Goebbels: a complex drama in two acts

April 20, 2001

David Barnett uncovers the conflicting theatrical pretensions of the Nazis' chief cultural thug, Joseph Goebbels.

On May 10 1940, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary, "At night to the theatre. Mussolini's Cavour . Il Duce is clearly better at making history than dramatising it." Goebbels's aesthetic critique may well be correct, but one doubts whether he would have viewed his own dramatic output with such candour. Between 1918 and 1923, the young Goebbels wrote four full-length plays and one unfinished fragment.

This early literary output, composed mainly when he was a student, sheds remarkable light on Goebbels's contentious views on art and its function within the Third Reich, even though the dramas were written ten years before he became Hitler's propaganda minister in 1933.

Goebbels is credited with inclining towards modernism and one of its many flourishings, expressionism, art forms branded "decadent" by the totalitarian regime in which he served. The main evidence for this is his novel Michael: A German Fate Through the Pages of a Diary , published in 1928, that has been considered expressionist in form.

Recent studies have, however, cast doubt on his expressionist credentials. The style of Michael , which resembles the clipped language of expressionism, has been ascribed to Goebbels's poor control of the diary form. But his drama, which has not been studied in detail before, allows one to draw more definite conclusions.

Goebbels's plays are remarkably similar. In each, society is deemed corrupt and in need of radical change. The protagonist always suffers for his cause and provides a heroic example for others, despite his apparent defeat. It is the primacy of the struggle, the Kampf , that is vital. None of the plays has any artistic merit. They are conspicuous for their pathos-filled sentimentality, the flatness and transparency of their characters, and the hollowness of their plots. They are of interest only as historical documents.

Judas Iscariot , Goebbels's first play, takes up an idea current in Germany since Goethe - that Judas was disappointed with Jesus's refusal to lead his people against the tyranny of Rome. It is written in verse and, despite some visibly contemporary psychology, shows little evidence of modernist influence.

The same is true of his next drama, Heinrich Kämpfert . Here the eponymous struggling artist is a tubercular outsider who gives private Latin tuition to a wealthy Prussian family. The play ends in suicide, the self-destruction lauded as heroic in the face of a profligate, uncaring class-based society. The drama is again rooted firmly in a realism that shows little sign of modernism.

The major turning point comes around 1919-20 when the young Goebbels, according to his diaries, was enthused and inspired by expressionist and modernist theatre. Goebbels also records his fascination with Tolstoy's And the Light Shines in the Darkness , a realist drama that deals with a wealthy landowner's enthusiasm for the Sermon on the Mount. And Goebbels was introduced to the work of Marx and Engels, all of which helped focus his interest on the plight of the worker.

The resulting drama, Sowing Seeds , is remarkable for the break it makes with Goebbels's previous efforts. It concerns a general strike that is planned in the first act, implemented in the second and put down in the third. The shift in form is pronounced. Generic characters, such as the Worker and the Son, replace the proper names of the earlier plays. Definite articulations of time and space dissolve in favour of vagueness, and a broad humanism enters that aims to unite society in a fairer, more equitable system. Expressionist themes of "the New Man" who will redeem society through his enlightened selflessness and "the Brotherhood of Man" are supported by a dramaturgy that eschews individual psychology in favour of generalising strategies. The play is expressionist in form and content, yet Goebbels's leanings are both humanist and internationalist, positions he would radically repudiate when he committed himself to the Nazi agenda.

Of all his dramas, Goebbels planned to rewrite only Sowing Seeds , as he reports in his diary in 1928. This was the year he made changes to his novel Michael , alterations that might indicate how Sowing Seeds was to be adapted had he pursued his intention. The text was Germanified: "man" and "mankind" became "German" and "Volk", and a spattering of anti-Semitic passages were added. But this ideological overhaul left the novel's formal structures and devices intact. It is thus not unfair to infer that a similar practice would have been applied to Sowing Seeds .

Goebbels's enthusiasm for expressionism says much about his hopes for Nazi art beyond the myopia of his Fuhrer. In this so-called decadent form, he was able to envisage a drama that transcended the bourgeois individual and addressed the audience as a whole by generalising the events on stage. His formal experiment, which would have been frowned on during the Third Reich, indicates a link between his understanding of the Nazis as a revolutionary political force (as opposed to a conservative party, dependent on big business and aristocratic Prussian generals) and a truly modern art.

Goebbels was a champion of the one, very dubious, contribution to the history of dramatic form made by the Nazis: the Thingspiel , in which mass choruses undermined bourgeois individuality in cultic attempts at popular spectacle. It was a pale and crude imitation of the aims of political expressionist drama. But he was also the initiator of the infamous "Degenerate Art Exhibition" of 1937, in which modernist art was held up to public ridicule.

Critics have puzzled over the seemingly contradictory positions. Had Goebbels executed an aesthetic volte-face? The evidence produced by the plays would suggest that this was not the case. Goebbels's power was waning around 1936 and one way of restoring it was to curry favour with Hitler. In his capacity as a cultural minister, Goebbels allied himself with the dominant aesthetic and sought advancement. His admiration for the union of modernity and fascism in Mussolini's Italy, noted in another diary entry, would seem to persist, whatever he thought of Il Duce's plays.

David Barnett is lecturer in theatre studies at the University of Huddersfield. A more detailed article on Goebbels's drama will appear in the May issue of New Theatre Quarterly .

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