Joseph Goebbels

Background

Following the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles penalises the defeated Germany, annexing land, imposing large war reparations, limiting the size of the German Army and blaming Germany and Austria-Hungary for starting the conflict. The new German Government, a coalition of left-leaning and centrist parties, attempts to rebuild the country but faces opposition from the right and extreme left. The instability is exacerbated by the failure of the domestic and global economies.

Adolf Hitler's National Socialist (Nazi) Party exploits the situation, advocating national pride, blaming the Treaty of Versailles, the left, and Jews for the political turmoil and claiming to have a solution to the economic crisis. The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January 1933 when Hitler is appointed chancellor. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 29 October 1897 in Rheydt, in the Rhineland, Germany, into a strict Roman Catholic working class family.

1921 - He graduates from Heidelberg University with a doctorate in literature and philosophy and pursues a career in journalism and writing.

1924 - He joins the Nazi Party, serving as editor of two party periodicals.

1925 - He is made business manager of the party in the Ruhr district and works with Gregor Strasser, head of the party in northern Germany.

1926 - When conflict develops between Hitler and Strasser, Goebbels switches his loyalty to Hitler. He is rewarded in November when Hitler appoints him as Nazi district head for the Berlin-Brandenburg region. Goebbels seizes the opportunity, using his talents for organisation and public speaking to successfully build the strength of the party in the capital. He founds and becomes editor of the official National Socialist periodical 'Der Angriff' (The Attack), designs posters, publishes Nazi propaganda and organises Nazi demonstrations and spectacles.

1927 - The Nazi Party holds its first Nuremberg congress, a mass political rally that will become the party's signature propaganda event.

1928 - He is elected to the Reichstag (parliament) in May. Six months later he is elected to the Berlin City Council.

1929 - Impressed with Goebbels' success in building the party in Berlin, Hitler gives him the additional post of Nazi propaganda director for all of Germany. Goebbels also runs the Nazis' election campaigns from 1930 to 1933. He exploits the suffering caused by the Great Depression to promote the Nazis, launching an intensive media campaign, using generalisations and nationalistic rhetoric to appeal to the community. The campaign promises something for all - work for the unemployed, profits to industry and small businesses, and expansion of the army and restoration of German pride.

The party's vast propaganda and publishing empire includes 120 daily or weekly newspapers regularly read by about a million people across Germany. Leftists and Jews are blamed for the country's economic woes. Hitler is portrayed as the saviour. Goebbels begins to create the Führer (Leader) myth around Hitler and to organise the ritualistic and highly choreographed party rallies that help convert the masses to Nazism and provide a platform for Hitler's accession to power in January 1933.

1931 - He marries Magda Quandt. The couple will have six children - Helga, Hilde, Helmut, Holde, Hedda, and Heide. Their names all start with the letter H in tribute to Hitler.

1933 - The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January when Hitler is appointed chancellor. Germany's last election until after the Second World War is held on 5 March. Though the Nazis win only 44% of the vote Hitler persuades the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Law, allowing him to govern independently for four years.

Hitler is now the Führer, the dictator of the fascist Third Reich, an empire where the individual belongs to the state, and where the state is fully controlled by the Nazis.

All Nazis in prison are issued with full pardons; critics of the government and the Nazi Party are subject to arrest; special courts are established for the trial of political detainees. Regional governments are dissolved and then reconstituted with governors handpicked by Hitler. Leftist political parties are banned; Germany is declared a one-party state; Jews and leftists are purged from the bureaucracy; and trade unions are dissolved and replaced with Nazi organisations.

A program of public works, rearmament and forced labour helps bring the economy under control. Inflation comes down, the currency is stabilised and full employment achieved.

On 13 March Goebbels becomes head of the newly created National Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. He is also made president of the newly formed Chamber of Culture for the Reich. These positions give him complete control over the press, radio, theatre, films, literature, music, and the fine arts.

Goebbels uses his power to flood the country with Nazi propaganda, cementing the myth of the Führer and portraying Germans of Aryan stock as the rightful rulers of the world, the "master race." Jews are demonising as the chief enemy of the Reich. On 10 May he stages the "burning of the books" in Berlin. Works by Jewish, Marxist and other "subversive" authors are publicly burned in huge bonfires. On 14 October Germany withdraws from the League of Nations.

1935 - The 'Nuremberg Laws' introduced on 15 September strip Jews of the right to citizenship and restrict their relations with Gentiles.

1938 - Support for Hitler is further buoyed by his policy of foreign expansion. Austria is annexed on 13 March. The Sudetenland, the German-speaking area in the north of Czechoslovakia, is ceded to Germany on 29 September under the terms of the 'Munich Agreement' between Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Goebbels becomes a member of the Hitler Cabinet Council.

At the end of the year the persecution of the Jews intensifies. Over the days of 9-10 November the Nazis orchestrate the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) pogrom. Jewish shops, houses and synagogues across Germany are burnt by both the Schutz-Staffel (SS) - the 'Blackshirts', Hitler's personal guard - and the general population. Ninety-one Jews are killed. Thirty thousand are arrested and deported.

1939 - Bohemia and Moravia are occupied by Germany in March, while Slovakia is made a puppet state. German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Poland is overrun within a month. Denmark and Norway fall in April 1940. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France are invaded the following month. By the middle of June 1940 France has surrendered.

Meanwhile in Germany, the physically handicapped, mentally ill, and others with so-called "worthless lives" are rounded up and sent to designated hospitals, where they are killed. Referred to by the Nazis as mercy killing and planned by Hitler's office and the Reich Interior Ministry, the "euthanasia" program will claim up to 275,000 lives.

1940 - Beginning from 10 July, the 'Battle of Britain' rages in the skies as the British Royal Air Force (RAF) desperately combats wave after wave of aerial attacks and bombing raids by the Luftwaffe while launching counteroffensive bombing missions into Germany.

Though outnumbered by four to one the RAF is able to inflict enough damage to the German forces to cause Hitler to suspend 'Operation Sealion', the proposed invasion of Britain by sea. By the end of September the 'Battle of Britain' is effectively over. Germany has suffered its first major defeat of the war.

Meanwhile, Goebbels becomes editor of 'Das Reich', writing regular front-page "editorials" and lauding the successes of the German forces.

1941 - Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June. The United States enters the war when the Japanese air force bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December. Germany and Italy declare war on the US on 11 December.

1942 - He is one of the chief secret proponents of the Endlosung (Final Solution), the extermination of the Jews, Gipsies, Slavs, homosexuals, communists, and other "undesirables" and "decadents" in death camps run by the SS and controlled by the Gestapo, the secret state police. He personally supervises the deportation of Jews from Berlin and proposes that Jews along with Gipsies be regarded as "unconditionally exterminable." About six million European Jews die in the 'Holocaust'. Most (about 4.5 million) of those killed come from Poland and the Soviet Union. About 125,000 are German Jews.

The Holocaust also claims about 500,000 Gipsies, between 10,000 and 25,000 homosexuals, 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, up to 3.5 million non-Jewish Poles, between 3.5 million and six million other Slavic civilians, as many as four million Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 1.5 million political dissidents.

By the end of the year knowledge of the Final Solution becomes an open secret among the general community.

1943 - The war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd). By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.

The Western Allies take Africa in 1943, land in Sicily and Italy, and prepare for the 'D-Day' landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.

In the skies over Germany the Allied air forces intensify their bombing raids. The strategy of indiscriminate area bombing will kill an estimated 600,000 civilians, including about 75,000 children.

Goebbels' talents for deluding the public again come to fore. As the Allied forces encircle Germany, he intensifies the efforts to rally the home front and continue the fight. He calls for "total war" against the Allies. "Do you want total war?" he asks the German people. "Are you determined to follow the Führer and fight for victory whatever the cost? ...

"We have burned our bridges behind us. ... We shall either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals."

1944 - On 20 June Goebbels plays a pivotal role in putting down an attempted military coup following an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler by a group of conspirators led by army Colonel Count Claus Von Stauffenberg and including one field marshal and 22 generals. Several thousand people will be killed in reprisal for the attempt on Hitler's life.

In July Goebbels is appointed plenipotentiary for total war mobilisation. He imposes an austerity program and calls for ever greater civilian sacrifice, all the time arguing that victory for Germany is possible.

1945 - By March, as the Western forces reach the Rhine River, Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on Berlin. The Soviets march under the slogan, "There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind."

Few are spared. As the Soviets move through Germany they rape at least two million German women in an undisciplined advance that is now acknowledged as the largest case of mass rape in history.

By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. Goebbels and his family move to Hitler's bunker in Berlin on 20 April.

Despite certain defeat, Goebbels continues with the propaganda. "Every Berliner is responsible for his house or flat," he says in a broadcast on 25 April. "Houses and flats that show a white flag are no longer entitled to protection and community help and will be treated accordingly. The residents of such houses are to be held responsible. Such houses would be disease-causing bacteria on the body of the city."

On 30 April, following Hitler's suicide, Goebbels becomes chancellor of the Reich. On 1 May, as Soviet troops storm Berlin, Magda Goebbels poisons the couple's six children, aged five to 12. She is aided by Hitler's personal physician. Goebbels and Magda then commit suicide, taking cyanide before either shooting themselves or being shot by Goebbels' adjunct. Their bodies are incinerated a few metres away from Hitler's remains.

On 7 May Germany surrenders unconditionally.

Postscript

The Second World War officially ends on 2 September when Japan formally signs documents of unconditional surrender.

Over 46 million Europeans have died as a result of the war. Worldwide, over 60 million have died.

Beginning in November 1945, 22 surviving Nazi leaders considered responsible for the crimes committed by Germany during the war are tried before an international military tribunal sitting in Nuremberg. Among those brought before the tribunal are Hermann Göring, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess, and Albert Speer. Twelve of the accused are sentenced to death, seven receive prison sentences, and three are acquitted.

Following the high-profile Nuremberg trials, lower-ranking Nazi war criminals are also brought to justice.

2005 - On 10 May a national memorial to the Holocaust is opened in Berlin. The 'Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe' is located near the Brandenburg Gate in the centre of the city. It includes a museum with exhibits on the Nazi's campaign to wipe out European Jews.

Comment

Goebbels is often credited with having a sharp intelligence, but his was an intelligence malformed by the cunning, cynicism and opportunism of a master propagandist. The creation and promulgation of propaganda was turned into an "art" in Goebbels' hands. He would have been quite capable of arguing that black was white, and of convincing his audience that it really was so, or at least implanting a germ of doubt. Some say that Goebbels never actually lied, just exaggerated the truth. But Goebbels embraced Hitler's theory that a big lie was often more credible than a smaller one.

The Third Reich has gone, but propaganda remains with us, influencing us daily in the press, on radio and television, and on the internet. The loaded messages from politicians, analysts, pundits, journalists, pollsters, economists, clerics, industry, commerce, unions, political parties, lobby groups, public relations firms - the whole propaganda diaspora - are not as integrated as in Goebbels' fascist state, but the effect is just as pernicious and misleading. But this is all just another message with a load.