About the Book

About the Author

Also by Peter Longerich

Title Page




“Rings a Song Eternally / From Youth’s Happy Hours”: Goebbels on His Childhood and Youth


“Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child”: Goebbels’s Path to National Socialism


“Working with the Mind Is the Greatest Sacrifice”: Maneuvering in the Early NSDAP


“Faith Moves Mountains”: Political Beginnings in Berlin


“Struggle Is the Father of All Things”: The Gauleiter and the Capital of the Reich


“A Life Full of Work and Struggle”: Politics Between Berlin and Munich


“Dare to Live Dangerously!”: Goebbels’s Radicalism and Hitler’s Policy of “Legality”


“Now We Must Gain Power … One Way or Another!”: A Share of Government?


“I Have a Blind Faith in Victory”: On the Way to Power



“We’re Here to Stay!”: Taking Power


“Only Those Who Deserve Victory Will Keep It!”: Consolidating the Regime


“Whatever the Führer Does, He Does Completely”: The Establishment of the Führer State


“Taking Firm Control of the Inner Discipline of a People”: Propaganda and Manipulation of the Public Sphere


“Never Tire!”: Foreign Policy Successes and Anti-Jewish Policies


“The Tougher the Better!”: The Olympic Year, 1936


“The Most Important Factors in Our Modern Cultural Life”: Consolidating Nazi Cultural Policies


“Don’t Look Around, Keep Marching On!”: The Firebrand as Peacemaker


“Maturity Is Only Achieved Through Suffering!”: Preparations for War—from the Munich Agreement to the Attack on Poland



“War Is the Father of All Things”: The First Months of the War


“There Is Only One Sin: Cowardice!”: The Expansion of the War


“Our Banners Lead Us On to Victory!”: Between the War in the West and the War in the East


“A Great, a Wonderful Time, in Which a New Reich Will Be Born”: The Attack on the Soviet Union


“Getting the Nation to Accept Tough Policies”: The Winter Crisis of 1941–42


“We Can See in Our Mind’s Eye a Happy People”: Offensives and Setbacks


“Do You Want Total War?”: The Second Winter Crisis


“The Masses Have Become Somewhat Skeptical or … Are in the Grip of a Permanent State of Hopelessness”: Crisis as a Permanent State


“I Have No Idea What the Führer’s Going to Do in the End”: The Search for a Way Out


“Virtually a Wartime Dictatorship on the Home Front”: Between an Apocalyptic Mood and Total War


“But When Will There Be Some Action?”: Downfall










Goebbels: A Biography

Heinrich Himmler

Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews

The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution


As a young man, Joseph Goebbels was a budding narcissist with a constant need for approval. He became increasingly politically involved, finding personal affirmation within the ranks of the German National Socialist Party. What followed was a rapid descent into anti-Semitism and ideology, and a corresponding ascent through the ranks of the Nazi Party, where he became an integral member of Hitler’s inner circle and built a brutal campaign of Nazi propaganda. Goebbels became one of Hitler’s most loyal acolytes and his named successor, following in the fuhrer’s footsteps to the very end in a grisly mass suicide of himself and his entire family.

Although Goebbels wielded considerable power within the Nazi party and in wartime Germany, Longerich reveals him as a man dogged by his insecurities and consumed by his fierce adherence to the Nazi cause. Challenging the carefully constructed self-portrait that Goebbels left as his legacy in his diaries, Longerich delves deep into the mind of the Reich’s master propagandist to provide a shocking first-hand account of how the Nazi message was conceived.


Peter Longerich is Professor of Modern German History at Royal Holloway University of London, and founder of Royal Holloway’s Holocaust Research Centre. He has published extensively on Nazi Germany, including the acclaimed biography Heinrich Himmler; Holocaust: The Nazi Murder and the Persecution of the Jews; The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution, and The Systematic Character of the National Socialist Policy for the Extermination of the Jews.



On April 30, 1945, a few hours after becoming Reich chancellor following Hitler’s death, Dr. Joseph Goebbels made a final attempt to delay his suicide, announced so often in advance. Goebbels wrote to the “commander-in-chief of Soviet forces,” informing him of Hitler’s suicide and of the arrangements for his succession that were now in force. As well as promoting Goebbels to chancellor, the dictator had made Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz president of the Reich. Goebbels proposed a ceasefire and offered to negotiate peace terms with the Soviet commander.

The chief of the general staff, General Hans Krebs, a fluent Russian speaker from his days as military attaché in Moscow, undertook to cross the front line, now only a few hundred yards from the Reich Chancellery. Early in the morning Krebs delivered the letter to Major General Vasily Chuikov, commander of the 8th Guards Army, who had set up his headquarters in Tempelhof. He contacted Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the commander-in-chief of the Soviet Army attacking Berlin. Zhukov in turn informed the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. Moscow delivered its answer some hours later: There could be no question of a ceasefire. The Soviet leader expected the German forces to surrender.1 When Krebs passed this on to Goebbels on May 1, Goebbels held Krebs responsible for the Russians’ refusal to negotiate. Goebbels sent another delegation to Chuikov. But this too was rejected.2

Goebbels now decided to inform Dönitz of Hitler’s death and the Führer’s arrangements regarding succession; he had wisely made his armistice overtures before the new head of state took office. In a discussion of the situation, Goebbels told the staff in the bunker that they were free to break out on their own initiative.3 He had repeatedly announced in public that if the Third Reich should fall he intended to end his own life and those of his family. In a radio address at the end of February he made it clear that he would regard life after the war as “not worth living, either for myself or for my children.”4 On April 15 he wrote a piece for the magazine Das Reich entitled “Staking Your Whole Life” in which he took his leave of readers by posing a rhetorical question: Could anyone “even conceive of continuing their existence in such conditions after an Allied victory?”5 No more than two weeks later, the end came for the Goebbels family.

Goebbels left his wife to make the arrangements for the long-planned murder of the children. The precise circumstances surrounding their death (and the question of individual responsibility for it) have never been satisfactorily established. After the war the dentist Helmut Kunz repeatedly stated that he gave the children morphine injections, after which Magda Goebbels crushed cyanide capsules in their mouths. Later he changed his statement, ascribing the latter action to Hitler’s personal physician, Ludwig Stumpfegger.6

By April 28, Magda and Joseph Goebbels had already written farewell letters to Harald Quandt, Magda’s son from her first marriage, announcing their intention of killing themselves and their children. They entrusted the letters to the pilot Hanna Reitsch, who managed to fly out of the city that same day. Goebbels wrote that Germany would “recover from this terrible war, but only if presented with examples to give it fresh heart. We want to give such an example.”7 Magda maintained in her letter to Harald that both her husband and Hitler had urged her to leave Berlin. She had refused. She made no secret of her involvement in the plan to murder Harald’s half-sisters and brother: “The world after the Führer and National Socialism will not be worth living in, and that is why I have taken the children with me. They are too good for the life that will come after us, and a merciful God will understand my granting them release. […] We have only one aim: faithfulness to the Führer unto death.”8

Hitler’s adjutant, Günther Schwägermann, stated after the war that, on the evening of May 1, Goebbels called him in to tell him that he and his wife intended to take their own lives. According to Schwägermann’s testimony, Goebbels asked that “a shot should be fired to make sure he was dead” and that the corpses should be burned. With the preparations made, Goebbels said goodbye to him and gave him the photograph of the Führer that stood on his desk. Schwägermann conveys the importance that Goebbels attached to maintaining the proprieties until the very last minute of his life: “Shortly afterward, at about 20:30 hours, the minister and his wife came out of the room. He went calmly to the coat rack, put on his hat and coat, and pulled on his gloves. He offered his wife his arm and without a word left the bunker by the garden exit.” Not long after this, Schwägermann found the couple’s motionless bodies—both seemed to have taken poison9—in the garden. “As agreed, my companion shot Dr. Goebbels once or twice. Neither body showed any sign of movement. The gasoline we had brought with us was then poured over them and ignited. The corpses were enveloped in flames immediately.”10

Nearly all the leading officials of the Nazi regime fled the capital as the Soviet troops advanced, and even the top leadership looked to save their lives as the Third Reich collapsed. Heinrich Himmler, hoping to pass unnoticed among the millions of defeated Wehrmacht soldiers, was caught and identified. After Hitler’s death, Martin Bormann joined in an armed attempt to break out through the cordon of enemy troops around the Reich Chancellery and died in the act. Hermann Göring and Albert Speer surrendered to the Allies. Goebbels was the only member of Hitler’s innermost circle to hold out in the bunker and ultimately follow him in committing suicide—and he was the only one who dragged his whole family down with him to their deaths.

This last step was deliberately staged for its effect on posterity. By merely ending his life along with his wife, he would simply have appeared to be drawing the logical conclusion from a hopeless situation. To his way of thinking, this would have been seen as an admission of the complete failure of his life’s project, as a miserable exit at the moment when his political work, the work of the previous twenty years, was about to end in a colossal disaster. What Goebbels wanted, however, was to create, with his wife, a dramatic grand finale, to leave posterity with an “example” of the “faithfulness unto death” his wife had invoked. He could no longer use the resources of conventional propaganda. But the extreme act of wiping out his entire family seemed to him a way of proving to the whole world that, to the bitter end, he was absolutely committed to Hitler; that he was the only member of Hitler’s clique prepared to set aside his most fundamental human obligations in the name of demonstrating his loyalty. He saw in this last step a chance to turn the total failure of his life’s course into a life’s work that seemed to be utterly consistent and marked by unqualified devotion. At the same time, this last propaganda performance also revealed Goebbels’s great psychological dependence on Hitler. With the Führer’s suicide, his own life, too, seemed to have lost all meaning. Indeed, for Goebbels and his wife the continuing existence of their own family after Hitler’s death was unthinkable, since they regarded their family as Hitler’s family, too. This absolute reliance on Hitler was to be made into a virtue by suicide: faithfulness unto death.

Throughout his life Joseph Goebbels was driven by an exceptional craving for recognition by others. He was positively addicted to others’ admiration. It was fundamentally impossible for this addiction to be satisfied. It revealed itself, for example, in the delight he continued to take, after so many years in the business, as propaganda minister and overlord of the Third Reich’s public sphere, in the fanfares with which the media—controlled by himself—greeted his speeches, and in their appreciative comments on them. He regularly noted such “successes” in his diary.

His character fulfilled all the essential criteria recognized in current psychoanalytic practice as defining a narcissistically disturbed personality.11 On the one hand, there was the yearning for recognition and the powerful urge to be seen as great and unique, already highly developed in his early years; the megalomaniac fantasies about his future role in the world; the pride and arrogance; the lack of empathy for others; and the tendency to exploit personal relationships with icy detachment for personal ends. On the other hand, there was his readiness to subordinate himself without reservation to some supposedly greater personality and not least the bouts of depression he suffered whenever the anticipated outstanding success failed to materialize. In order to appease this hunger, Goebbels—privately deeply insecure about his impact on others—needed constant praise and recognition from an idol to whom he completely subordinated himself. From 1924 onward, this idol was Adolf Hitler. By constantly confirming Goebbels’s exceptional brilliance, Hitler gave him the stability he needed to maintain control over his life, a stability otherwise lacking in this unbalanced personality.

There is no doubt that a narcissistic craving for recognition was the main driving force behind Goebbels’s career. He clearly manifested the chief characteristics of this addiction: conceit; a restless obsession with work; unreserved self-subjugation to an idol; disdain for other human relationships; and a willingness to place himself beyond generally accepted moral norms in pursuit of his own ends.

Goebbels’s aim in life was to prove that he, Joseph Goebbels, was able to unite the German people behind his own political idol and leader, Adolf Hitler. In seeking to fix this conviction in people’s minds, Goebbels produced and left behind a vast amount of material. There is the flood of printed matter, film footage, and audio recordings generated by the propaganda machine he directed; the enormous volume of contemporary reports on the public mood, indicating the success of this propaganda effort; and finally his diaries, edited between 1993 and 2008 by Elke Fröhlich of the Munich Institute for Contemporary History and comprising thirty-two volumes. The diary was above all intended to document his success.12

He himself set forth the individual chapters of this success story in full: the rise of a not especially privileged man of the people to the position of spokesman for a “socialist” National Socialist Party in western Germany; the conqueror of “red Berlin” and creator of a “Führer” aura around the figure of Hitler by adroit use of propaganda between 1926 and 1933; the man who united the masses into a “national community” behind Hitler in the years after 1933; and finally the closest supporter of his leader, spurring the German people to a supreme effort in wartime. The core of this autobiographical narrative has survived to this day in various forms, albeit in a negative context. Ever since Goebbels’s death, the material created by him and his colleagues has been put to multimedia use and has remained influential. No film, no schoolbook, no popular or academic treatment of the Third Reich can manage without this material. Everyone now knows what is meant by “Goebbels propaganda.” No one looking for an explanation for the obvious support the Nazi system enjoyed among the great majority of the German population can afford to overlook Joseph Goebbels.

A particular challenge facing the propaganda minister’s biographer is that of questioning the self-portrait so effectively created by Goebbels and thoroughly revising his historical role. The biographer’s chief problem from the outset is, in fact, that the vast mass of material about the propaganda minister and Gauleiter of Berlin originates either with him or with his propaganda machine and was presented for the purpose of demonstrating the preeminence and unique historical success of Joseph Goebbels. However, closer analysis reveals that the large number of texts Goebbels wrote about himself and the wealth of material that his propaganda machine used to document his influence offer a surprising number of starting points for deconstructing the self-image Goebbels projected.

As the author and chief propagandist of the Third Reich, Goebbels was concerned above all to hold up a mirror with which to admire a larger-than-life reflection of himself. Gazing into this mirror, he could give full vent to his narcissistic cravings. Lacking both inner balance and external confidence and profoundly mistrusting his effect on other people, he needed constant affirmation that the magnificent image in the mirror really did represent him, Joseph Goebbels. He derived this affirmation from the leader he had chosen, a leader sent from God, as he supposed, to whom he subordinated himself. The more completely he subjugated himself, the more weight he ascribed to the judgment of this idol.

The mountains of evidence Goebbels left to posterity that demonstrate his self-affirmation and self-adulation in fact serve to bring out very clearly his insecurity, his dependence, and his overwhelming conceit. In this historical biography, first and foremost concerned with the question of the part played by Goebbels in the leadership of the Third Reich, insights gained into the deficiencies of his personality can help to develop wider perspectives. A particular purpose of this biography is to open the way to an analysis of the construction and modus operandi of the Nazi propaganda apparatus.

The conventional approach to the history of organizations and structures cannot quite encompass the position Goebbels built up for himself over time through accumulating and, in part, amalgamating various offices. It was historically unique and completely tailor-made for him, bearing the stamp of his personality through and through. Only a biography, therefore, can make it fully intelligible. He combined the offices of Gauleiter of Berlin, head of propaganda for the Party, and leader of a ministry that was especially invented for him and united the management of the mass media with the National Socialist control of cultural life. In addition, he was tasked with certain special functions, again tailor-made for him, for example in the area of foreign policy. To the extent that Goebbels succeeded during the war in extending his authority beyond propaganda into other spheres, eventually assuming a central role in the conduct of the non-military side of the war effort, it was—as we shall see—a result of his attempt to shape the public sphere into his desired image, particularly under the conditions of the “total war” he himself propagated. The connections, often quite subtle, among his various responsibilities become apparent only through a description of his life.

A Goebbels biography not only enables us to take a look behind the scenes by bringing together a multiplicity of sources to show how Nazi propaganda was conceived and carried out; it can also question the frequently asserted omnipotence of Goebbels’s propaganda. Here, the deconstruction of Goebbels’s self-constructed image, as bequeathed to posterity, of the brilliant director of propaganda plays a central role. It will become clear that narcissistic self-elevation not only represented an important aspect of Goebbels’s character but was also decisive in creating the image he built up over the years, so powerful that it was by no means demolished even by his death. It will be apparent that Goebbels was not the absolute master of the whole propaganda machine, as he liked to think, but that in some areas, at least, he was obliged to share his responsibilities with other Nazi apparatchiks. Above all, however, we shall see that the enormous impact claimed for propaganda by the National Socialists, and particularly by Goebbels himself, was itself an integral component of Goebbels’s propaganda. The importance of a biographical approach is emphasized by the fact that the man who asserted the all-powerful effect of propaganda was a textbook case of self-overestimation who had difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction.

Moreover, biography can make an important contribution to the general history of the Third Reich. Goebbels, with his diaries, has left us the most important insider’s chronicle of Nazism and its Führer, from the re-founding of the Party in 1924–25 until the end of the regime. No other source of insight into the inner workings of Nazi power can compare. True, Goebbels often stood outside the decision-making process, but he did have the opportunity to observe at close quarters how decisions were arrived at. With his fixation on Hitler and consequent inability to take a critical view of him, he often gives us a unique and peculiarly authentic perspective on the dictator.

The diaries, the basis of this biography and one of the chief sources for histories of the Third Reich, were transcribed many years ago for publication without notes or commentary. But to give them their full value as a historical source we need to analyze the propaganda minister’s personality and ambitions. This book is the product of a double process: evaluating the diaries as a historical source for a biography and interpreting them in the light of the author’s personality. Particularly in the early years, the diary was a site of self-reflection and self-criticism for Goebbels. But quite soon it began chiefly to serve the purpose of confirming his successes to himself, consolidating his success story, brushing aside failures and setbacks, constantly reinforcing his own morale, and driving him forward along the path taken. If the self-critical passages are the most interesting parts of the earliest diary, the almost complete absence of self-criticism is perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of the later volumes.

The diaries had a further function as a place for Goebbels to deposit material he would go on to use elsewhere. Textual comparisons reveal how the diary corresponds with his publicity-oriented and literary writing as well as with his private letters. No clear distinctions can be made: The diary is frequently the first draft of a literary treatment, perhaps consisting of colorful descriptions of individuals, dramatized events, evocations of atmosphere, or aphorisms. The writer of the diary was not just a chronicler but also a journalist and a literary author, collecting impressions and trying out various forms. Once he had gained a foothold in politics at the end of the 1920s, his ideas about the secondary uses of the diary became more concrete. It served him now, above all, as the basis for publications centered on the recording of political chronology. Its utility can be seen, for example, in books such as Kampf um Berlin (Battle for Berlin, 1931) or Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei (From the Kaiserhof [Hotel] to the Reich Chancellery, 1934), where he was chiefly concerned with one thing only: the success story of Joseph Goebbels. Eventually, in 1936, he sold the right to publish the diaries—after revision—to the Party’s publisher, Max Amann and also planned to draw on them for publications connected with a projected official history of the Third Reich.13 The variety of ways in which Goebbels proposed to utilize the diaries should be borne in mind when reading them.

Not least, though, the purpose of the diary was to provide an aide-mémoire and logbook of events, and this function increased with the growing range of offices that the propaganda minister acquired. An important turning point was the start of hostilities against the Soviet Union. The entries were now no longer handwritten but dictated to a secretary, with the result that the personal content of the texts was further diminished, and the diary became diffused and inflated by the admixture of other texts—military situation reports, the minister’s official correspondence, and whatever else was lying around on his desk.

Comparison with other sources shows that the information about appointments and encounters with other people is very largely reliable and that Goebbels’s recall of conversations is in essence generally correct—apart from the exaggeration (especially where his own role is concerned), the dramatizing of certain situations, the omissions, and so forth. But time and again the diaries also feature freely invented strategic assertions from the workshop of Goebbels the propagandist, assertions that he clearly intended to reproduce in his later publications. Such distortions and inventions are particularly valuable for a biography. They provide us with the key to understanding Goebbels’s perception and interpretation of certain situations. But to come to terms with them properly, the diaries must, if possible, be weighed against other historical sources. That is the procedure followed by this biography, wherever feasible.

A basic problem of every biographical approach to Goebbels is that, particularly in the early years, for the most part we have only his own testimony to go on, so that we are confronted with the challenge of penetrating the narcissistic front of the author’s self-interpretation. Almost everything he tells us about his childhood and youth originated in a deeply depressive phase of his life, between 1923 and 1934, when Goebbels was clearly driven by a manic compulsion to write.

To gain access to these early years, we have to engage closely with these texts and attempt to decipher them. As our entry point into his life story, we have therefore chosen the autumn of 1923, the moment when Goebbels began to keep his regular autobiographical record.




“Rings a Song Eternally / From Youth’s Happy Hours”fn1

Goebbels on His Childhood and Youth


Neither his handicap nor his academic ambitions seem to have turned him into an isolated loner: Joseph Goebbels (front row, third from left) with his fellow pupils at the high school in Rheydt, about 1914.

“I can’t go on suffering like this. I need to write this bitterness out of my soul. Else is giving me a notebook for day-to-day use. So on October 17 I’m going to start my diary.”1

It was in 1923 that Goebbels came to this decision—a resolve he maintained consistently, right up to the last weeks of his life. The diary became his constant companion.

There were many reasons for the pain and bitterness from which Goebbels was suffering in the autumn of 1923. The plain facts are that at this juncture the almost twenty-seven-year-old Joseph Goebbels was an unsuccessful writer who had just been fired from a job he loathed in a Cologne bank and was now completely penniless, having retreated to his parents’ home in Rheydt on the Lower Rhine. Else, a young schoolteacher, was his girlfriend. But the relationship was troubled, and after an argument the couple, overshadowed by money worries, had canceled a vacation on the Frisian island of Baltrum. Goebbels saw himself as a “wreck on a sandbank”; he felt “deadly sick.” He had spent days in “wild desperation drinking.”2 The general political and economic situation added in no small measure to his depression.

His hometown of Rheydt was part of the territory west of the Rhine that had been occupied by British, Belgian, and French troops since the end of the Great War. Passive resistance to the French army, which since the beginning of the year had extended its occupation beyond the Rhine to the Ruhr, had just collapsed. Inflation had reached its absurd high point: Money earned in the morning was worthless by the evening. Extremist groups of the left and right were gearing up for civil war; separatists in the Rhineland were preparing to secede from the Reich. Rocked by a series of grave crises, the German Republic seemed on the verge of falling apart. “Politics are enough to make you laugh and cry,” noted Goebbels.3

He had longed for the crisis as for a cleansing fever: “The dollar is climbing like an acrobat. I’m secretly delighted. We need chaos before things can get better.”4 It was to help him cope with this state of personal and political tension that he turned to his diary. After a few months he set about writing a short biographical introduction to it, an outline of his life written in the summer of 1924, hastily thrown together and in part reduced to key words; he called it his “memory pages.” This is the most important source of information we possess about Goebbels’s early years.5 It was the same depressed mood in 1923–24 that led him both to take up the diary and to give this short account of his life. In his despair, Goebbels asked himself who he was, what made him the way he was, and what he wanted to achieve in life.


He began his life story thus: “Born on October 29, 1897, in Rheydt, at that time an up-and-coming little industrial town on the Lower Rhine near Düsseldorf and not far from Cologne.” We learn that his father, Fritz Goebbels, born in 1862, was a lowly clerk in a wick factory and that in 1892 he married Katharina Odenhausen, seven years younger than himself and employed at the time as a farmhand. Both came from humble circumstances, artisan families.6

The Goebbelses were good Catholics, as they say on the Lower Rhine. They had six children in all: Konrad (b. 1893), Hans (1895), Maria (who died at six months in 1896), Joseph (1897), Elisabeth (1901), and Maria (1910).7 In 1900 their father managed to acquire a “modest little house” in Dahlenerstrasse.8

Joseph’s childhood was overshadowed by ill health. Later, as an adult, he recalled among others a protracted illness (inflammation of the lungs with “terrifying delirium”). “And I also remember a long family walk to Geistenbeck one Sunday. The next day on the sofa my old foot complaint returned. […] Excruciating pain.” There followed, Goebbels tells us, lengthy treatments and further investigations at the Bonn University Clinic, but “foot lame for life” was the inexorable verdict. The consequences were dire: “My youth from then on pretty blighted. One of the pivotal events of my childhood. I was thrown back on my own devices. Could no longer play with the others. Became solitary, a loner. Maybe for that reason the complete favorite at home. I was not popular with my comrades.” Only one friend, Richard Flisges, stood by him.9

What Goebbels says about his illness suggests that his “foot complaint” was a case of neurogenic clubfoot, a deformity that is often particularly associated with a metabolic disorder in childhood. His right foot was turned inwards; it was shorter and thicker than his healthy left foot.10

Goebbels’s account of his elementary education, which began in 1904, makes for equally sorry reading. He remembered a teacher called Hennes, “a lying hound.” There was another, Hilgers, who was “a villain and a swine who mistreated us children and made our school life hell. […] My mother once discovered the stripes from his cane across my back when she was bathing me.” However, Goebbels did admit that his difficulties at school may have had something to do with his own attitude: “At the time I was so stubborn and independent-minded, a precocious lad the teachers couldn’t stand.”11

In his last year at elementary school he underwent a largely unsuccessful operation on his foot: “When my mother was about to leave, I howled dreadfully. I still have terrible memories of the last half hour before the anesthetic and the trains rattling past the hospital during the night.” But there was a positive side to his stay in the hospital: His godmother, Aunt Stina, brought him fairy-tale books, which he “absolutely devoured. My first fairy tales. There wasn’t much storytelling at home. Those books awakened my first interest in reading. From then on I consumed everything in print, including newspapers, even politics, without understanding a word.” Immediately after his time in hospital, he left elementary school for the grammar school in Rheydt: Thanks to his father’s intervention, he recalled, his academic record was considerably enhanced.12 Although, according to his own estimation, Goebbels was “pretty lazy and lethargic” during his early years at grammar school, he gradually developed into an outstanding and extremely ambitious student, excelling particularly in religion, Greek, and history.13

At first sight, it does not seem hard to explain why he was so ambitious: He was trying to compensate for his physical deformity. Goebbels himself put forward this explanation in 1919 in a piece of autobiographical writing entitled Michael Voormann’s Early Years, a dramatic literary version of his own childhood and youth that was clearly quite consciously modeled on a traditional German form, the novel of development.14 Michael was “a strange boy. You did not need to know him to see it when he opened his big, gray eyes wide and looked so questioningly at whoever was talking to him. There was something unusual in his gaze, a whole world of questions that no one suspected. You seldom saw him playing with other children.” Michael was lazy at school. The teacher “hated him like sin,” and his fellow pupils “were not fond of him.” “He was so harsh and rude to them, and if anyone asked him to do them a favor, he just turned away with a laugh. Only one person loved him—his mother.” Then Goebbels indulged in a description of his parents that made them out to belong to the lumpenproletariat: “She could neither read nor write, because before she married his father—a poor day laborer—she had been a farm girl. She had borne him seven sons, becoming pale and thin as a result. The fourth child was Michael. No one knew anything about his mother’s family origins, not even their father.” The text describes the father as “an upright, honest man with a highly developed sense of duty” who sometimes treated his mother “harshly and roughly” and from whom he had inherited a certain “tyrannical tendency.”

At the age of ten, we are told, Michael suffered from a serious illness that left him with a lame right leg: “Michael was in despair most of the time; eventually he came to terms with it. However, it made him even more withdrawn, and he spent even less time with his comrades.” He had now become “eager and industrious at school, for his ambition was to become a great man one day.” He had been unpopular with his fellow pupils, and the gulf between them had made him “hard and bitter.” It is clear that in the novel Goebbels was trying out an imaginary variation on his autobiography. Unlike Joseph Goebbels, son of a petit bourgeois, Michael Voormann is from the working class, and by excelling at school he tries to make up for the distance from his contemporaries, an isolation initially rooted in his sense of being different and then increased by his disability. Goebbels was testing out a dramatic version of his own life story: rising above the most humble origins, crippled, disdained, solitary, but at the same time highly talented, determined, and successful, even if embittered, cold, and consumed with ambition. In this telling, his later development into a genius is taken for granted. The differences between this and the memoir he composed in his “memory pages” five years later are obvious: Although he certainly describes his disability as the most important factor in his bleak childhood, he no longer wants to represent it as the real force driving him on to higher things. In subsequent literary treatments of his life story, his disability is as inconspicuous as it is in the diary, where it is rarely mentioned, although in fact he needed an orthopedic appliance to help him walk, and medical complications frequently recurred.15 Can Michael therefore be seen as an authentic account of his life? Is this a rare and valuable autobiographical document in which Goebbels for once shows himself capable of honest soul-searching? Is he attempting in Michael to break out from his denial of a disability that has become a permanent front to the world and honestly face up to his deformity and its consequences?

His physical disability may well have intensified his adult conviction of a call to higher things, his compulsion as a boy to escape the narrow confines of his childhood milieu by excelling at schoolwork, and his self-imposed isolation. But there are other reasons for his narcissistic streak, his highly developed craving for recognition and affirmation by others.

Psychoanalysts today see the origins of narcissistic personality disorders in psychological maladjustments that occur between the second and third years of life. They refer to a failure to develop autonomy: The child is not capable of detaching itself from a solicitous and domineering mother, and its own personality fails to develop fully. The possible reasons for this failure are manifold: temporary neglect by the mother, for example, or an upbringing where the rules are inconsistently applied, sending mixed messages to the child, overprotectiveness on the one hand and excessive discipline on the other. It is easy to imagine these conditions prevailing in a large and financially hard-pressed family like the Goebbelses. While it is of course impossible to reconstruct the young Joseph’s upbringing, it is reasonable to note that there are convincing explanations for his undeniable narcissistic traits.

Joseph Goebbels can serve as a textbook example of failed autonomy. A narcissist like Goebbels constantly looks for a source of recognition in order to strengthen his own identity, which he perceives as inadequate. In particular he seeks a life partner totally dedicated to himself, from whom he expects to receive—as he did from his solicitous mother—recognition and affirmation. Narcissists find it difficult to distinguish themselves from those who provide them with recognition; their personality sometimes seems to merge with that of another person. In this light, Goebbels’s attempt in Michael Voormann to construct a variant of his own development is a typical expression of uncertainty about his own identity. In the novel he plays a game of experimenting with his own biography; it is not self-revelation.

Narcissists like Goebbels generally have difficulty in distinguishing between daydreams and the real world, appearance and reality, success and fantasies of success. Their relationship to the world around them is somewhat underdeveloped, their sense of self not securely anchored. They live in a self-referential way, tending toward feelings of superiority and delusions of grandeur. But because of their weak egos, they are often haunted by fear of loss and separation; they can easily experience the absence of success as failure, and for this reason they are inclined to suffer from depression.16 Therefore, Goebbels did not develop his narcissism as compensation for his disability. Thanks to the tendency to overestimate himself and to distort reality that he had acquired in infancy, to a great extent he was actually capable of ignoring his deformity. His sense of self-worth relegated it to a subordinate role.

Reading the “memory pages,” it is also apparent that Goebbels did not in any way regard himself in high school as a student isolated by his disability and the ambition it induced in him. On the contrary, he remembered a series of good friends from school, friends who would continually cross his path in later life.17 According to his memoir, it was the awakening of sexuality and the erotic in him that was foremost in the adolescent’s mind and constantly got him into trouble. He wrote that it was the stepmother of a friend who first aroused his “urges toward women”: “Eros awakes. Well-informed in a crude way even as a boy.” He remembered being in love with a girl for the first time sometime between 1912 and 1914: “Sentimental period. Flowery letters. Poems. Along with love for mature women.” There was an embarrassing outcome when love letters Goebbels had written under an assumed name to the object of his desire were traced back to him. It was this episode that made his favorite teacher, Herr Voss—whom he credited with great influence on him throughout his schooldays—refuse to support his application for a competitive scholarship offered by the town. In Michael Voormann Goebbels inflates this incident into a minor case of martyrdom.18

The summer of 1914 had a powerful impact on the sixteen-year-old: “Outbreak of war. Mobilization. Everyone called to the colors. Pain of not being able to go with them. […] The first of my comrades to be wounded. […] Gradually lots of comrades gone. […] Class beginning to empty.”19 Via the army postal service, he kept in touch with his schoolmates, who were now on active duty.20 In December 1915 his sister Elisabeth died of tuberculosis; some years later, his father would remind him how after she died the family gathered around her deathbed seeking solace in prayer.21

A few of Goebbels’s school essays that have survived strike the requisite “patriotic” note, something he later found “tedious.”22 Apart from his German teacher, Herr Voss, he was clearly very taken with the history master, Gerhard Bartels, who taught him in his first years at the grammar school. Bartels’s early death was marked by a memorial publication to which Goebbels contributed. He praised above all Bartels’s dedicated teaching and especially his tales of heroes, which brought home patriotic ideals to his pupils.23 Goebbels took his Abitur (Baccalaureate) examination in 1917, and as the top student in his class he gave the customary speech at the formal leaving-certificate award ceremony. Naturally, this speech too was full of patriotic sentiments: “The land of poets and thinkers must now prove that it is more than that, that it has a valid claim to lead the world politically and intellectually.”24

Initially he wanted to study medicine, but his German teacher, Herr Voss, dissuaded him. “So: German and history. It doesn’t matter which.” But regardless of the choice of subject, what did matter was that he should go to university, not least because by doing so he would avoid civilian service (from 1916 on, all men over seventeen were required to perform “auxiliary service for the Fatherland”). During his last years at school, he acquired a girlfriend, Lene Krage from Rheindalen: “First kiss in Gartenstrasse. […] Wonderful boyhood bliss. Naturally get married. A matter of honor.” With his Abitur came a “leave-taking from Lene,” which he considered temporary: “Shut in the Kaiserpark at night. I kiss her breast for the first time. For the first time, she becomes the loving woman.”25

All in all, one can say that in his childhood and youth he was by no means deprived of the recognition he so eagerly sought: He had successfully completed his education, finishing at the top of his class, in fact; in spite of his family’s straitened circumstances, he was able to choose his subject of study freely; he had friends; and he even had a girlfriend.


With two friends from school, Goebbels set off to study at the University of Bonn at the beginning of April 1927.26 His situation was far from favorable: “Money worries. Often hungry. Private lessons for ill-mannered youths.” He recorded in his “memory pages” that the university made little impression on him. He seems to have spent less time there than in the Catholic student fraternity, Unitas Sigfridia, which he joined as soon as he arrived in Bonn. He became the Leibbursche (“buddy”) of his new acquaintance Karl Heinz (“Pille”) Kölsch, whom he proclaimed his “ideal.”27 In the Sigfridia he adopted the name Ulex (after a character in a novel by Wilhelm Raabe, his favorite author). At the society’s gala evening in June 1917 he made his mark with a talk about the writer, whom he had admired ever since he was a schoolboy. Goebbels recommended Raabe as a model to his fellow students as someone “who fought for his ideals, fought for his worldview.”2829