Tuesday, March 6, 2012

One From the Stacks: The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943

Doubleday 1948, First American Edition

“Beginning with Lublin, the Jews in the General government are being evacuated eastward. The procedure is a pretty barbaric one and not to be described here more definitely. Not much will remain of the Jews” - Joseph Goebbels, March 27, 1942

On April 13, 1943-- the day the massacre of thousands of Polish officers in Katyn Forest was first revealed to the world by the German government (initially blamed on the Nazis, responsibility for the killings would eventually fall to the Soviets) -- Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, was traveling by train to an official gathering in Freilassing when he fell ill.  
“En route I had a terrible kidney attack. I suppose a kidney stone got loose,” he wrote in his diary. “The pain was so barbaric that I couldn’t get up at all. Unfortunately it was totally impossible for me to take part in Goering’s conference…It was touching how the Fuehrer, Goering, Ley, Speer and all the others were concerned and worried about my condition.”
Louis P. Lochner with Goebbels
The first time I read that passage, I was struck by Goebbels’ cavalier choice of the term “barbaric” – a word he had coyly used to dance around the deportation and extermination of the Jews of Europe, and one that he favors with Freudian regularity throughout his detailed and comprehensive diaries.  That the Nazi propagandist could use the term to describe his own painful but fleeting physical malady with the same ease with which he discusses mass murder reflects the callous detachment of a true sociopath, I thought.

But the April 13 passage is revealing on another level: Goebbels’ admission that he was “touched” by the concerns of his Nazi colleagues seems to reflect a genuine sentimentalism (on both his part and theirs) -- one that is evident throughout his diaries in passages about his family and the people, especially Hitler, whom he admired and respected, and yet is blatantly absent from his public policy.

When it came to killing Jews and waging war, Goebbels wrote profusely on the need to abandon “sentimentality,” and seemed as possessed with refuting this “weak” human emotion as he was with celebrating barbarity.

From an entry dated February 14, 1942:
“The Fuehrer once more expressed his determination to clean up the Jews in Europe pitilessly. There must be no squeamish sentimentalism about it. The Jews have deserved the catastrophe that has now overtaken them. Their destruction will go hand in hand with the destruction of our enemies.”
Then, a year later, when the Nazis started rounding up “privileged Jews” – those married to Aryans – Goebbels reiterated:
“The arrest of Jews and Jewesses living in privileged wedlock caused a terrific commotion, especially in artistic circles, since these privileged marriages are still prevalent among actors. But I can't be squeamish about them. If a German still finds it possible to live with a Jewess as his legal wife, that's a point against him, and it's out of place to be too sentimental about this question in wartime.” 
Whatever you choose to call them – and each person seems to have a different preference -- notebooks, diaries or journals are intensely intimate affairs and provide a glimpse into the deepest recesses of the life of their creator. My shelves hold a number of these volumes, though I’ve never taken the time to count them (nor would I relish locating them all given my library’s current jumbled state).

I chose this particular selection – one of many books I have on the subject of World War II and the Third Reich – not just because it shines a light on a historically significant person, but because it reveals something important about the nature of evil and our propensity to ignore the warning signs until it is too late.  That’s because there is a misguided belief that evil and the people who perpetrate it are singularly focused and forthcoming about their motivations, which leads to the false security of thinking we will know it when we see it.  But the complexity of a man like Goebbels -- as revealed through his own words – proves that the mass murderer also sends out birthday cards, gives to charity, pays his mortgage (and in Goebbels’ case, owes the taxman).

In many ways, it’s this mundane picture of a dutiful bureaucrat, doting father and flawed husband that I find the most fascinating (and chilling) because it presents Goebbels as an “everyman” – an average Joe (literally) who was probably quite polite and for all I know may have made a great dinner companion in spite of his hidden nefarious intent.  What’s that they say about the banality of evil?

For this reason the Nazis are a gold mine for sociological study: these were men, not monsters; and yet they were not only capable of monstrous acts, but they had the power to drag an entire nation (and a once proud military) down with them. 

Joseph Goebbels, family man
Goebbels was an incessant diarist, and a cunning opportunist. What made his propaganda so successful was his willingness to parlay almost any situation into a Nazi win, even when he had to make it up.

He wrote almost every day from the time he was a student until his self-inflicted death in 1945. In their entirety the Goebbels diaries cover more than two decades and span 29 volumes of roughly 500 pages each. The volumes I have, which cover 1942 through 1943, are represented in a single book edited by the American journalist Louis Lochner (a photo of Lochner dining with a smiling Goebbels before the war appears in the frontispiece). That they survived at all is a minor miracle: Some 7,000 pages of typewritten entries and assorted papers were found partially burned and trampled upon in a Berlin trash heap. (The Soviets were more interested in salvaging the file cabinets than what was inside them.)

The reader is simultaneously struck by the thoughtfulness of the prose and the lunacy of its message (for instance, Goebbels’ vigorous defense of the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion). There are even flashes of prophetic insight, as when the author reflects on the sorry state of American intellectualism:
“Americans are coming to Europe with a spiritual emptiness that really makes you shake your head. They are uneducated and don’t know anything. For instance, they ask whether Bavaria belongs to Germany and similar things. One can imagine what would happen to Europe if this dilettantism could spread unchallenged. But we, after all, will have something to say about that!”  
Of course the Americans would prove it doesn’t take knowledge of the Classics to win a war (although our ignorance about basic geography concerns me).

Unlike many diarists, Goebbels surely expected his chronicles to be read someday (probably as a published volume after Germany won the war) and so his thoughts are disciplined and reserved in many places. But they are also surprisingly candid (as in the numerous passages Goebbels wrote about his famous extramarital affairs).

In his detailed notebooks, Goebbels lets us into the mind of a defeated man utterly deluded by visions of grandeur. In a way that same description could be applied to Germany as a whole between the years 1939 and 1944 -- thanks largely to the tireless duplicity of the crafty little technocrat with a bum leg (Goebbels' club foot had kept him out of the Army, and he went through much of his life bearing a self-conscious burden of having something to prove -- a burden that is evident in his writings).

A despicable character free of psycho-spiritual conflict about his role in mass murder, Goebbels was the last of the true believers who stood by Hitler in his final hours and helped burn his Fuehrer’s body before coldly murdering his six children and his wife and then killing himself.  With his disciplined if sometimes crass writing (marked by what Hugh Gibson, in his publisher’s note, calls “gutter language”) Goebbels presents the most complete psychological portrait of any member of the Nazi leadership available, and his diaries have unrivaled value to anyone interested in World War II history and understanding the patient, calculated evil that made the Third Reich possible.

Details:

The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943
By Paul Joseph Goebbels
Translated, edited, and introduced by Louis P. Lochner
Published by Doubleday in 1948 (First American Edition)
Purchase Date: 2004-2005? -- Price: $1.00 at library sale (a great place to find used books cheap; they practically give them away)
Condition: Good, missing dust jacket