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The Man Behind Hitler | Article

Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945)

USHMM, Courtesy of Geoffery Giles

Paul Joseph Goebbels was a small man with a large head, a crippled foot, and a fragile body, but his voice was mesmerizing. Unlike Adolf Hitler, whose rough voice sometimes broke when he reached a fever pitch of oration, Goebbels' speech was deep and resonant, never wavering from its carefully crafted message of German superiority and rabid anti-Semitism. As Hitler's Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Goebbels masterminded the Nazi propaganda machine and executed its murderous agenda. And no one believed his message more than Goebbels himself.

Finding His Voice
Goebbels was born into a strict Catholic, working-class family in Rheydt, Germany, in 1897. As a child he had polio, which left him with a deformed foot and one leg two inches shorter than the other. This caused him to be rejected for military service during World War I. Instead he earned a Ph.D. in history and literature from the University of Heidelberg, and began working as a journalist. Though his imagination found an outlet in poetry and fiction, Goebbels' literary and oratorical gifts were better suited to the overblown political rhetoric of the Nazi Party, which he joined in 1924. Rising swiftly through the ranks, Goebbels was given the task of building up Nazi support in Berlin. He published a weekly newspaper Der Angriff ("The Assault"), designed posters, staged impressive parades, and even organized his bodyguards to participate in beer hall brawls. With his powerful voice and unscrupulous instincts, he played upon the German people's economic fears to create support for the National Socialist cause.

One Vast Propaganda Machine
When Hitler ascended to power in 1933, Goebbels took over the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which controlled radio, press, publishing, cinema and the other arts. Goebbels subjected artists and journalists to state control and eliminated all Jews and political opponents from positions of influence. On May 10, 1933, he staged a massive book burning in Berlin, where university students destroyed the works of Jewish and other blacklisted authors in huge bonfires. Goebbels promoted the Nazis' anti-Semitic message through black and white films such as The Eternal Jew (1940) and reinforced an ideology of Nazi supremacy with Leni Riefenstahl's state-funded documentaries Triumph of the Will, about a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1934, and Olympia, about the Berlin Olympics of 1936. "While Hitler is a fair orator ... Goebbels is a past master," observed American ambassador William E. Dodd. "He ... has combined all the newspaper, radio, publications and art activities in Germany into one vast propaganda machine."

Fear and Hatred Turn Violent
After creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred, Goebbels began to authorize violence himself. On November 9, 1938, after the assassination of a German diplomat by a Jewish student in Paris, Goebbels called for "spontaneous demonstrations" against the Jews. When the pogrom, known as Kristallnacht, was over, rampaging mobs had killed 91 Jews, burned more than 900 synagogues, destroyed nearly 7,000 Jewish businesses, and caused 30,000 Jewish men to be deported to concentration camps. Goebbels later helped execute Hitler's "Final Solution," issuing public warnings that "the Jews will pay with extermination of their race..." and supervising the deportations of Jews and other people considered undesirable by the Nazis from Berlin to extermination camps.

Unshakeable Faith in Fascism
During World War II, Goebbels wrote innumerable articles and speeches rousing the German people to arms. On February 18, 1943, Goebbels delivered his most famous speech, the Sportpalast, or Total War, speech, in which he motivated the German people to continue their struggle even though the German war effort was failing. Although the Allies were by then winning the war, and insisting on unconditional surrender, Goebbels whipped the crowd into a frenzy and mobilized them for a near-suicidal "total war." Inventing secret weapons and mountain fortresses where the Nazis would make their last stand, Goebbels never lost his faith in his cause.

Going Down in History
On May 1, 1945, with Berlin under siege and Adolf Hitler dead, Goebbels and his wife Magda poisoned their six children and then killed themselves with the help of bodyguards from the German SS. Their bodies were burned, left unburied, and quickly found by Soviet troops. Before his death, Goebbels declared, "We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals."

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