Josef Goebbels (1897-1945) was the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933-1945. He was one of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle and one of his most devoted admirers. Goebbels’ virulent antisemitism led him to be a staunch supporter of the implementation of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” — the annihilation of the Jews.
Goebbels became a member of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (known by the abbreviated form – Nazi Party) in 1924, and quickly rose through its ranks to become one of its most prominent members. Shortly after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, Goebbels was appointed as Propaganda Minister. One of Goebbels’ first tasks was to organise the burning of ‘decadent’ books. These were all books which contradicted Nazi ideology and books written by Jewish authors. A massive book burning ‘ceremony’ was held by the German Students Union in Berlin by torchlight on the night of 10 May 1933, when some 25,000 volumes were burned. Goebbels was the main speaker at the event. Subsequent book burnings occurred in 34 university towns in Germany in May and June.
Under Goebbels’ direction, the Propaganda Ministry quickly seized control over the news, arts and information media in Nazi Germany. Goebbels was specifically responsible for making a number of antisemitic propaganda films including The Eternal Jew and Jud Süβ (the Jew, Süss). On 18 August 1940, after screening the final cut of the film Jud Süss, Goebbels wrote in his diary: “An antisemitic film of the kind we could only wish for. I am happy about it“.
Shamefully, Jud Süss was launched at the Venice Film Festival in September 1940 and received the “Golden Lion” award and rave reviews. Although the film’s budget of 2 million reichsmarks was considered high for films of that era, the box-office receipts of 6.5 million reichsmarks made it a financial success. By 1943 an estimated 20.3 million people had seen it. Jud Süss thus illustrates that art can serve a morally abhorrent, propagandistic purpose even (perhaps especially) if it is of a very high quality.
Jud Süss also demonstrates that the public expression of racial vilification in any form is not merely a harmless exercise of the right of free speech. On 30 September 1940 Reichsführer SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered all SS and Gestapo personnel to watch Jud Süss during the coming winter. It was shown to SS units and Einsatzgruppen (special action squads) just before they were sent to the east to carry out mass shootings of some 1.5 million Jewish civilians – men, women and children. Jud Süss was also shown to non-Jewish populations in areas from which their Jewish neighbours were about to be deported to the death camps
Goebbels’ antisemitic propaganda generally portrayed stereotypes of Jews as materialistic, immoral, cunning, untrustworthy and physically unattractive. Explicit in these films were warnings to German girls about the dangers of sexual relations with Jewish men. Such relations were considered to be Rassenschande (racial disgrace), dishonouring Aryan blood, and were a punishable offence. Goebbels was therefore more than a little disconcerted when Jud Süsselicited a flood of fan mail from German women to the actor who portrayed the principal Jewish character.
By mid-1943, the tide of the war was turning against the Axis powers; Goebbels refused to believe that defeat was imminent, and urged the German population to make greater sacrifices, embrace the idea of total war and mobilisation. He remained with Hitler in the Berlin bunker to the very end. Goebbels and his wife Magda, poisoned their six young children; he then shot his wife and committed suicide.