JOSEPH GOEBBELS

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I’ve just finished reading David Irving’s 600-page biography of Joseph Goebbels.  It’s riveting and sickening in equal measures.  Personally, Goebbels was a peculiar little fellow.  As a man, he was a loser — a mediocre dabbler in literature, an unattractive and insecure suitor of women — and he knew it . . . but he also had a kind of genius, and he knew that, too.  The genius allowed him to enact a colossal revenge on the world for his shortcomings — it also led him to spend his last days in Hitler’s Berlin bunker like a rat in a hole and die grotesquely with his wife just outside the bunker after they had murdered their children.

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Irving’s book doesn’t mitigate Goebbels’s vileness in any way — you get a sense that he may even have exaggerated it in places for the purpose of making Hitler look good by comparison.  (Irving has a scurrilous tendency to want to show that Hitler wasn’t as bad as history has painted him.)

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A corrective to Irving’s bias is his prodigious research into the WWII archives and his disposition to show off the results in epic detail.  It’s the accumulation of facts, minor and major, that makes the book so fascinating — you get a real sense of what the Nazi movement was like as seen from inside it.  It’s almost suffocating to spend so much time with that aggregation of scoundrels and psychopaths, but it’s undeniably illuminating.

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The foundation for any Goebbels biography are the man’s diaries, which are extensive and detailed.  (Irving was the first outside researcher to have access to numerous volumes of them once thought lost which were discovered in Soviet archives.)  Keeping diaries is not always a sign of self-knowledge or self-awareness — Irving is shrewd enough to realize that Goebbels’s diaries are full of exaggerations, lacunae and misconstructions designed to indulge his ego and self-pity, and also to realize that this private dishonesty is in itself one key to Goebbels’s twisted psyche.

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I can’t really recommend the book to anyone who doesn’t have a consuming interest in WWII — it’s far too unpleasant for recreational reading — but for those who do, it’s essential.

6 thoughts on “JOSEPH GOEBBELS

  1. The circumstances of that third photo, where he is glaring at the camera, are that he had happily consented to have his photo taken earlier, but in this photo he had just learned that the photographer was Jewish. The photographer — someone well known, can’t recall his name — said that he knew that he was gazing into the face of evil.

  2. I’m going to wait until someone responsible releases/discusses the newly accessible information, since the egregious Irving’s only claim on the public’s attention seems to be primacy.

    • Reading Irving is problematic, because you have to ignore his biases to get to the details, which are what’s valuable in his work. Sadly, he’s the most industrious researcher into the WWII archives and you can’t find what he unearths elsewhere. Many WWII historians are just lazy and rely on secondary sources — the formerly lost Goebbels diaries in Russia may be accessible to others now but who’s going to go over there and actually read through the thousands of pages? They’ll just report on Irving’s findings and thus never know if his selections are misleading or not. That’s Irving’s advantage — the sheer amount of legwork he’s willing to put in — and why he’s hard to ignore.

      • I can only hope all historians are not as lazy as you think. In any case, I tip my hat to you for keeping the horrors of the Third Reich a hot topic.

        • Not all, but a surprising number. A couple of examples. Many “contemporaneous” diaries from WWII — like Count Ciano’s and Albert Speer’s — were in fact rewritten and cleaned up after the war for publication. They are still routinely quoted as primary sources by historians who didn’t do the painstaking work of comparing them with the originals or with other and actual primary sources. That’s the sort of thing Irving routinely does — mind-numbing work but part of a historian’s job. And when the fake Hitler diaries were published in 1983, several prominent WWII historians (including the highly respected Hugh Trevor-Roper) blithely pronounced them authentic. Irving was one of the few who knew they were fake, because they got certain dates and circumstances wrong that Hitler would not have mistaken and that could be checked against other reliable primary sources. Nobody had even bothered to commission forensic tests to establish the age of the paper and ink, which eventually showed that they had been recently fabricated.

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