Paul Joseph Goebbels was born on October 29, 1897, in Rheydt, Germany, an industrial city located in the Rhineland. Because of a club foot that he acquired during a childhood bout with osteomyelitis, a swelling of the bone marrow, the young Goebbels was exempted from service in the German army during World War I (1914-18). Instead, he attended a series of German universities, where he studied literature and philosophy, among other subjects, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in German philology from Heidelberg University.
In the first half of the 1920s, after unsuccessfully attempting to establish a career as a journalist, novelist and playwright, Goebbels became a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party, which promoted German pride and anti-Semitism. Goebbels eventually became acquainted with the organization’s leader, Adolf Hitler. At this time, inflation had wrecked the German economy, and the morale of the German citizenry, who had been defeated in World War I, was low. Hitler and Goebbels were both of the opinion that words and images were potent devices that could be used to exploit this discontent. Hitler was impressed with Goebbels’ ability to communicate his thoughts in writing, while Goebbels was enamored of Hitler’s talent for speaking in front of large crowds and employing words and gestures to play on German nationalistic pride.
Rise to Nazi Power
Goebbels quickly ascended the ranks of the Nazi Party. First he broke away from Gregor Strasser (1892-1934), the leader of the more anti-capitalistic party bloc, who he initially supported, and joined ranks with the more conservative Hitler. Then, in 1926, he became a party district leader in Berlin. The following year, he established and wrote commentary in Der Angriff (The Attack), a weekly newspaper that espoused the Nazi Party line.
In 1928, Goebbels was elected to the Reichstag, the German Parliament. More significantly, Hitler named him the Nazi Party propaganda director. It was in this capacity that Goebbels began formulating the strategy that fashioned the myth of Hitler as a brilliant and decisive leader. He arranged massive political gatherings at which Hitler was presented as the savior of a new Germany. In a masterstroke, Goebbels oversaw the placing of movie cameras and microphones at pivotal locations to accentuate Hitler’s image and voice. Such events and maneuverings played a pivotal role in convincing the German people that their country would regain its honor only by giving unwavering support to Hitler.
In January 1933, Hitler became the German chancellor, and in March of that year he appointed Goebbels the country’s minister for public enlightenment and propaganda. In this capacity, Goebbels had complete jurisdiction over the content of German newspapers, magazines, books, music, films, stage plays, radio programs and fine arts. His mission was to censor all opposition to Hitler and present the chancellor and the Nazi Party in the most positive light while stirring up hatred for Jewish people.
In April 1933, at Hitler’s directive, Goebbels orchestrated a boycott on Jewish businesses. The following month, he was a guiding force in the burning of “un-German” books in a public ceremony at Berlin’s Opera House. The works of dozens of writers were destroyed, including German-born authors Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970), Arnold Zweig (1887-1968), Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Heinrich Mann (1871-1950), and such non-Germans as Émile Zola (1840-1902), Helen Keller (1880-1968), Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), H. G. Wells (1866-1946), Jack London (1876-1916) and André Gide (1869-1951).
In September 1933, Goebbels became director of the newly formed Reich Chamber of Culture, whose mission was to control all aspects of the creative arts. An offshoot of the formation of the chamber was the forced unemployment of all Jewish creative artists, including writers, musicians and theater and film actors and directors. Because the Nazis viewed modern art as immoral, Goebbels instructed that all such “decadent” art be confiscated and replaced by works that were more representational and sentimental in content. Then in October came the passage of the Reich Press Law, which ordered the removal of all Jewish and non-Nazi editors from German newspapers and magazines.
At the start of World War II in 1939, Goebbels was entrusted with the task of uplifting the spirit of the German people and employing the media, and specifically the cinema, to convince the population to support the war effort. A typical project he instigated was “Der ewige Jude,” also known as “The Eternal Jew” (1940), a propaganda film that ostensibly charted the history of the Jews. In the film, however, Jews are depicted as parasites who disrupt an otherwise tidy world.Goebbels also orchestrated the production of “Jud Süss” (1940), a feature film depicting the life of Josef Süss Oppenheimer (1698-1738), a Jewish financial consultant who collected taxes for Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg (1684-1737), ruler of the Duchy of Württemberg, in the early 18th century. After the duke’s sudden death, Oppenheimer was put on trial and executed. Under Goebbels’s stewardship of the project, the story of Jud Süss was transformed from a human tragedy to an allegory about Jewish self-importance and greed.
As the war plodded on and German casualties mounted, Goebbels became a proponent of an all-out battle to the death against the Allied forces. In this regard, he employed his own abilities as a public speaker to further incite the German populace. On one occasion, in August 1944, speaking from the Sports Palace in Berlin, he commanded the German people to support a total war effort. If Germany was destined to lose the war, he reasoned, it was fitting that the German nation and people be obliterated.
As 1944 segued into 1945, the German defeat seemed inevitable to the Nazi regime. While other Nazi higher-ups made contact with the Allies in the hope of negotiating lenient treatment after the German surrender, Goebbels remained steadfastly devoted to Hitler.
During the last days of April 1945, as Soviet troops were on the threshold of Berlin, Hitler was holed up in his bunker. Goebbels was the lone senior Nazi official at his side. On April 30, Hitler committed suicide at age 56 and Goebbels replaced him as Germany’s chancellor. However, Goebbels’ reign was short-lived. The following day, he and his wife, Magda (1901-45), fatally poisoned their six children. The couple then took their own lives, although accounts of exactly how they died vary.