Books: Cultural Amnesia — Josef Goebbels |
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Josef Goebbels (1897–1945) began as a professional student (he was enrolled at eight different universities) and would-be literary figure. He ended as a corpse in the Reich Chancellery, having achieved, in the interim, the distinction of being minister of public enlightenment and propaganda in the Nazi government, and a ranking second only to Goering’s among those closest to Hitler. During the war, after Goering’s prestige waned, Goebbels moved up to the vacant second spot, and was effectively in charge of the country in the final period when its most terrible crimes were being carried out: the idea that Himmler acted without Goebbels’s knowledge does not bear examination. A crippled schizophrenic, Goebbels was easy to make fun of at the time by those safely out of his reach. Now that we all are, we should perhaps try to remember that as a young man he was interested in the arts, loved the movies, saw the power of advertising, studied the techniques of publicity, and favoured the idea of politics as a spectacular drama. A lot of what we think normal now, he thought of first: so we need to be very sure that we have a different slant on it. Even his anti-Semitism began as an intellectual pose: he took it up while he was on a scholarship.

* * *
Since Stalingrad, even the smallest military success has been denied us.
On the other hand, our political chances have hugely increased, as you know.

AMONG THE NAZIS who got away to Argentina after the war was the future author of what would be the world’s funniest book, if it did not take your breath away so thoroughly that laughter is impossible. After a notable beginning as a war correspondent reporting Nazi victories in Poland, the West, the Balkans and in Russia, Wilfred von Oven spent the late part of the war as press secretary, personal assistant and tireless sounding board for Goebbels. At the Propaganda Ministry in Berlin, Goebbels would think aloud by the hour while von Oven wrote it all down. Von Oven was on the spot when Goebbels microfilmed his personal diaries and made them safe for posterity.

But the papers in von Oven’s own keeping were even more precious. In Argentina von Oven typed up his reminiscences as if they constituted a world historical document, which indeed they did, and still do. They were published in two volumes by Dürer-Verlag in Buenos Aires in 1949. My set dates from 1950, when the work achieved a second printing. (They had an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, and they had an awful lot of Nazis in Argentina.) I bought the set second-hand in that same city fifty years later. The twin volumes were in good shape: bound in yellow cardboard with orange cloth spines, they had never sprung their hinges, and the paper, though of low quality, had not yet begun to crumble. I took my find to my favourite café in San Telmo, sat down to read, and almost instantly realized that I was in the presence of an unrivalled comic masterpiece. In Mel Brooks’s The Producers, the berserk playwright in the helmet admires Hitler as one psycho admires another. But von Oven is funnier than that. He thinks Goebbels is the soul of reason, a great intellectual, a philosophical and creative genius whose visions are frustrated only by unfortunate circumstances. Making it even funnier is that van Oven himself shows few signs of being exceptionally stupid. Like his boss, he was able and industrious. He didn’t miss a trick. All he missed was the point.

If we ever doubted that Goebbels did the same, the evidence is here. Goering knew that the game was up when the first P-51 Mustang long-range escort fighter appeared over Berlin. Even Himmler started looking for a way out. But Goebbels kept the faith. Though finally it got to the point where not even he could keep his faith in victory, he still kept his faith in Hitler. Even as it became clear that the insurmountable obstacle to any political solution was the existence of Hitler himself, it never occurred to Goebbels that his loyalty to Hitler could be abandoned. After the attempted coup of July 20, 1944, it was suggested to Goebbels that the cause might still be saved if Hitler could be sidelined in favour of a Goebbels-Himmler duumvirate. Though Goebbels held Himmler in high respect (“immaculate,” “a paragon of character”—vol. 2, p. 301) he could see no choice: he was for Hitler, even if it meant that Germany and Hitler would go down together. As the end neared, the only reproach Goebbels made against Hitler was that the Führer had not been sufficiently true to himself, having allowed himself to be surrounded by a gang of opportunists, time-servers and mediocrities. There was certainly some truth in that. Goebbels had good reason to think of himself as the genuine Nazi article. The comedy lies in his unintentional revelation of what being a genuine Nazi entailed. One thing it entailed was a huge, incapacitating overestimation of the world’s tolerance for Nazi policies of territorial aggression and mass murder. Goebbels was right to believe that Stalin threatened civilization in the West with a similar disaster. But he was wrong to believe that the Western allies, when they realized this, would see Nazi Germany as a bastion against the threat. He couldn’t let it occur to him that the unlikely global alliance against Nazi Germany was held together by the existence of Nazi Germany itself, and would be maintained until Nazi Germany was gone. For him it was a thought too simple to be grasped. He was too clever for that.

Goebbels’s cleverness was diabolical. Faithfully transcribing the master propagandist’s torrential paroxysms of inspiration, von Oven was right to be awed. The man who invented Horst Wessel (a Nazi thug beaten to death by Communists, Horst Wessel was turned by the creative staff in Goebbels’s office into the hero of a song) never ran out of ideas. But the diabolical cleverness all served a self-deception. In September 1944 we find the Minister (von Oven always calls Goebbels the Minister or the Doctor) favouring his assistant with a long tirade about how the situation could be saved if only he, instead of Ribbentrop, were in charge of foreign policy. “I would work in both directions,” Goebbels explains. “The English way of thinking is congenial to me. I could bring into play my good and friendly connections with many important Englishmen. But I would also start talking to the Bolsheviks. It is not for nothing that I count as the representative of our party’s left wing. What possibilities! What visions!” Der Minister seufzt und lehnt sich in seinen Sessel zurück (vol. 2, p. 145). The Minister sighed and leaned back in his chair.

Once again, what makes it funny is that there was something to it: just not enough. Before the war, Goebbels had indeed charmed the pants off many of the visiting Englishmen: he had long heart-to-hearts with the Duke of Windsor, Sir John Simon and Lord Halifax. Even Beaverbrook, later tiresomely active on Churchill’s behalf, had seemed to understand Germany’s sacred mission against Bolshevism. But Goebbels could never grasp that everything was transformed from the moment Churchill took office. The accommodating opinions of all these influential people either had ceased to matter or had changed, so that now, while they might all have been variously influential, they were united in having no power to favour Germany even if they had wanted to. Predictably, Goebbels’s interpretation of this otherwise unaccountable turn-up for the books was that a small, Jewish-inspired clique had taken over.

On the question of the Jews, von Oven does his best to employ the soft pedal on the Minister’s behalf. Even in post-war Argentina, where Nazi refugees could voice their old opinions virtually unchecked, it was thought prudent to go easy on the mania. But a true mania has a way of seeping through any amount of reasoned argument, and so it proves here. Though von Oven’s post-war preface to the complete work assures us that he had never known anything about gas chambers or exterminations, in the body of the transcript the guileless amanuensis can’t hide even his own real opinions, so his master’s are bound to come out eventually. On October 3, 1943, von Oven delivers himself of the prediction that some of the Nazi hierarchs will soon start looking for alibis: “they will manufacture a connection with some resistance group, or they will pretend that they helped some Jew (etwa einen Juden) escape from Germany.” Now why should some Jew have wanted to do that? In volume 2 von Oven lets the Minister, in his role as Doctor of all the arts, rave on for three solid pages about the slyness with which the Jews pulled off the confidence trick called Modern Art, but von Oven is still careful to confine the discussion to aesthetic matters. On a later page, however, both he and the Minister stand revealed as fully aware of what has been going on. Goebbels “wonders” if Himmler, fine fellow though he is, might not have let the concentration camps (in German, Konzentrationslager, or KZ) get a little bit out of hand. Previously, says the Minister, one was able to assume that the conditions in the KZs, “though they might have been hard, were correct and humane. Hard work, strict discipline, but everything that a man should have: adequate food, medical care, even some entertainment.” The Minister goes on to lament, however, that under wartime conditions the KZs might have become a touch less entertaining than they used to be. “Just imagine how it would look if the camps in their present condition are discovered by the enemy!” In that case, predicts the Minister, even the German people will say no more about the blessings that Germany has enjoyed since 1933: blessings which have ensured that even during the war there has been “no unrest, no strikes, no uprisings, no rowdies, no Jews... .” At which point, there is no more game to give away.

There is a kind of poetry to it: the poetry of evil, a destructive lunacy so fluent that it soars to the level of the creative, as if Mephistopheles, as well as appearing in Faust, had actually written it. Compared with Goebbels, Hitler himself was earthbound. With the aid of Albert Speer, Hitler conjured gargantuan visionary cities to be made real in brick and marble, but he would never have thought of a concentration camp that provided entertainment along with the adequate food. Goebbels really was some kind of artist, which is why he should interest us: even more than Speer, Goebbels was the Nazi who talked the talk of an intellectual. As for the way he walked the walk, in von Oven’s masterpiece the Minister’s bad foot goes largely unremarked. As we can tell from Goebbels’s diaries, it never went unremarked in the mind of the man on whom a cruel trick of birth had inflicted it. Byron’s bad oot, we are told, did not make him limp: but he might have felt as if it did. Goebbels’s bad foot never let him feel any other way. Only one thing could make him forget it. His measure of a suitably passionate mistress was how she could liberate him from that dreadful awareness. “I forgot my foot.” Goebbels, though always a family man, awarded himself an artist’s privileges with women, and his position of power ensured that he did not have to restrict himself to the demimonde—where, indeed, he got so involved with an actress that Hitler had to call a halt to the affair.

Things could be more discreetly managed among the upper orders, with the usual proviso that too much discretion tended to stifle the action. During an official visit to Nuremberg, the Minister drove out to the countryside to take lunch with the Gräfin Faber-Castell, an accomplished, gracious twenty-six-year-old beauty who clad herself in a dirndl for the occasion. After the war the Faber-Castell firm was still making most of the pencils produced in Germany; in Australia as a schoolboy I had a whole box of them in various grades, and very fine pencils they were. (In Solzhenitsyn’s long narrative poem Prussian Nights, the invading Russian soldiers marvel at the perfection of the Faber-Castell pencils: the very kind of reaction to Western goods that Stalin was afraid of, and obviated retroactively by purging his victorious army, nicely calculating how long a stretch in the Gulag it would take to forget a centrally heated house or a flush toilet that worked.) As pioneering participants in the post-war Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle), the Faber-Castell dynasty saw no reason to change the firm’s name, and indeed they hadn’t done anything. They had just made pencils; and made Goebbels welcome. After lunch, there was a cultural interlude. When the Gräfin played and sang Lieder, her illustrious visitor joined her at the piano for a four-handed, two-voiced recital. If not a passionate physical relationship, it was certainly a passionate spiritual one. She was his upper-class muse and point of solace: the same supporting role that was played for Goethe by Anna Amalia Herzogin von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, a parallel that Goebbels would have been well equipped to draw. The Gräfin Faber-Castell’s exalted name crops up repeatedly as the end approaches. It was already approaching on the day of that cosy little combined lunch and Lieder concert. It was June 6, 1944.

After D-day Goebbels gave up smoking, probably because he was on a psychological high. He really did think, or said he thought, that the chances of working a political master stroke were going up as the military situation deteriorated. By July 1, however, he was smoking again. We have to admit the possibility that his mind was working at two levels. He was the pre-eminent Nazi advocate of Total War (he was surely right that if he had been allowed to institute it earlier, Germany would have done better) but he was also a realist; although we should always remember that he was a realist in a surreal world, the madhouse he had helped to create. There was a significant development on June 11, 1944: von Oven’s help was required in a comprehensive reordering of the Doctor’s personal library. All the standard party literature was thrown out and the remaining books were arranged purely according to literary standards (nach literarisches Maßstaben). There is something touching about that. Goebbels wasn’t getting out of the Nazi party. He thought that the Nazi party would be eternal, even if it were reduced to two members, him and Hitler. But he seems to have decided that all this ideological junk had nothing to do with the real thing. He might have also been trying to get back to his essential, untainted self, all unaware—or perhaps only almost unaware—that the taint was his essential self. Nevertheless there had been a day when, as a young student, he had it all before him. It was a day when he had respected his Jewish professors, saw a literary future for himself, and had not taken the Nazis seriously. A day before he met Hitler. Perhaps now, with the roof falling in, he hankered for the lost past, at a level he could not examine. But the reordering of his books did the examining for him. A man’s relationship with his books tells you a lot about him, and in the case of a man like Goebbels we should pay close attention, because a crucial early choice he made was one that continually faces any of us who read at all. He chose a life of action, and his life would have been different if he had not. It could be said that the lives of millions of innocent people would have been different too, but there we should be equally alert to the danger of optimism. The only thing different might have been that he would have had a job like von Oven’s. He might have been merely reporting on the insanity instead of helping to create it, but the insanity would still have been there. Hitler wouldn’t have needed to find someone else. Someone else would have found him. When absolute power is on offer, talent fights to get in.

The Nazis had no tragedies: they caused tragedies for other people. In tragedy there must be a fall from high degree, or at least from the level of common humanity: and the Nazis had nothing to fall from. The tower they built was subterranean. But we can sympathize with their children. Near the end of the second volume Frau Goebbels speaks; and when she speaks, laughter dies. It is the April 22, 1945, and the Russians are already in the U-bahn tunnels under Berlin. She tells von Oven that she and her husband have already said goodbye to life. They had lived for Nazi Germany and would die with it. “But what I can’t wish away is the destiny of the children. Certainly my reason tells me that I can’t leave them to a future in which they, as our children, will be defenceless before the Jewish revenge. But when I see them play around our feet, I just can’t reconcile myself to the idea of killing them.”

When the time came, she managed it. It probably never dawned on her that her innocent children were following at least one and a half million other innocent children into the same poisoned oblivion, and for the same reason—no reason. (Once again, incidentally, von Oven forgets to explain why the Jews should have wanted revenge. Had something bad happened?) In all the literature about the Nazis, there is nothing quite like Mit Goebbels bis zum Ende to tell you that the whole vast historical disaster was a figment of the imagination. If only we could return the dead to life and the tortured to health, we would be able to see it as a comic extravaganza. Goebbels was the limping, shrieking embodiment of the whole thing. He was not a fool. In many respects he was very clever. He even had creative powers. But his creative powers were all at the service of Hitler’s destructive powers. So everything the most eloquent of the Nazis said was a joke. If the joke had all happened within his study—if the Doctor had remained what he was, a dreaming student walled in by books—the laughter would never end, and we might even sympathize. The way things turned out, the most we can do is try to understand. As for Wilfred von Oven, his long post-war career provided evidence that a Nazi past could count as a sort of qualification if you could hang in long enough. In Argentina he was prominent in the circle around Hitler’s favourite Stuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the bunch who always knew where Eichmann was. Having never been deprived of his German citizenship, von Oven went back to Europe as often as he liked, and as late as 1998 he was loudly active in Belgium with an outfit dedicated to winning back separate nationhood for the Walloons. For his fellow agitators, his curriculum vitae, going all the way back to service with the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War, was a powerful indicator that he knew what he was talking about. And on top of all that, he had known Goebbels personally!