[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:
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.