[This is the second of two parts. Part I can be found here.]
Goebbels was an extraordinarily intelligent and even learned man who had earned a doctorate in literature and philosophy from the University of Heidelberg. Here is a description of Josef from Meissner’s biography of Magda:
Goebbels was one of those responsible for the gruesome final solution….His guilt is all the greater in that he did not himself accept the doctrines of anti-Semitism. Even during the war he would read to his family and friends from Naumann’s book In Borrowed Plumes, which he almost knew by heart. He openly admitted that he owed much to the encouragement and stimulation of Jewish literature and science. Nevertheless, a few years later he allowed his own writings in praise of Jewish authors to be burnt in public.
Everything I have ever read about Goebbels agrees about his profound and complete cynicism, his utter lack of belief in anything except the drive for power. He is quoted as having said, towards the end of his life, “We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals.” We can only conclude that Goebbels didn’t care all that much which one of the two it happened to be; it was the adjective “greatest” he was aiming for.
Goebbels was able to be charming when he wanted to. He charmed Magda long enough to marry her, and for some time afterwards. Magda was not the only one susceptible to his charms; he was an unrestrained womanizer, and conducted a string of affairs during their marriage. In fact, even before they were married, he had extracted Magda’s permission to stray. It’s a mark of how spellbound she was that she agreed to the deal he offered:
…he should have the right to indulge in extra-marital affairs, undertaking at the same time to love no one but her, always to return to his beloved wife and frankly admit to his misdemeanors. In his cunning way Joseph succeeded in convincing her that such behavior was necessary for a man of his virility now and again, and could not in any way impair his close relationship with his wife.
Nevertheless—quite unsurprisingly—it did impair that relationship, especially as time passed, and as he had some actual love affairs in addition to his more casual liasons. Magda slowly came to realize the depth of the horrors (not just the infidelity) of the man she had married and the regime she had supported—that is, if we are to believe biographer Meissner’s chief informant, Magda’s best friend from early adulthood till the day she died, Ello Quandt.
Ello claims that Magda had confided that Goebbels was telling her details of many horrific and gruesome acts, both personal and state. The suspicion is that Magda was referring to having heard some of the specifics of the Holocaust. By the time the war was drawing to a close, she clearly knew that Germany had been defeated.
Ello quotes her as making the following extraordinary statements as time was running out on the Reich. The two are discussing the fact that the Russians will be coming soon; Magda has just stated that she and Goebbels intend to commit suicide and to kill their six children rather than to have them fall into Russian hands:
We have demanded monstrous things from the German people, treated other nations with pitiless cruelty. For this the victors will exact their full revenge…we can’t let them think we are cowards. Everybody else has the right to live. We haven’t got this right—we have forfeited it.
Ello protests, saying that Magda herself has been guilty of nothing. Magda’s reply:
I make myself responsible. I belonged. I believed in Hitler and for long enough in Joseph Goebbels…Suppose I remain alive, I should immediately be arrested and interrogated about Joseph. If I tell the truth I must reveal what sort of man he was—must describe all that happened behind the scenes. Then any respectable person would turn from me in disgust…
It would be equally impossible to do the opposite—that is to defend what he has done, to justify him to his enemies, to speak up for him out of true conviction…That would go against my conscience. So you see, Ello, it would be quite impossible for me to go on living.
When asked about the reason the children had to die, too, Magda is reported to have answered:
We will take them with us, they are too good, too lovely for the world which lies ahead. In the days to come Joseph will be regarded as one of the greatest criminals that Germany has ever produced. His children would hear that said daily, people would torment them, despise and humiliate them….You know how I told you at the time quite frankly what the Fuhrer said in the Cafe Anast in Munich when he saw the little Jewish boy, you remember? That he would like to squash him flat like a a bug on the wall…I couldn’t believe it and thought it was just provocative talk. But he really did it later. It was all so unspeakably gruesome…
There is much evidence that the Goebbels children could have been saved and sent to a safe place. And, in fact, Magda was the only Nazi wife (other than the newlywed Eva Braun) to die in the bunker with her husband, and the Goebbels children were the only children so murdered by their parents. There is very little question that this was a choice of Magda’s, an act of monstrosity that seems to have come, strangely enough, at least partly from her sense of guilt.
It also appears to have stemmed from her little-known but lifelong faith in—of all things—Buddhism. This faith had been introduced to her during World War I by her biological father. She was a firm believer in reincarnation, and was convinced that her children, if killed while still innocent and pure, would go on to better lives.
Despite having read so much about Magda, I still can’t say that I understand her, although I think I can see how she ended up—step by step—taking a twisted and terrible road from innocent convent student to Nazi to loving mother to murderer. That journey led into her very own heart of darkness. The fact that she fell under the influence of another does not absolve her of guilt–and it appears that, in the end, she herself understood that.
Magda was apparently unable to distinguish her children’s fate from her own, or to psychologically separate from them enough to give them a chance to live. Her own pathology, at least prior to meeting Goebbels, was of a mild variety. But her blankness and weakness made her fatally susceptible to his much greater pathology, and strangely unable to judge the cause he served. In the end, even her Buddhist religious beliefs only served to lead her down the nightmarish path to this horrific act.
It can be difficult, from the perspective of years, to understand the draw of men such as Goebbels and Hitler. To us, they seem mad; their speeches so much barking and raving. But for too many Germans they wove a spell which didn’t seem diabolical at the time, although it undoubtedly was, and should have been clearly seen as such.
In a way, what happened to Magda happened to the German nation as a whole. World War II and the Third Reich are subjects of endless fascination and commentary, but we are far from understanding them. Perhaps the most profound and appropriate thing we can say, in the words of Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is this: The horror! The horror!
[ADDENDUM: Last March, Ed Driscoll wrote this review of the movie “Downfall,” and described its portrayal of Magda and the final bunker scenes.]