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The Man Behind Hitler | Article

"Total War": The Sportpalast Speech

USHMM, Courtesy of National Archives

As the tide of World War II was turning against Germany, Joseph Goebbels gave his "Total War" speech at the Berlin Sportpalast to a carefully selected audience of 14,000 party officials, war veterans, workers, and women. While millions more Germans listened on the radio, Goebbels spoke about the "misfortune of the past weeks" and offered an "unvarnished picture of the situation" amid so-called spontaneous cheers from the audience.

Defiance In the Face of Defeat
The Nazis faced a grim reality. They had lost Stalingrad to the Soviets who, spurred by the victory, were beginning to retake territory. In North Africa, the Allies had sunk supply ships and dealt General Erwin Rommel another setback. In Italy, Benito Mussolini had fired his administration and assumed personal responsibility for the war. At an Allies' conference in Casablanca, United States President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had demanded Germany's unconditional surrender. But Adolf Hitler and Goebbels, perhaps knowing that the war could not be won, promoted a different idea: a homefront mobilization campaign that prolonged the war for another two and a half years under the slogan "Let the storm break loose!"

Roused to Fanaticism
Even as Goebbels acknowledged recent losses, he was crafting a new myth of national strength, assuring his audience that, "The German people, educated, indoctrinated, and disciplined by National Socialism, can stand the full truth." He argued that only the Germany army stood between Europe and the onslaught of Bolshevism and that Germany alone could save Europe from this threat. He then explained that Germany could not "overcome the Bolshevist danger unless we use equivalent ... methods [in a] total war." His argument justified austerity measures Hitler had enacted, including the conscription of civilians for war work and the closing of 100,000 restaurants and clubs throughout the country. Goebbels led the audience through a series of ten questions that whipped them into a frenzy of fanatic applause. Reaching his final question, he demanded, "I ask you: Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?" After the speech, Nazi leader Albert Speer reported: "Except for Hitler's most successful public meetings, I had never seen an audience so effectively roused to fanaticism." Goebbels had succeeded in reinvigorating the German war effort -- at least temporarily.

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