'Goebbels' exhaustively details propagandist's Hitler-worship

January 09, 1994|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

Title: "Goebbels"

Author: Ralf Georg Reuth

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Length, price: 471 pages, $27.95

Physically deformed, intellectually rabid, Joseph Goebbels was not only the voice of Nazi Germany as Adolf Hitler's propaganda chief, he was its perfect symbol. Now Ralf Georg Reuth, a German journalist born in 1952, produces a biography that attempts to get at the larger meaning of the man and his career. He certainly gives us a banquet of details, but whether he fully achieves his ultimate purpose is another question.

Mr. Reuth claims to have gained access to materials that Goebbels' previous biographers did not. He introduces us to Goebbels' parents, his college friends and his early loves and -- it sometimes seems -- chronicles everything the word-obsessed Goebbels ever put on paper.

Much of the early material comes, Mr. Reuth says, from archives owned by a Swiss Goebbels sympathizer; David Irving, the historian turned Holocaust denier, crops up in the bibliography along with architect Albert Speer. These might at first seem like warnings of revisionist propaganda, but it's impossible to avoid using tainted sources on a subject like this.

Mr. Reuth admits that Goebbels' diaries are full of what their editor calls "vain narcissism and autosuggestive mendacity," but adds: "Because the self-stylization and distortion always follow the same pattern, they can be easily detected." While Mr. Reuth changes some aspects of our knowledge of Goebbels and the Nazi era, he seems to have no sinister purpose.

Some of the most interesting patterns in Mr. Reuth's book are those he himself doesn't point out, or even seem to notice. One is the connection between Goebbels' habits of mind and those of Dostoevski, whose "vision of a socialist Russia grounded in mysticism and religion" inspired Goebbels as a university student.

Alain Besancon, the French historian, psychologist and sociologist, denies nothing of Dostoevski's greatness as a novelist or of his insight into the revolutionary character, but he points out in "The Rise of the Gulag" that in Dostoevski's Slavophile theology, "Russia's distress could not come from herself: it came from outside, and Russia itself was free of all responsibility for it." The enemy is always the Other.

That would have been a powerfully seductive outlook for someone such as Goebbels. He had been crippled in childhood by osteomyelitis. He disdained the pre-World War I bourgeois society into which his parents had struggled. He was underemployed and stunned like millions of others by his country's military defeat at the hands of the presumptively inferior, unspiritual West -- and he was looking for someone to blame.

Dostoevski also saw, Mr. Besancon writes, that the loss of religious faith does not lead to the rule of reason, but to idolatry of a mortal leader; he "had glimpsed the general outlines of 'the cult of personality.' " In the early 1920s, Goebbels found his idol, and his villains.

Goebbels' turn to Hitler-worship and radical anti-Semitism, as Mr. Reuth describes them, is full of ironies. Goebbels' family was friendly with a Jewish lawyer, and his dissertation sponsor was a Jew. Even after his opinions began to change, with the reading of Oswald Spengler and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, he kept up, briefly, an engagement to a woman with a Jewish mother and voiced some scruples about his views. But when he fell in fully with the Nazis, he made up for lost time so vigorously that Mr. Reuth credits him with creating the climate of opinion in which Germany and its collaborators could wage a genocidal war.

Goebbels' relationship with Adolf Hitler comes across as even stranger. The Nazis in northern Germany, where Goebbels joined the party, favored class struggle, nationalization and a more or less pro-Russian policy. During the intrigues that brought the party to power, Gregor Strasser, the northerners' most prominent figure, expressed a willingness to work with the "bourgeois" parties instead of demanding a complete takeover.

All this put the northerners at odds with the party leadership in Munich, and they expected Goebbels to fight for them. (A much-repeated story, for which Mr. Reuth finds no evidence, has Goebbels demanding at a meeting in the 1920s that the party expel "the petit bourgeois Adolf Hitler.") But Goebbels had fixed on Hitler as Providence's instrument almost before he knew who he was, and a few words from Hitler would turn him around every time -- while he denied that he had turned at all.

Goebbels drew his power from his willingness to submit everything to his Fuhrer's desires, and -- as Mr. Reuth repeatedly remarks -- from his ability to deceive himself.

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