This swarthy, dwarfish young man, with a crippled foot, a nimble mind and a complicated and neurotic personality, was not a stranger to the Nazi movement. He had discovered it in 1922 when he first heard Hitler speak in Munich, was converted, and became a member of the party. But the movement did not really discover him until three years later, when Gregor Strasser, hearing him speak, decided that he could use a young man of such obvious talents. Goebbels at twenty-eight was already an impassioned orator, a fanatical nationalist and, as Strasser knew, possessed of a vituperative pen and, rare for Nazi leaders, a sound university education. Heinrich Himmler had just resigned as Strasser’s secretary to devote more of his time to raising chickens. Strasser appointed Goebbels in his place. It was to prove a fateful choice.
Paul Joseph Goebbels was born on October 29, 1897, in Rheydt, a textile center of some thirty thousand people in the Rhineland. His father, Fritz Goebbels, was a foreman in a local textile plant. His mother, Maria Katharina Odenhausen, was the daughter of a blacksmith. Both parents were pious Catholics.
Through the Catholics, Joseph Goebbels received most of his education. He attended a Catholic parochial grade school and then the Gymnasium in Rheydt. A scholarship from the Catholic Albert Magnus Society enabled him to go on to the university—in fact, to eight universities. Before he received his Ph.D. from Heidelberg in 1921 at the age of twenty-four, he had studied at the universities of Bonn, Freiburg, Wuerzburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin. In these illustrious institutions—the flower of German higher learning—Goebbels had concentrated on the study of philosophy, history, literature and art and had continued his work in Latin and Greek.
He intended to become a writer. The year he received his doctorate he wrote an autobiographical novel, Michael, which no publisher would take at the time, and in the next couple of years he finished two plays, The Wanderer (about Jesus Christ) and The Lonesome Guest, both in verse, which no producer would stage.* He had no better luck in journalism. The great liberal daily, Berliner Tageblatt, turned down the dozens of articles he submitted and his application for a reporter’s job.
His personal life also was full of frustrations in the early days. Because he was a cripple he could not serve in the war and thus was cheated of the experience which seemed, at least in the beginning, so glorious for the young men of his generation and which was a requisite for leadership in the Nazi Party. Goebbels was not, as most people believed, born with a club foot. At the age of seven he had suffered an attack of osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone marrow. An operation on his left thigh was not successful and the left leg remained shorter than the right and somewhat withered. This handicap, which forced him to walk with a noticeable limp, riled him all the days of his life and was one of the causes of his early embitterment. In desperation, during his university days and during the brief period when he was an agitator against the French in the Ruhr, he often passed himself off as a wounded war veteran.
Nor was he lucky in love, though all his life he mistook his philanderings, which became notorious in his years of power, for great amours. His diaries for 1925–26, when he was twenty-eight and twenty-nine and just being launched into Nazi politics by Strasser, are full of moonings over loved ones—of whom he had several at a time.* Thus:
August 14, 1925: Alma wrote me a postcard from Bad Harzburg. The first sign of her since that night. This teasing, charming Alma!
Received first letter from Else in Switzerland. Only Else dear can write like that … Soon I am going to the Rhine for a week to be quite alone. Then Else will come … How happy I am in anticipation!
August 15: In these days I must think so often of Anke … How wonderful it was to travel with her. This wonderful wench!
I am yearning for Else. When shall I have her in my arms again?
Else dear, when shall I see you again?
Alma, you dear featherweight!
Anke, never can I forget you!
August 27: Three days on the Rhine … Not a word from Else … Is she angry with me? How I pine for her! I am living in the same room as I did with her last Whitsuntide. What thoughts! What feeling! Why doesn’t she come?
September 3:-Else is here! On Tuesday she returned from Switzerland—fat, buxom, healthy, gay, only slightly tanned. She is very happy and in the best of spirits. She is good to me, and gives me much joy.
October 14: Why did Anke have to leave me? … I just mustn’t think of these things.
December 21: There is a curse on me and the women. Woe to those who love me!
December 29: To Krefeld last night with Hess. Christmas celebration. A delightful, beautiful girl from Franconia. She’s my type. Home with her through rain and storm. Au revoir!
February 6, 1926: I yearn for a sweet woman! Oh, torturing pain!
Goebbels never forgot “Anke”—Anke Helhorn, his first love, whom he had met during his second semester at Freiburg. His diary is full of ravings about her dark-blond beauty and his subsequent disillusionment when she left him. Later, when he became Propaganda Minister, he revealed to friends, with typical vanity and cynicism, why she had left him. “She betrayed me because the other guy had more money and could afford to take her out to dinner and to shows. How foolish of her! … Today she might be the wife of the Minister of Propaganda! How frustrated she must feel!” Anke married and divorced “the other guy” and in 1934 came to Berlin, where Goebbels got her a job on a magazine.3
It was Strasser’s radicalism, his belief in the “socialism” of National Socialism, which attracted the young Goebbels. Both wanted to build the party on the proletariat. The diary of Goebbels is full of expressions of sympathy for Communism at this time. “In the final analysis,” he wrote on October 23, 1925, “it would be better for us to end our existence under Bolshevism than to endure slavery under capitalism.” On January 31, 1926, he told himself in his diary: “I think it is terrible that we [the Nazis] and the Communists are bashing in each other’s heads … Where can we get together sometime with the leading Communists?” It was at this time that he published an open letter to a Communist leader assuring him that Nazism and Communism were really the same thing. “You and I,” he declared, “are fighting one another, but we are not really enemies.”
To Adolf Hitler this was rank heresy, and he watched with increasing uneasiness the success of the Strasser brothers and Goebbels in building up a vigorous, radical, proletarian wing of the party in the north. If left to themselves these men might capture the party, and for objectives which Hitler violently opposed. The inevitable showdown came in the fall of 1925 and in February of the following year.
It was forced by Gregor Strasser and Goebbels over an issue which aroused a good deal of feeling in Germany at that time. This was the proposal of the Social Democrats and the Communists that the extensive estates and fortunes of the deposed royal and princely families be expropriated and taken over by the Republic. The question was to be settled by a plebiscite of the people, in accordance with the Weimar Constitution. Strasser and Goebbels proposed that the Nazi Party jump into the fray with the Communists and the Socialists and support the campaign to expropriate the nobles.
Hitler was furious. Several of these former rulers had kicked in with contributions to the party. Moreover, a number of big industrialists were beginning to become financially interested in Hitler’s reborn movement precisely because it promised to be effective in combating the Communists, the Socialists and the trade unions. If Strasser and Goebbels got away with their plans, Hitler’s sources of income would immediately dry up.
Before the Fuehrer could act, however, Strasser called a meeting of the northern district party leaders in Hanover on November 22, 1925. Its purpose was not only to put the northern branch of the Nazi Party behind the expropriation drive but to launch a new economic program which would do away with the “reactionary” twenty-five points that had been adopted back in 1920. The Strassers and Goebbels wanted to nationalize the big industries and the big estates and substitute a chamber of corporations on fascist lines for the Reichstag. Hitler declined to attend the meeting, but sent his faithful Gottfried Feder to represent him and to squelch the rebels. Goebbels demanded that Feder be thrown out—“We don’t want any stool pigeons!” he cried. Several leaders who would later make their mark in the Third Reich were present—Bernhard Rust, Erich Koch, Hans Kerrland Robert Ley—but only Ley, the alcoholic chemist who was leader of the Cologne district, supported Hitler. When Dr. Ley and Feder argued that the meeting was out of order, that nothing could be done without Hitler, the Supreme Leader, Goebbels shouted (according to Otto Strasser, who was present), “I demand that the petty bourgeois Adolf Hitler be expelled from the Nazi Party!”
The vituperative young Goebbels had come a long way since he had first fallen under Hitler’s spell three years before—or so it must have seemed to Gregor Strasser.
“At that moment I was reborn!” Goebbels exclaimed in recording his impressions of the first time he heard Hitler speak, in the Circus Krone in Munich in June 1922. “Now I knew which road to take … This was a command!” He was even more ecstatic over Hitler’s behavior during the trial of the Munich putschists. After the verdicts were in, Goebbels wrote the Fuehrer:
Like a rising star you appeared before our wondering eyes, you performed miracles to clear our minds and, in a world of skepticism and desperation, gave us faith. You towered above the masses, full of faith and certain of the future, and possessed by the will to free those masses with your unlimited love for all those who believe in the new Reich. For the first time we saw with shining eyes a man who tore off the mask from the faces distorted by greed, the faces of mediocre parliamentary busybodies …
In the Munich court you grew before us to the greatness of the Fuehrer. What you said are the greatest words spoken in Germany since Bismarck. You expressed more than your own pain … You named the need of a whole generation, searching in confused longing for men and task. What you said is the catechism of the new political belief, born out of the despair of a collapsing, Godless world … We thank you. One day, Germany will thank you …
But now, a year and a half later, Goebbels’ idol had fallen. He had become a “petty bourgeois” who deserved being booted out of the party. With only Ley and Feder dissenting, the Hanover meeting adopted Strasser’s new party program and approved the decision to join the Marxists in the plebiscite campaign to deprive the former kings and princes of their possessions.
Hitler bided his time and then on February 14, 1926, struck back. He called a meeting at Bamberg, in southern Germany, shrewdly picking a weekday, when it was difficult for the northern leaders to get away from their jobs. In fact, only Gregor Strasser and Goebbels were able to attend. They were greatly outnumbered by Hitler’s hand-picked leaders in the south. And at the Fuehrer’s insistence they were forced to capitulate and abandon their program. Such German historians of Nazism as Heiden and Olden, and the non-German writers who have been guided by them, have recounted that at the Bamberg meeting Goebbels openly deserted Strasser and went over to Hitler. But the Goebbels diaries, discovered after Heiden and Olden wrote their books, reveal that he did not betray Strasser quite so abruptly. They show that Goebbels, though he joined Strasser in surrendering to Hitler, thought the Fuehrer was utterly wrong, and that, for the moment at least, he had no intention whatever of going over to him. On February 15, the day after the Bamberg meeting, he confided to his diary:
Hitler talks for two hours. I feel as though someone had beaten me. What sort of Hitler is this? A reactionary? Extremely awkward and unsteady. Completely wrong on the Russian question. Italy and England are our natural allies! Horrible! … We must annihilate Russia! … The question of the private property of the nobility must not even be touched upon. Terrible! … I cannot utter a word. I feel as though I’ve been hit over the head …
Certainly one of the great disappointments of my life. I no longer have complete faith in Hitler. That is the terrible thing: my props have been taken from under me.
To show where his loyalties stood, Goebbels went to the station with Strasser and tried to console him. A week later, on February 23, he records: “Long conference with Strasser. Result: we must not begrudge the Munich crowd their Pyrrhic victory. We must begin again our fight for socialism.”
But Hitler had sized up the flamboyant young Rhinelander better than Strasser. On March 29 Goebbels noted: “This morning a letter from Hitler. I shall make a speech on April 8 at Munich.” He arrived there on April 7. “Hitler’s car is waiting,” he recorded. “What a royal reception! I will speak at the historic Buergerbräu.” The next day he did, from the same platform as the Leader. He wrote it all down in his diary entry of April 8:
Hitler phones … His kindness in spite of Bamberg makes us feel ashamed … At 2 o’clock we drive to the Buergerbräu. Hitler is already there. My heart is beating so wildly it is about to burst. I enter the hall. Roaring welcome … And then I speak for two and a half hours … People roar and shout. At the end Hitler embraces me. I feel happy … Hitler is always at my side.
A few days later Goebbels surrendered completely. “April 13: Hitler spoke for three hours. Brilliantly. He can make you doubt your own views. Italy and England our allies. Russia wants to devour us … I love him … He has thought everything through. His ideal: a just collectivism and individualism. As to soil—everything belongs to the people. Production to be creative and individualistic. Trusts, transport, etc., to be socialized … I am now at ease about him … I bow to the greater man, to the political genius.”
When Goebbels left Munich on April 17 he was Hitler’s man and was to remain his most loyal follower to his dying breath. On April 20 he wrote the Fuehrer a birthday note: “Dear and revered Adolf Hitler! I have learned so much from you … You have finally made me see the light …” And that night in his diary: “He is thirty-seven years old. Adolf Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple. These are the characteristics of the genius.”
Goebbels spent a good part of the summer with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, and his diary is full of further encomiums to the Leader. In August he publicly broke with Strasser in an article in the Voelkischer Beobachter.
Only now do I recognize you for what you are: revolutionaries in speech but not in deed [he told the Strassers and their followers] … Don’t talk so much about ideals and don’t fool yourselves into believing that you are the inventors and protectors of these ideals … We are not doing penance by standing solidly behind the Fuehrer. We … bow to him … with the manly, unbroken pride of the ancient Norsemen who stand upright before their Germanic feudal lord. We feel that he is greater than all of us, greater than you and I. He is the instrument of the Divine Will that shapes history with fresh, creative passion.
Late in October 1926 Hitler made Goebbels Gauleiter of Berlin. He instructed him to clean out the quarreling Brownshirt rowdies who had been hampering the growth of the movement there and conquer the capital of Germany for National Socialism. Berlin was “red.” The majority of its voters were Socialists and Communists. Undaunted, Goebbels, who had just turned twenty-nine, and who in a little more than a year’s time had risen from nothing to be one of the leading lights of the Nazi Party, set out to fulfill his assignment in the great Babylonian city.