I took Peter Longerich’s new biography of Goebbels on holiday in Devon last week; even I now think it was a bit absurd to take a book of 700 pages or so to the beach – leaving aside the particular subject matter. Actually, the book is something of a disappointment. Longerich tries to “explain” the pathology behind Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, who was largely responsible for creating the “myth” of the “Fuhrer”, in terms of a strict psychological profile: that he had a narcissistically disturbed personality that developed in early childhood as a result of having a “solicitous and domineering mother”, on whom he remained dependent throughout his life.
There is no evidence for this at all and anyway, human nature is too mysterious and diverse for formulaic interpretations. Goebbels came from a loving, devout, Catholic upper working-class family. Despite his physical deformity, a club foot, he had friends at school, was a high achiever academically and was free to choose the life he wanted to lead. Indeed, a Catholic society, the Albertus Magnus Society of Cologne, paid for his university studies and his father continued to support him financially until he was in his late 20s: many years during which Goebbels showed no sign of settling down to a conventional career and restlessly dabbled in politics, love affairs and attempts at writing poetry and drama.
There is one moving passage that gives a glimpse of Goebbels’ father (described by his son in his Diaries as a “tightwad…a pedant, small-minded and limited”) when Goebbels was aged 22. Longerich writes, “He had doubts about his Catholicism and turned for help to his father, who in a long letter of November 1919 offered Joseph comfort and advice, [writing that] crises of faith were quite normal among young people; prayer and the sacraments would see him through it. He reminded Joseph of his sister Elizabeth’s death in 1915, when the whole family had been helped by praying together. He would not cast him out… even if he turned away from the Church, but he had to ask him two questions: Did he mean to write anything incompatible with the Catholic religion, and did he intend to take up work to which the same applied? If this were not the case, then everything would fall back into place again.”
Longerich comments that Goebbels was grateful for this understanding reply, which shows, however, how far he had moved away from “the petit bourgeois Catholic milieu of his parents.”
I don’t find anything “petit bourgeois” about this fatherly response, which strikes me as affectionate and reasonable, even accepting of his son’s distancing himself from the faith. Sadly, the “two questions” Goebbels’ father raised came to be crucial in the light of Goebbels’ later career: after he first read Hitler’s speeches in 1924 and met Hitler for the first time in 1925, Goebbels’ hitherto unstructured life and emotional aimlessness found its dynamic meaning and purpose. It is as if, having turned his back on Christianity but craving something idealistic and transcendental to fill his inner emptiness (as Hugh Trevor-Roper describes it in his introduction to the publication of the last diaries of 1945), he found a malign alternative religion and a sinister alternative “saviour”.
His diary entries record that he instantly perceived Hitler as “a man who will bring new belief to the Germans” – the answer to his appeal, “O Lord, give your German people a miracle!” Meeting Hitler in Weimar for the first time Goebbels confided in his Diary that it was “a resurrection in the truest sense of the word.” The next morning he wrote,
“I’m ready to sacrifice everything for him.” After reading Mein Kampf he asked himself, “Is this really Christ or just John the Baptist?” In an open letter to Hitler in the newspaper he helped to edit at the time, he wrote, “You showed us once more in our deepest despair the way to faith.”
In the light of later history, such phrases seem shocking as well as blasphemous. Goebbels, despite his genius for publicity and propaganda, is not so different from everyman: to be human is to yearn for self-sacrifice, a redeemer and a faith. If we don’t seek this in the Christian faith, we will inevitably discover alternative gods; not necessarily as flamboyantly nihilistic as the man Goebbels met in Weimar in 1924, but nonetheless destructive and leading eventually to despair.