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Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich

By David Irving

Height only 5ft 4, an emaciated figure with a head too large for his body, and a clubfoot for which he was taunted as both boy and man, the cards seemed stacked against Joseph Goebbels from the start. Or so David Irving would have us believe, in his attempt to explain the psychology of a mass murderer, and justify genocide. Unlike some American white supremacists, Irving does not dispute the historical veracity of the Holocaust, but he does place its origins in the socio-economic context of Weimar Germany, with its crippling unemployment and rampant inflation.

While I would readily accept that World War Two was essentially a continuation of World War One, it seems to me that the Treaty of Versailles and the War Reparations Commission had more to do with Germany’s problems than the Jewish people. Besides, neither anti-Semitism nor belief in the invincibility of the German people were new ideas in Germany; but they did assume greater importance as the country faced, or rather failed to face, its post-war problems. There was anti-Semitic feeling in 1918, partly because of the large number of Jews among Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacists and the Independent Socialists. So racialist theory was founded on people’s political inclinations. And the effects of the Wall Street crash and the trail of bankruptcies and unemployment that it left behind in the United States were felt severely by all countries engaged in international trade, not only Germany.

Irving explores none of this. The chief selling point of the book is Irving’s exclusive access to the previously undiscovered Goebbels’ diaries, found in Moscow in 1992. Quotation from the diaries takes place inside inverted commas, and commentary outside them, but the distinction begins to blur, since although Irving at one point refers to the ‘heathen criminality’ of the death camps, nowhere does he condemn, but rather seems to condone, his subject’s anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny. Irving also flits back and forth with gay abandon between the past and present tense, when talking about the past, which is a very sensationalised way to write history.

Like many of the leaders of our own 1916 Rising, Goebbels began with artistic ambitions, writing poetry, plays and novels, and only later became a political animal. He studied Latin, philology and history, and gained a PhD. He blamed Jewish control of publishing houses for his lack of literary success. Despite his distinctly non-Aryan physique, (there is surely a study to be written on the negative image of disability in history: Goebbels identified with Richard III), he became an even more enthusiastic Jew-baiter than his Fuhrer. Irving shows how if one accepts the crazy logic of putting eugenic theory into action, the Final Solution seems almost rational:

Physically liquidating them now seemed an increasingly viable

solution. If it was possible to liquidate the insane, if Goring’s

air force was killing the relatively innocent English by the

thousand, why should the ‘guilt-laden’ Jews be spared?

Goebbels had discussed the euthanasia project (‘the covert

liquidation of the mentally ill,’ he called it) with Bouhler on

January 30, 1941. Bouhler had informed him that they had

quietly disposed of 80,000 so far, with 60,000 more still to

go. ‘Hard work, but necessary too,’ applauded Goebbels.

A virgin until 33, he rapidly made up for lost time, with a succession of actresses and secretaries. This inevitably led to marital conflict, although his wife Magda was also culpable as regards infidelity. A newspaper editor and journalist who hated journalists, had he lived today he would have made a brilliant creative director in an advertising agency, such was his understanding of how to sway public opinion. (Indeed, Irving too may well have missed his true vocation, and is an ad-man manqué, since there can be few more difficult briefs than trying to retrospectively make Nazism seem acceptable.) As Minister for Propaganda, he set up the Chamber of Culture, and had complete control over the press, literature, theatre, music, the graphic arts, film and radio. His censorship was meticulous and ruthless. Signs appeared in dance-halls reading ‘Jazz Dancing Forbidden’. He organised an exhibition of ‘Junk Art’, including the work of Otto Dix, Emile Nolde and Oskar Kokoschka, to demonstrate to the public the ‘artistic bolshevism’ of this work. His loyalty to Hitler was unswerving, and when the end came in May 1945, he took his wife and six children with him to the Nazi Valhalla with equanimity, the day after his leader killed himself.

Irving presents the evidence, but fails to synthesise it into a larger whole. The book ends with Goebbels’ suicide, and no attempt is made to appraise his career. Irving is good at the everyday details, like when he describes the internal feuding among the leaders of the Third Reich, but he misses the overall picture.

Anyone who has read the work of Paul Celan or Primo Levi will know the other side of the story, the struggle of the victims to cope with the burden of grief and memory. A favourite phrase of Levi’s was, ‘the nature of the offence’. Discussing that phrase in Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis wrote:

The offence was unique, not in its cruelty, nor in its cowardice,

but in its style - in its combination of the atavistic and the

modern. It was, at once, reptilian and ‘logistical’. And

although the offence was not definingly German, its style was.

Of course, the worm turns inexorably, and the abused become the abusers, the oppressed become the oppressors, and today we need writers like Edward Said to remind us of the humanity of Palestinians. But the fact remains that the Holocaust was so horrific that any considered, measured or reasoned response seems offensive. Goebbels was an evil man, who was a linchpin of a regime which presided over the nadir of this best and worst of centuries.

First published in the Irish Independent

 

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