Of all the sources we have on Nazism, nothing matches Joseph Goebbels’ 32-volume diary, running from 1923 to 1945. Although historians have mined this opus before, the well-published Peter Longerich has used it with great insight and expertise to create an instant classic.
The result constitutes a veritable mountain of material and one well worth the challenging climb as we discover intriguing twists and absorbing turns. Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda and one of Adolf Hitler’s closest associates, here emerges as a larger-than-life figure bearing little resemblance to the caricatures presented in cheap documentaries, and as still something of a riddle in his political beliefs, even in his deep anti-Semitism, for which, like Hitler’s, there is no evidence before 1919.
In the first and perhaps best part of the book, we meet the young Goebbels, an indifferent university student during the First World War, but one who, when he put his mind to it, was able to fire off his doctoral dissertation in four months. He was an idealist and a passionate reader of Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky, and he was thoroughly familiar with socialist thought, even ploughing through Karl Marx’s Capital.
Like many of his contemporaries after 1918, Goebbels drifted aimlessly while wanting to commit to a big new idea; some formula for personal and national redemption and, along with it, a great leader. He ruminated fleetingly that he himself might be “the One”, at least until July 1925 when he first experienced a Hitler speech, an event after which he “cried like a baby” and could only exclaim, “What a voice. What gestures, what passion. Just as I wished him to be.” On finishing the first volume of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Goebbels wrote, “Who is this man? Half-plebeian, half-god! Is this really Christ or just John the Baptist?”
Longerich traces Goebbels’ psychological problems back to the ages of 2 and 3, when he began to suffer from a “narcissistic craving for recognition”, notably before he developed a club foot. This emotional malady may have played a role in his unshakeable conviction, even as a young man, that practically any woman who crossed his path was madly in love with him, a belief that makes for an amusing read at times. His “deeply narcissistic personality” may partly explain Goebbels’ psychological dependence on Hitler, who right until the end provided just what the doctor ordered. Nevertheless this narcissism, however defined, has explanatory limits, because surely more was involved in Goebbels’ indomitable drive than a lust for the Führer’s recognition or power.
Indeed, Longerich allows us to see that the Third Reich was not only about its leader, because National Socialism was above all an ideological movement bent on refashioning Germany and Europe, and its first task was to win the nation to the cause. The book’s prologue mentions “the obvious support the Nazi system enjoyed among the great majority of the German population”, yet as the story unfolds the author elides even popularly acclaimed triumphs, such as overcoming the Versailles Treaty, ending unemployment, or the military victories in June 1940. Instead, Longerich mostly discusses regime support as it slowly unravelled later in the war. Moreover, he has a slight tendency to overestimate the significance of propaganda in mobilising popular consensus. For no propaganda minister, not even one as dedicated, inventive and tenacious as Goebbels, could make people believe that they were prospering if there were fewer jobs and less food, or that they were winning the war when day and night more bombs rained from the skies.
These reservations do not, of course, detract from Longerich’s awe-inspiring accomplishment, which in chronicling Goebbels’ role in the rise and fall of the Third Reich opens up the entire field of National Socialism to make it feel fresh and almost under-researched.
Robert Gellately is professor of history, Florida State University, and author, most recently, of Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War (2013).
Goebbels: A Biography
By Peter Longerich
Bodley Head, 992pp, £30.00
Published 7 May 2015