Goebbels, by Peter Longerich ****

goebbelsLongerich has established himself as a scholar who specializes in writing about the Nazi thugs who surrounded and supported Hitler’s regime in the 1930’s and 40’s. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the ARC.

The fact is, despite my strong preference for meaty, well-documented, detailed historical works including biographies, I really struggled with this one. At first I thought it was my own fault for asking for 992 pages (about a third of which is documentation) about such a rotten guy, but that isn’t the reason I kept setting it aside. I devoured John Dean’s recent tome on Nixon, who while not actually a fascist was a really dirty guy, and that was really interesting reading. This colossal volume on Goebbels, on the other hand, is dry, dry, dry.

Longerich’s thesis, if such a large work can be boiled down to its essence, is that while Goebbels was a villain and a sociopath, he wasn’t nearly as important a player in Hitler’s regime as he considered himself to be. He was emotionally dependent on Hitler and the reverse was also true, but his scope and authority were not as great as many people may believe. Longerich makes his case thoroughly and carefully, using Goebbels’s own journal entries and other primary documents, often citing works in the German language to back his assertions. And maybe that is where part of my ambivalence lies, because what he sets out to prove, isn’t what I wanted to know. I wanted to know—just as we always do when something really calamitous occurs or a really monstrous person draws the public eye—what the hell happened to make someone participate in, and even initiate, the things that Goebbels did. I don’t care about his love life, and would just as soon see a good portion of the first 200 pages edited, since the interesting part of his story is later in his life, once the fascists assume power. However, Longerich has written about at least one other top Nazi, and he followed the same basic format, relying on the man’s early life to demonstrate the formation of his character, and he’s had success and acclaim by doing so, and perhaps that isn’t entirely the reason I found this work to be so unexpectedly dull.

For those who are pursuing research projects that involve Nazi top officers, Goebbels is bound to be a valuable resource. For general audiences it might have been more interesting to see him from multiple perspectives. We see Goebbels through his own eyes, and we see what Longerich has discovered to be fact in terms of the authority he was given and the positions he held. I wonder, what about what others who worked with him thought about him? What about how the German public perceived him? I think it might have livened up the text to include more vantage points.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the most thorough biography of Goebbels that is widely available and written in English. For scholars seeking information for purposes of research, I highly recommend it. For the audience that seeks an accessible and interesting history and biography that relates to the Holocaust and Nazi officers, I recommend Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolph Eichmann, by D. Lawrence-Young.

In short, Goebbels is more appropriate for a niche audience than as a general read.

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