BOOK REVIEW / Suicidal fantasy of the Fuhrer's poisoned dwarf: Goebbels - Ralf Georg Reuth: Constable, pounds 19.95

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The Independent Online
JOSEPH GOEBBELS, Hitler's 'poisoned dwarf', was the century's greatest propagandist: a cynical and calculating manipulator of mass moods. He, above all, was the one who turned the old-fashioned Big Lie into a 20th-century, hi-tech art form. As the Nazi Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda, he was the first fully to exploit the totalitarian possibilities of radio, film, synchronised mass rallies, blaring street-corner loudspeakers and blazing searchlights. The trappings of Orwell's 1984 owed as much to Goebbels as they did to Stalin.

The central thesis of Ralf Reuth's lively study - based on newly released letters and diaries - is that Goebbels was also a true believer in Hitler, and in his own ill-defined version of socialism and, above all, anti-Semitism. It was, for example, Goebbels who in 1942, while demanding 'total war', insisted on diverting invaluable time and material to rendering Berlin 'Jew-free'.

Hitler did not make the mistake of regarding Goebbels as a mere propagandist. For him, the medium was the message, and the messenger was as important as the soldier, the industrialist or the diplomat. Goebbels was the Fuhrer's designated successor as Chancellor.

He was born in the Rhineland in 1897, the son of meritocratic working-class Catholic parents. His father had fought his way on to the lowest rungs of the managerial ladder. He was the driven child, the chosen one, forced to go further, painfully aware of relative poverty and petty snobbery. Then osteomyelitis left him club-footed. His devout parents regarded this as a curse from God, and Goebbels was left with a sense of mission as well as a sense of guilt and physical self-hatred.

Academically, Joseph achieved a doctorate. But the rewarding career which his endeavours made appropriate was denied him in the chaos and slump that followed Germany's 'stab-in-the-back' defeat in 1918. By the early Twenties Goebbels was unemployed, wallowing in Nietzsche, Spengler and Dostoyevsky - when not philandering compulsively. His god was dead. Hitler filled the vacuum.

As gauleiter of 'red' Berlin from 1926, Goebbels demonstrated physical courage, an ability to work grindingly hard in a disciplined manner - and an astonishing understanding of mass psychology. At first with only a handful of followers, he was able significantly to weaken the Communist grip on the city. Had he not done so before 1932, the Nazis' constitutional coup would have met much stiffer resistance.

Goebbels succeeded by outplaying the Communists at their own games of street violence, subversion and savagely humorous contempt for the bourgeois state. The deputy police commissioner was a decent, pompous Jewish gentleman, Bernhard Weiss. Goebbels renamed him 'Isodor' (the insulting equivalent of Hymie) and proceeded to make his life a misery, holding him up to ridicule and contempt in satirical publications such as the Book of Isodor.

As early as 1926, as a party propagandist, he was writing publicly of his Fuhrer: 'A day may come when the mob around you will foam at the mouth and and growl and bawl 'Crucify him]' . . . Then around you will stand the phalanx of the last of the just, who do not despair even in death. The core of characters, the iron ones, who no longer want to live if Hitler dies.'

The blasphemous hysteria of such stuff, and Goebbels's overwhelming need for a hero, are immediately apparent. It takes a little longer to register the suicidal nature of his yearnings. His fantasy was to be nailed to the cross alongside his master. Loyal to Hitler when others fled, Goebbels finally realised his nihilistic vision on May Day 1945, in the ruins of Berlin.