January 19th, 2006

Magda Goebbels: heart of darkness (Part I)

[This is the first of a two-part series. Part II will appear tomorrow.]

Every now and then I read about a person whose life seems so strangely compelling that I can’t help but write about it. In telling such a story, I’m trying (often vainly) to somehow make sense of the puzzle that particular life presents.

Such is the case with the astounding (and I mean that in many senses of the word) Magda Goebbels. I came across a photo of her recently while doing a quick bit of research on her abominable husband, Josef. The photo looked vaguely familiar; I’d seen it before, somewhere, but never paid much attention.

Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It’s a family group.

A lovely young mother sits with her brood of six beautiful children, her somewhat blank and vaguely sinister-appearing husband, and a grown stepson standing in the back row in uniform. The family photo conveys a sense of brittleness and sharp edges, and there is a hint of desperation in the mother’s smile. But the impeccably-dressed and well-groomed offspring resemble illustrations in a picture book of ideal children, a Dick and Jane reader come to life.

Here is the photo:

Bild 146-1978-086-03

The caption under it tells the reader that, in the final days of the defeated Reich, Magda was instrumental in poisoning all six of her small children before she and her husband committed suicide. A dreadful woman, a dreadful story.

But something about her face—as well as her fate—intrigued me. Something ambiguous and human and vulnerable, something that was not present in her husband’s barren eyes. And then, of course, there were those beautiful children, innocent pawns in a vicious and monstrous game.
-
Reading about Magda’s eventful life, I found that the truth—as it so often is—was actually stranger than any fiction. In fact, if it had been fiction, no one would have believed it.

There was nothing in Magda’s early life that presaged her end. Quite the contrary. (Most of the information in this post is taken from the Hans-Otto Meissner biography, and from this. That last link will take you to a website of the reprehensible David Irving, unfortunately. But it leads to an informative article from the Jerusalem Post that I can’t seem to find elsewhere online.)

Magda’s early life was characterized to an unusual degree by instability and change, making for a shaky and shifting identity. Her ill-matched biological parents briefly married, only to divorce. Her mother then married again, to a Jewish man named Max Friedlander, who became Magda’s stepfather, and whose openly Jewish surname she adopted. All three parents and Magda ended up moving to Belgium, where Magda lived from the ages of five to eighteen, the last eight years spent at a strict Catholic convent for her schooling, despite her Protestant mother and Jewish stepfather. By all accounts she was an extraordinarily beautiful and yet modest and intelligent girl who impressed all who met her.

The entire family, including her biological father, were expelled from Belgium at the beginning of World War I, when the country sent its German nationals away, and spent time in a refugee camp before returning to Germany. During this time, the Friedlanders became friendly with a Jewish family named Arlosoroff, and Magda later had a love affair with the son, Vitaly:

Vitaly became Victor in Germany and under the spell of Zionism emerged as Haim. He was a fiery and passionate orator — as at home with the poetry of Heine and the works of Goethe, as the socialist theories of Syrkin and Borochov. Magda sported a Magen David which he had given her and she attended meetings of Tikvat Zion. She was attracted to Arlosoroff because of his personality and sense of purpose rather than an independent commitment to Zion.

Arlosoroff emigrated to Israel in the 20s after the two had broken up, and became a well-known Zionist figure there. He was murdered mysteriously in 1933 on a Tel Aviv beach, only a few weeks after traveling back to Germany and communicating with Magda, who warned him to get out of the country. By this time, she had married and divorced a German businessman (converting to Protestantism for the purpose of the marriage), and then married Josef Goebbels, another fiery orator of a far different variety in a far different cause. Some speculate that Arlosoroff was killed at Goebbels’s behest.

How does a person go from being closely connected to, raised by, and even in love with, Jews, and wearing a Star of David around her neck; to marrying one of the architects of the Holocaust and becoming known as “The First Lady of the Third Reich?”

There is absolutely no evidence that Magda herself was an anti-Semite at any point in her life, or even an especially political person. She seems to have been drawn to political figures through a deep need to be allied with a powerful man with a cause. Any cause would do, it seems, as long as it was connected with such a man. The beliefs themselves were secondary at best.

In this latter quality, that of the ideas themselves being unimportant to her, Magda was—strangely enough—quite a bit like her final husband, Goebbels. Perhaps it’s part of what drew them together; who knows? In Magda this characteristic appeared as a sort of spacey ignorance and a need, through her own weakness, to follow a strong leader. In Goebbels, it seems to have been a purely sociopathic nihilism, compounded by enormous narcissist drives (the following is taken from the Meissner book):

As far as one could tell, Goebbels had no beliefs at all. People still living [the book was written in 1980], who were part of his immediate circle or his household, agree absolutely about this. To him all human existence was nothing but chaos. He considered himself one of the very few intellects capable of surveying it and mastering it.

In fact, it may be that Goebbels didn’t even particularly hate Jews, at least no more than he hated the entire human race. His interest was in power, self-promotion, and persuasion, and he was a rare genius at all three, willing to do literally anything to further those causes. A short and unattractive man with a crippled leg, he—like Hitler—was a mesmerizing speaker. All evidence is that, though Magda initially went to hear him on a lark, his speech had a life-transforming effect on her. Apolitical before, she joined the Nazi party. From the moment she heard Goebbels, she seemed to come under a kind of evil spell.

When I read this material, I suddenly saw her as resembling one of Charles Manson’s followers. A certain sort of weak, blank, and lost young woman of relative privilege, a searcher trying to fill a void in her life, can find herself transformed by coming under the influence of an unattractive, evil, and yet extremely powerful figure, as though a large gravitational object has trapped her in its orbit. Sadly, she can end up spiraling straight into its surface, crashing in death and destruction, and taking others with her. This, I believe, is what happened to Magda, who nevertheless still bears the responsibility for her own terrible trajectory.

[Part II]

20 Responses to “Magda Goebbels: heart of darkness (Part I)”

  1. Jamie Young Says:

    >>How appropriate do you think the film would be?

    I don’t know what you mean by ‘appropriate’, but there are no scenes depicting atrocities during the Holocaust, if that’s what you mean. Nor does the film glorify the Nazis.

    However, it is set during the Battle of Berlin and is therefore very harrowing. It’s not a film to watch for entertainment.

  2. Ymarsakar Says:

    I have a different perspective on True Believers than Eric Hoffer’s. And it is even more dangerous and deadly than the fanaticism definition.

    On the contrary Democracies produce even more true believers than totalitarianism has. The Democrats and the protection of free speech, allows the creation of ideologies, manifold in number, that holds many people in their thrall.

    It just happens that the most powerful of ideologies acquire the most followers in a democracy.

    Democracies focus on allowing people to believe what they want. Totalitarianism focuses on making people obey.

    So it is quite untrue that Democracies have zilch use for true believers.

  3. English Professor Says:

    Very interesting story–I too look forward to Part II. The comments also reminded me that I had intended to rent _Downfall_, so I should do that now.

    To those who have seen the film: family members of the person with whom I normally watch movies were killed in the Holocaust. That person didn’t know them, but does carry the weight of family history. How appropriate do you think the film would be?

  4. David Thomson Says:

    “David Thompson: by that token, Goebbels himself was a true unbeliever. He seems to have believed in only one thing, quite consistently: power.”

    It is my guess is that Hitler’s true believers never numbered over ten percent. Every totalitarian movement has its cynics who seek only power. The former, however, are the ones who will take care of the violence. They are less squeamish about torturing and murdering others. A Stalin, Mao, or Osama bin Ladin is powerless without the true believer segment of their respective organizations.

    Democracies have zilch use for the true believer mentality. These political entities are all about improving life in the here and now. True believers gravitate solely toward movements that are highly nihilistic.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    David Thompson: by that token, Goebbels himself was a true unbeliever. He seems to have believed in only one thing, quite consistently: power.

  6. David Thomson Says:

    “The beliefs themselves were secondary at best.”

    The true believer is “a guilt-ridden hitchhiker who thumbs a ride on every cause from Christianity to Communism. He’s a fanatic, needing a Stalin (or a Christ) to worship and die for.”

    —Eric Hoffer

    The True Believer

    “Corinna Harfouch’s performance as Magda Goebbels in the movie Downfall (2004, now on DVD) is one of the most compelling I’ve ever seen”

    I agree. It’s a superb movie.

  7. Jamie Young Says:

    Slightly off-topic:

    Corinna Harfouch’s performance as Magda Goebbels in the movie Downfall (2004, now on DVD) is one of the most compelling I’ve ever seen. It’s a subtitled film, but I recommend it without hestitation.

  8. Goesh Says:

    - magda’s compliance reminds me of the tacit endorsement of wives married to child molestors/abusers

  9. benning Says:

    paul: Do you think that could be a byproduct of all the pomp, ritual, and pageantry that the Nazis used?

    Surely it wasn’t the philosophy. Even at its height, the Soviet Union’s ruling Communists were but a tiny minority of its citizens.

    neo: I went through a phase where I read about WWII all the time. Magda was, and is, a minor character in the drama. But she was very important to Goebbels. Imagine the result had she realized – truly grasped – what a horror Nazism was and took the children and fled the country.

  10. Paul Says:

    The Third Reich still fascinates a lot of people regardless of one’s feeling towards the Nazis and their brutality.

  11. Judith Says:

    “How does a person go from being closely connected to, raised by, and even in love with, Jews, and wearing a Star of David around one’s neck; to marrying one of the architects of the Holocaust and becoming known as “The First Lady of the Third Reich?”

    Interestingly, Lord Haw Haw’s daughter went in exactly the opposite direction . . . .

  12. camojack Says:

    I think (and what do I know?) that she is a classic example of a “true believer”…only in an extremely warped cause. Hence, when it became clear that they had lost, she/they couldn’t bear to face the future, which wasn’t what they had envisioned…

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    Jamie Irons and assistant village idiot: actually, I’m in total agreement with you.

    When I wrote, “In telling such a story, I’m trying (often vainly) to somehow make sense of the puzzle that particular life presents,” I meant to convey the idea that the effort to understand is pretty much doomed to be unsuccessful. All we can really hope to accomplish is a partial understanding–through a glass, darkly. I think it’s worthwhile to try. But there is always a huge mystery at the core.

  14. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I echo Jamie Irons. I can understand a wide variety of evil from examining my own heart, but some things are simply opaque to me.

  15. Cappy Says:

    I have to hand it to you, you’ve got a stronger stomach for this stuff than I do. Putting up with crap from liberal relatives is enough for me!

  16. Megan Says:

    I can hardly wait to read Part II! Someone I know very little about is Magda Goebbels. WWII, and particularly Nazi Germany, is a fascinating period in this world’s history. I wish more people studied it…perhaps they would see eery connections that relate to today’s situation.

  17. Jamie Irons Says:

    Neo,

    Fascinating story, and very well written.

    Being in the same line of work as you, though, I have come (I think) to a slightly different take on our ability to understand, retrospectively, figures like Magda, because even in the much more ordinary cases I work with on a daily basis, I find an irreducible core, as it were, of mystery. The biographical facts never seem to me to provide enough material — and it may be that no source could conceivably provide enough material — to leave me feeling satisfied that I truly understand the person in question. That doesn’t mean I think the exercise is without value; far from it. Just learning the details of this life that you provide us is extraordinarily interesting. So I am eager to see Part II!

    Jamaie Irons

  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    Inconsistent with pacifism and their dislike of the military.

    The new mutation has left our hard power alone, thereby freeing it to be much more effective than it otherwise would be.

  19. Holmes Says:

    Maybe liberals are just lost souls looking for a strong voice, so they side with every authoritarian government that opposes the US.

  20. Ymarsakar Says:

    The power of the spoken word, can do much that many don’t notice.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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