Goebbels earned a Ph.D. in Heidelberg University in 1921, writing his doctoral thesis on 18th century romantic drama; he then went on to work as a journalist and later a bank clerk and caller on the stock exchange. He also wrote novels and plays, but they were refused by publishers. Goebbels came into contact with the Nazi Party in 1923 during the French occupation of the Ruhr and became a member in 1924. He was appointed Gauleiter (regional party leader) of Berlin. In this position, he put his propaganda skills to full use, combatting the local socialist and communist parties with the help of Nazi papers and the paramilitary SA. By 1928 he had risen in the party ranks to become one of its most prominent members.
After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, he was appointed propaganda minister. One of his first acts was the burning of books rejected by the Nazis. He proceeded to gain full control of every outlet of information in Germany. Following his appointment, his attacks on German Jews, beginning with the boycott of 1933, became ever fiercer and culminated in the Kristallnacht in 1938, the first open and unrestrained pogrom unleashed by the Nazis.
An early and avid supporter of war, Goebbels did everything in his power to prepare the German people for a large scale military conflict. During World War II, he increased his power and influence through shifting alliances with other Nazi leaders. By late 1943, the tide of the war was turning against the Axis powers, but this only spurred Goebbels to intensify the propaganda by urging the Germans to accept the idea of total war and mobilization. Goebbels remained with Hitler in Berlin to the very end, and following the Führer's suicide he was the second person to serve as the Third Reich's Chancellor — albeit for one day. In his final hours, it is suggested Goebbels allowed his wife, Magda, to kill their six young children. Shortly after, Goebbels and his wife both committed suicide.
Goebbels compensated for his severe physical frailty with intellectual accomplishments. He originally intended to train as a priest, but after growing distant from his Catholic faith he studied literature and philosophy at universities in Bonn, Würzburg, Freiburg im Breisgau and Heidelberg, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on the 18th century romantic novelist Wilhelm von Schütz. His two most influential teachers, Friedrich Gundolf and his doctoral supervisor at Heidelberg, Max Freiherr von Waldberg, were Jews. His intelligence and political astuteness were generally acknowledged even by his enemies.
After completing his doctorate in 1921, Goebbels worked as a journalist and tried for several years to become a published author. He wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Michael, two verse plays, and quantities of romantic poetry. In these works, he revealed the psychological damage his physical limitations had caused. "The very name of the hero, Michael, to whom he gave many autobiographical features, suggests the way his self-identification was pointing: a figure of light, radiant, tall, unconquerable," and above all "'To be a soldier! To stand sentinel! One ought always to be a soldier,' wrote Michael-Goebbels. Goebbels found another form of compensation in the pursuit of women, a lifelong compulsion which he indulged "with extraordinary vigour and a surprising degree of success. His diaries reveal a long succession of affairs, before and after his marriage in 1931 to Magda Quandt, with whom he had six children.
Goebbels was embittered by the frustration of his literary career; his novel did not find a publisher until 1929 and his plays were never staged. He found an outlet for his desire to write in his diaries, which he began in 1923 and continued for the rest of his life. He later worked as a bank clerk and a caller on the stock exchange. During this period, he read avidly and formed his political views. Major influences were Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler and, most importantly, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the British-born German writer who was one of the founders of "scientific" anti-Semitism, and whose book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) was one of the standard works of the extreme right in Germany. Goebbels spent the winter of 1919–20 in Munich, where he witnessed and admired the violent nationalist reaction against the attempted communist revolution in Bavaria. His first political hero was Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley, the man who assassinated the Bavarian prime minister Kurt Eisner. Hitler was in Munich at the same time and entered politics as a result of similar experiences.
This was the source of his hatred of the intellect, which was a form of self-hatred, his longing to degrade himself, to submerge himself in the ranks of the masses, which ran curiously parallel with his ambition and his tormenting need to distinguish himself. He was incessantly tortured by the fear of being regarded as a ‘bourgeois intellectual’… It always seemed as if he were offering blind devotion (to Nazism) to make up for his lack of all those characteristics of the racial elite which nature had denied him.
Like others who were later prominent in the Third Reich, Goebbels came into contact with the Nazi Party in 1923, during the campaign of resistance to the French occupation of the Ruhr. Hitler’s imprisonment following the failed November 1923 "Beer Hall Putsch" left the party temporarily leaderless, and when the 27-year-old Goebbels joined the party in late 1924 the most important influence on his political development was Gregor Strasser, who became Nazi organiser in northern Germany in March 1924. Strasser ("the most able of the leading Nazis" of this period) took the "socialist" component of National Socialism far more seriously than did Hitler and other members of the Bavarian leadership of the party.
"National and socialist! What goes first, and what comes afterwards?" Goebbels asked rhetorically in a debate with Theodore Vahlen, Gauleiter (regional party head) of Pomerania, in the Rhineland party newspaper National-sozialistische Briefe (National-Socialist Letters), of which he was editor, in mid 1925. "With us in the west, there can be no doubt. First socialist redemption, then comes national liberation like a whirlwind… Hitler stands between both opinions, but he is on his way to coming over to us completely. Goebbels, with his journalistic skills, thus soon became a key ally of Strasser in his struggle with the Bavarians over the party programme. The conflict was not, so they thought, with Hitler, but with his lieutenants, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher and Hermann Esser, who, they said, were mismanaging the party in Hitler’s absence. In 1925, Goebbels published an open letter to "my friends of the left," urging unity between socialists and Nazis against the capitalists. "You and I," he wrote, "we are fighting one another although we are not really enemies.
In February 1926, Hitler, having finished working on Mein Kampf, made a sudden return to party affairs and soon disabused the northerners of any illusions about where he stood. He summoned about sixty gauleiters and other activists, including Goebbels, to a meeting at Bamberg, in Streicher’s Gau of Franconia, where he gave a two-hour speech repudiating the political programme of the "socialist" wing of the party. For Hitler, the real enemy of the German people was always the Jews, not the capitalists. Goebbels was bitterly disillusioned. "I feel devastated," he wrote. "What sort of Hitler? A reactionary?" He was horrified by Hitler’s characterisation of socialism as "a Jewish creation," his declaration that the Soviet Union must be destroyed, and his assertion that private property would not be expropriated by a Nazi government. "I no longer fully believe in Hitler. That’s the terrible thing: my inner support has been taken away.
Hitler, however, recognised Goebbels’s talents, and he was a shrewd judge of character; he knew that Goebbels craved recognition above all else. In April, he brought Goebbels to Munich, sending his own car to meet him at the railway station, and gave him a long private audience. Hitler berated Goebbels over his support for the "socialist" line, but offered to "wipe the slate clean" if Goebbels would now accept his leadership. Goebbels capitulated completely, offering Hitler his total loyalty — a pledge which was clearly sincere, and which he adhered to until the end of his life. "I love him… He has thought through everything," Goebbels wrote. "Such a sparkling mind can be my leader. I bow to the greater one, the political genius. Later he wrote: "Adolf Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple at the same time. What one calls a genius. Fest writes:
From this point on he submitted himself, his whole existence, to his attachment to the person of the Führer, consciously eliminating all inhibitions springing from intellect, free will and self-respect. Since this submission was an act less of faith than of insight, it stood firm through all vicissitudes to the end. ‘He who forsakes the Führer withers away,’ he would later write.
In October 1926, Hitler rewarded Goebbels for his new loyalty by making him the party "Gauleiter" for the Berlin section of the National Socialists. Goebbels was then able to use the new position to indulge his literary aspirations in the German capital, which he perceived to be a stronghold of the socialists and communists. Here, Goebbels discovered his talent as a propagandist, writing such tracts as 1926's The Second Revolution and Lenin or Hitler.
Here, he was also able to indulge his heretofore latent taste for violence, if only vicariously through the actions of the street fighters under his command. History, he said, "is made in the street," and he was determined to challenge the dominant parties of the left — the Social Democrats and Communists — in the streets of Berlin. Working with the local S.A. (stormtrooper) leaders, he deliberately provoked beer-hall battles and street brawls, frequently involving firearms. "Beware, you dogs," he wrote to his former "friends of the left": "When the Devil is loose in me you will not curb him again." When the inevitable deaths occurred, he exploited them for the maximum effect, turning the street fighter Horst Wessel, who was killed at his home by enemy political activists, into a martyr and hero.
In Berlin, Goebbels was able to give full expression to his genius for propaganda, as editor of the Berlin Nazi newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack) and as the author of a steady stream of Nazi posters and handbills. "He rose within a few months to be the city’s most feared agitator. His propaganda techniques were totally cynical: "That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result," he wrote. "It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.
Among his favourite targets were socialist leaders such as Hermann Müller and Carl Severing, and the Jewish Berlin Police President, Bernhard Weiss, whom he subjected to a relentless campaign of Jew-baiting in the hope of provoking a crackdown which he could then exploit. The Social Democrat city government obliged in 1927 with an eight-month ban on the party, which Goebbels exploited to the hilt. When a friend criticised him for denigrating Weiss, a man with an exemplary military record, "he explained cynically that he wasn’t in the least interested in Weiss, only in the propaganda effect.
Goebbels also discovered a talent for oratory, and was soon second in the Nazi movement only to Hitler as a public speaker. Where Hitler’s style was hoarse and passionate, Goebbels’s was cool, sarcastic and often humorous: he was a master of biting invective and insinuation, although he could whip himself into a rhetorical frenzy if the occasion demanded. Unlike Hitler, however, he retained a cynical detachment from his own rhetoric. He openly acknowledged that he was exploiting the lowest instincts of the German people — racism, xenophobia, class envy and insecurity. He could, he said, play the popular will like a piano, leading the masses wherever he wanted them to go. "He drove his listeners into ecstasy, making them stand up, sing songs, raise their arms, repeat oaths — and he did it, not through the passionate inspiration of the moment, but as the result of sober psychological calculation.
Goebbels’s words and actions made little impact on the political loyalties of Berlin. At the 1928 Reichstag elections, the Nazis polled less than two percent of the vote in Berlin compared with 33 percent for the Social Democrats and 25 percent for the Communists. At this election Goebbels was one of the 10 Nazis elected to the Reichstag, which brought him a salary of 750 Reichsmarks a month and immunity from prosecution. Even when the impact of the Great Depression led to an enormous surge in support for the Nazis across Germany, Berlin resisted the party’s appeal more than any other part of Germany: at its peak in 1932, the Nazi Party polled 28 percent in Berlin to the combined left’s 55 percent. But his outstanding talents, and the obvious fact that he stood high in Hitler’s regard, earned Goebbels the grudging respect of the anti-intellectual brawlers of the Nazi movement, who called him "our little doctor" with a mixture of affection and amusement. By 1928, still aged only 31, he was acknowledged to be one of the inner circle of Nazi leaders. "The S.A. would have let itself be hacked to bits for him," wrote Horst Wessel in 1929.
The Great Depression led to a new resurgence of "left" sentiment in some sections of the Nazi Party, led by Gregor Strasser’s brother Otto, who argued that the party ought to be competing with the Communists for the loyalties of the unemployed and the industrial workers by promising to expropriate the capitalists. Hitler, whose dislike of working-class militancy reflected his social origins in the small-town lower-middle class, was thoroughly opposed to this line. He recognised that the growth in Nazi support at the 1930 elections had mainly come from the middle class and from farmers, and he was now busy building bridges to the upper middle classes and to German business. In April 1930, he fired Strasser as head of the Nazi Party national propaganda apparatus and appointed Goebbels to replace him, giving him control of the party’s national newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer), as well as other Nazi papers across the country. Goebbels, although he continued to show "leftish" tendencies in some of his actions (such as co-operating with the Communists in supporting the Berlin transport workers' strike in November 1932), was totally loyal to Hitler in his struggle with the Strassers, which culminated in Otto’s expulsion from the party in July 1930.
Despite his revolutionary rhetoric, Goebbels’s most important contribution to the Nazi cause between 1930 and 1933 was as the organiser of successive election campaigns: The Reichstag elections of September 1930, July and November 1932 and March 1933, and Hitler’s presidential campaign of March–April 1932. He proved to be an organiser of genius, choreographing Hitler’s dramatic aeroplane tours of Germany and pioneering the use of radio and cinema for electoral campaigning. The Nazi Party’s use of torchlight parades, brass bands, massed choirs and similar techniques caught the imagination of many voters, particularly young people. "His propaganda headquarters in Munich sent out a constant stream of directives to local and regional party sections, often providing fresh slogans and fresh material for the campaign. Although the spectacular rise in the Nazi vote in 1930 and July 1932 was caused mainly by the effects of the Depression, Goebbels as party campaign manager was naturally given much of the credit.
When Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Goebbels was initially given no office: the coalition cabinet which Hitler headed contained only a minority of Nazis as part of the deal he had negotiated with President Paul von Hindenburg and the conservative parties. But as the propaganda head of the ruling party, a party which had no great respect for the law, he immediately began to behave as though he were in power. He commandeered the state radio to produce a live broadcast of the torchlight parade which celebrated Hitler’s assumption of office. On 13 March, Goebbels had his reward for his part in bringing the Nazis to power by being appointed Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Volksaufklärung und Propaganda), with a seat in the Cabinet.
The role of the new ministry, which took over palatial accommodation in the 18th century Leopold Palace on Wilhelmstrasse, just across from Hitler’s offices in the Reich Chancellery, was to centralise Nazi control of all aspects of German cultural and intellectual life, particularly the press, radio and the visual and performing arts. On 1 May, Goebbels organised the massive demonstrations and parades to mark the "Day of National Labour" which preceded the Nazi takeover and destruction of the German trade union movement. By 3 May, he was able to boast in his diary: "We are the masters of Germany. On 10 May, he supervised an even more symbolic event in the establishment of Nazi cultural power: the burning of up to 20,000 books by Jewish or anti-Nazi authors in the Opernplatz next to the university.
The hegemonic ambitions of the Propaganda Ministry were shown by the divisions which Goebbels soon established: press, radio, film, theatre, music, literature and publishing. In each of these, a Reich Chamber (Reichskammer) was established, co-opting leading figures from the field (usually not known Nazis) to head each Chamber, and requiring them to supervise the purge of Jews, socialists and liberals, as well as practitioners of "degenerate" art forms such as abstract art and atonal music. The respected composer Richard Strauss, for example, became head of the Reich Music Chamber. Goebbels’ orders were backed by the threat of force. The many prominent Jews in the arts and the mass media emigrated in large numbers rather than risk the fists of the S.A. and the gates of the concentration camp, as did many socialists and liberals. Some non-Jewish anti-Nazis with good connections or international reputations survived until the mid 1930s, but most were forced out sooner or later.
Control of the arts and media was not just a matter of personnel. Soon the content of every newspaper, book, novel, play, film, broadcast and concert, from the level of nationally-known publishers and orchestras to local newspapers and village choirs, was subject to supervision by the Propaganda Ministry, although a process of self-censorship was soon effectively operating in all these fields, leaving the Ministry in Berlin free to concentrate on the most politically sensitive areas such as major newspapers and the state radio. No author could publish, no painter could exhibit, no singer could broadcast, no critic could criticise, unless they were a member of the appropriate Reich Chamber, and membership was conditional on good behaviour. Goebbels could bribe as well as threaten: he secured a large budget for his Ministry, with which he was able to offer generous salaries and subsidies to those in the arts who co-operated with him. These were inducements which most artists, theatres and orchestras, after their struggles to survive during the Depression, found hard to refuse.
As the most highly educated member of the Nazi leadership, and the one with the most authentic pretensions to high culture, Goebbels was sensitive to charges that he was dragging German culture down to the level of mere propaganda. He responded by saying that the purpose of both art and propaganda was to bring about a spiritual mobilisation of the German people. He was, in fact, far from the most militant member of the Nazi leadership on cultural questions. The more philistine Nazis wanted nothing in German books but Nazi slogans, nothing on German stages and cinema screens but Nazi heroics, and nothing in German concert halls but German folk songs.
Goebbels insisted that German high culture must be allowed to carry on, both for reasons of international prestige and to win the loyalty of the upper middle classes, who valued art forms such as opera and the symphony. He thus became to some extent the protector of the arts as well as their regulator. In this, he had the support of Hitler, a passionate devotee of Richard Wagner. But Goebbels always had to bow to Hitler’s views. Hitler loathed modernism of all kinds, and Goebbels (whose own tastes were sympathetic to modernism) was forced to acquiesce in imposing very traditionalist forms on the artistic and musical worlds. The music of Paul Hindemith, for example, was banned simply because Hitler did not like it.
Goebbels also resisted the complete Nazification of the arts because he knew that the masses must be allowed some respite from slogans and propaganda. He ensured that film studios such as UFA at Babelsberg near Berlin continued to produce a stream of comedies and light romances, which drew mass audiences to the cinema where they would also watch propaganda newsreels and Nazi epics. His abuse of his position as Propaganda Minister and the reputation that built up around his use of the "casting couch" was well known. Many actresses wrote later of how Goebbels had tried to lure them to his home. He acquired the nickname "Bock von Babelsberg" lit: "Babelsberg Stud". He resisted considerable pressure to ban all foreign films — helped by the fact that Hitler was a big fan of Mickey Mouse. For the same reason, Goebbels worked to bring culture to the masses — promoting the sale of cheap radios, organising free concerts in factories, staging art exhibitions in small towns and establishing mobile cinemas to bring the movies to every village. All of this served short-term propaganda ends, but also served to reconcile the German people, particularly the working class, to the regime.
As a man of education and culture, Goebbels had once mocked the "primitive" anti-Semitism of Nazis such as Julius Streicher. But as Joachim Fest observes: "Goebbels [found] in the increasingly unrestrained practice of anti-Semitism by the state new possibilities into which he threw himself with all the zeal of an ambitious man worried by a constant diminution of his power." Fest also suggests a psychological motive: "A man who conformed so little to the National Socialist image of the elite… may have had his reason, in the struggles for power at Hitler’s court, for offering keen anti-Semitism as a counterweight to his failure to conform to a type. Whatever his motives, Goebbels took every opportunity to attack the Jews. From 1933 onwards, he was bracketed with Streicher among the regime’s most virulent anti-Semites. "Some people think," he told a Berlin rally in June 1935, "that we haven’t noticed how the Jews are trying once again to spread themselves over all our streets. The Jews ought to please observe the laws of hospitality and not behave as if they were the same as us."
The sarcastic "humour" of Goebbels’ speeches did not conceal the reality of his threat to the Jews. In his capacity as Gauleiter of Berlin, and thus as de facto ruler of the capital (although there was still officially an Oberbürgermeister and city council), Goebbels maintained constant pressure on the city’s large Jewish community, forcing them out of business and professional life and placing obstacles in the way of their being able to live normal lives, such as banning them from public transport and city facilities. There was some respite during 1936, while Berlin hosted the Olympic Games, but from 1937 the intensity of his anti-Semitic words and actions began to increase again. "The Jews must get out of Germany, indeed out of Europe altogether," he wrote in his diary in November 1937. "That will take some time, but it must and will happen. By mid 1938 Goebbels was investigating the possibility of requiring all Jews to wear an identifying mark and of confining them to a ghetto, but these were ideas whose time had not yet come. "Aim—drive the Jews out of Berlin," he wrote in his diary in June 1938, "and without any sentimentality.
In November 1938, Goebbels got the chance to take decisive action against the Jews for which he had been waiting when a Jewish youth, Herschel Grynszpan, shot a German diplomat in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, in revenge for the deportation of his family to Poland and the persecution of German Jews generally. On 9 November, the evening vom Rath died of his wounds, Goebbels was at the Bürgerbräu Keller in Munich with Hitler, celebrating the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch with a large crowd of veteran Nazis. Goebbels told Hitler that "spontaneous" anti-Jewish violence had already broken out in German cities, although in fact this was not true: this was a clear case of Goebbels manipulating Hitler for his own ends. When Hitler said he approved of what was happening, Goebbels took this as authorisation to organise a massive, nationwide pogrom against the Jews. He wrote in his diary:
[Hitler] decides: demonstrations should be allowed to continue. The police should be withdrawn. For once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger… I immediately gave the necessary instructions to the police and the Party. Then I briefly speak in that vein to the Party leadership. Stormy applause. All are instantly at the phones. Now people will act.
To say that Goebbels manipulated Hitler into approving the pogrom of Kristallnacht is not to suggest that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was any less virulent than Goebbels’s. But it is clear that the idea of a state-sponsored pogrom originated with Goebbels, and that he gained Hitler’s approval for it by falsely telling Hitler that it had already begun.
The result of Goebbels’ incitement was Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," during which the S.A. and Nazi Party went on a rampage of anti-Jewish violence and destruction, killing at least 90 and maybe as many as 200 people (not counting several hundred suicides), destroying over a thousand synagogues and hundreds of Jewish businesses and homes, and dragging some 30,000 Jews off to concentration camps, where at least another thousand died before the remainder were released after several months of brutal treatment. The longer-term effect was to drive 80,000 Jews to emigrate, most leaving behind all their property in their desperation to escape. Foreign opinion reacted with horror, bringing to a sudden end the climate of appeasement of Nazi Germany in the western democracies. Goebbels’s pogrom thus moved Germany significantly closer to war, at a time when rearmament was still far from complete. Göring and some other Nazi leaders were furious at Goebbels’ actions, about which they had not been consulted. Goebbels, however, was delighted. "As was to be expected, the entire nation is in uproar," he wrote. "This is one dead man who is costing the Jews dear. Our darling Jews will think twice in future before gunning down German diplomats. In 1942 Goebbels was involved in deportation of Berlin's Jews.
These events were well-timed from the point of view of Goebbels’s relations with Hitler. In 1937, he had begun an intense affair with the Czech actress Lída Baarová, causing the break-up of her marriage. When Magda Goebbels learned of this affair in October 1938, she complained to Hitler, a conservative in sexual matters who was fond of Magda and the Goebbels' young children. He ordered Goebbels to break off his affair, whereupon Goebbels offered his resignation, which Hitler refused. On 15 October, Goebbels attempted suicide. A furious Hitler then ordered Himmler to remove Baarová from Germany, and she was deported to Czechoslovakia, from where she later left for Italy. These events damaged Goebbels’ standing with Hitler, and his zeal in furthering Hitler’s anti-Semitic agenda was in part an effort to restore his reputation. The Baarová affair, however, did nothing to dampen Goebbels' enthusiasm for womanising. As late as 1943, the Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann was ingratiating himself with Goebbels by procuring young women for him.
Goebbels, like all the Nazi leaders, could not afford to defy Hitler’s will in matters of this kind. By 1938, they had all become wealthy men, but their wealth was dependent on Hitler’s continuing goodwill and willingness to turn a blind eye to their corruption. Until the Nazis came to power, Goebbels had been a relatively poor man, and his main income was the salary of 750 Reichsmarks a month he had gained by election to the Reichstag in 1928. By 1936, although he was not nearly as corrupt as some other senior Nazis, such as Göring and Robert Ley, Goebbels was earning 300,000 Reichsmarks a year in "fees" for writing in his own newspaper, Der Angriff, as well as his ministerial salary and many other sources of income. These payments were in effect bribes from the papers’ publisher Max Amann. He owned a villa by the lake at Wannsee and another on Lake Constance in the south, which he spent 2.2 million Reichsmarks refurbishing. The tax office, as it did for all the Nazi leaders, gave him generous exemptions. Hitler apparently connived at the corruption of his lieutenants because of the power it gave him over them.
Whatever the loss of real power suffered by Goebbels during the middle years of the Nazi regime, he remained one of Hitler’s intimates. Since his offices were close to the Chancellery, he was a frequent guest for lunch, during which he became adept at listening to Hitler’s monologues and agreeing with his opinions. In the months leading up to the war, his influence began to increase again. He ranked along with Joachim von Ribbentrop, Göring, Himmler and Martin Bormann as the senior Nazi with the most access to Hitler, which in an autocratic regime meant access to power. The fact that Hitler was fond of Magda Goebbels and the children also gave Goebbels entrée to Hitler’s inner circle. The Goebbelses were regular visitors to Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat, the Berghof. But he was not kept directly informed of military and diplomatic developments, relying on second-hand accounts to hear what Hitler was doing.
Once war began in September 1939, Goebbels began a steady process of extending his influence over domestic policy. After 1940, Hitler made few public appearances, and even his broadcasts became less frequent, so Goebbels increasingly became the face and the voice of the Nazi regime for the German people. With Hitler preoccupied with the war, Himmler focusing on the "final solution to the Jewish question" in eastern Europe, and with Hermann Göring’s position declining with the failure of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), Goebbels sensed a power vacuum in domestic policy and moved to fill it. Since civilian morale was his responsibility, he increasingly concerned himself with matters such as wages, rationing and housing, which affected morale and therefore productivity. He came to see the lethargic and demoralised Göring, still Germany’s economic supremo as head of the Four Year Plan Ministry, as his main enemy. To undermine Göring, he forged an alliance with Himmler, although the SS chief remained wary of him. A more useful ally was Albert Speer, a Hitler favourite who was appointed Armaments Minister in February 1942. Goebbels and Speer worked through 1942 to persuade Hitler to dismiss Göring and allow the domestic economy to be run by a revived Cabinet headed by themselves.
However, in February 1943, the crushing German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad produced a crisis in the regime. Goebbels was forced to ally himself with Göring to thwart a bid for power by Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Secretary to the Führer. Bormann exploited the disaster at Stalingrad, and his daily access to Hitler, to persuade him to create a three-man junta representing the State, the Army, and the Party, represented respectively by Hans Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the OKW (armed forces high command), and Bormann, who controlled the Party and access to the Führer. This Committee of Three would exercise dictatorial powers over the home front. Goebbels, Speer, Göring and Himmler all saw this proposal as a power grab by Bormann and a threat to their power, and combined to block it.
However, their alliance was shaky at best. This was mainly due to the fact that during this period Himmler was still cooperating with Bormann to gain more power at the expense of Göring and most of the traditional Reich administration; Göring's loss of power had resulted in an overindulgence in the trappings of power and his strained relations with Goebbels made it difficult for a unified coalition to be formed, despite the attempts of Speer and Göring's Luftwaffe deputy Field Marshal Erhard Milch, to reconcile the two Party comrades.
Goebbels instead tried to persuade Hitler to appoint Göring as head of the government. His proposal had a certain logic, as Göring — despite the failures of the Luftwaffe and his own corruption — was still very popular among the German people, whose morale was waning since Hitler barely appeared in public since the defeat at Stalingrad. However, this proposal was increasingly unworkable given Göring’s increasing incapacity and, more importantly, Hitler’s increasing contempt for him due to his blaming of Göring for Germany's defeats. This was a measure by Hitler designed to deflect criticism from himself.
The result was that nothing was done—the Committee of Three declined into irrelevance due to the loss of power by Keitel and Lammers and the ascension of Bormann and the situation continued to drift, with administrative chaos increasingly undermining the war effort. The ultimate responsibility for this lay with Hitler, as Goebbels well knew, referring in his diary to a "crisis of leadership," but Goebbels was too much under Hitler’s spell ever to challenge his power.
Goebbels launched a new offensive to place himself at the center of policy-making. On 18 February, he delivered a passionate "Total War Speech" at the Sports Palace in Berlin. Goebbels demanded from his audience a commitment to "total war," the complete mobilisation of the German economy and German society for the war effort. To motivate the German people to continue the struggle, he cited three theses as the basis of this argument:
Goebbels concluded that "Two thousand years of Western history are in danger," and he blamed Germany's failures on the Jews.
Goebbels hoped in this way to persuade Hitler to give him and his ally Speer control of domestic policy for a program of total commitment to arms production and full labor conscription, including women. But Hitler, supported by Göring, resisted these demands, which he feared would weaken civilian morale and lead to a repeat of the debacle of 1918, when the German army had been undermined (in Hitler's view) by a collapse of the home front. Nor was Hitler willing to allow Goebbels or anyone else to usurp his own power as the ultimate source of all decisions. Goebbels privately lamented "a complete lack of direction in German domestic policy," but of course he could not directly criticise Hitler or go against his wishes.
Heinrich Himmler, one of the architects of the Holocaust, preferred that the matter not be discussed in public. Despite this, in an editorial in his newspaper Das Reich in November 1941 he quoted Hitler’s 1939 "prophecy" that the Jews would be the loser in the coming world war. Now, he said, Hitler’s prophecy was coming true: "Jewry," he said, "is now suffering the gradual process of annihilation which it intended for us… It now perishes according to its own precept of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’!
In 1939, in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler had said:
If international finance Jewry in and outside Europe should succeed in thrusting the nations once again into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the earth and with it the victory of Jewry, but the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.
The view of most historians is that the decision to proceed with the extermination of the Jews was taken at some point in late 1941, and Goebbels’ comments make it clear that he knew in general terms, if not in detail, what was planned.
The decision in principle to deport the German and Austrian Jews to unspecified destinations "in the east" was made in September. Goebbels immediately pressed for the Berlin Jews to be deported first. He travelled to Hitler’s headquarters on the eastern front, meeting both Hitler and Reinhard Heydrich to lobby for his demands. He got the assurances he wanted: "The Führer is of the opinion," he wrote, "that the Jews eventually have to be removed from the whole of Germany. The first cities to be made Jew-free are Berlin, Vienna and Prague. Berlin is first in the queue, and I have the hope that we’ll succeed in the course of this year.
Deportations of Berlin Jews to the Łódź ghetto began in October, but transport and other difficulties made the process much slower than Goebbels desired. His November article in Das Reich was part of his campaign to have the pace of deportation accelerated.
In December, he was present when Hitler addressed a meeting of Gauleiters and other senior Nazis, discussing among other things the "Jewish question." He wrote in his diary afterwards:
With regard to the Jewish Question, the Führer is determined to make a clean sweep of it. He prophesied that, if they brought about another world war, they would experience their annihilation. That was no empty talk. The world war is here [this was the week Germany declared war on the United States]. The annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence. The question is to be viewed without any sentimentality. We’re not there to have sympathy with the Jews, but only sympathy with our own German people. If the German people has again now sacrificed around 160,000 dead in the eastern campaign, the originators of this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives.
During 1942, Goebbels continued to press for the "final solution to the Jewish question" to be carried forward as quickly as possible now that Germany had occupied a huge swathe of Soviet territory into which all the Jews of German-controlled Europe could be deported. There they could be worked into extinction in accordance with the plan agreed on at the Wannsee Conference convened by Heydrich in January. It was a constant annoyance to Goebbels that, at a time when Germany was fighting for its life on the eastern front, there were still 40,000 Jews in Berlin. They should be "carted off to Russia," he wrote in his diary. "It would be best to kill them altogether. Once again, there is no doubt that Goebbels knew what would happen to the Jews who were to be "carted off." Although the Propaganda Ministry was not invited to the Wannsee Conference, Goebbels knew by March what had been decided there. He wrote:
The Jews are now being deported to the east. A fairly barbaric procedure, not to be described in any greater detail, is being used here, and not much more remains of the Jews themselves. In general, it can probably be established that 60 percent of them must be liquidated, while only 40 percent can be put to work […] A judgement is being carried out on the Jews which is barbaric, but fully deserved.
For Goebbels, 1943 and 1944 were years of struggle to rally the German people behind a regime which was increasingly obviously facing military defeat. The German people’s faith in Hitler was shaken by the disaster at Stalingrad, and never fully recovered. During 1943, as the Soviet armies advanced towards the borders of the Reich, the western Allies developed the ability to launch devastating air raids on most German cities, including Berlin. At the same time, there were increasingly critical shortages of food, raw materials, fuel and housing. Goebbels and Speer were among the few Nazi leaders who were under no illusions about Germany’s dire situation. Their solution was to seize control of the home front from the indecisive Hitler and the incompetent Göring. This was the agenda of Goebbels’s "total war" speech of February 1943. But they were thwarted by their inability to challenge Hitler, who could neither make decisions himself nor trust anyone else to do so.
After Stalingrad, Hitler increasingly withdrew from public view, almost never appearing in public and rarely even broadcasting. By July, Goebbels was lamenting that Hitler had cut himself off from the people — it was noted, for example, that he never visited the bomb-ravaged cities of the Ruhr. "One can’t neglect the people too long," he wrote. "They are the heart of our war effort. Goebbels himself became the public voice of the Nazi regime, both in his regular broadcasts and his weekly editorials in Das Reich. As Joachim Fest notes, Goebbels seemed to take a grim pleasure in the destruction of Germany’s cities by the Allied bombing offensive: "It was, as one of his colleagues confirmed, almost a happy day for him when famous buildings were destroyed, because at such time he put into his speeches that ecstatic hatred which aroused the fanaticism of the tiring workers and spurred them to fresh efforts.
In public, Goebbels remained confident of German victory: "We live at the most critical period in the history of the Occident," he wrote in Das Reich in February 1943. "Any weakening of the spiritual and military defensive strength of our continent in its struggle with eastern Bolshevism brings with it the danger of a rapidly nearing decline in its will to resist… Our soldiers in the East will do their part. They will stop the storm from the steppes, and ultimately break it. They fight under unimaginable conditions. But they are fighting a good fight. They are fighting not only for our own security, but also for Europe's future.
In private, he was discouraged by the failure of his and Speer’s campaign to gain control of the home front.
Goebbels remained preoccupied with the annihilation of the Jews, which was now reaching its climax in the extermination camps of eastern Poland. As in 1942, he was more outspoken about what was happening than Himmler would have liked: "Our state’s security requires that we take whatever measures seem necessary to protect the German community from [the Jewish] threat," he wrote in May. "That leads to some difficult decisions, but they are unavoidable if we are to deal with the threat… None of the Führer’s prophetic words has come so inevitably true as his prediction that if Jewry succeeded in provoking a second world war, the result would be not the destruction of the Aryan race, but rather the wiping out of the Jewish race. This process is of vast importance.
Following the Allied invasion of Italy and the fall of Benito Mussolini in September, he and Joachim von Ribbentrop raised with Hitler the possibility of secretly approaching Joseph Stalin and negotiating a separate peace behind the backs of the western Allies. Hitler, surprisingly, did not reject the idea of a separate peace with either side, but he told Goebbels that he should not negotiate from a position of weakness. A great German victory must occur before any negotiations should be undertaken, he reasoned. The German defeat at Kursk in July had, however, ended any possibility of this. Goebbels knew by this stage that the war was lost, but was unable to break the spell that Hitler had held over him since 1926.
As Germany’s military and economic situation grew steadily worse during 1944, Goebbels renewed his push, in alliance with Speer, to wrest control of the home front away from Göring. In July, following the Allied landings in France and the huge Soviet advances in Byelorussia, Hitler finally agreed to grant both of them increased powers. Speer took control of all economic and production matters away from Göring, and Goebbels took the title Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War (Reichsbevollmächtigter für den totalen Kriegseinsatz an der Heimatfront). At the same time, Himmler took over the Interior Ministry.
This trio — Goebbels, Himmler and Speer — became the real center of German government in the last year of the war, although Bormann used his privileged access to Hitler to thwart them when he could. In this Bormann was very successful, as the Party Gauleiter gained more and more powers, becoming Reich Defence Commissars (Reichsverteidigungskommissare) in their respective districts and overseeing all civilian administration. The fact that Himmler was Interior Minister only increased the power of Bormann, as the Gauleiters feared that Himmler, who was General Plenipontentiary for the Administration of the Reich, would curb their power and set up his higher SS and police leaders as their replacement.
Goebbels saw Himmler as a potential ally against Bormann and in 1944 is supposed to have voiced the opinion that if the Reichsführer SS was granted control over the Wehrmacht and he, Goebbels, granted control over the domestic politics, the war would soon be ended in a victorious manner. However, the inability of Himmler to persuade Hitler to cease his support of Bormann, the defection of SS generals such as Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the Chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and his powerful subordinate Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo, to Bormann, soon persuaded Goebbels to align himself with the Secretary to the Führer at the end of 1944, thus accepting his subordinate position.
When elements of the army leadership tried to assassinate Hitler in the July 20 plot shortly thereafter, it was this trio that rallied the resistance to the plotters. It was Goebbels, besieged in his Berlin apartment with Speer and secretary Wilfred von Oven beside him but with his phone lines intact, who brought Otto Ernst Remer, the wavering commander of the Berlin garrison, to the phone to speak to Hitler in East Prussia, thus demonstrating that the Führer was alive and that the garrison should oppose the attempted coup.
Goebbels promised Hitler that he could raise a million new soldiers by means of a reorganisation of the Army, transferring personnel from the Navy and Luftwaffe, and purging the bloated Reich Ministries which satraps like Göring had hitherto protected. As it turned out, the inertia of the state bureaucracy was too great even for the energetic Goebbels to overcome. Bormann and his puppet Lammers, keen to retain their control over the Party and State administrations respectively, placed endless obstacles in Goebbels’s way. Another problem was that although Speer and Goebbels were allies, their agendas in fact conflicted: Speer wanted absolute priority in the allocation of labour to be given to arms production, while Goebbels sought to press every able-bodied male into the army. Speer, allied with Fritz Sauckel, the General Plenipotentiary for the Employment of Labour from 1942, generally won these battles.
By July 1944, it was in any case too late for Goebbels and Speer’s internal coup to make any real difference to the outcome of the war. The combined economic and military power of the western Allies and the Soviet Union, now fully mobilised, was simply too great for Germany to overcome. A crucial economic indicator, the ratio of steel output, was running at 4.5 to one against Germany. The final blow was the loss of the Romanian oil fields as the Soviet Army advanced through the Balkans in September. This, combined with the U.S. air campaign against Germany’s synthetic oil production, finally broke the back of the German economy and thus its capacity for further resistance. By this time, the best Goebbels could do to reassure the German people that victory was still possible was to make vague promises that "miracle weapons" such as the Me 262 jet airplane, the Type XXI U-boat, and the V-2 rocket could somehow retrieve the military situation.
"Rarely in history has a brave people struggling for its life faced such terrible tests as the German people have in this war," he wrote towards the end. "The misery that results for us all, the never ending chain of sorrows, fears, and spiritual torture does not need to be described in detail… We are bearing a heavy fate because we are fighting for a good cause, and are called to bravely endure the battle to achieve greatness.
By the beginning of 1945, with the Soviets on the Oder and the western Allies crossing the Rhine, Goebbels could no longer disguise the fact that defeat was inevitable. He knew what that would mean for himself: "For us," he had written in 1943, "we have burnt our bridges. We cannot go back, but neither do we want to go back. We are forced to extremes and therefore resolved to proceed to extremes.
When other Nazi leaders urged Hitler to leave Berlin and establish a new center of resistance in the National Redoubt in Bavaria, Goebbels opposed this, arguing for a last stand in the ruins of the Reich capital.
By this time, Goebbels had gained the position he had wanted so long—at the side of Hitler, albeit only because of his subservience to Bormann, who was the Führer's de facto deputy. Göring was utterly discredited, though Hitler refused to dismiss him until 25 April. Himmler, whose appointment as commander of Army Group Vistula had led to disaster on the Oder, was also in disgrace, and Hitler rightly suspected that he was secretly trying to negotiate with the western Allies. Only Goebbels and Bormann remained totally loyal to Hitler. Goebbels knew how to play on Hitler's fantasies, encouraging him to see in the death of American President Roosevelt on 12 April the hand of providence. On 22 April, largely as a result of Goebbels' influence, Hitler announced that he would not leave Berlin, but would stay and fight, and if necessary die, in defence of the capital.
On 23 April, Goebbels made the following proclamation to the people of Berlin:
"I call on you to fight for your city. Fight with everything you have got, for the sake of your wives and your children, your mothers and your parents. Your arms are defending everything we have ever held dear, and all the generations that will come after us. Be proud and courageous! Be inventive and cunning! Your Gauleiter is amongst you. He and his colleagues will remain in your midst. His wife and children are here as well. He, who once captured the city with 200 men, will now use every means to galvanize the defense of the capital. The battle for Berlin must become the signal for the whole nation to rise up in battle…
Unlike many other leading Nazis at this juncture, Goebbels at least proved to have the courage of his convictions, moving himself and his family into the Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery building in central Berlin. He told Vice-Admiral Hans-Erich Voss that he would not entertain the idea of either surrender or escape: "I was the Reich Minister of Propaganda and led the fiercest activity against the Soviet Union, for which they would never pardon me," Voss quoted him as saying. "He couldn't escape also because he was Berlin's Defence Commissioner and he considered it would be disgraceful for him to abandon his post," Voss added.
On 30 April, with the Soviets advancing to within a few hundred metres of the bunker, Hitler dictated his last will and testament. Goebbels was one of four witnesses. Not long after completing it, Hitler shot himself. Of Hitler's death, Goebbels commented: "The heart of Germany has ceased to beat. The Führer is dead."
In his last will and testament, Hitler named no successor as Führer or leader of the Nazi Party. Instead, Hitler appointed Goebbels Reich Chancellor; Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who was at Flensburg near the Danish border, Reich President; and Martin Bormann, Hitler's long-time chief of staff, Party Minister. Goebbels knew that this was an empty title. Even if he was willing and able to escape Berlin and reach the north, it was unlikely that Dönitz, whose only concern was to negotiate a settlement with the western Allies that would save Germany from Soviet occupation, would want such a notorious figure as Goebbels heading his government.
As it was, Goebbels had no intention of trying to escape. Voss later recounted: "When Goebbels learned that Hitler had committed suicide, he was very depressed and said: 'It is a great pity that such a man is not with us any longer. But there is nothing to be done. For us, everything is lost now and the only way left for us is the one which Hitler chose. I shall follow his example'.
On 1 May, within hours of Hitler's suicide on 30 April, Goebbels completed his sole official act as Chancellor of Germany (Reichskanzler). He dictated a letter and ordered German General Hans Krebs, under a white flag, to meet with General Vasily Chuikov and to deliver his letter. Chuikov, as commander of the Soviet 8th Guards Army, commanded the Soviet forces in central Berlin. Goebbels' letter informed Chuikov of Hitler's death and requested a ceasefire, hinting that the establishment of a National Socialist government hostile to Western plutocracy would be beneficial to the Soviet Union, as the betrayal of Himmler and Göring indicated that otherwise anti-Soviet National Socialist elements might align themselves with the West. When this was rejected, Goebbels decided that further efforts were futile. Shortly afterwards he dictated a postscript to Hitler's testament:
"The Führer has given orders for me, in case of a breakdown of defense of the Capital of the Reich, to leave Berlin and to participate as a leading member in a government appointed by him. For the first time in my life, I must categorically refuse to obey a command of the Führer. My wife and my children agree with this refusal. In any other case, I would feel myself… a dishonorable renegade and vile scoundrel for my entire further life, who would lose the esteem of himself along with the esteem of his people, both of which would have to form the requirement for further duty of my person in designing the future of the German Nation and the German Reich.
Later on 1 May, Vice-Admiral Hans-Erich Voss saw Goebbels for the last time: "Before the breakout [from the bunker] began, about ten generals and officers, including myself, went down individually to Goebbels's shelter to say goodbye. While saying goodbye I asked Goebbels to join us. But he replied: 'The captain must not leave his sinking ship. I have thought about it all and decided to stay here. I have nowhere to go because with little children I will not be able to make it'.
At 8 p.m. on the evening of 1 May, Goebbels arranged for an SS doctor, Helmut Kunz, to kill his six children by injecting them with morphine and then, when they were unconscious, crushing an ampoule of cyanide in each of their mouths. According to Kunz's testimony, he gave the children morphine injections but it was Magda Goebbels and Stumpfegger, Hitler's personal doctor, who then administered the cyanide. Shortly afterwards, Goebbels and his wife went up to the garden of the Chancellery, where they killed themselves. The details of their suicides are uncertain. After the war, Rear-Admiral Michael Musmanno, a U.S. naval officer and judge, published an account apparently based on eye-witness testimony: "At about 8.15 p.m., Goebbels arose from the table, put on his hat, coat and gloves and, taking his wife's arm, went upstairs to the garden." They were followed by Goebbels's adjutant, SS-Hauptsturmführer Günther Schwägermann. "While Schwägermann was preparing the petrol, he heard a shot. Goebbels had shot himself and his wife took poison. Schwägermann ordered one of the soldiers to shoot Goebbels again because he was unable to do it himself. One SS officer later said they each took cyanide and were shot by an SS trooper. An early report said they were machine-gunned to death at their own request. According to another account, Joseph shot Magda and then himself. This idea is presented in the movie Downfall.
The bodies of Goebbels and his wife were then burned in a shell crater, but owing to the lack of petrol the burning was only partly effective, and their bodies were easily identifiable. A few days later, Voss was brought back to the bunker by the Soviets to identify the partly burned bodies of Joseph and Magda Goebbels and the bodies of their children. "Vice-Admiral Voss, being asked how he identified the people as Goebbels, his wife and children, explained that he recognised the burnt body of the man as former Reichsminister Goebbels by the following signs: the shape of the head, the line of the mouth, the metal brace that Goebbels had on his right leg, his gold NSDAP badge and the burnt remains of his party uniform. The remains of the Goebbels family were secretly buried, along with those of Hitler, near Rathenow in Brandenburg. In 1970, they were disinterred and cremated, and the ashes thrown in the Elbe.
Joachim Fest writes: "What he seemed to fear more than anything else was a death devoid of dramatic effects. To the end he was what he had always been: the propagandist for himself. Whatever he thought or did was always based on this one agonising wish for self-exaltation, and this same object was served by the murder of his children... They were the last victims of an egomania extending beyond the grave. However, this deed, too, failed to make him the figure of tragic destiny he had hoped to become; it merely gave his end a touch of repulsive irony.