Goebbels: A Biography
By Peter Longerich
Random House, 906 pages
The word propaganda has come to represent politics at its most corrupt. Although the term originated with Pope Gregory XV, who founded the Congregatio de propaganda fide (the Office for the Propagation of the Faith), it has long since outgrown such holy intentions. In 1922, Walter Lippmann distilled the modern understanding of propaganda; it occurs, he said, when “a group of men who can prevent independent access to the event arrange the news of it to suit their purpose.” One such man, Paul Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, would befoul the word beyond redemption. Goebbels (1897–1945) commanded the full arsenal of incendiary rhetoric. His tactics were perfectly suited to a nation whose rage at its perceived subjugation and impoverishment by its supposed inferiors required only a knowing touch to ignite. Goebbels made a grand appeal to German self-pity, whose obverse was a lust for vengeance and imperial fantasy beyond all measure. He organized mass rallies during which heroic speakers bayed for blood and the crowd learned to appreciate its capacity for evil as the rarest good. With the aid of Goebbels’s pathological commitment to the cause, Jews were targeted for destruction and Hitler was made into a virtual god.
In Goebbels: A Biography, Peter Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway University of London and an accomplished scholar of the Holocaust, depicts a man consumed by personal ambition, the fate of German culture, and the raving hatred propagated by his master. Goebbels, as Longerich shows in detail, came to worship Hitler. But first he floundered for a time in traditional metaphysical speculation and religious belief. In his Heidelberg doctoral dissertation, for example, Goebbels eulogized the “younger generation of God-seekers, mystics, romantics,” and he recorded in his diary 10 commandments that included “Get up at 8 and go to bed at 10” and “Try to come to terms with God.”
The God-problem confronted Goebbels at every turn, no matter how much sleep he got. His unproduced play Prometheus celebrated the assault on Olympian tyranny by the half-human, half-divine upstart; his equally unsuccessful drama The Wanderer brought Christ back to earth to witness the terrible extent of human suffering, which his original mission did not alleviate. Goebbels honored Vincent van Gogh as “a Christ-person,” and plunged with Dostoevsky into the depths of spiritual tribulation. As a young man, he ached for redemption from trivial modernity. That triviality pointedly included political life: “To practice politics,” he told his diary, “is to enchain the spirit, to know when to speak and when to be silent, to lie for the greater good: My God, what a dreadful business.” For a time, Goebbels thought of himself, soulful artist that he was, as redeemer material.
When he found his true redeemer, however, that would change. The Nazi movement first enchanted him as a new means of approaching the same old Christian divinity. “Socialism and Christ. Ethical foundations,” he wrote. “Back to devotion and to God!” Soon his yearning shrieked with volkisch hysteria: “O Lord, give your German people a miracle! A miracle!! A man!!! Bismarck, arise!” Reading Mein Kampf after Das Kapital provoked both ecstasy and misgiving: Goebbels had a hard time getting over his admiration for Communist Russia, which Hitler of course loathed as the homeland of Jew-Bolshevism. But in due course, Hitler convinced through his mere presence, and thereafter Goebbels never strayed far from mad adulation. “We wrangle. We question,” he wrote. “His answers are brilliant. I love him.” Hitler was soon the indispensable prophet and perhaps even the messiah: “Who is this man? Half-plebeian, half-god!” Goebbels proclaimed. “Is this really Christ or just John the Baptist?” Subsequent experience would convince Goebbels that Hitler was indeed nothing less than the Chosen One. At a party rally, the apparition of a swastika in the sky announced the sanctity of the Führer and the cause; evidently this vision was vouchsafed to Goebbels alone.
What made Goebbels, an intelligent and educated man, so readily corruptible? Longerich adduces the clubfoot that made him an inferior by nature and established his need to lose himself in love for the most perfect man there was. This explanation sounds uncomfortably close to the Maureen Dowd and Molly Ivins school of psycho-political insight, but we shouldn’t discount it altogether. Kaiser Wilhelm II had a withered arm that every able-bodied man in Germany could not help but notice, and wince at; and the Kaiser, too, had something to prove and the tragic compulsion to prove it. Still, while the psychic wounds caused by such deformities ought to be taken into account, they are hardly the whole story.
Even less cogent is Longerich’s reliance on a group of Hamburg psychoanalysts who attributed Goebbels’s moral deficiencies to a narcissism that formed in him when he was but two or three years old. Here, supposedly, lay the origins of Goebbels’s charmed subservience to Hitler, whose favor satisfied his creature’s pathetic need for fame, glory, luxury, and sexual conquest. Longerich’s eagerness to credit this approach with definitive understanding bears the traces of Hannah Arendt’s infamous report on the “banality of evil,” or of Simon Wiesenthal’s suspicion that Hitler in his youth was infected with syphilis by a Viennese Jewish prostitute, an insult and injury for which all Jews would have to pay. Longerich’s Goebbels is just another case of everyday psychopathology that timely psychoanalytic intervention could well have corrected. This provides no explanation for Hitler’s uncanny ability to tap into Goebbels’s genocidal hatred and imperious pride, which the expert propagandist broadcast in turn among his countrymen.
Goebbels adored Hitler and loved his work, and Longerich’s antiseptic explanations for this don’t convince. Hannah Arendt never said so directly, but her account of Adolf Eichmann conveyed a man who supposedly took no pleasure in the killing of Jews or in seeing them dead. He was an arch-bureaucrat who fulfilled his role in the chain of slaughter with the indifference of the listless functionary at the DMV counter. That is what Arendt called banal, as though such indifference deserved a place in hell less hot than that reserved for the maniacal true believers. Goebbels was a consummate bureaucrat, but he was also one of the maniacs. The Führer occupied the god-shaped hole in what passed for the proud underling’s soul, and Goebbels never again felt a pang for his youthful infatuation with the peaceable Galilean. He revered the beast in man, wished that human beings could summon more of it, and delighted in the thought of the predator perfected for killing. “Fight, fight is the cry of the creature. Nowhere is there peace, just murder, just killing, all for the sake of survival,” he wrote. “As it is with lions, so it is with human beings. We alone lack the courage to openly admit the way things are. In this respect wild animals are the better human beings.”
Goebbels’s mission accordingly was to produce better human beings. When the lesser breeds were about to overrun Berlin and cut short the Thousand Year Reich, Hitler and his bride of one day committed suicide. Goebbels was granted the privilege of seeing their corpses burn. With the only god worthy of the name dead and gone, life was purposeless and beyond endurance. A day later Goebbels and his wife poisoned their six children and killed themselves. What else could they do? The faith, dutifully propagated, had failed.
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The Man Who Loved Hitler
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.