Doomed and delusional world of a Nazi propagandist
Eamon elaney on Peter Longerich's biography of Adolf Hitler's propaganda chief
It is now the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, with a tremendous focus on its momentous and continuing consequences. But even without such an anniversary, there is a constant focus on the war and especially on the Nazi ideology and cult which took over Germany, started the war and then almost took over Europe. It was a horrendous cult, which vanished as soon as the war was over (with the exception of small neo-Nazi elements and some attention-seeking skinheads).
Unlike other ideologies which, however murderous, at least had some rationality and coherence (Stalinism, Maoism) the Nazi philosophy was a hotch-potch of mysticism, extreme nationalism, a cult of violence, a worship of the Great Leader (Adolf Hitler) and, of course, a paranoid obsession with perceived enemies, Bolsheviks, Jews and Slavs. But what this book confirms is that senior Nazis were quite simply making it up as they went along and the overriding element was to divine what was happening inside the Great Leader's head and to adapt one's instinct to this.
There is no better example of this than Joseph Goebbels, a skinny, insecure writer with a club foot who rose to become the Nazi's director of publicity and whose name is forever associated with twisted propaganda.
However, having helped to create the Nazi cult, Goebbels was for most of the rest of the time, and especially towards the end, simply reacting to events and exhorting the Germans to ever greater efforts and ruthlessness. He was Germany's Chemical Ali, declaring (at least in public) that each punishing Allied air raid was in fact another step to German salvation. Meanwhile, he had to explain away the contradictions and U-turns.
A classic example is the stunning decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941. Although Nazism was bitterly opposed to Soviet Communism and was always on a potential collision course with it, the cynical Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the two countries had at least created a convenient arrangement which suited both parties and allowed Hitler to conquer Western Europe unmolested. So, to suddenly decide, having conquered Western Europe - except for the UK - that, in fact, Germany should invade Russia beggars belief.
It stunned Goebbels as much as it did the German people and the fact that Hitler's reason - to prevent Russia from invading Germany and thus distracting the Nazis from finishing the capture of Western Europe - makes the ill-fated invasion even more ludicrous.
However, such is the pliability of the workaholic Goebbels that he goes back to his desk and prepares the new propaganda to accompany this stunning volte-face. For years, Goebbels committed his thoughts to private journals, which have only recently been fully revealed and this long but highly readable book is drawn from them, along with his letters and other background material. It thus gives us a uniquely Nazi but also personal perspective to the unfolding drama.
The 1941 invasion went ahead, the largest military manoeuvre of all time, and the rest is history: the Germans captured miles of empty lands, until they got a bloody nose at Stalingrad and were destroyed in the snow. By invading Russia, it made it unlikely the Nazis could have held on to all of the captured territory it then had but it also meant that millions of people cruelly died, as the Nazis killed Jews, civilians and Soviet soldiers with wanton and unbelievable cruelty.
On a visit to one camp, Goebbels sees a group of Soviet soldiers standing behind the barbed wire in the rain and he is struck by the dignity of men in war. It is a rare moment of humanity in the otherwise hard, Nazi demeanour, but of course this is a confession to his diary, and he suppressed such 'weak' thoughts and demanded their suppression in others.
This book suggests that very many Germans did not share the Nazis' views and groaned under their increasing demands. Even other Nazis thought Goebbels' hysterical anti-Semitism was over the top and this book is interesting about the problematic nature of propaganda and its need for subtlety. For example, the absurd official line that the Allied air raids were revenge for the Nazi treatment of the Jews (if only), apparently meant that many Germans were now gloomily resigned to even worse air raids since the Allies were going to discover just how much worse that treatment had actually been!
One does not get the sense of a genius propagandist here. Instead, there is the banality, hyperbole and endless repetition. The rallies and pageantry are not his creation and the famous films are the work of Leni Riefenstahl, who curiously gets a short mention. There is no reference, for example, to Goebbels' romantic infatuation with her in a book that otherwise focuses on Goebbels' personal life. He had an often strained relationship with his wife, Magda, but an irritated Hitler encouraged them to stay together.
It was all about the party and keeping up appearances, even unto the bitter end. As he foretold, he could not live without his beloved Fuhrer, and when Goebbels followed Hitler into suicide, he also took into death his wife and six children, in a macabre murderous gesture that confirmed Nazism as truly one of the worst death cults that the world has ever seen.
Goebbels - A Biography
The Bodley Head, London, hbk, 964 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie