national and socialist Russia the beginnings of our own national and socialist existence.”27

Now, under Hitler’s tutelage, Goebbels had made the ultimate declaration of political apostasy and partook in the persecution of Communist elements in Germany. Similarly, earmarks of his eventual cultural apparatus would extol the necessities and virtues of taking away life unworthy of life via sterilization and, eventually, the Third Reich’s euthanasia program. These latter items were laden with irony, given that Goebbels, their chief proponent, was constantly forced to wrestle with the self-consciousness he had because of his short height and physical disability and the stigmas that seemed to follow him everywhere because of it.28

Goebbels was forever plagued by a physical inferiority complex.

Anti-Semitism permeated virtually every ordinance and action sanctioned by the Nazis. Goebbels did not grow up in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism. In his university days, two Jewish professors of his, Professors Gundolf and Waldberg, had stood out. According to Ralf Georg Reuth, a recent biographer, Goebbels “praised both…to the skies, and even when he began to see Jewry as the world’s downfall, his boundless hatred did not extend to these men personally.”29 Yet, he partook in the Nazis’ sanctimonious, anti-pacifistic and anti-Semitic book burnings, but not without fear that an astute observer would see him there and “cause his enemies to resurrect his past.”30

Ultimately, Goebbels’ most enduring mark was in the principles of propaganda that he extolled throughout his tenure, and in his own writings. Writing a few years after the Second World War, Leonard W. Doob outlined nineteen essential principles that, at one point or another, Goebbels utilized and mastered. They ranged from the credibility, centralization, and timing of propaganda, to the analysis and assessment of enemy propaganda; the uses of censorship and facilitation of propaganda to political leaders, to the simplicity of propaganda via “distinctive phrases or slogans”; the keeping in check of false hopes and bolstering “an optimum anxiety level,” to its jingoist and “counter-tendencies” potential.31

* * *

Doob stipulated a warning from history that turned out to have never vanished. “Whether the legacy [of Goebbels] has been reliably deduced is a methodological question. Whether it is valid is a psychological matter. Whether or when parts of it should be utilized in a democratic society are profound and disturbing problems of a political and ethical nature.”32 The misanthropy of Goebbels, channelled, as it was into the Nazis’ rise to power and their policies of conquest and devastation, appeared unreal at the time they happened. It remains an open question as to whether or not it remains so unreal in the present. The ways in which Goebbels’ propaganda played out in places like culture and the arts is the subject of the second installment in this series of articles.

- Peter Bjel is a freelance writer and teacher candidate, and holds degrees in Politics and History from the University of Toronto. He can be reached at . This is the first of three articles about Goebbels, propaganda and the Third Reich.


1 Joachim C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), p. 83.

2 See Ibid., p. 84, for this. Goebbels’ many biographers, including those cited here, also corroborate it.

3 Ibid., for quotation source.

4 Ibid.

5 Quoted in Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels: His Life and Death (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), p. 143.

6 Hugh Trevor-Roper, “Hitler’s Impresario.” New York Review of Books 25, 9 (1 June 1978), HTML.

7 Gordon A. Craig, “The True Believer.” New York Review of Books 41, 6 (24 March 1994), HTML. This is a common theme in the biographies of Goebbels cited.

8 For these pointers, see Robert E. Herzstein, The War that Hitler Won: The Most Infamous Propaganda Campaign in History (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978), pp. 31, 37, 41.

9 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 87.

10 Manvell and Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels, p. 38.

11 Dietrich Orlow, “The Conversion of Myths into Political Power: The Case of the Nazi Party, 1925-1926.” The American Historical Review 72, 3 (April 1967): pp. 906-924, at p. 923, for Goebbels’ personal change in convictions and allegiance.

12 Manvell and Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels, p. 50.

13 Trevor-Roper, “Hitler’s Impresario.”

14 Manvell and Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels, p. 42.

15 Trevor-Roper, “Hitler’s Impresario.”

16 Manvell and Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels, p. 74.

17 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 92. He adds: “In truth, the ‘little Doctor’ with the tormenting feeling of physical inadequacy was capable of bending the masses to his will and making them available for any purpose; he could, as he boasted, play upon the national psyche ‘as on a piano’” (Ibid).

18 Quoted in Ibid., p. 76.

19 See Russell Lemmons, Goebbels and ‘Der Angriff’ (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), p. 49, for details of this early purpose.

20 Ibid., p. 42.

21 Ibid., p. 131.

22 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 92.

23 Quoted in Ralf Georg Reuth, Goebbels: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), pp. 164-165.

24 Trevor-Roper, “Hitler’s Impresario.”

25 Quoted in Reuth, Goebbels, p. 169.

26 Viktor Reimann, Goebbels: The Man Who Created Hitler (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), p. 217. On Goebbels’ perceptions of propaganda’s purposes in the Weimar period, see Herzstein, The War that Hitler Won, p. 60.

27 Quoted in Reimann, Goebbels, p. 45; for more on this early socialism, see pp. 45-47.

28 Here, I am referring to the 1935 film Das Erbe, as well as the 1936 piece Erbkrank.

29 Reuth, Goebbels, p. 182; earlier, Herzstein, The War that Hitler Won, pp. 61-64.

30 Reuth, Goebbels, p. 182. For further on the likely opportunistic nature of Goebbels’ anti-Semitism, see Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, pp. 93-94.

31 See the article by Leonard W. Doob, “Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 14, 3 (Autumn 1950): pp. 419-442, for all nineteen ‘principles.’

32 Ibid., pp. 421-422.


from the September 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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