Lurching from despair to hero-worship, the madness of Joseph Goebbels
If Cleopatra’s nose had been a half-inch longer, my father used to say, the whole history of the world would be different.
Or again, as a bitter old joke goes, if only somebody had liked Adolf Hitler’s youthful paintings…
But it is no joke to say: If only Joseph Paul Goebbels had not had polio at the age of five or six that left him with one foot deformed, a cripple for life… we might still have had a monster, but not quite the monster who as Nazi minister of propaganda conveyed via his evil-genius brain and puppet body the Brown Terror par excellence. Somebody who so revered his fuehrer––adored/deplored are more exact words––that after Hitler’s suicide in that bunker, the inventor of The Big Lie had his own six children poisoned by injection and shot wife Magda and himself to death.
Those who have mercifully forgotten most of what they once knew about Joseph Goebbels, or those too young to ever have viscerally known in their bellies the fear and loathing he was able to induce in much of the civilized world of his lifetime (1897-1945), might well spend 107 instructive and often chilling minutes at the Quad Cinema on 13th Street, where “The Goebbels Experiment,” a documentary by Germany’s 45-year-old Lutz Hachmeister, in collaboration with writer Michael Kloft, opens Friday, August 12, for at least a week.
There is a narration, spoken in English here by the actor Kenneth Branagh, all of it, word for word, from the boasting, bragging, scorning, self-pitying, insecure, super-secure seesawing diaries Goebbels kept from 1924 to the end in 1945, and behind those words of Goebbels himself, there is footage of the key events of the era and of the propaganda minister, and of his fuehrer, ranting and raving at their several microphones before one terrifyingly huge swastika-draped mass of the faithful, or another.
Watching Goebbels at his array of microphones, a tiny little doll with a too-large, skull-like, jug-eared, hollow-cheeked, sad-eyed head––a bloodhound’s eyes––one is immediately struck, first by the femininity of his upraised, wigwagging––nay, fluttering––left hand, and then by the throwback thought of how totally brilliant was Joel Grey’s physical and vocal embodiment of the Goebbels-like Master of Ceremonies in the original Broadway production and subsequent film of “Cabaret.”
Indeed, the actual Goebbels we see (or see anew) in this documentary is in face and figure something of a blend of Joel Grey and Hollywood’s other lean, bony master of the ominous, James Woods.
But James Woods is not Jewish, and Joel Grey is. More than anything else in the whole history of Nazism, if you’d met Joseph Goebbels anywhere out of that time and context, on the street, perhaps, or in a living room, or rooting away for his footballers high up in the Sportspalast, you would have taken him on sight to be a Jew. I would. A Jew like me.
And that is why I in my bones believe the entire murder of the six million souls had its hellfire origins in the selbst-hass, the self-hatred, of Dr. Joseph Goebbels and, yes, beyond that, the self-hatred of Adolf Hitler no less. A Jew who so irredeemably wishes he were not a Jew could kill once, or maybe six million times.
And something else. Go back to that wand-like left hand, in the first shot in this film of Goebbels raving on the podium. That hand, and also the right hand, in more than one moment farther along in this film, will, as Goebbels makes some furious point or another, flop up and down contrapuntally in the old, stock, satirical vaudeville limp-wristed bromide of “humorous” homophobia.
Yes, Goebbels and his Magda had six children. No, I have no evidence to suppose he’d ever crossed the line. But besides that business of the wrists, there is this: Back in the 1920s, when, in his diary he is going nowhere, is zigzagging between the despair of “My life lacks any meaning” and awestruck admiration of up-and-coming “tall, healthy, vigorous Hitler, I can accept this firebrand as my leader,” he suddenly refers to “rumors that I am homosexual––enough to make you weep.” Shortly thereafter he also talks of “confusion in the S.A.”
Some few years later, homosexuality among the S.A., the Storm Troopers, would enable Hitler to sanctify the bloody purging of old comrade Ernst Roehm—murdered in bed with a young man––and others in the 1934 Night of the Long Knives. But by then Goebbels was safely married to the Magda who was perfection herself––except for his strayings, and hers, and one lone cryptic 1938 diary entry: “Magda, so hard on me, and so cruel, I’ll never forgive her… I don’t want anybody to help me, anyway. It’s important to feel pain in life.” Multiply that against another comment, earlier: “The party come first, then Magda.”
In short, the man was a judgmental and emotional yo-yo.
Diary entry for the book burnings of 1933: “Huge crowds. Splendid summer weather.” The 1936 victory of Max Schmeling over Joe Louis––a thrilling night, listening to the radio, “I didn’t go to bed till 5.” No entry, at least here, for Louis’s 1938 disposal of Schmeling.
On Goering: “A morphine addict … maniac … megalomaniac,” though earlier he had admired him as the great man who was blitzing London. On Churchill: “A revolting fat beast”; but subsequently a man of “polemical intelligence… an adversary who demands respect… Not quite as stupid as Chamberlain was.”
On a visit to occupied Paris: “What a wonderful place!” On Prague: “I’m in love with it. It feels German.” On filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl: “There’s no way I can work with a lunatic like her,” from a man who prided himself on his film know-how.
And on Topic No. 1, August 20, 1941: “The fuehrer has told me I can deport Jews from Berlin. Seventy-eight thousand Jews! Getting rid of them is the only way to solve the problem completely.”
As clear a statement defining the final solution as any.
To the end, Goebbels is veering between enforced calm and strident raging. The hand, one hand or the other, there at the microphone, before all those increasingly granite-faced crowds, is still flip-flopping like a fish out of water. Berlin is burning.
“My wife and children will never leave here.”
And they did not. One foot is in the grave. A deformed foot. So is the other.