Joseph Goebbels Propaganda



   
    December 2011          
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Goebbels receiving young SS fighters, circa 1944.


 
 
 
 

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Goebbels, Propaganda and Myth

By Peter Bjel

This is the third and final article
for the first article click here
for the second article click here

The lack of tolerance for dissent and individuality was central to Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda. In the pre-war and wartime periods, Nazi myths and ideals became reality, underpinning and justifying Nazi policies, their enactment, and eventual wartime conduct. This is the third, and final installment, of three articles.

Central to the Third Reich’s propaganda was the lack of tolerance for dissent and individuality. So much of its pronouncements and rallying-calls emphasized the collectivism and unity of Germany, often against ubiquitous internal and outer derision. It culminated in the Second World War that, not without a hint of irony, Goebbels’ staff portrayed as a stepping-stone for Germany’s continental and global ascension, which had been forced on the country by outside forces and the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ influence. In the geopolitical realm, pre-war and during wartime, myths and ideals became reality, underpinning and justifying Nazi policies, their enactment, and eventual wartime conduct.

* * *

The earliest and most potent myth that came to justify the Nazis’ seizure of power, but was exploited repeatedly before then for its wide gravity, was that of the Versailles Treaty and the November 1918 “stab in the back,” which led to Germany’s economic and metaphysical ruin. Such early appropriations of subjects for propaganda and myth making had the added value of being widespread and not simply confined to the political lunatic fringe of the German far right. Post-war Germany was “an ideal incubator for a wide variety of totalitarian myths,” whereby so many politically atomized Germans turned to the proverbial security blanket of totalitarian ideology.1

“All versions of the myth agreed on the reason for the collapse of this almost perfect society in the First World war. Germany’s military defeat, and hence the establishment of the despised republic, was not the result of military setbacks but a consequence of an international Jewish politico-financial conspiracy.”2

For the fledgling, but soon emergent National Socialists, this was the proverbial grist to their mill, and became a staple myth out of which they found justification. From this emerged the Third Reich’s eventual pinpointing of enemies, their presence everywhere, constantly scheming to destabilize and, ultimately, destroy what had been created.

Joseph Goebbels partook in this myth making and scapegoat seeking: “Their policy was one of attack. Attack represented strength….In any situation, however adverse, aggression was the rule. On one occasion Goebbels found a policeman had confiscated his car because it was parked in front of a hotel entrance. He immediately created a scene, lost his temper and turned the situation into a public exhibition in which he called the policeman a Communist and began to incite the people attracted by the shouting against the government. The result of this, he boasts, was that the police thenceforth left his car strictly alone. Aggression pays!”3

As such, “The party, therefore, was constantly being rallied, and enemies created for it to fight. The enemies were the government, the Communists and the Jews.”4

Events and individuals were morphed into epitomized Nazi ideals, often courtesy of Goebbels himself. On 11 February 1927, at a beer hall in Pharus-Saele, Berlin, Goebbels undertook to craft an anti-Communist scheme that would destabilize the movement, confuse observers so as to have them question their real political allegiances and channelled resentments, and to also draw blood. As Joachim Fest has written, “His [Goebbels’] practice of stirring up fights was the logical application of a new, completely Machiavellian principle of propaganda. The blood which the party’s rise cost among its own members was regarded, not as an inevitable sacrifice in the struggle for a political conviction, but as a deliberate means of furthering a political agitation which had recognized that blood always makes the best headlines.”5

Communist street fighters, like these ones, were a common sight in Germany during the early 1920s. The Nazis’ routinely set their sights on the Communists.

According to Viktor Reimann, Goebbels then proceeded, after this brawl, to try and carry on his speech, all the while unnamed wounded SA men were dressed and bandaged on the platform by him. “Almost the whole Berlin press gave it front-page coverage….He had given the Berliners their sensation, and the press was full of it. Goebbels and the NSDAP [Nazi Party] were the talk of the town.”6

Partly out of these pitted factious battles emerged not only the theme of self-sacrifice, but also an undermining of individuality – which had also manifested as one of the targets in Nazi cultural policy (discussed in an earlier article). On the whole structures and myths of Nazism, Fest writes “…the whole arsenal of stimulants, developed with inventive ingenuity, for exciting public ecstasy was ultimately intended to bring about the individual’s self-annulment, a permanent state of mindlessness, with the aim of rendering first the party adherents and later a whole nation totally amenable to the leaders’ claim to power.”7

Goebbels’ party organ Der Angriff propagated the ‘fallen SA’ image as a laudable sacrifice. One such early figure was Ernst Schwartz. “Now this devout and committed man, a minister’s son, was the victim of the Communists, who had brutally murdered him. The example of Schwartz, the editors of Der Angriff hoped, would contribute to the myth that storm troopers were ordinary men, making extraordinary sacrifices for the benefit of Germany.”8 In this same fashion, the paramount instance of myth making and eulogizing of the Nazi ideal was with the legend of Horst Wessel.9

In reality, Wessel had been an ordinary SA man and labourer, whose love affair with a prostitute probably earned him the ire of her pimp, who proceeded to kill him. Nonetheless, Wessel was an identifiable ideal that Goebbels knew could be very valuable if tweaked and mythologized. “For Goebbels, it was insufficient to intone chants over the bodies of countless SA men. He was convinced that generalities do not move the masses; only easily identifiable symbols would serve such a purpose. The agony and death of Horst Wessel, killed by communists in the winter of 1930, was exactly the theme that the Gauleiter [i.e. Goebbels] needed to offer his propaganda the unifying symbol it lacked.”10

Wessel, who expired from his wounds after five agonizing weeks, became the subject of the “Horst Wessel Song” (or “Die Fahne hoch,” meaning “The Flag on High”). It was played at numerous Nazi Party rallies and at any time that Goebbels sought to invoke the ethos of heroic self-sacrifice for Fuehrer and Vaterland; eventually, it became the “official ballad of the NSDAP.”11

Horst Wessel (above) became the focus of a concerted myth of heroism and self-sacrifice.

In the same time period of the 1920s that Goebbels first became involved with the Nazi Party, the movement had been driven underground for reasons of legality and disunity. It had been divided up into regional branches that often worked incongruously, instead of synonymously. It was a truly divided house: “The Nazi movement that Hitler confronted on his release from Landsberg in December 1924 was in a state of decline and organizational dissolution.” Having realized that an armed putsch against the Weimar Republic could only end in failure, Hitler knew that “the old party with its image of a compact pseudo-military shock troop was not only anachronistic, but, in view of Hitler’s probationary release from jail, politically dangerous.”12 It should also be added that, “In November 1923 the NSDAP did not have this kind of support: it was not an all-German party, and its organizational distinction from the rest of the Bavarian folkish movement was not always clear.”13

Yet, when the advantage had switched to Hitler, Goebbels and company, reality was wilfully cloaked by myth and propaganda. This period was later collectively being referred to in reverence as, again, Kampfzeit, or the “time of struggle. Upon his release from prison, Hitler, at the famous Munich Buergerbraeukeller, invoked “the past unity of the movement,” but failed to mention his differences with Erich Ludendorff, his trial and imprisonment, and declared his ultimate personal responsibility for the course of the Nazi movement, which won him praise, “enthusiastic applause and cries of Heil.”14

Goebbels mythologized the figure of Hitler throughout the Third Reich’s twelve years. “Goebbels accompanied his doctrinal sermons with incessant adulation of Hitler. Indeed, this was the most important factor in the creation of the Hitler myth, the invention of the public figure of the Fuehrer as distinct from Hitler the private person, and in making it a force for consensus and national unity, first in the Nazi movement and later in the Third Reich.”15

Dietrich Orlow intimates in his analysis that it was after this point in Nazi Party history that there began to be constructed, by Goebbels and company, the enduring concept and image of the ‘Hitler myth.’ As he writes: “After the Buergerbraeukeller speech Hitler moved quickly to convert emotional acceptance of his personification of the leader myth into concrete, organizational control of those captured by his charismatic appeal. His method was simple. In effect, he deliberately repeated his Buergerbraeukeller performance numerous times as, throughout the spring and summer, he tirelessly appeared at party section meetings (that is, gatherings restricted to party members and their guests) in the city….Through these meetings Hitler quite literally succeeded in solidifying and formalizing the effects of his charismatic control devices – oral communication, handshakes, eye-to-eye contact, and the like – into the members’ personal subordination to his organizational leadership. He made rapid progress, moreover, in winning over the membership.”16

Shortly thereafter, the myth had grown exponentially: “By the end of 1925 Hitler’s isolationist tactics, his consistent anti-Semitism, and the publication of his autobiography had securely established his status in the south as a super leader who fulfilled and embodied the leader myth….Hitler’s 1923 Putsch became the culmination of a series of events that began on August 1, 1914. Hitler was the personification of the German struggle against all enemies, foreign and domestic, from 1914 to 1923. He was not only the concrete leader of the future folkish Germany, but his leadership had also given meaning to the Reich’s past struggles. He was the twentieth-century leader of the German people.”17

Goebbels worked actively to create a generic image of Hitler that could appeal to cross-strata German society, of all ages, emphasizing the “heroic aspect of his personality. His portrait was a potpourri with something for everyone.”18 After the Nazi seizure of power, electoral films – as distinct from the supervised creative work being churned out by the Ministry of Culture – were tagging this theme of the Hitler myth.

William G. Chrystal writes: “Hitler is a man who creates his own economics – and it works. He creates his own foreign policy – and the Rhineland returns to the Reich. He creates his new armed forces, and the allies do nothing to stop him. In short, Hitler does exactly what he promised he would. The March 29, 1936, plebiscite found 99 percent of the votes in his favor.”19

Nazi propagandists often cast Hitler as a divine-like icon, as this example shows.

Goebbels was enraptured by this hallowed Fuehrer, throwing his own cautions and advice to the wind, even at times as when during the war, real defeat began to loom on Germany. After the 20 July 1944 Army bomb plot attempt against Hitler, Goebbels attributed Hitler’s survival to something akin to Divine Providence.20 The myth was not altogether phoniness, given that Hitler was extremely lucky in this particular attempt on his life, but it resonated among many ordinary Germans: “Accordingly it was women in particular who worshipped him, who fell into ecstasies when they saw him in person, who even set up a ‘Fuehrer niche’ in their living rooms, with flowers and his picture, in place of the little religious shrine they would previously have had….In the eyes of many Germans, Hitler, as a substitute for God, stood above earthly concerns.”21

In the course of the Second World War, the Nazis, in their supreme confidence in total and absolute victory through war, conquest and territorial expansionism, eventually found themselves seriously overdrawn. It was logical that, in the winter of 1942-1943, the shattering defeats at the Battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein shifted the course of the war against them. For Goebbels, this was an ideological challenge, as much as it was a practical one, of reconciling a decisive defeat – specifically at Stalingrad – with the all-purveying myth of Nazi invincibility.

Hitler himself partook in this saving-face even before the spectre of defeat loomed on Germany, instructing journalists that, “Instead of stressing the capture of localities in and around Stalingrad, they were to emphasize the bitterness of the fighting and the bravery of the German soldier. Stalingrad was to be referred to as a fortress which had to be stormed; if the campaign slowed down, the strength of the Soviet fortifications would serve as a ready excuse.”22

In late October 1942, the SS paper Das Schwarze Korps portrayed the Soviet Red Army’s resilience and strength in racial and bestial terms. “The Bolsheviks on the other hand refused to realize when a struggle was useless, and continued to fight to the last man. Thus Stalingrad represented the quintessence of the Soviet contempt for the human race.”23 When the freezing cold defeat did become clear, Hitler gave Goebbels permission to disclose this truth, but to keep dramatizing “the heroism and self-sacrifice of the men at Stalingrad in order to urge a more dedicated war effort on the German home front,” and that “An entire Army had sacrificed itself ‘for all of us,’ and indeed, for western civilization. Goethe and Beethoven, Augustus and Pericles were being defended in the wilds of the East.”24 It was saving face, in light of military disaster, through the craft of myth making.25

Only as the war came home to the Third Reich’s capital did the edifice of propaganda, myth and illusion, honed and constructed wilfully by Goebbels, begin to fall apart like a row of dominoes. When, in April 1945, this apparatus fell apart, its parent regime’s fate was not long in following. After the 20 July bomb plot on Hitler, Goebbels finally was given the title Minister for Total War. Even in his time-honoured capacity for delivering the tasks Hitler so demanded, the war made his new portfolio completely useless, but for delaying the inevitable for a few months’ longer.

In the same fashion as the Horst Wessel sacrifice, Goebbels justified the destruction of Germany brought on by Hitler’s policies – now a target, after 1943 especially, of routine Allied carpet bombings – by first promising retaliation, or Vergeltung, which became a staple of his propaganda after 1943. It then began dying out for its incongruity, laughable mythologizing of the V-1 and V-2 rockets’ effectiveness, “Unrestrained exaggeration and downright dishonesty…”26 When this promise fell through, he seized on faith in Hitler, and in the spirit of resistance: “But for us it has always been a fixed and immutable principle that the word capitulation does not exist in our vocabulary!…We have faith in victory because we have the Fuehrer!…Faith can move mountains! This mountain-moving faith must fill our hearts!”27

A photo of the V-2 rocket, sometime in 1945. Goebbels attempted to mythologize the V-2 capability in the final period of World War II.

“By 1944 Goebbels was making propaganda as much for himself and the leadership as for the masses: It was a consolation in the midst of despair and destruction.”28 In the final weeks of April 1945, Goebbels tried to make the most out of the groups of resistance fighters, known as ‘Werewolves,’ defending the Reich capital and executing any pacifists or defeatists that they found, but like Hitler’s strategic scope, the reality was actually sorrier than the figures on paper.29

Thus, unity, myth, ubiquitous enemies and war came to underpin, by Goebbels’ machinations, the scope of Nazi geopolitics, stretching from the period of Hitler’s release from prison, to the final days of the Third Reich. In its essence, it was a phenomenon that involved making real that which was not, and vice-versa, in the underpinning of Nazi geopolitical conduct and function.

In his desperation and secluded isolation, awaiting the moment that he would be deported to a dark but uncertain place, Victor Klemperer, an academic before the war (and a Jew by birth, who later became a Protestant), meticulously kept a diary that fulfilled his own need to resist Hitler the only way that he could. At the risk of death if discovered, he also chronicled in its pages how he secretly worked on a manuscript entitled LTI (Lingua tertii imperii), dealing with language usage and the deliberate, common literary and figurative metamorphoses taking place at the hands of the Nazis, transforming, for example, words ordinarily denoting vices into Nazi-extolled virtues. Essentially, Klemperer documented the constant and wilful twisting of reality taking place around him. The all-pervasive presence of Goebbels figures throughout his diary from 1942-1945.30

Victor Klemperer, circa 1952

Klemperer was one of the lucky Jews (irrespective of how he viewed himself) to survive the Third Reich. So many others did not, whose forced emigration and, eventually, isolation, vulnerability and murder were spurred on and justified in no small measure by Goebbels’ own opportunistic anti-Semitism and propaganda, which held out even though it proved to be a shaky foundation in the Third Reich’s dying days. “All his attempts to paint the universal enemy as a wirepuller at work from Moscow to Wall Street were shattered by the reality of the frightened and harassed human beings wearing the yellow star, who for a time wandered the streets of German cities before suddenly vanishing forever.”31

Consistently vilified and vilely demonized in propaganda, popular culture, official ideology, the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms, and foreign policy (the Nazis’ other war), the image of ‘Der Ewige Jude,’ the ‘Eternal Jew,’ to not speak of the boosts provided by the film of the same name, led straight to the “Final Solution.” This was the culmination and ultimate price paid by Goebbels’ misanthropy-turned-opportunism.

***

As Nazi propaganda was born by Goebbels, so too did it die with him. His final days were spent in Berlin, where he partook in the Reich Chancellery bunker’s macabre final events that characterized the end of the Third Reich. Up to the very end, he and his dwindling number of staffers had kept churning out radio broadcasts and editorials in Das Reich, glorifying and edifying self-sacrifice, heroic resistance, and perseverance to a time when war, the conglomerate of international Jewry and Bolshevism would be a thing of the past, the Greater German Reich resurrected, and the Fuehrer back to where he rightfully began his unfinished mandate.

Goebbels and his six children. He and his wife poisoned them before aving themselves shot outside Hitler’s bunker on the evening of 1 May 1945.

His last article in Das Reich was, predictably, entitled “Resistance at Any Cost,” and the only factor that stopped him from propagating it was because the paper could not be distributed.32 Along with his wife and six children, he joined Hitler and the remaining Nazi entourage in the bunker beneath the wrecked Chancellery, where Goebbels partook in Hitler’s final birthday celebration on 20 April and, nine days later, was a formal witness to his marriage to Eva Bruan, and co-signed his last will and testament. Two days later, on the evening of 1 May, Goebbels mimicked Hitler’s conduct by having himself and his wife shot by an SS orderly – but not before they had their six children poisoned as they slept.33

To restate matters, the uses of ubiquitous propaganda were crucial for Nazi rule; 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. The scope and unprecedented apparatus of the Nazi system of propaganda distinctively owed its genesis to Goebbels, who crucially went about creatively and subtly disseminating the Nazi ethos via cultural routes. There were scarcely any remaining cultural avenues left that had not been touched by him. To underpin Nazi geopolitics, and all the policies that figured from this realm, propaganda and the creation of myths transformed the unreal into reality and justified Nazi policies and conduct; when warfare came smashing into the centre of the Third Reich, so too was Goebbels’ system smashed.

On the surface, it is hard to believe that so much of the Nazi phenomenon owes its manifestation to Goebbels. While it did not emanate solely from him, he was the link, the “practitioner and technician” of totalitarian rule that Hitler seized upon to carry forth Nazism. “Until he discovered Hitler, he [Goebbels] lived in a void, clutching at changing ideologies, feeding on nihilism and resentment.”34 The negativity lingered on well past his discovery of Hitler and Nazism; the legacies of this still live.

* * * * *

- 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 peterbjel@hotmail.com. This is the final third of three articles about Goebbels, propaganda and the Third Reich.


NOTES:

1 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 pp. 906-907.

2 Ibid., p. 907.

3 Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels: His Life and Death (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), p. 107.

4 Ibid.

5 Joachim C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), p. 90.

6 Viktor Reimann, Goebbels: The Man Who Created Hitler (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), pp. 76-77. He adds: “Goebbels’ conquest of Berlin began with the battle in the Pharus-Saele. He had become known, he had gathered the activist party members around him, he had strengthened their fighting morale and whetted their aggressive appetites. They had tasted blood” (p. 77).

7 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 83.

8 Russell Lemmons, Goebbels and ‘Der Angriff’ (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), p. 67.

9 For full accounts of the Wessel affair, the details and motives behind his murder, and its conversion to Nazi myth, see Ibid., pp. 71-75; Reimann, Goebbels, p. 117; and Ralf Georg Reuth, Goebbels: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), pp. 110-113.

10 Jay W. Baird, “Goebbels, Horst Wessel, and the Myth of Resurrection and Return.” Journal of Contemporary History 17, 4 (October 1982): pp. 633-650, at p. 634.

11 Lemmons, Goebbels and ‘Der Angriff,’ pp. 71-72. For more on the myth and its manifestations, see Baird, “Goebbels, Horst Wessel, and the Myth of Resurrection and Return.”

12 Orlow, “The Conversion of Myths into Political Power,” p. 910.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., pp. 912-913, for details.

15 Gordon A. Craig, “The True Believer.” New York Review of Books 41, 6 (24 March 1994), HTML.

16 Orlow, “The Conversion of Myths into Political Power,” p. 913.

17 Ibid., p. 918.

18 Herzstein, The War that Hitler Won, p. 54.

19 Chrystal, “Nazi Party Election Films,” p. 43.

20 Reuth, Goebbels, p. 333, on the pseudo-religious portrayal of Hitler’s survival. On throwing caution to the wind, see pp. 291-292, for example. See also Reimann, Goebbels, pp. 294-295.

21 Ibid., p. 232. The literature on the 20 July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life, and on the German Resistance itself, is growing steadily. A good start – by this author’s recommendation – is Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance (New York: Owl Books, 1997). It chronicles not only the circumstances leading to 20 July, but tells the story of the German Resistance from the beginning – including its broader failures and constant ineptness to stop Hitler and the Nazis.

22 Jay W. Baird, “The Myth of Stalingrad.” Journal of Contemporary History 4, 3 (July 1969): pp. 187-204, at p. 189.

23 Ibid., pp. 190-191.

24 Ibid., pp. 196, 200.

25 Baird writes: “Hitler and Goebbels realized that the propaganda coverage of the disaster had to be treated in an extraordinary fashion. Neither factual reporting nor traditional misrepresentation would serve their purpose, and they decided that the sacrifice along the Volga could be explained only by way of a myth. Reality was thus to be reinterpreted” (Ibid., pp. 197-198).

26 See Gerald Kirwin, “Waiting for Retaliation: A Study in Nazi Propaganda Behaviour and German Civilian Morale.” Journal of Contemporary History 16, 3 (July 1981): pp. 565-583, at pp. 566, 576, 579, for these points.

27 Quoted in Reuth, Goebbels, p. 313.

28 Robert E. Herzstein, The War that Hitler Won: The Most Infamous Propaganda Campaign in History (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978), p. 107.

29 Manvell and Fraenkel, Dr. Goebbels, p. 252, on details of the ‘Werewolf’ propaganda.

30 See Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

31 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 94.

32 On this, see Reuth, Goebbels, p. 355.

33 See H. R. Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler (New York: Macmillan Company, 1947), pp. 212-214, on the description of the Goebbels’ deaths. A more recent analysis of those final days is Joachim Fest, Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2004), pp. 141-146 (for the death of Goebbels).

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

~~~~~~~

from the December 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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