People & Events
Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945)
Once described as having, "a high intellectual varnish covering the emotional world of an adolescent," Goebbels was a small man with a crippled foot, a disproportionately large head and a fragile body. He was much disliked because of his malice and ill will, and though a mesmerizing orator, he lacked charisma. Nevertheless, he was a man of tremendous enthusiasm with an endless supply of ideas, and as a master of mass psychology, he became indispensable to Adolf Hitler.
The son of a bookkeeper, Goebbels was brought up in a devoutly Catholic home. His parents hoped he would be a priest, but he saw his future as a writer and instead studied philosophy and literature, earning a Ph.D. in drama in 1921. Goebbels' literary aspirations were never realized, however. He received endless rejections from newspapers and publishing houses and ultimately, his pompous overwrought style made him more suited to the life of political rhetoric.
By the mid-1920's, Hitler had recognized Goebbels' talents and, in November of 1926, sent him to "Red" Berlin to firmly establish the Nazi presence in the city. In 1928 he made Goebbels his propaganda chief. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Goebbels began to clamp down on all forms of artistic expression, banishing Jewish writers, journalists and artists from Germany's cultural life. He took control of the news media, making sure that it presented Germany's domestic and foreign policy aims as in terms of Nazi ideology. He played probably the most important role in creating an atmosphere in Germany that made it possible for the Nazis to commit terrible atrocities against Jews, homosexuals and other minorities. In some instances, he authorized the violence himself. On November 9, 1938, after a German diplomat had been killed by a Jewish teenager in Paris, Goebbels issued instructions for "spontaneous demonstrations" to be executed against the Jews during the night. The subsequent pogrom, often referred to as "Kristallnacht," led to the deaths of 91 Jews, the incarceration in concentration camps of 30,000 others and the destruction of about 7,000 Jewish businesses and more than 900 synagogues.
During the war, Goebbels devoted much of his efforts to boosting war morale. He wrote innumerable articles and speeches rousing the German people, promising wonder weapons and providing projections of a final victory that he knew were pure fantasy. Right until the end of the war he worked to encourage the German people to resist the Allies with all their strength. At the same time he knew that defeat would have dire consequences for the Nazi leadership. "We are already so enmeshed above all in the Jewish question that there is no escape for us," he wrote in his diary in March 1943.
On April 30, 1945, the day Hitler killed himself in his bunker, Goebbels was among a small coterie of the Führer's inner circle who retrieved the body and placed it in the garden outside where it was burned. On May 1, Goebbels followed Hitler's lead. He poisoned his six children, and then shot his wife and himself. His adjutant set fire to the bodies. The next day Russian troops found the family's charred remains.