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Joseph Goebbels, Journal, 1939-1942,

édition établie par Horst Möller, Barbara Lambauer et Elke Fröhlich, Paris, Tallandier, 2009, 742 p.

Ouvrages | 24.07.2009 | Berna Günen
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© Tallandier, DR“An icy wind seemed to blow as he passed. It was as though an evil, solitary and cruel god had clambered down among the everyday bustle of pleasure-seeking, cowardly, pitiful mortals”. Testimonies on Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels corroborate this vivid literary portrait given by Klaus Mann in his most famous novel “Mephisto”. Goebbels was evil, solitary and cruel. Yet, by no means tight-lipped.

Goebbels bequeathed a monumental diary, which he considered as a document that would tell the upcoming generations about the grandeur of the Third Reich. His diary was to become, however one of the most incriminating evidence against National Socialism.

47 years passed before the entire diary of Goebbels was discovered in the Soviet archives by Elke Fröhlich. Published by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (IfZ) between 1993 and 2005, the diary contains 29 volumes. Under the supervision of a prestigious team of historians, large parts of it is recently translated to French and published as a four-volume edition. The most recent volume covers the period between 1st September 1939 and 31st December 1942.

A special eulogy must go to the senior translator of the present edition, Olivier Mannoni, who managed to remain faithful to the phraseology of the original German edition. The meticulously prepared footnotes -despite a couple of minor technical problems- would even permit an unspecialised reader to understand the exact historical context in which Goebbels had been keeping his diary.

The entries were chosen by an IfZ team from Munich and Berlin, under the supervision of Fröhlich, Horst Möller and Pierre Ayçoberry. The choice of texts may be criticised as being too France-focused. One clearly sees throughout the pages that “France” was indeed one of the key words that determined which entry would be included in the French edition. Moreover, it is surprising, indeed sad, to see that entries concerning some key events that changed the course of war, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the assassination of Heydrich, are not included.

Once described as having “a high intellectual varnish covering the emotional world of an adolescent” [1] , Goebbels, as a minister now facing a world war, unveils, throughout his diary covering the period 1939-1942, the two key leitmotivs of his entire existence: his devotion to his Führer and his pathological anti-Semitism.

Goebbels as the first victim of the infallible Führer myth

Goebbels himself described his own psyche in his only novel, “Michael” published in 1929: “Credo, ergo sum!” (p.25). His inclination towards political extremes (he once declared himself a “German Bolshevik”), and his thirst for social recognition are typical of those highly educated yet unemployed German youth of the ill-fated Weimar Republic. Goebbels needed a “God” through whom he could reach the place that he thought he deserved in life: “The bigger and the more towering I make my God, the bigger and the more towering I am myself” (p.26). After he met Hitler, Goebbels created the Führer cult and propagated the myth - first to the party members, then to an entire nation.

Ironically, Goebbels was the first victim to fall for the myth of his own making. Yet, one of the most pessimistic entries of his diary on his birthday in 1939 -which is unfortunately not included in the French edition- shows that the faithful acolyte was not sure about the chances of the success of his prophet: “Forty-two years. How many do I have left? I’d rather not know” [2] .

However, his doubts soon evaporated as Germany began to conquer one by one all its declared enemies on the continent. After the astonishing victory over France, Goebbels was converted for good. Although he was rather cautious about England to that point, after spring 1940 Goebbels became more royalist than the king. The day Hitler proposed England a vague compromised peace in his Reichstag speech, he wrote: “The ball is in London’s court. I do not believe in peace. War first!” (p.180)

The Battle of Britain inflicted a first coup to Goebbels’ cheerleader-like propaganda. That “latent defeat” made his propaganda line more sober and cautious. He subsequently forbade boasting about the low moral in England, the military successes of Rommel in Libya (pp.483-484) and the German encirclement of Stalingrad (p.628). Paradoxically however, he became more irrational in his faith to Hitler. The explanation for this may be hidden in the simple fact that Goebbels was a civilian. His diary shows how late he was informed of military operations: he heard about the campaign in Norway and Denmark almost the day before it started; about France less than a month before the beginning of the campaign; and Hitler told him about the Operation Barbarossa as late as end March 1941. Under those circumstances, for Goebbels, victory was a matter of belief in Hitler. That is why he assiduously gave reports about Hitler’s physical appearance and health in his diary every time he met his Führer.

The accounts of his meetings with Hitler marked the peak of Goebbels’ self-deception. As a matter of fact, Hitler always knew how to dissipate his minister’s doubts and to “charge his batteries” (passim). The most remarkable example of this self-deception is the entry on 16th June 1941 (pp.307-312). Goebbels talked himself into believing that Bolshevism would collapse like “a house of cards”, and that “the Napoleon example” would not be repeated because the Eastern campaign -as Hitler assured him the day before- was carefully prepared beforehand. In a curiously twisted logic, Goebbels saw in the attack on Soviet Russia a way of avoiding a two-front war: “Russia would attack us if we became weak, and we would then have a two-front war, which we are now avoiding thanks to this preventive operation”.

In the autumn of 1941, however, it became more and more obvious that Hitler did not foresee everything thoroughly on the Eastern front. Goebbels formulated then another myth for his private consolation: “If the Führer only knew!” His diary kept implying that his still infallible Führer was surrounded by incompetent subalterns, chief scapegoats being the “desk generals” (p.465).

As early as October 1941, Goebbels began to insist for the introduction of the total war measures. He now saw for himself that Bolshevism would not collapse after all like a house of cards. Yet, in his diary he stubbornly refused to name the chief culprit of this disastrous miscalculation. “I had a long discussion with General Jodl and Colonel Schmundt. Both now admit that the military was mistaken about the potential of the Bolsheviks and, not their anticipation, but mine was right. […] Keitel admits that I was right and that part of the illusions now circulating among the population is due to the illusionary OKW reports” (pp. 450-451). Likewise he harshly criticised Dietrich, Reich Press Chief, for having declared on 9th October that the war in the east was decided (p. 454). Goebbels was well aware that all the persons he was blaming were taking their orders from Hitler. And even before Dietrich, it was Hitler himself who had boasted in a speech at the Sportpalast about the approaching victory on the Eastern front. Unsurprisingly, Goebbels preferred to omit that unpleasant reality in his diary.

Until the end of 1942, Goebbels regularly reported how all his requests for “totalisation” of the war effort were declined by Hitler. After one discussion with Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, Reich Women’s Leader, Goebbels admitted having been far from convincing while trying to defend Hitler’s position on the question of obligatory service for women: “Besides, I do not know any convincing argument to justify the lack of such a measure” (p. 651). However, understandably, he never openly told who so short-sightedly refused all his sound requests.

Goebbels, the pathological anti-Semite

However, not all his requests were sound. While Goebbels insisted on maximising the war effort on the home front, he kept seeking Hitler’s approbation for the deportation of Jews out of Berlin, including those working in arms factories. On one occasion, he related the objection of Speer, Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production, to his schemes as follows: “Indeed Speer opposes arguing that the Jews working in arms industry will be concerned as well. But we have to replace them one way or another” (p. 578).

In the academic quarrel between functionalists and intentionalists, one great debate is about the origins of the Holocaust. Did the initiative come from above (Hitler) or from below (the ranks of the Nazi bureaucracy)? The famous British historian Ian Kershaw proposes a synthesis between the two schools, suggesting that the way leading to the Holocaust were paved both from above and below, through a process, which he calls “cumulative radicalisation”. Within the chaotic, feudal-like Nazi bureaucracy, the “vassals” were competing to please their “monarch”. They knew very well that the Jewish question was the key to gain Hitler’s praises. One of those ambitious vassals was Goebbels.

Goebbels’ diary confirms Kershaw’s suggestion that the radicalisation was a double-way process. The Propaganda Minister never missed an occasion to evoke the Jewish question with Hitler. As the Gauleiter of Berlin, his main obsession was to evacuate Jews out of the capital. The words he chose to depict Jews show that the dehumanisation process as a precondition to genocide was complete in his mind: “These Jews are no human beings” (p. 43); “A problem more clinical than social” (p. 50); “Jewish bacillus” (p. 525).

Until late March 1942, the diary gives the impression that Goebbels thought of permanent deportation as a solution. Death would come as a result of harsh conditions that Jews would face during deportation. This interpretation is plausible to the extent that Goebbels was not included in the inner circle which initiated the Final Solution. Although his choice of verbs is ambiguous (“annihilate”, “liquidate”, “eradicate”), the main question is what those verbs evoked to the author of the diary, rather than they evoke to his readers today.

The new French edition of Goebbels’ diary contains a refreshing article by French historian Florent Brayard called “Goebbels and the extermination of Jews” (pp. 63-93). According to Brayard, at that time, the verb “vernichten” (annihilate) did not systematically refer to killing (p.86, n.80). In the euphemistic Nazi rhetoric, Goebbels might not have first totally grasped the dramatic radicalisation of the anti-Jewish measures. He first learnt what “vernichten” really meant on 26th March 1942. In his diary, Goebbels did not even dare to give details on the Aktion Rheinhardt which had started ten days before: “A pretty barbaric procedure is being applied here, and it is not to be described in any more detail, and not much is left of the Jews themselves” (p. 525). However, one point is crystal clear: Goebbels was already ideologically and psychologically ready to give his full consent to the genocide.

Goebbels started keeping a diary in 1923, when he was a young unemployed PhD, to pour out on pages his frustrations in life. In ten years, what began as a modest, intimate enterprise was to become a key testimony to one of the most crucial periods of world history. Although Goebbels was not tight-lipped, he was far from being completely sincere. Yet, his diary, at last complete, is one of the best first-hand accounts of the Nazi regime.

Notes :

[2] Ralf Reuth [Ed.]. Joseph Goebbels Tagebücher. München, 2003, III, p.1340.

Berna Günen



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