Friday, July 6, 2012

Goebbels: The Mastermind of the Third Reich, by David Irving

When I mentioned to friends that I was reading this biography, most of them asked me why. For the same reasons I read any other biography, I suppose: I wanted to know what made Joseph Goebbels tick. He was indisputably one of the most influential people of the 20th century. Why would anyone not want to read about him?

This particular biography, which I spotted and downloaded on a whim, turns out to have a controversial history of its own. In the preface, the author states that Jewish organisations protested the book's publication in the US and won. Irving chose to self-publish the book in the UK. It was not the book's content that caused the furore, I discovered, but its author. If you look up 'Holocaust Denial' on Wikipedia, you'll find a photograph of David Irving. I was about 1/3 of the way through this book when I discovered that, and it gave me pause. I needed to learn more about the author's reliability as an historian before continuing.  I'm still a bit bewildered, to be frank.

Reputable reviewers, including historian Stephen Spender, have declared Irving's research to be meticulous, extensive and important, and this biography reflects that. I found his portrait of Goebbels very balanced and copiously annotated. He has no qualms pointing out the Nazis' foibles. He found and reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of Goebbels' diaries (mostly in Russian archives now), and matched them with other sources to check their veracity -- and by doing so, he often found the Propaganda Minister to be deceiving himself in his own diaries. In short, this is no hagiography.

So what about this holocaust denial issue? I have not read Irving's other writing, and I don't feel inclined to go off on that particular tangent. I wanted to learn about Goebbels, and I was trying to gauge the reliability of my guide. What exactly is Irving denying? How much can a rational person reasonably deny? With my admittedly limited knowledge of Nazi history, I know  the Nazis committed very little to writing of their decision to build extermination camps. In this book, Irving concedes that the Jews suffered dreadful persecutions, deportations and death in high numbers. What he appears to deny is that the Nazis ever established facilities for mass murder. He acknowledges that the Nazis deported vast numbers of Jews, who were subsequently killed by Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Latvians, etc. He writes that Auschwitz was a slave labour camp but maintains that Jews died there from overwork, malnutrition and disease. He does not admit the existence of gas chambers or crematoria. This is where I scratch my head: Irving concedes that the Nazis sent vast numbers of Jews to their deaths after robbing them of their businesses and belongings, and his choice of adjectives -- brutal, ruthless -- suggests that he does not approve. Does it matter whether they met death in a purpose-built gas chamber or in a Ukrainian forest?

Goebbels certainly didn't think so. He just wanted them all dead. At times, Hitler stepped in to tone down his Minister's rabid anti-Semitism. Where did this hate-filled man come from?

A good Catholic household, it turns out. As a boy, Joseph was very devout, his teachers praising his "religious fervour". He was also a very small man -- he would reach only 5'6" and would never exceed 100 lbs. in weight, inviting comments about a Napoleon complex. He had a club foot, which cost him much teasing as a child and pain as an adult; it was his leg brace which allowed witnesses to identify his charred corpse at the end. Both friends and enemies referred to him as 'the little doctor'. (He earned his PhD in Literature from Heidelberg). Goebbels is a text-book case of the bullied weakling who later uses his intellect to deadly effect.

As a young man, Goebbels was passionately -- but chastely -- obsessed with many women. He wrote them effusive letters and poetry, and he authored a number of highly romantic plays. None, alas, was published. If Hitler was a frustrated artist, Goebbels was a frustrated author. The main publishing houses were, of course, run by Jews.
Perhaps he still derives most pleasure from the anticipation, the plotting, and the romantic language of an affair. His girls are bowled over by the literary style and the intensity with which he woos them. He sets Else and Alma to copying out his articles and verses. But his writings are universally rejected by the big Jewish publishers like Mosse and Ullstein in Berlin... The more the products of his festering intellect were rejected by unseen editors, the more he saw the Jews behind his torment.
When Goebbels finally got round to embracing the National Socialist cause, madly inspired by Hitler, he realised his true potential as a propagandist.
In his hands, he would write, he found that the soul of the German working man was as soft as wax, and he could knead it and mould it as he desired.
Although his writing and speeches could move multitudes, his personal relationships (or the absence of them) vexed him throughout his life. He remained a virgin until he was in his 30s, and when women did pursue him in later years, it was quite possibly because of his position and the prestige attached to it. He was frequently distressed to find that people he had counted as friends actually despised him.
He found it hard to make true friends. He found his Alsatian dog more likeable than many a human being... His romantic escapades left him filed with self-hatred too. Else now rarely wrote to him, having found him juvenile and adolescent. He had started a parallel relationship with another girl, Elisabeth Gensicke, but nothing came of it. "From year to year," he reflected, "I shall be more and more lonely until I end up all alone without love and without a family." That was his dread.
His own sexual life was a mixture of prudishness, rapacity and hypocrisy. He married a divorcee, Magda, and with her produced six children. He had at least one highly-publicised and disastrous affair with a Hungarian actress, and dalliances with many more women, yet he espoused chastity and wholesome family life.
[Goebbels grew] profoundly indignant when he saw Hamburg's red-light district around the Reeperbahn, with the half naked hookers standing in their doorways. A local Party official later recalled that one keen young S.A. man asked, "Doktor, what'll we do with streets like this after the revolution?" and Goebbels snarled in reply: "We shall sweep them away like the garbage that they are!" He went on to develop a picture of a Germanic youth elite unexampled in purity and virtuousness since the days of the crusades and monastic orders.
The one staunch and devout love of his life was for his Fuhrer.  He sometimes disagreed with Hitler, but his concerns were shrouded in polite euphemism in his diaries. From the beginning of their friendship til the end (Goebbels was the only one of the top Nazi brass to be with Hitler in the Berlin bunker at the end), and throughout the periods when Hitler excluded him from much of the decision-making, Goebbels professed love and admiration.
That day he and Hitler drove up to Stuttgart to speak at two meetings and again Hitler flung his arms around him. "Adolf Hitler," the young man wrote mushily in his diary back at Elberfeld, "I love you: because you are great and simple at the same time -- what we call a genius."
Goebbels' relationship with Hermann  Göring, however, was more erratic and fraught. In the early years,  Göring was battling a morphine addiction. Goebbels, who embraced socialism with a passion, decried the large man's wealth and greed. He soon discovered, though, his own lust for powerful Daimler-Benz automobiles and opulent homes, and again his own hypocrisy seemed to elude him.

Hitler was well-known for pitting members of his innermost circle against each other, so there was constant and shifting friction between Goebbels,  Göring , Himmler, Speer, Ribbentrop and others. While he was enormously effective at delivering rousing speeches live and on radio, those who met the Propaganda Minister had a range of reactions to him.
He was now thirty-five, his life already three-quarters spent."Goebbels" wrote one official English visitor at this time, "has charm and a captivating smile and manner”surprising, he felt, in one described as the cruellest man in the whole movement. The Englishman detected in Goebbels something of an intensely enthusiastic undergraduate, but also a dangerous fanatic. Franz von Papen was struck by the wide mouth and intelligent eyes. General Werner von Blomberg, Hitler's new defence minister, felt that Goebbels was convinced of his own superiority. Goebbels' staff would find him a disagreeable employer. He rarely showed gratitude, and preferred cruel sarcasm to measured criticism. "A man with many enemies," concluded Blomberg, "Goebbels had no friends at all."
Goebbels was the tyrant of German culture during the Third Reich. No aspect of artistic life escaped his opinion or control.
His ministry would eventually sprawl over fifty-four buildings in Berlin alone... Henceforth, German art was to be pure. The chamber of music prohibited the playing of atonal,"Jewish" and Negro music; surrealist art, cubism, and dadaism were among the prohibited genres...
Corrupted by power he was becoming more autocratic, even dictatorial. He arbitrarily forbade his adjutant to touch alcohol for six months. He punished radio station directors for going on a binge. He ordered a careless bus driver arrested.
Goebbels' greatest influence, of course, was on the press, all forms of which he treated as his personal (or rather the Nazi party's) mouthpiece. He blatantly and openly contorted facts to suit his agenda. Goebbels was, after all, the author of the credo that any lie told often enough and with enough conviction will be believed. When the Nazis wanted to annex Sudetanland (then part of Czechoslovakia), Goebbels focused on stories about Czech attacks on Sudetan Germans, many of which were purely manufactured.
This did lead to local difficulties... press chief Franz Haeller objected to one particular story about Czech attacks on Sudeten Germans pointing out that this was his own village, and it enjoyed particularly good ethnic relations. "Tell me," retorted Goebbels, grinning, "how big is your village?" Haeller told him. "Right," said Goebbels, grinning evilly. "So three hundred people know we are lying. But the rest of the world still has to find out!"
Music also fell under Goebbels' authority and control.
He decided to appoint Karl Boehm to the Dresden opera (Boehm was one of the many top Nazi musicians who would effortlessly perform the volte face necessary to stay at the top after the coming war).  
Irving credits Goebbels with inciting the destruction and chaos of Kristallnacht. He cites numerous documents which indicate that Hitler not only knew nothing about it beforehand but castigated Goebbels for it later. Not, mind you, because he was more compassionate, but he was more aware of the pogrom's effect on foreign opinion.
What of Himmler and Hitler? Both were totally unaware of what Goebbels had done until the synagogue next to Munich's Four Seasons Hotel was set on fire around one a.m.
According to Julius Schaub, the most intimate of his aides, Hitler "made a terrible scene with Goebbels" and left no doubt as to the damage done abroad to Germany's name. He sent Schaub and his colleagues out into the streets to stop the looting.
Philipp Bouhler, head of the Fuhrer's private chancellery, told one of Goebbels' senior officials that Hitler utterly condemned the pogrom and intended to dismiss Goebbels. Fritz Wiedemann, another of Hitler's adjutants, saw Goebbels spending much of that night telephoning to halt the most violent excesses. Rudolf Hess's staff also began cabling, telephoning, and radio-ing instructions to gauleiters and police authorities around the nation to halt the madness. But twenty thousand Jews were already being loaded onto trucks and transported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Oranienburg. Hitler made no attempt to halt this inhumanity. He stood by, and thus deserved the odium that now befell all Germany.
The fiasco that was Kristallnacht, which cost German insurance companies a fortune, severely damaged Hitler's trust in Goebbels; henceforth, the Fuhrer limited the information he shared with his Minister, much to Goebbels' frustration.
Irving makes several references to a plan Hitler considered to round up all the Jews and relocate them to Madagascar. In the meantime, however, they were being shipped out of Germany to neighbouring countries, where they met their ends at the hands of non-Germans. Only once does Irving mention gas chambers, and he claims that Goebbels attributes that to British propaganda.
Ugly rumours were already circulating abroad, fuelled by British propaganda. The Daily Telegraph quoted Polish claims that seven thousand of Warsaw's Jews were being killed each day, often in what it called "gas chambers..."
When reading a biography of someone who is generally judged to be evil, I keep an eye open for redeeming qualities. Irving found very little in his subject that's praiseworthy, apart from his unflagging loyalty to and admiration of Adolph Hitler. At first it seemed that Goebbels was very devoted to his children, but it appears they were little more to him than photo props.
His new press expert Rudolf Semler found himself wondering sometimes however whether the minister really did love his children. He seldom showed them true affection, noticed Semler, and only rarely saw them now. He refused to lower himself to play trains with little Helmut; with his precocious oldest daughters Helga and Hilde the minister either flirted outrageously or tested their intellect to the point of tears. The others he virtually ignored except for photo calls.
Although several people offered to take the children to safety when the Soviets were closing in on Berlin, Joseph and Magda insisted that the six children die with them in the bunker. A doctor sedated the children with morphine, and Magda then broke cyanide tabs into their mouths. The parents then went out to the garden together to end their own lives.

I mentioned to an English friend that I was reading this book, and he sang the following ditty, which was popular amongst British troops during the war:
Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.
It's ironic, as Goebbels stuck it out til the very end in Berlin with the Allied air raids crashing round the chancellery and the Soviet troops closing in. Göring and Himmler fled. Goebbels, however, displayed the fortitude for which the British royals earned so much praise. He functioned relatively competently even as Hitler began to crumble. He believed in their cause til the last moment. He was not cowardly, nor stupid. He was bitter, hateful and cynical. Was he, as Irving's subtitle says, the mastermind of the Third Reich? He couldn't have amounted to much except in Hitler's shadow, but conversely, Hitler would never have gone as far as he did without Goebbels' machinations.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.