Joseph Goebbels: Art, Culture and the Nazi State

    November 2011          
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Goebbels, Culture and Propaganda

By Peter Bjel

Joseph Goebbels was the first to see the potential of fusing art, culture and the Nazi state. Hitler so wished this merging, and so came to pass the transmission of Nazi ideology through art and culture. This is the second of three articles.

Given his own intellectual and academic background, cultural and artistic things intrigued the Third Reich’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. It was almost certainly by this that he seized on the dissemination-potential that cultural outlets could serve in propagating Nazi ideology – but also on the potency of culture in fomenting dissent. “Goebbels was an impresario of genius, the first man to realize the full potentialities of mass media for political purposes in a dynamic totalitarian state.”1 Not everyone within the Nazi hierarchy agreed with the prospect of fusing art, culture and the Nazi state together, notably Alfred Rosenberg, with whom Goebbels would have a lengthy rivalry that would emerge between and within their respective ministries.

Goebbels won out, in the end, because Hitler so wished this convergence. “Yet this was exactly what Hitler wanted: a fusion of politics, propaganda, and art. He considered politics to be the greatest of all arts, and propaganda the most important arm of politics. And Goebbels was in full agreement with Hitler…”2

At the end of November 1933, a Reich Chamber of Culture was unleashed, and Goebbels allied himself with Robert Ley, who had been the Nazi Economics Minister, in creating an organization known as ‘Strength through Joy,’ which served to undermine the likes of Rosenberg’s cultural opinions while channelling and branching out more power to Goebbels. With so much power centred on Goebbels, there were reasons for satisfaction. “With this power, he could ‘mobilize the spirit’ in the people for Hitler’s policy of foreign expansion.”3 Once war broke out in September 1939, these cultural conduits would be contoured to fit the ideological and circumstantial needs of the time. By way of cultural spheres, Nazi influence was all encompassing, covering film and theatre, literature, visual art and the presses, as well as radio programming and music. These spheres shall all be considered in turn.

* * *

On film (and, perhaps, to a lesser extent, the theatre), Goebbels advised against making any overtly propagandistic feature, out of concern that its abruptness would simply turn people away, closed-minded. “More than all other forms of art, the film must be popular in the best sense of the word,” he declared. “Nor must it lose its strong inner connection with the people. Films should be strictly contemporary in spirit even when dealing with subjects set in the past; once they achieve this quality they will bridge the nations and become the ‘spokesmen for our age.’”4 To achieve this, Goebbels stood poised to provide state-backed incentives and capacities for filmmakers to hold a degree of creative independence.

A few films were concerned with overtly propagandist themes, though Goebbels took care to not carry this on excessively; all of these things notwithstanding, the German film industry under Hitler and Goebbels wound up suffering from a creative ‘brain-drain,’ whereby many of the country’s most talented filmmakers and directors – Fritz Lang is a great example – were forced into temporary or permanent exile abroad.5 Akin to one of his propaganda principles, Goebbels spent much time observing foreign-made films, even after 1939. American films he was especially keen on studying, and he went to great lengths to acquire copies of them. “The press attaches in German embassies in Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal were under orders to get hold of prints of American films and have them illicitly copied for him.”6

Under Hitler and Goebbels, many of Germany’s most talented filmmakers, like Fritz Lang, were forced into temporary or permanent exile abroad.

Reflecting on the subtlety that was the working rule for most Nazi-era films, Eric Rentschler writes that the Third Reich’s film industry was a product of “more than anything, a Ministry of Illusion,” and that “The customary tropes of the uncanny and horrendous do not accurately characterize the vast majority of the epoch’s films, light and frothy entertainments set in urbane surroundings and cozy circles, places where one never sees a swastika or hears a ‘Sieg Heil.’”7 Yet there remained a sinister motive behind film, and it was that “Goebbels endeavoured to maximize film’s seductive potential, to cloak Party priorities in alluring cinematic shapes, to aestheticize politics in order to anaesthetize the populace,” and “German films were to become a crucial means of dominating people from within, a vehicle to occupy psychic space, a medium of emotional remote control.”8

By Rentschler’s count, 86 percent of films churned out during the Nazi era were of the so-called “unpolitical” variety, which extolled the banal features of life without signs of the Third Reich.9 The German revue film, which “shows the civilian troops on parade, often garbed in uniforms and usually choreographed as a costumed cadence march,” with its mechanized columns of bodies, often scantily-clad, had “psychic emotion” prevalent.10 Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens, released in 1935, and probably one of the most famous films to come out of the Nazi era, falls into this category. “The masses are allowed to enter the picture, but only their leaders are allowed to speak. Hitler himself is the main actor, here celebrating his wedding fantasies with the masses.”11 It too bears such subtleties, as when it opens with shots from the high skies, amid clouds, out of which it becomes clear that, from these ‘high heavens,’ Hitler is descending to Earth (in his airplane) and to a nation waiting for him with perfect adulation, as if he were a god.12

Triumph of the Will is probably one of the most famous films to come out of the Nazi era.

The remaining fourteen percent of films, however, were the exact opposite; the ways in which they were drawn on real-life and set ideological themes demonstrated Goebbels’ system of mythmaking at work. Thus, Hitlerjugend Quex, directed by Hans Steinhoff and set in the chaotic Weimar period, drew on the murder and subsequent martyrdom of a certain fifteen year-old Herbert Norkus who, in January 1932, was stabbed to death by Communists in revenge for the death of one of their own. Norkus had been out distributing Nazi pamphlets in a working-class district of Moabit.13

Goebbels went on a harangue in Der Angriff, detailing the wickedness of Communist “child-murderers” and the death of Norkus: “The delicate head is trampled to a bloody pulp. Long, deep wounds go into the slender body, and a mortal gash penetrates heart and lungs….Wearily, black night descends. From two glassy eyes stares the emptiness of death.”14

According to Jay W. Baird, “The life and death of Herbert Norkus had lent new credence to the ethos of the Hitler Youth.”15 A novel by Karl Aloys Schenziner, and then a film soon followed his elaborate state funeral, and Norkus became the character Heini Voelcker: “It was at once a propaganda and aesthetic success, an ornament to Goebbels’ dream of utilizing the best of modern technique in the service of the mythical National Socialist ideal. Above all, it appealed to youth in a remarkable way. Through both Party and Ufa [the official Nazi film distribution company] commercial channels, its audience numbered well over 20,000,000 viewers….As late as 1942 it was being shown in the Jugendfilmstunden of the Hitler Youth, an important propaganda activity of the organization.”16

So it was, in this example, that film, myth, and history were put together and moulded into one type of Nazi-era film that emanated from Goebbels’ ministry.17

Herbert Norkus (above) and his death in January 1932 was propagated by Goebbels, and became the premise for the film Hitlerjugend Quex.

When war broke out in September 1939, the Nazi film ministry began to produce films that sometimes reflected and ideologically shaded this reality via films. Thus, for example, the film Ohm Krueger, though it was set in South Africa during the Boer War, meshed this past setting with the present war with Britain. The dying and defeated character Krueger declares that, “Thus England subdued our small nation by the cruelest means. But the day of judgement will come at last. I don’t know when, but so much blood cannot have been spilled in vain. So many tears will not have been shed for nothing. We were a small and weak nation. But big and powerful nations will stand up to British tyranny. They will strike against England’s soil. God will be with them. And then the path will be free for a better world.18

The film, at one point, according to Marcia Klotz, subtly demonizes the British for having placed Boers in concentration camps, which they had (indeed) been the first to invent – though it is not, of course, pointed out that the Germans had quite clearly outdone the British in this regard at the time Ohm Krueger was released. Klotz quotes David Hull: “The unbelievable gall of blaming the invention of concentration camps on the British – whether true or not – showed Goebbels at the height of his cynicism.”19

In light of concentration camps, as well as the system at work behind them, Hitler conducted two parallel wars at the same time: one against what would become the Allies, and the other on the Jews of Europe, the war on the latter of which he intensified when he began losing the former.20 Though evidence of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” never made its way into popular films sanctioned by Goebbels’ ministries, the vicious anti-Semitism which began the evolution of Nazi-Jewish policy in such a direction, and which was a staple of Nazi ideology, did come out. Two of the most infamous films in this regard were both released in 1940: Franz Hippler’s Der Ewige Jude, and Veit Harlan’s Jud Suess.

The former, the title of which means “The Eternal Jew,” included not-so-subtle depictions of Jews as rats scurrying from a sewer-grating and infesting all surroundings. At one point, the film centres on a group of (degenerate-looking) Hasidic Jews, apparently meant to collectively represent East European Jews as they ‘normally’ are, but then fades to this same group without their beards and discernible clothes. “The hair, beard, skullcap and kaftan make the Eastern Jew recognizable to everyone,” the narrator warns. “Should he remove them, only sharp-eyed people can spot his racial origins. An essential characteristic of the Jew is that he always tries to hide his origins when among non-Jews.”21

A similar cinematic technique is employed in Harlan’s Jud Suess, where the film’s antagonist Suess-Oppenheimer is introduced in such appearance, and is last seen at his execution the same way. During the rest of the film, however, he appears the way the rest of the German villagers are dressed, further lending credence to the depictions of his deceit and cunning deviousness.22 The story revolves around the character of Suess-Oppenheimer coming to the German village of Wuerttemberg, whereby he loans a lot of money to Duke Karl Alexander; the entire village is in pandemonium when the Duke, who cannot repay Suess-Oppenheimer, allows other Jews to move in. A sub-plot also ensues, whereby Suess-Oppenheimer winds up making advances on the Duke’s daughter, Dorothea and, supposedly alluding to vampire-like connotations, rapes her while her husband is being tortured.23

A poster for Veit Harlan’s 1940 film Jew Suess.

Goebbels’ objective with Harlan’s film was at least partially successful; more than 20 million viewers saw it, and “It was often screened in areas where deportations of Jews to concentration camps were planned, and was shown to SS soldiers before they were ordered to move against Jews. According to some reports, theatre-goers often attacked Jews in the streets after viewing the film.”24 According to David Stewart Hull, the other, substantially polished anti-Semitic film churned out by Goebbels’ ministry was Die Rothschilds Aktien auf Waterloo, which also came out in 1940; he described it as “one of the most viciously polished pieces of propaganda-fiction of the Nazi period.”25

Other films, as with literature and any other nonstandard manifestations of culture, were purged or, in some cases, pushed underground. Even as early as 5 December 1930, this happened when the film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 anti-war novel Im Westen nichts Neues (that is, All Quiet on the Western Front) was shown at the Mozart cinema. Goebbels subverted it by buying a block of tickets and distributed them to SA men, whereupon they released mice and stink bombs in the theatre itself in which it was screened. Six days later, the Weimar chief film censor banned the film, to which Goebbels commented: “The film of shame has been banned. With that action the National Socialist movement has won its fight against the dirty machinations of the Jews all along the line.”26 Remarque was, in fact, Roman Catholic, but his book, as well as its sequel Der Weg Zuruck (that is, The Road Back), published in 1931, was among the many examples of pacifistic ‘un-German’ literature that was incinerated during the book burnings.27


Erich Maria Remarque (photo) and his famous 1929 book All Quiet on the Western Front which was made into a film (poster) one year later, were all attacked by the Nazis.

The German theatre bore a similar fate of forced ideological Nazification, as when Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater Berlin was gradually incorporated into the Reich Theatre Chamber, another offshoot of the Cultural Ministry, and became an outlet for the types of theatrical performances Goebbels permitted. “During the fourteen months that had elapsed since the exile of Max Reinhardt, the theatre had lost not only its owner, but also its repertoire, its regular audience, and many members of its famed ensemble.”28

In 1935, after the death of Theatre Chamber President Otto Laubinger, Goebbels succeeded in reining in the theatres to his Ministry, first by purging its officials of Jews and (alleged) Communists, then by setting out ideologically fit productions to be performed, and instituting rigorous personnel filtration schemes, such as entrance examinations and background checks for those wishing to become involved in the theatre.29 Goebbels’ tactics on the theatres were successful in large part because of theatre personnel: “It was their own susceptibility to various forms of seduction that allowed German theatre people to play an important supporting role in the Third Reich,” especially through the “multifaceted patronage of the theatre establishment.”30

In the fields of visual art, literature and the press, the same techniques of creativity interspersed with ideological enforcement were undertaken. Visual artists, like their filmmaker counterparts, were forced to flee abroad or cease their activities, while the industry and the art itself that had been crafted pre-1933 underwent purges. “The purge of modern art was not, however, limited to the art produced by Jewish, foreign, or Communist artists. Whatever the Nazis claimed undermined ‘desirable’ aesthetic, social, cultural, or political values, or physical or racial ideals, was to be eliminated from German society; this included all the modern movements, such as Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Dada.”31

Hitler’s pronouncements on permissible and impermissible art effectively decimated this creativity in Germany. It can also be read as a microcosm of fascism itself. “Firmly believing that culture is the cornerstone of any enduring society, Hitler recognized that art must play a major role in the building of his ideal German nation. He articulated the goals of what he considered true German art: it must develop from the collective soul of the people and express its identity; it must be national, not international; it must be comprehensive to the people; it must not be a passing fad, but strive to be eternal; it must be positive, not critical of society; it must be elevating, and represent the good, the beautiful, and the healthy.”32

Literature and literary control was one of the few fields in which Goebbels’ rival, Rosenberg, won out over jurisdiction and authority via the ‘Amt Shrifttumspflege,’ an office endowed with the mandate to, once again, propagate National Socialism. “The Amt’s activities were, therefore, focused on three objectives: the evaluation of current German literature, the promotion of these books found to be ideologically compatible with National Socialist doctrines, and the control and supervision of literature with the Party at the Gau and Kreis levels.”33

Akin to what was happening elsewhere in cultural matters under Nazi control and supervision, the obvious quality and output declined drastically, as Herbert P. Rothfeder points out: “Books which received positive evaluations were generally those which correctly extolled National Socialist doctrine, glorified Germanic virtue, or demonstrated the inherent superiority of the Nordic race over the remainder of Europe. Technical and scholarly works [!] were judged primarily on their proper interpretation of National Socialist ideology rather than on their factual content.”34 A system of literary façade joined the ranks of Nazi culture, whereby one German evaluator of literature quipped, “The typical Nazi author always tried to cover up his lack of ideas…by a spate of words which sounded impressive and meant nothing.”35

Rothfeder notes, revealingly, that out of fear of provoking a powerful institution as the Roman Catholic Church (the influence of which still resonated widely among the German population), this was the only zone in which literary control and censorship had “absolutely no effect.” Banned books written by taboo authors as Heinrich Heine, Theodor Herzl, Emil Ludwig and Karl Marx, could still be found and read in Nazi Germany.36

This was a fate that befell the Nazi campaign against jazz music. Its fault was because it “quintessentially represented the principle of improvisation, equalling musical freedom,” the music’s “originators and disseminators…were degenerate blacks and Jews, and, to a lesser extent and in Europe, libidinous Gypsies.” The “syncopated rhythm of jazz” was not conducive to militarism and the easy transmission of propaganda messages, and finally, jazz was “so individualistic as to be trivial, compared to the racial-communal, lofty objectives of the Nazi rulers.”37 The demand for jazz, remarkably, never waned, and radio, long held by Goebbels to be a revolutionary means of further disseminating his messages (as when he declared, “We make no bones about it: the radio belongs to us, to no one else! And we will place the radio at the service of our idea, and no other idea shall be expressed through it!”) was, until early 1943, forced to play jazz on the air for the sake of cheering up the returning frontline soldiers, for “the needs of the combat troops always came first.”38

A page from the paper Der Stuermer. Note the solely anti-Jewish tone of it. According to Cedric Larson, Goebbels believed that the “press of Germany should be a piano upon which the government might play.”

Similarly, the press, several of which had been important organs and outlets for Nazi propaganda and promotion during the so-called Kampfzeit (the “time of struggle,” which is how the Nazis called the period prior to their power seizure), were incorporated into the State concept of Gleichshaltung, “which is, so to say, the foundation-stone of policy of the Third Reich, and calls for the complete coordination and harmonizing of all internal and external national activity.”39 Cedric Larson, writing in 1937, reported, “Upon the subject of press control, Dr. Goebbels declared that he did not see in censorship either a normal or ideal condition. The press should aid the government and not criticize in such manner as would shake the faith of the people in the government. The mission of the press should be not merely to inform, but also to instruct. The press of Germany should be a piano upon which the government might play.”40

* * *

Viktor Reimann, one of Goebbels’ biographers, writes that this attack on the press, and even on independent thought, came from the fears of Hitler himself. “He saw in it [the press] essentially a product of liberalism and the individualist concept – sufficient reason to despise it from the bottom of his heart. A press without freedom of opinion was bound to be a caricature. But freedom of opinion was something Hitler feared and rejected.”41 Goebbels, at this stage, did Hitler’s bidding and swallowed it up into his Ministry, which then went about creatively and subtly disseminating the Nazi ethos via these many cultural routes.

Eric Rentschler concludes his analysis of the German cinema thusly: “If the Nazis were movie-mad, then the Third Reich was movie-made, a fantasy order that in equal measure was dream machine and a death factory.”42 He could easily have been talking about all cultural endeavours and fields that fell afoul of Goebbels’ obsession with subtlety and the transmission of Third Reich ideology.

* * * * *

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 second of three articles about Goebbels, propaganda and the Third Reich.


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

2 Viktor Reimann, Goebbels: The Man Who Created Hitler (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), p. 166.

3 Ralf Georg Reuth, Goebbels: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), p. 192. For the Reich Chamber of Culture’s formation, see pp. 191-192. Additionally, on the structure of the Propaganda Ministry and the satellite Chamber of Culture, see pp. 135-137.

4 Quoted in Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels: His Life and Death (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), p. 140.

5 Ibid., p. 141; the point about Lang is my own. This is also the conclusion of David Stewart Hull, “Forbidden Fruit: The Harvest of the German Cinema, 1939-1945.” Film Quarterly 14, 4 (Summer 1961): pp. 16-30, at p. 30, who argues that this problematic legacy carried on into the post-war period.

6 Manvell and Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels, p. 228.

7 Eric Rentschler, “Ministry of Illusion: German Film, 1933-1945.” Film Comment 30, 6 (November 1994): pp. 34-42, at p. 36.

8 Ibid., pp. 37-38.

9 Ibid., p. 37.

10 Karsten Witte, “Visual Pleasure Inhibited: Aspects of the German Revue Film.” New German Critique 24/25 (Autumn 1981/Winter 1982): pp. 238-263, at pp. 238, 243.

11 Ibid., p. 261.

12 For a further discussion of Triumph des Willens, see David B. Hinton, “’Triumph of the Will’: Document or Artifice?” Cinema Journal 15, 1 (Autumn 1975): pp. 48-57. The opening scene descriptions are from my own observations and take of the film.

13 Reuth, Goebbels, p. 141.

14 Quoted in Ibid. For a long excerpt from this portion of Der Angriff, see Jay W. Baird, “From Berlin to Neubabelsberg: Nazi Film Propaganda and Hitler Youth Quex.” Journal of Contemporary History 18, 3 (July 1983): pp. 495-515, at p. 500.

15 Baird, “From Berlin to Neubabelsberg,” p. 501.

16 Ibid., p. 511.

17 Ibid., p. 495 (for the three points).

18 Quoted in Marcia Klotz, “Epistemological Ambiguity and the Fascist Text: Jew Suess, Carl Peters, and Ohm Krueger.” New German Critique 74 (Spring/Summer 1998): pp. 91-124, at p. 112.

19 Quoted in Ibid., p. 120.

20 Quoting Raul Hilberg, see the Introduction to Joseph November’s monograph “The Trial of Klaus Barbie: An Epic of Memory,” at

21 As quoted in Klotz, “Epistemological Ambiguity and the Fascist Text,” p. 119, n. 47. The rest of the descriptions are from my own observations and take of the film.

22 From my own observations and take of the film.

23 Hull, “Forbidden Fruit,” pp. 19-20, for the story; and from my own observations and take of the film. On the point about vampirism, see Klotz, “Epistemological Ambiguity and the Fascist Text,” pp. 100, 122. The film concludes with the ominous and cryptic warning: “May the citizens of other states never forget this lesson.”

24 Klotz, “Epistemological Ambiguity and the Fascist Text,” p. 97. On Goebbels and these anti-Semitic films, see Reuth, Goebbels, pp. 261-262, 277-278.

25 Hull, “Forbidden Fruit,” p. 28.

26 Quoted in Reimann, Goebbels, p. 127. The whole episode with Remarque’s film is described in pp. 126-127; and in William G. Chrystal, “Nazi Party Election Films, 1927-1938.” Cinema Journal 15, 1 (Autumn 1975): pp. 29-47, at p. 34.

27 Remarque’s biographer pays much attention to Remarque’s clashes with the Nazis, and the subsequent banning of his books. See Hilton Tims, Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003). Tims argues that post-1945 Germany was painfully (and disgracefully) slow to reinstate Remarque as part of the country’s literary and cultural canon. That process is still underway.

28 Wayne Kvam, “The Nazification of Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater Berlin.” Theatre Journal 40, 3 (October 1988): pp. 357-374, at p. 373.

29 See Alan E. Steinweis, “The Professional, Social, and Economic Dimensions of Nazi Cultural Policy: The Case of the Reich Theatre Chamber.” German Studies Review 13, 3 (October 1990): pp. 441-459, at pp. 444, 447-448.

30 Ibid., p. 453.

31 Mary-Margaret Goggin, “’Decent’ vs. ‘Degenerate’ Art: The National Socialist Case.” Art Journal 50, 4 (Winter 1991): pp. 84-92, at p. 86. See p. 89 of her article, on the fates of the many German artists that had to flee the country amid the artistic purges.

32 Ibid., p. 84.

33 Herbert P. Rothfeder, “’Amt Schrifttumspflege’: A Study in Literary Control.” German Studies Review 4, 1 (February 1981): pp. 63-78, at p. 65.

34 Ibid., p. 70.

35 Quoted in Ibid., p. 72.

36 Ibid., pp. 76-77, for details on this exception. Gerwin Strobl, “The Bard of Eugenics: Shakespeare and Racial Activism in the Third Reich.” Journal of Contemporary History 34, 3 (July 1999): pp. 323-336, is a fascinating and shocking piece about the ways in which Nazi racial ideology was seeped into the German Shakespeare Society, thereby granting a degree of historical and artistic legitimacy and prestige to Nazi racial ideas. There can be no finer example of the corrupting effects Nazi cultural policies had on all facets of culture in Germany – and beyond.

37 For these four points, see Michael H. Kater, “Forbidden Fruit? Jazz in the Third Reich.” The American Historical Review 94, 1 (February 1989): pp. 11-43, at p. 13.

38 Ibid., p. 30. The earlier quote by Goebbels on radio is quoted in Craig, “The True Believer.”

39 Cedric Larson, “The German Press Chamber.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 1, 4 (October 1937): pp. 53-70, at p. 56.

40 Ibid., p. 57. A fascinating article, based almost exclusively on the Reich press decree of 4 October 1933 and Nazi Party organs, like the Voelkischer Beobachter, written on the eve of war.

41 Reimann, Goebbels, p. 206.

42 Rentschler, “Ministry of Illusion,” p. 42.


from the November 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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