Joseph Goebbels, educated in language and literature, strived without success to become a writer. His application to become a journalist at a Berlin newspaper was turned down. His continuing disappointment led him to Munich where he heard Hitler for the first time. He joined the Nazi Party in 1924 where his speech writing earned him the attention of Hitler. Goebbels became one of his first collaborators and one of his closest friends.

Sent to the occupied Ruhr, he founded a local group of the National Socialist Freedom Movement of Greater Germany where he developed a reputation for virulent articles against the presence of French black contingents. In 1926 he became Gauleiter of Berlin, a political role in the NSDAP, then still a minority movement in Germany. Two years later, he became one of the first National Socialist deputies to officially sit in the Reichstag. In April 1930, Hitler designated him the party's 'propaganda leader'.

Goebbels played an important role in the 1932 election, largely contributing to Hitler's victory. On March 13, 1933, he was appointed the Reich Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichsminister für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda) by Marshal Hindenburg. The birth of the Reich Chamber of Culture between September and November, gave him control over the entire artistic production of the country.

Goebbels's position on artistic creativity in Nazi Germany is more complex than that of his competitor Alfred Rosenberg: it was Goebbels who orchestrated and directed, in Berlin and in twenty-one other university cities, the autodafés of May 10, 1933, during which tens of thousands of books were burned. But at the same time, he continued to tolerate and support some expressionist artists, an aesthetic decried by Rosenberg's supporters. At least during his first years, he had tried to keep musical works stigmatised as "degenerate" in the repertoire. Hitler's intransigence toward artistic modernity often persuaded Goebbels to give up some personal tastes but this did not prevent him from hoarding, under the guise of confiscation, paintings of forbidden artists.

As an ultra-nationalist, Goebbels wanted to promote works highlighting German hegemony in artistic matters; that is, paradoxically, why he initially protected artists or conductors opposed to the application of anti-Semitic laws, even obscuring the Jewish origins of some talented composers or protecting their wives. In June 1938, when genealogical researchers linked to Rosenberg discovered in the baptismal records of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna that Johann Strauss had a Jewish grandfather, Goebbels noted:

Some senior know-it-all has discovered that Johann Strauss was one-eighth Jewish. I've forbid this to be made public. First it has not yet been proved; second, I do not care to allow the whole body of German culture to be gradually pushed aside. In the end, all that would remain of our history would be Widukind of Saxony, Henry the Lion and Rosenberg. And that's a mite too few.

A pragmatist, Goebbels perceived that the strict application of the völkisch ideology threatened a dangerous impoverishment of cultural life. In 1937, he was already writing about Rosenberg:

He is an obtuse theorist and ruins all work. If he had any say, there would be no more German theatre, only ritual, the Thing, myth and other smoky stuff.

But this apparent cultural openness was ultimately dictated by a strategic sense: it was a question of preserving the image of the regime, especially vis-à-vis German and even international public opinion and also especially for the Olympic Games of 1936.

Finally, as a strategist extremely attentive to public opinion, Goebbels very early realised the importance of radio in spreading the National Socialist ideology. He would be the source of many propaganda initiatives, including the creation of jazz and Nazi orchestras, including Charlie and His Orchestra, which recorded and broadcast songs from German airwaves abroad to British and American foes during the war.

Faithful to Hitler, who named him as his successor in his will, Goebbels poisoned his children and committed suicide with his wife in Hitler's bunker shortly after Hitler's suicide.

Élise Petit

Sources

Fraenkel, Heinrich, Manvell, Roger, Dr. Goebbels. His Life and Death, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1960.

Goebbels, Joseph, Journal. 1933-1939, éd. Elke Fröhlich, Horst Möller and Pierre Ayçoberry, trad. fr. Denis-Armand Canal, Paris, Tallandier, 2007.

Petit, Élise, Musique et politique en Allemagne, du IIIe Reich à l’aube de la guerre froide, Paris, PUPS, 2018.

Petit, Élise, Giner, Bruno, “Entartete Musik”. Musiques interdites sous le IIIe Reich, Paris, Bleu Nuit, 2015.