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  • Joseph Goebbels: Biographie by Peter Longerich
  • Eric A. Johnson
Joseph Goebbels: Biographie, Peter Longerich (Munich: Siedler Verlag, 2010), 912 pp., paperback €19.99.

On May 1, 1945, a day after Adolf Hitler and his bride Eva Braun committed suicide in the bunker below the Reich Chancellery, the Nazi propaganda leader Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda followed their beloved Führer by first taking the lives of their six children (all had an “H” in their names) and then killing themselves. As accomplished historian Peter Longerich explains in this insightful and massive biography, all of the other top Nazi leaders had deserted Hitler. Hence, Joseph and the fanatical Magda fulfilled a promise Goebbels had implied in late January with Magda’s full agreement and broadcast over the radio on February 28 stating that life would not be worth living should the Reich fall to its enemies. Goebbels’s final act would prove to all and forever that he had been Hitler’s most faithful servant.

Goebbels’s suicide certainly was that of a twisted person. Arguing that an extreme narcissistic personality disorder made Goebbels thirst constantly for recognition, especially from his idol Adolf Hitler, Longerich’s biography offers far more than a psycho-historical portrait of one of the Third Reich’s most influential figures. By placing into context Goebbels’s enormous writing output—including two autobiographical novels, thousands of pages of newspaper articles and position papers, and especially the massive diaries that he kept for more than twenty years—Longerich unmasks Goebbels for the ruthless and restless person he was and demystifies Goebbels’s consciously crafted legend of the overwhelming importance of his propaganda to the Third Reich. Though both propaganda and Goebbels himself were certainly important to the partial success of Hitler and Nazism in capturing the hearts and minds of the German people, Goebbels never had the control over the industry [End Page 134] or the persuasive power he wanted people to believe he had. Besides being an egomaniac, Goebbels was a fractious character who bickered with nearly all other top Nazi leaders and clashed frequently with other important figures and agencies involved in propaganda: media leaders such as Max Amann and Otto Dietrich, the military’s and the foreign ministry’s propaganda offices . . . even at times with Hitler himself.

Although Longerich’s study is written in a flowing narrative style, and, importantly, contradicts the propaganda pull of Nazism that so many have assumed that Goebbels created almost single-handedly, readers might wish that the author had devoted a bit more attention to Goebbels’s childhood and his subsequent family life. Longerich instead concentrated on the period after Goebbels began writing his diaries, credibly arguing that not much evidence about the other topics exists. During his later years, for example, Goebbels wrote rather little in his diaries about the relationship with his wife, a relationship that had been strained since the late 1930s. Nevertheless, Longerich does tell readers that Goebbels was born on October 29, 1897, in the town of Rheydt near the Dutch border, to a lower-middle-class Catholic family and to a mother whom he seemed to love deeply for her very simplicity. Although Longerich explains that Goebbels suffered a damaged self-image early on because a short leg and club-foot caused him to be rejected for military service during World War I, he is perhaps overly harsh in judging Goebbels something of a failure in his youth. Indeed Goebbels, as Longerich himself notes, graduated at the top of his gymnasium class in 1917 and studied first at Bonn and later at several other important German universities before completing his Ph.D. in German literary history at Heidelberg in 1921. Although less than successful in his early publishing attempts, Goebbels did manage to complete the two autobiographical novels in addition to his Ph.D. thesis by his mid-twenties, and to become regional leader (Gauleiter) of Berlin in 1926, two years after joining the Nazi Party.

Goebbels became head of the new Propaganda Ministry after the Nazis came to power in 1933, but he did not create Hitler’s or the Nazis’ original appeal and eventual hold over the German people...


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pp. 134-136
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