Had Goebbels been around today he would probably be the master player of the media—of any or all media. He would have grasped and exploited the ubiquity of social media. He would have relished the random distribution of defamatory vitriol via Twitter. In fact, few people have ever understood the technique of selective messaging better.
Goebbels was Hitler’s indispensable genius of spin. Long before the Nazis came to power, Goebbels understood what had to be done to gain that power. Fundamentally the German public needed to be made to happily acquiesce in the idea that the nation needed a demagogue to right its grievances.
It was Goebbels who proved that if falsehoods were repeated often enough they became, in the minds of the ignorant and aggrieved, facts. You never apologized. He proved that the selection of a false enemy was essential as a target of aroused bigotry. That, too, required constant repetition to create the hated “other.” Although “the other” lived peaceably as a minority in the population it should be characterized as inimical to the interests of the ethnic majority.
The minority had disproportionate influence and power. They threatened the jobs and well-being of the majority. They would forever be alien and had no legitimate place in the society.
The ultimate triumph of Goebbels was to build out from the initial Nazi party base of the ignorant and gullible to reach and win the compliance of the German elites—political, commercial, academic, and military. These elites were effectively intimidated and disarmed by Goebbels who inculcated in them a fear of being seen to be unpatriotic, of not buying into the required supremacy of the Third Reich that would reinstate Germany to its rightful status. In other words, to make Germany great again.
Dr. Joseph Goebbels, as he had then become, was sworn in as Reich minister for popular enlightenment and propaganda on March 14, 1933, at the age of 35, six weeks after Hitler came to power. H.R. Knickerbocker, a columnist for the New York Post, reported from Berlin that much of the credit for Hitler’s success should go to Goebbels, “the greatest master of public management that Europe has ever known, and the best orator.”
Physically he was an unlikely candidate to become such a mesmerizing speaker: slightly built with a skull-like gauntness in the face, a shrill voice, and a physical disability. He was born with a right foot that failed to grow. Doctors told his parents that he would be “lamed for life” and after a failed operation at the age of 10 he knew that he would thereafter have to walk with a clubfoot. His mother, deeply religious, regarded the handicap as a punishment inflicted by God.
There was nothing impaired about Goebbels’s intellect, once he geared it to the Nazi cause in the 1920s. He had been greatly influenced by a book called Psychology of the Masses by Gustave Le Bon and adapted its message to the art that he made his own, political propaganda.
“Berlin needs sensations as a fish needs water,” he said, in an edict that today could well come from the mouth of a reality TV producer, “any political propaganda that fails to recognize that will miss its target.”
Watching the new minister in action, the American ambassador to Berlin, William Dodd, reported to President Roosevelt, that Goebbels was a master orator and “far cleverer” than Hitler.
Fomenting and channeling the anger of the Nazi base also required that they should come to see the press as the common enemy—if the press opposed the Nazis they were opposing the people. If the word had been around, he would have called them sleaze. Goebbels began a systematic assault on the independence of newspapers.
Many newspapers were, he said, “messengers of decay.” Within a year the Nazis had shut down all newspapers owned by Jews (including one that had rejected a job application by Goebbels a decade earlier) and any paper suspected of left wing or liberal sympathies. Editors of the remaining papers who failed to give the party unblinking support could be removed, and even end up in a concentration camp.
The same happened to the country’s radio stations. Goebbels summoned the owners and managers of all the radio broadcasters and told them: “We make no bones about it: the radio belongs to us, to no one else! And we will place the radio at the service of our idea, and no other idea shall be expressed through it.”
Amid a gang of rabid anti-Semites, Goebbels stood out as a fanatic, more open in his hatred than even Hitler. He and Hitler had agreed that Jews should be eliminated from the “body of the German Volk.”
The racial “purity” required of this concept of the Volk (people) also called for compliance from Protestants and Catholics—in a concordat agreed with the Vatican Catholics were assured of “freedom of religious profession” as long as they were loyal to the regime. The Jews, in Goebbels’s lexicon, were “non-German.” And the ancestry card was played ruthlessly wherever there was suspicion of Jewish blood.
Historians have always been perplexed by the effectiveness of Goebbels’s appeals to his idea of loyalty and what it required. But this becomes less puzzling once you realize that Goebbels was the first grand manipulator of modern media. He instantly seized control of the means of communicating—“radio belongs to us, to no one else!” Radio was the new force, for the first time reaching the masses.
Equally important, because it was a relatively new medium that Goebbels saw could and should be used for mass indoctrination, he virtually took over the German film industry. He kept a list of his (and Hitler’s) favorite actors. Screenplays were examined and censored. Goebbels himself vetted many scripts using a green pencil; no film could get financed without official approval. And, as a side dish, Goebbels discovered and exploited the powers of the casting couch.
But it was in documentaries that under Goebbels Germany produced that unsettling phenomenon, the masterpiece in the service of evil. Leni Reifenstahl, a lanky actress and dancer, fell under Hitler’s spell after watching him speak at a mass rally of the party faithful at Nuremberg. Reifenstahl realized that these rallies, orchestrated in a style that combined Roman martial insignia with Hollywood choreography, were the essence of Hitler’s spiritual message and she persuaded Hitler to let her make a documentary of the 1934 rally.
The result, Triumph of the Will, went beyond anything that either Hitler or Goebbels had foreseen. Shot with multiple cameras it was as much about the effects of Hitler as about Hitler—not so much a triumph of the will as the absolute surrender of the individual will to the leader of the master race.
Goebbels faced the greatest test of his propaganda skills with the planning of the 1936 Olympic Games, to be held in Berlin. Hitler wanted this to be the grandest of grand deceptions—an opportunity to present Germany as a resurrected world power but through the anodyne prism of international athletics, and for Germany a symphony of Aryan physique and accomplishments.
Goebbels assigned Riefenstahl to use the same technique to the Olympics that she had applied to the Nuremberg rally. As she was shooting Goebbels came to doubt the wisdom of his choice because she was hard to handle and went way over budget.
“A hysterical female. Not like a man!” Goebbels complained. “She weeps. That’s women’s ultimate weapon.”
Riefenstahl’s film became two: Festival of the Peoples and Festival of Beauty. And, once more, they were testament to her brilliance, the indispensable genius of her craft.
By then Goebbels’s total control of the media was unquestioned. The entire nation had been brainwashed in a way that only fascism could have fashioned. The propaganda machine allowed no resistance to its message.
How did Goebbels do it?
As the Nazi party struggled for power it was Goebbels who recognized the explosive potential of mixing fear with ignorance. The base duly took shape. On taking office Goebbels said that the people had “to think uniformly, to react uniformly, and place themselves body and soul at the disposal of the government.” (That was his public wording; in private he spoke of being able to manipulate the party membership because they were only “a pile of shit.”)
In theory this kind of appeal should have been less persuasive with the country’s elites. And yet, as Ralf Georg Reuth writes in his masterly biography of Goebbels, “At German universities, too, few voices of protest were heard. Many university professors saw in national socialism the ‘Volk community’ and ‘organic leadership’ about which they had theorized in their courses for years. Noted professors like the philosopher Martin Heidegger, the art historian William Pinder, and the surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch signed their names to proclamations and declarations of loyalty.”
This is a weakness all too recognizable today. Goebbels required loyalty to two bodies—the party and the nation. When a political party capitulates to the call for “unity” no matter what the fissures are within it, and goes deaf to the flaws of a presumptive leader with the instincts of a demagogue, its destiny is given to that leader. When loyalty to country is draped in a call to self-declared patriotism that call all too easily becomes coercive. Normally well-informed and sentient people succumb, with results they long regret, like launching a disastrous war.
“It would always remain one of the best jokes of democracy that it provided its own moral enemies with the means by which it was destroyed, ” Goebbels said.
We know how this story ends. The important thing is to understand how it begins.