Goebbels and World War II Propaganda

By Mark Weber

Apart from Hitler himself, perhaps the most fascinating figure of Third Reich Germany is the regime's chief publicist and spokesman, Joseph Goebbels. He is widely portrayed as a master of lies and deceitful propaganda. But this familiar image, which is particularly entrenched in the United States, is itself a propaganda falsehood.

He was raised in a middle-class, Roman Catholic family in a medium-size city in the German Rhineland. He had a first-rate education, and was an outstanding student. At the age of 24, he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg. After an unsuccessful effort to find employment as a writer for major national daily papers, and a nine-month stint working at a bank in Cologne, he became an activist in the fledgling National Socialist Party.

In 1926, at the age of 29, Hitler appointed him party district leader, or Gauleiter, of Berlin. He lost no time taking firm control of the small and feuding Party organization in the nation's most important city, and infusing it with new dynamism. He quickly proved himself a quick-witted and sharp-tongued public speaker, and a courageous, skilled and creative organizer.

In early 1933, six weeks after Hitler became Chancellor, the 35-year-old Goebbels was named "Reich Minister for Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment." In this newly-created position, and then as President of the "Reich Culture Chamber" (Reichskulturkammer), he exercised wide control over Germany's newspapers, radio broadcasting, motion pictures, magazines and book publishing. More than anyone else, he set the parameters and tone of the nation's mass media and cultural life.

During the first years of the Second World War, 1939 to 1942, his job was relatively easy. With an almost unbroken string of German and Axis military victories, maintaining public morale was not difficult. His greatest challenge came during the final two years of the war, as Germany's armies suffered ever more terrible military reverses, and as her great cities were battered into ruins under a growing storm of murderous British-American bombing. It was during this period, as utter defeat loomed, that Goebbels most strikingly proved his skill as a master molder of public opinion. In spite of the drastically worsening situation -- both on the front lines and at home -- he largely succeeded in maintaining public morale, confidence in Hitler's leadership, and even hope.

One of the best profiles of this man is the biography by German historian Helmut Heiber. Although his portrayal is highly critical and generally unflattering, the author nonetheless acknowledges his subject's extraordinary talents and abilities. Goebbels, he notes, "was able, until the very last minute, to encourage and exploit a blind trust in Hitler and his genius. It is indeed one of the macabre phenomena of the Third Reich that even in their country's agony the mass of the German people remained docile and faithful to Hitler's banner ... In spite of everything they had experienced, they kept the faith."

After the great defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, Goebbels was the first official forthrightly to acknowledge the gravity of the peril that faced the nation and Europe, and frankly to concede that Germany could lose the war. His frankness and even courage during these increasingly difficult months won him a measure of popular admiration. Writes Heiber: "As other influential Nazis began to creep into their shells, Goebbels could dare to appear before a mob and not only gain a hearing, but even arouse faith and hope ..."

As the war dragged on, Goebbels' front-page editorial essays in the weekly paper Das Reich played an increasingly important role in sustaining public morale. They were widely reprinted and routinely read over the radio. "His articles in Das Reich were indeed excellent, brilliantly written, and full of bright ideas," Heiber writes. He goes on: "Goebbels' articles were carefully worked out more than a week before they were to appear, written in excellent, polished German, stylistically enjoyable and relatively discriminating in content; often they seemed illumined by the lofty wisdom of a great thinker. Their very titles were reminiscent of philosophical treatises: 'On the Meaning of War,' 'The Essential Nature of the Crisis,' 'On the Work of the Spirit,' 'On Speaking and Being Silent,' 'The Indispensability of Freedom,' 'About National Duty in War.' ... It is all very well turned and very solid. These articles made an impression, and Goebbels knew it."

During this period, he also directed German newspapers, magazines and newsreels to stress the themes of continental unity and a common European destiny, and the goal of building a peaceful and prosperous community of nations. (One notable exception to this was a kind of official silence regarding Poland and the Poles. And, of course, the German media was vehemently anti-Jewish.)

In keeping with the outlook of Germany's wartime leadership, Goebbels instructed the German press, radio and newsreels to portray other nations and ethnic groups tactfully, and with regard for the sovereignty and national character of other peoples. He stressed the importance of treating other nations and peoples with tact and respect.

This outlook was laid out in confidential guidelines to the German media In February 1943, Goebbels issued an internal directive in which he ordered:

"The entire propaganda work of the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) and the [German] National Socialist state must accordingly be organized to make clear, not just to the German nation, but also to the other European peoples, including the peoples in the occupied Eastern territories, and in the countries still under [Soviet] Bolshevik rule, that the victory of Adolf Hitler and of German arms is in their own most basic self interest.

"It is therefore inappropriate to hurt the feelings of inner self-worth of these peoples, directly or indirectly, especially those of the eastern nationalities, particularly in public speeches or writings ... Stalin and the Bolshevik system should be attacked as bestial, but not the peoples who have been subdued by them.

"Similarly inappropriate is any discussion of the future new order of Europe that might create the impression among people of foreign nationality that the German leadership intends to maintain any long-term relationship of subjugation .

"Completely out of place are any remarks suggesting that Germany might set up colonies in the East or carry out a colonial policy, or would treat the land or its inhabitants as objects of exploitation . ...

"Following their systematic destruction by the Bolsheviks [in accord with Stalin's 'scorched earth' order of July 1941], the occupied Eastern territories will be rebuilt under German leadership. With the riches of the soil, this will secure, for the long-term future, freedom in food and raw materials, as well as the social advancement for Germany and all of Europe, and,
thereby, also for the peoples living in the East."

A few weeks later, in mid-March 1943, Goebbels reinforced these "guiding principles" in a talk to foreign journalists about the "new Europe." He said:

"The severe measures that Germany has been forced by the war situation to introduce in the occupied Eastern territories are valid only for the duration of the war. The new Europe will be held together not by compulsion, but rather it will built on the basis of free will. There will be no dictatorship over the various nations of Europe. Individual national identity will not be extinguished ... No European country will be obliged to introduce any particular social-political system. If countries want to hold on to their traditional democracy, that's their own business."

One of the most emotionally moving and enduring chapters of the Second World War is the mass killing at Katyn and other places in April 1940 by Soviet secret police of some 14,000 Polish officers and Polish intellectuals, who had been captured and rounded up when eastern Poland was invaded and occupied by the Soviets half a year earlier. For decades this has been an especially painful subject for the Polish people, because this was the annihilation not merely of thousands of fellow Poles, but of a significant portion of the nation's intellectual, political and military leadership. (This grim story is movingly dramatized, for example, in the 2007 Polish feature film, titled Katyn.)

In April 1943 Germany announced to the world that a mass grave of murdered Poles had been discovered in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk, in occupied Russia. Goebbels saw to it that this sensational news was prominently highlighted in the German media. In accord with his instructions, newspapers and magazines devoted great attention to the story, giving it weeks of detailed, often front-page coverage.

In London, officials of the Polish government in exile took a keen interest in this discovery, because for several years Soviet officials had refused to provide any information to Polish authorities about the fate of the thousands of Polish officers that the Soviets had taken prisoner in 1939, and of whom all trace had been lost since the spring of 1940. Shortly after the German announcement, Polish officials in London asked the International Committee of the Red Cross in neutral Switzerland to investigate. The German authorities quickly agreed. This prompted the Soviet government to accuse the Poles of collusion with the Germans, and then to break relations with the Polish government in London.

Goebbels traced the unfolding of this story in his diary. In the entry of April 14, 1943, he noted: "We are now using the discovery of 12,000 Polish officers, murdered by the GPU [Soviet secret police], for anti-Bolshevik propaganda on a grand scale. We sent neutral journalists and Polish intellectuals to the spot where they were found ... I give instructions to make the widest possible use of this propaganda material." (In fact, the number of Poles killed was about 14,000, of whom some 4,500 were shot and buried at Katyn. Most were killed by the Soviets at two other sites.)

Three days later, he noted: "The Katyn incident is developing into a gigantic political affair which may have wide repercussions. We are exploiting it in every manner possible." In the dairy entry of April 27, he reports: "The Katyn incident has taken a really sensational turn through the fact that the Soviets have broken off diplomatic relations with the Poles, giving the attitude of the Polish government-in-exile [with regard to the Katyn matter] as the reason."

The next day, in the entry of April 28, Goebbels remarked with some pride: "The most important theme of all international discussion is naturally the break between Moscow and the Polish émigré government. All enemy broadcasts and newspapers agree that this break represents a one hundred percent victory for German propaganda and especially for me personally. The commentators marvel at the extraordinary cleverness with which we have been able to convert the Katyn incident into a highly political question ...One can speak of a complete triumph of German propaganda. Throughout this whole war we have seldom been able to register such a success."

And the next day, in the entry of April 29, Goebbels noted: "The Polish conflict still holds the center of the stage. Seldom since the beginning of the war has any affair stirred up so much public discussion as this. The Poles are given a brush-off by the English and the Americans as if they were enemies. It is admitted that I succeeded in driving a deep wedge into the enemy..."

The break in relations between the Soviet and Polish governments was major diplomatic and public relations setback for the Allied war effort. It made an embarrassing mockery of the goals proclaimed by the Allied leaders. It underscored the pretense and hypocrisy of the claims of the British, American and Soviet governments that they were fighting for freedom and democracy. In his skillful and energetic treatment of the Katyn massacre story, Goebbels contributed significantly to a major Allied political defeat -- and thereby scored what was perhaps his greatest single wartime propaganda achievement.

It's worth comparing how the Katyn massacre was dealt with in the German wartime media, which was under Goebbels' supervision, with how it was treated in the American media during this same period. Not only in Germany, but across Europe, the press and other media gave prominent and detailed attention to this story, and to the break in relations between the Polish and Soviet governments that it triggered.

In the United States, newspapers and magazines understandably gave much less attention to the Katyn affair, but they could not entirely ignore it, especially after it brought on an embarrassing break in the Allied coalition. The American media, acting in harmony with the views and interests of the US government and of America's most important military ally, the Soviet Union, basically treated the Katyn matter as a German propaganda lie.

The tone for how this was handled in the US media was set the Office of War Information, an official US government propaganda agency. Its director, Elmer Davis, spoke about Katyn in a radio broadcast on May 3, 1943, in which he dismissed the German reports on this as a great propaganda hoax.

American newspapers echoed this official view. Writing in The New York Times, foreign affairs commentator Anne O'Hare McCormick, explained to readers of that influential daily that there was no proof that the officers had even been killed. William L. Shirer, a prominent American journalist, who is perhaps best known for his best-selling but historically deceitful book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, dismissed the Berlin reports on Katyn as "German propaganda."

The United Press, a major US wire service news agency, dealt with the matter in a dispatch that appeared in many American newspapers. This UP item, which was typical of American press treatment of the matter, referred to what it called the "alleged" disappearance of the Polish officers which, it went on, "has been used by the Berlin radio for propaganda purposes. The Germans claim the men were killed."

Another prominent American daily paper explained that the German reports about Katyn had been "concocted with diabolical cunning." In the US capital, The Washington Post told readers that "the assumption of loyal members of the United Nations [that is, the alliance headed by the US, Britain and the Soviet Union] must be that they [the Poles] were killed by the Germans."

While Germany's wartime media was not always entirely accurate or fair, with regard to this very important chapter of World War II, Goebbels and the German media told the truth, while American officials and the US media told lies.

In addition to his work as the nation's chief spokesman and propagandist, Goebbels took on ever greater organizational and policy-making responsibilities during the war, playing an increasingly important role in keeping the nation's industrial and social machinery functioning.

In the summer of 1944 Hitler named him "Reich Plenipotentiary for the Total War Mobilization." Thus, during the final catastrophic months of the war, Goebbels -- along with Armaments Minister Albert Speer -- directed Germany's human and material resources for maximum war production, while simultaneously seeing to the continued operation of the nation's electric power and water plants, transportation and telephone systems, food and fuel supply networks, public schools, radio broadcasting and daily newspaper publishing.

This organizational feat of keeping essential social and community services functioning, while at the same time maintaining and even increasing armaments production -- in spite of devastating aerial bombardment and an ever worsening military situation -- is an achievement without historical parallel.

His final radio address to the nation, broadcast over what remained of a tattered network, was delivered on April 19, 1945, twelve days before his death. As he had done every year since 1933, he spoke on the eve of Hitler's birthday. Even on this occasion, when the terrible end was glaringly obvious to all, Goebbels spoke with eloquent, controlled passion. While frankly acknowledging the supreme gravity of the situation, he was still able to persuade and inspire.

Contrary to the propaganda image that many have come to accept, Goebbels was successful as a publicist and spokesman not because he was a master of the "Big Lie," but rather as a result of his regard for accuracy and truth.

In an important address given in September 1934 in Nuremberg, he said: "Propaganda can be pro or con. In neither case does it have to be negative. The only thing that is important is whether or not its words are true and genuine expressions of a people's values ... Good propaganda does not need to lie, indeed it may not lie. It has no reason to fear the truth. It is a mistake to believe that people cannot take the truth. They can. It is only a matter of presenting the truth to people in a way that they will be able to understand. A propaganda that lies proves that it has a bad cause. It cannot be successful in the long run."

In an article written in 1941, Goebbels cited examples of recklessly inaccurate British wartime claims, and went on to charge that British propagandists had adopted the "big lie" technique, which Hitler had condemned in his book Mein Kampf. Goebbels wrote: "The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous."

Summing up, historian Heiber writes: "Goebbels was accordingly able to celebrate his information policy as being not only superior to the enemy's in its monolithic character, but also of a 'seriousness and credibility' which 'simply cannot be surpassed.' The boast could be made with some justification: Seen in the long view, Goebbels preached, the best propaganda is that which does no more than serve the truth. Goebbels' real lies, his conscious lies, always pertained to mere detail ... Goebbels' lies were more in the nature of those equivocations and evasions by which government spokesmen everywhere seek to 'protect' the 'national interest'."

The postwar image of Goebbels as a master dissembler is itself a propaganda distortion, explains French scholar Jacques Ellul in his classic study, Propaganda. He writes:

"There remains the problem of Goebbels' reputation. He wore the title of Big Liar (bestowed by Anglo-Saxon propaganda) and yet he never stopped battling for propaganda to be as accurate as possible. He preferred being cynical and brutal to being caught in a lie. He used to say: 'Everybody must know what the situation is.' He was always the first to announce disastrous events or difficult situations, without hiding anything. The result was a general belief between 1939 and 1942 that German communiqués not only were more concise, clearer and less cluttered, but were more truthful than Allied communiqués ... and, furthermore, that the Germans published all the news two or three days before the Allies. All this is so true that pinning the title of Big Liar on Goebbels must be considered quite a propaganda success."

In a letter to his stepson written just days before his death, Goebbels expressed confidence that truth would ultimately prevail: "Do not let yourself be disconcerted by the worldwide clamor that will now begin. There will come a day, when all the lies will collapse under their own weight, and truth will again triumph."


This is an edited text of an address given by Mark Weber on April 23, 2011, at a meeting in southern California.

Sources / For Further Reading

Benjamin Colby, 'Twas a Famous Victory (Arlington House, 1975), esp. chap. 6.

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (New York: 1965, 1973)

Joseph Goebbels, "From Churchill's Factory of Lies," ("Aus Churchills Lügenfabrik"), January 1941. Reprinted in Zeit ohne Beispiel (1941)

Joseph Goebbels, The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943. Edited by Louis P. Lochner. (Doubleday & Co., 1948)

Joseph Goebbels, "Propaganda" (1934)

Helmut Heiber, Goebbels (New York: 1972, 1983)

David Irving, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich (St. Martin's Press. 1996)

Walter Lipgens, ed., Documents On The History of European Integration: Plans For European Union (De Gruyter, 1985, 1991), Vol. I , esp. pp. 118-119, 121-122.

Mark Weber, "Goebbels' Place in History," The Journal of Historical Review, 1995.