Goebbels, Reich and Art

Magda and Joseph Goebbels with children, Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0724-503 / CC-BY-SA

On the 29th of October 1897,  Joseph Goebbels was born in Rheydt, Germany. He was one of the closest associates of Adolf Hitler and a zealously devoted propagandist of National Socialism in Nazi Germany. Between 1933 and 1945 he held the position of Reich Minister of Propaganda and contributed significantly to the initial success of the Nazi Party. 

Goebbels was a weak and frail child. Suffering from many illnesses he eventually ended up with one of his feet paralyzed. This experience had a big impact on young Joseph and contributed to developing a rather introverted nature. In his diaries he recalls his childhood as painful and solitary. His inner need to be heard and seen would later manifest itself in great speeches, which in their oratorical skill and theatricality were not far from those of Hitler himself. Before entering the path of political activism, Goebbels went on to study literature and philosophy and writing a doctoral thesis on a 19th century romantic dramatist, Wilhelm von Schultz. His major ambition, though, was to become a writer. At the beginning of the 1920s, in his semi-autobiographical novel Michael, he wrote: “A statesman is also an artist. For him, the people is merely what stone is for a sculptor. The Führer with the masses poses no more of a problem than does a painter with colour”. Even though his literary career went astray, these words became a nucleus of radical changes both in the field of national politics and art.

Once appointed the Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels’ mission was to centralise Nazi control over all aspects of German culture and intellectual life. From then on, all forms of artistic expression were meant to reflect and promote the ideology of National Socialism; those who were incompatible with the new ideology were simply seen as ‘defects’ of the society. Hitler expressed this saying: “Here are only two possibilities: either these so-called artists actually see things in this way and therefore believe in what they represent, in which case it needs only be determined whether their defect of vision has occurred in a mechanical manner or through inheritance. In the first case it is deeply pitiable for these unfortunates, in the second important for the National Ministry of the Interior, which must then take up the question, at least to prevent further inheritance of such a kind of ghastly defect of vision. Or else they themselves do not believe in the reality of such impressions, but they attempt on other grounds to harass the nation with this humbug; then such a transgression is a matter for the criminal court.” (A Guide to the Exhibition of Degenerate Art).

In time, National Socialist Art reached the status of the only acceptable art current in Germany; all laureates of national art exhibitions had to be chosen by Hitler. Therefore in 1936 Goebbels imposed a ban on all art criticism, as criticising National Socialist Art would be equal to criticising the Führer, and criticising the Führer would mean being critical against the whole German nation. On the 27th of November 1936, Goebbels stated: “Because this year has not brought an improvement in art criticism, I forbid once and for all the continuance of art criticism in its past form, effective as of today. From now on, the reporting of art will take the place of an art criticism which has set itself up as a judge of art – a complete perversion of the concept of “criticism” which dates from the time of the Jewish domination of art. The critic is to be superseded by the art editor. The reporting of art should not be concerned with values, but should confine itself to description. Such reporting should give the public a chance to make its own judgements, should stimulate it to form an opinion about artistic achievements through its own attitudes and feelings.” (George L. Mosse, Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich)

Goebbels was fiercely anti-Semitic; although in his propaganda he tried to avoid the label of “primitive anti-Semitism”. On the 3rd of May 1933, he orchestrated an event of burning twenty thousand books by Jewish or anti-Nazi authors.  He also supported production of such movies as ‘Jud Süß’ (1940) or ‘Der ewige Jude’ (1940), depicting Jews as the ‘scum’ of German society and an obstacle to its worldwide hegemony. He believed that film was a very powerful tool in shaping public opinion. Overall, there were about 1100 propaganda films made under the Nazi regime.

Goebbels was very loyal to his beliefs, his mission and Hitler as such. After learning of Hitler’s death on the 30th of April 1945, he simply could not bear to go on living. The next day Goebbels and his wife killed their six children and both committed suicide. The idea of National Socialism and National Socialist Art died with them too.