Goebbels – propaganda minister of the Third Reich – still fascinates. The diminutive genius behind the Nazi manipulation of the German masses, he is recognised as a key player in the establishment and maintenance of Hitler’s power. As such, he has already been the subject of a number of biographies; most recently by Ralf Georg Reuth from the early 1990s, so one has to ask whether we really need another study of the man.
Toby Thacker would argue that we do. Crucially, his new biography is the first to be written since the entire set of Goebbels’ diaries has been published. He was an enthusiastic diarist and wrote many volumes between 1923 and his demise in 1945. After the war, many of those diaries were considered lost, and only re-emerged from ex-Soviet archives in 1992. Now published in German, they encompass 30 volumes, the last of which appeared in 2006.
The picture that emerges from Thacker’s study conforms in many ways to the stereotype. It presents Goebbels as a powerhouse of a public speaker, with a sarcastic, razor-sharp wit, a man who, for all his intellect, seems occasionally to have had his brains in his scrotum. But there are important differences. Rather than a cynical opportunist eagerly leaping on the Nazi bandwagon, for instance, Thacker’s Goebbels is a man motivated by profoundly-held convictions – faith in Hitler, nationalism, anti-Semitism and his own brand of völkisch socialism.
Thacker’s reassessment is convincing and welcome. But though he tells us that Goebbels was generally reliable and candid in his diary – even recording his sexual liaisons in numerical code – it is hard for the reader to forget that his subject was one of the greatest dissemblers, manipulators and pedlars of lies in history. Seen in this light, Thacker’s reliance – arguably his over-reliance – on those diaries appears questionable.
Most importantly perhaps, Thacker’s subject never really comes to life. Goebbels was one of the most colourful and controversial of the senior Nazis; a genuine intellectual among a top echelon of cranks and imbeciles, he was also a depressive and a philanderer. He was a man who was loved and loathed by his contemporaries in equal measure and about whom commentators habitually resorted to adjectives such as ‘Mephistophelean’, ‘fanatical’, even ‘vile’. Yet, for all that, he comes across here as curiously two-dimensional, stripped almost of those traits and excesses that make him so fascinating.
The author is not helped by his rather pedestrian approach, in which even the highlights of the narrative – the ‘seizure of power’, or the ‘Total War’ speech, for instance – barely seem to merit any special emphasis or dramatic treatment. He has sought to be comprehensive, which is laudable, but he has done so at the expense of a more selective and imaginative assessment.
Thacker has produced a solid biography. Aside from occasional lapses, he writes well and his research and academic merit are undeniable. Importantly, he also offers the reader a number of important new contentions and insights. But, for all those positives, it is hard not to conclude that he would have benefited from a dash of his subject’s devilish imagination and diabolical flair.