Review: Goebbels

Too much information


Confronting this huge volume, written by the German historian Peter Longerich, I found it hard to believe that this much new information could have been uncovered about Goebbels. It seems like scholarship to be weighed by the kilo rather than by the insight. And indeed I doubt that reading every page of it will change your understanding of the Nazi regime or the Holocaust. My advice would be, leave this one to the geeks and librarians - unless you feel a burning need to know about his marital strife and sex problems.

Professor Longerich argues that biography can make an important contribution to the general history of the Third Reich. But he doesn't really substantiate the claim in relation to this particular biography. What he actually demonstrates is that the thousands of pages of Goebbels's diaries make this contribution - although of course they are problematic, being so entirely self-serving. And he doesn't take on the ticklish issue that biography can bring identification and sympathy in its wake, which is hardly desirable when dealing with one of history's most evil men.

One of the issues I had hoped to understand better was Goebbels's role in the 1938 November Pogrom, Kristallnacht. Was he the driving force? Was it a turning-point in which he lost influence and mob violence on the streets was replaced by bureaucratic persecution and murder, with Himmler rising to supremacy? So it was disappointing not to find the subject in the index and the whole episode dealt with in just a few pages offering a bare-bones recital of well-established facts.

These pages also brought to light flaws in the translation: we are asked to believe that Goebbels's diary entries about Kristallnacht included the comment: "I'm going to take on the whole violence thing myself," as though he was a 30-something from Manhattan rather than the king of Nazi bombast.

Longerich consulted a group of psychoanalysts about Goebbels's personality, but this yields only rudimentary insights such as his narcissism, insecurity and trouble distinguishing fact from propaganda - characteristics that surely accord with the widely held view of him.

'Goebbels’s propaganda was pervasive but not especially clever'

Mostly, Goebbels's propaganda was pervasive but not especially clever. It was like the loud music played to prisoners in Guantanamo to keep them awake and destroy their mental balance: the volume was the point, not the content. It didn't so much persuade people as distract them and stop them enquiring. The exception was probably propaganda targeting children, which shaped many young minds, but the best known example, the book The Poisonous Mushroom, came not from Goebbels but from Julius Streicher's Stürmer stable.

Longerich is a serious scholar with an honourable track record. He played a major role in demolishing David Irving's credibility as a historian during Irving's libel trial. But, here, he seems to have chosen poorly. Knowing the minutiae of Goebbels's life doesn't make us wiser.

The people of Berlin were right in 1931 when they claimed to have been unimpressed by Charlie Chaplin because they had a grotesque comedian of their own.

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