January 20th, 2006

Magda Goebbels: heart of darkness (Part II)

[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.]

38 Responses to “Magda Goebbels: heart of darkness (Part II)”

  1. tschilla Says:

    Callimachus:

    “Goebbels was never truly a fascist: he always remained a socialist at heart (worth remembering that the second element in “Nazi” was “Socialist”). The defining moment in his life was not meeting Hitler, but reading Lenin. “What a lamentable figure is the Duce, for example, in comparison to Stalin!” he wrote in 1945, and Franco was “a veritable turkey.”"

    Has it never come to your mind that Goebbels always, well, let us say “disliked” Musso? I think it was clear to all who knew him that he would gladly meet Stalin if he could get rid of a meeting with the “Duce”… And he wrote that in 1945 you say. By that time the Italian corps (needless to say, under the wise leadership of the great Mussolini…) had been smashed to the ground, whereas Stalin turned out to be one of the victors of the 2nd World War… Goebbels was an intelligent man, and had respect, sometimes even admiration, for those who deserved it. That doesn’t mean, however, that he loved and shared the views of all he respected or admired…

  2. tschilla Says:

    I very much enjoyed reading your writing about the topic, thank you for all the effort and time you’ve put into it!

    Although there is one thing I must correct: Harald was, in fact, Magda’s biological son. It is true, that she helped raise her first husband’s two sons from his first marriage, but they were born long before Harald and were called Hellmuth and Herbert. Harald was Günther Quandt’s third, and Magda’s first son, born on 1. Nov. 1921. The two got married in Feb. 1921, and at that time Günther’s first wife had already been dead for almost 3 years – this leaves no doubt about the fact that Harald couldn’t have been Magda’s stepson. You must have mixed it up with a sentence like “Harald Quandt, the stepson of Joseph Goebbels..”

    I’ve sent you an email some time ago concerning this little correction, but no reply have I received since then.

    Once again, thank you for going deeper into it than most would go (if at all) and not sticking to cliches. I also appreciate it when you say perhaps you (and we) will and/or may never truly understand her. Thank you!

  3. susanjane Says:

    Hello from the midwest. Last evening I viewed “Downfall” and wanted to know more about the Goebbels. Google search had your blog about the Goebbels on the first page. I appreciate your in depth, easy to read, undertaking to vent your feelings. There were so many comments, that I need to move on.
    susanjane
    river forest, il.

  4. GregoryM Says:

    An important point to remember is that Goebbels was not perse responsible for the Final Solution or were any of the others big Nazis. To say so is to take a very freshman approach to a very complex historical situation. To say that these people were sinister is only to give in to a low fascination and attribute to them a power that they did not possess.

  5. Callimachus Says:

    “Another very interesting fact left out of the essay was that the children apparently received no Nazi indoctrination, at least in the formal sense. Unlike most of the children in Germany, they never joined any of the Hitler Youth-type movements.”

    That I can readily believe. Goebbels was never truly a fascist: he always remained a socialist at heart (worth remembering that the second element in “Nazi” was “Socialist”). The defining moment in his life was not meeting Hitler, but reading Lenin. “What a lamentable figure is the Duce, for example, in comparison to Stalin!” he wrote in 1945, and Franco was “a veritable turkey.”

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    Callimachus: But other Nazis managed somehow to overcome their fear of Hitler’s accusations of “defeatism” to keep their families safe. The Goebbels’ did not.

    I thought these two posts of mine were already long enough, so I didn’t add the following: Magda had mentioned killing the children in a much earlier conversation with her friend Ello, in the context of a discussion about her husband’s multiple affairs. I think her motivation was a mixture of despair and shame (and perhaps even a Medea-like desire to punish him, who knows?) But it was not really about the Russians coming, at least not at that time. Later, yes, there was that rational overlay, but I am convinced that it could have been resisted and the children saved, if the motivation to do so had been there.

    Another very interesting fact left out of the essay was that the children apparently received no Nazi indoctrination, at least in the formal sense. Unlike most of the children in Germany, they never joined any of the Hitler Youth-type movements.

  7. Callimachus Says:

    First of all, great set of posts about a fascinating topic.

    But I’m afraid I come down on the side of the folks who think that, by 1945, the Goebbels’ decision to kill their children was an understandable one. Ever since the Russians crossed the East Prussian frontier, they unleashed a campaign of savage brutality on average Germans.

    Like the bombing of cities, it was an inhuman tactic the Nazis pioneered, wich then was revisited on the German people with redoubled fury.

    The first place the Red Army took in Germany proper was a little peasant farming village in East Prussia. A Wehrmacht outfit retook it a few days later and found not a living soul, but women crucified to barn doors and old men disemboweled and babies with their heads smashed.

    Goebbels knew all about this, and at first made hay of it as propaganda, till he saw the demoralizing effect it had on Berliners.

    The Red Army’s use of rape as a collective punishment tactic was well known via the testominy of refugees long before the Russians reached the Oder. German women began to carry suicide capsules with them when the front lines approached.

    In that light, I can understand the reaction of parents who know their children will be recognized as the very embodiment of this hated Nazi regime.

    Escape to the west (Sweden probably was a better choice than Switzerland) may have been possible, in theory, but it was Goebbels who had urged Hitler to stand in Berlin and win glory or die.

    The Nazis repeatedly refused to take any steps to spare average Germans from the devastation of war, which instead Goebbels (always the most socialistic of the big Nazis) celebrated as a destruction of the “bourgeois” culture of the 19th century. To have sent one’s family to safety, even in the face of the Russian juggernaut, was to embrace defeatism, and Hitler never would countenance that. Goebbels was with him to the end, in that stinking underground bunker, reading Carlyle’s multi-volume “Life of Frederick the Great” and casting astrology charts while the aretillery thundered outside.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    armchair pessimist: I thought so, too, for a while.

    But there’s one flaw in that line of reasoning: there were many opportunities for her to have sent them totally out of harm’s way, for example, into Switzerland. Many informants are quite clear on that matter. And it was even possible until not too long before the end.

    That’s why I mentioned that this sort of murder by parents did not happen to the children of any other Third Reich principles, as far as I know.

  9. armchair pessimist Says:

    I’d say she did it out of very rational and well-founded fears of what would happen to them if they fell into the hands of the Red Army.
    Anybody who has ever had a beloved pet put down has made a similar calculation.
    We will never know whether some of those who jumped from the top floors of the Trade Center Towers actually got a merciful push.
    When all options suck, you do the best you can.
    God must judge; I can’t.

  10. Ymarsakar Says:

    Oh Goody, it is time to get out the one sentence hits.

    I wonder if Anon is suggesting that Bush is good at propaganda, or that Hitler surpasses him in propaganda.

    Certain people would like to know, for sure, whether the enemies of Bush want him to be incompetent or competent.

    There’s nothing wrong with propaganda, the tactic of the Left is to accuse us of propaganda so that we leave the Left alone to propagandize.

    It’s a first strike policy, such as accussing only the Republicans of corruption to cover up your own, or to accuse others of lying to cover up your own, or to accuse Liby of leaking intel when Berger and NSA leaks occur constantly, and etc.

    Keep fighting the good fight, don’t give in to such obvious tactics.

    This
    is our version of the Armed Propaganda teams, except we have more resources than a CIA backed guerrila force could ever dream of acquiring.

    If I was Osama Bin Laden, I would be touting my successes as well, while making sure not to mention that Iraqis are willing to die by the side of their American brothers and sisters, while not mentioning at all Fusion between Iraqi Will and American Logistics.

    Such is the power of armed propaganda teams.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    If a nation IS attacked, then pacifists do expose their country to danger and are unpatriotic.

    Unless the solution to the stresses of globalization isn’t war.

    If the attack on them was just, then the pacifism and lack of patriotism are good acts. If the attack was unjust, then they are evil acts.

    Praise the Lord!

    I’m a neocon, incapable of thinking about anything except what I’m told.

    Beats being evil.

  12. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    anonymous

    It’s not true, it’s false propaganda. Well, that just overwhelms my argument, doesn’t it?

    …people who aren’t dogmatic. Too easy. Any newbies out there want to have a try at the refutation of that?

    …only in the propaganda… which leaves my point still unanswered, but you did get to throw in another name-calling.

    Do you ever wonder… Of course not. I’m a neocon, incapable of thinking about anything except what I’m told. If I think that democracy might be a solution, it can only be because Bush told me so.

    Have the last word.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    fyi

    “In ‘Rogue State’ William Blum points out that the corporate mass-media and PR propaganda campaigns have done a superlative job of covering up, distracting from and just plain lying through their teeth about America’s ongoing crimes against humanity.”

    – from Amazon.com review

    “From 1945 to the end of the century, the United States attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments, and to crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements struggling against intolerable regimes. In the process, the US caused the end of life for several million people, and condemned many millions more to a life of agony and despair.”

    – from Rogue State : A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower

    “‘Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower’ had reached number 21 on the Amazon list by Sunday, leaping from below the 200,000 mark.”

    Osama ‘plug’ boosts anti-US book [BBC]

  14. Anonymous Says:

    You didn’t answer or discuss, merely sneered.

    Alright. My emphasis:

    anonymous’s argument using the Goering quote is that because evil men can send their people to war by using true arguments deceitfully, therefore only evil men send their people to war. It’s one of those things that looks comfortingly logical if you don’t think about it too hard.

    They’re false arguments, propaganda.

    We ordinary people are extreme in comparison to what, exactly?

    In comparison to people who aren’t dogmatic.

    I’m guessing that you meant there was some parallel between the ideas in Germany in 1938 and the ideas among some Americans in 2006.

    Only in the use of propaganda by an elite to bring about the deaths of thousands of ordinary folks.

    You oversimplify greatly if you think that the current WOT consists of combat only.

    You’re right on that one.

    As a direct assault on a billion Muslims is neither moral nor wise, then perhaps the idea of changing it from within by giving democracy a foothold in some Muslim areas is actually a temperate, measured strategy. Just a thought.

    Do you ever wonder if the issue isn’t democracy or freedom?

    The radical Islamists can get a crowd excited, and some are naming their sons Osama. Those anecdotes prove what point, exactly?

    It’s not a proof of anything.

    The documentary is really good, btw.

  15. David Says:

    One really worthwhile book for anyone who wants to understand what happened in Germany is “Diary of a Man in Despair,” a secret diary maintained by an anti-Nazi German. Another is “The Road Back” by Remarque, which allows us to enter into the mental world of the defeated soldiers returning from WWI. It is a truly great book, better IMO than his “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

  16. gatorbait Says:

    Neo, having read both of these posts, I got to thinking about a certain red headed sniper and his comments to the insufferably superior German relatives….

  17. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Anonymous 2:07 You claim you are not attempting to be condescending. Well, then, you are succeeding marvelously at it quite by accident. I suggest you do mean it, but don’t like to know this about yourself.

    You may have a number of valid points to make, but I won’t be bothering to read them. People who can only lecture and not discuss are not worth interacting with.

    And to my own anonymous 7:45

    1. You didn’t answer or discuss, merely sneered.

    2. You deign to demistify the rise of extremism for us. Making an allusion to nazis is an insinuation, not a logical argument. We ordinary people are extreme in comparison to what, exactly?

    3. Yes, of course none of us are smart enough to treat with you. It’s well known that people who approve in a general way of our current actions are unable to understand simple sentences. But just for fun, I’m guessing that you meant there was some parallel between the ideas in Germany in 1938 and the ideas among some Americans in 2006. Which I refuted, and you ignored, see comment 1.

    4. You oversimplify greatly if you think that the current WOT consists of combat only. That some of us would include military action as a possible component of an overall strategy may not meet with your approval, but it does have a considerable history in the interactions of nations. Some fairly intelligent and even wise people throughout history have thought it might be worth a try. Dig?

    5. As a direct assault on a billion Muslims is neither moral nor wise, then perhaps the idea of changing it from within by giving democracy a foothold in some Muslim areas is actually a temperate, measured strategy. Just a thought.

    6. The radical Islamists can get a crowd excited, and some are naming their sons Osama. Those anecdotes prove what point, exactly?

    I’m not sure you’ve scored a point yet, but come back if you want another try. Troll is my favorite after-dinner snack.

  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    To Neo.

    Charismatic leaders become Hitlers. Are the Democrats trying to make fun of Bush’s speech abilities by accusing him of being Hitler’s Heir? Enquiring minds want to know.

    Deception has a power all of its own. And it is this power, to shape and to manipulate human beings, that underlines WWII and the Germans. While it could not have happened without the end of WWI, without the leaders of the Nazis, it wouldn’t have happened either.

    The right place, at the right time, with the right people.

    I do not understand why you would think it a mystery, Neo. It is after all, simply an application of psychology combined with natural ability. albeit with a certain ruthlessness of will, and a mania of personality, combined with a genius of talent.

    People want a purpose in their lives, they want to feel good about themselves. And they will accept that mental sustenance, regardless of where it comes from. Several real world applications exist, one of which is Japanese loyalty. The other is, college campuses. And the final one, Iraq and afghanistan.

    Loyalty in human affairs go sideways and both ways. But sometimes you can hack it as Hitler did, and have it only go one way.

  19. Cathy Young Says:

    Thank you for a fascinating series of posts, neo!

  20. Anonymous Says:

    anonymous’s argument using the Goering quote is that because evil men can send their people to war by using true arguments deceitfully, therefore only evil men send their people to war. It’s one of those things that looks comfortingly logical if you don’t think about it too hard.

    If a nation IS attacked, then pacifists do expose their country to danger and are unpatriotic. If the attack on them was just, then the pacifism and lack of patriotism are good acts. If the attack was unjust, then they are evil acts.

    Nah, I pasted that quote to demystify the rise of extremism amongst ordinary people. Look around.

    I don’t imagine the quote-as-criticism makes sense to a reader who considers American foreign policy to be Good and the war on terror to be Just. I consider the former opportunistic and the latter unrealistic.

    Radical Islam isn’t a regime you can defeat with a war, nor is it a dimension of muslim culture you can isolate and excise.

    Did you know a new crop of four-year-old boys named “Osama” has sprung up in the middle east? Check out the documentary, In The Name Of God: Scenes From The Extreme [torrent link]. Description:

    “What inspires an individual to die in the name of God? Through exclusive interviews in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, a veteran filmmaker explores this frightening phenomenon in an attempt to understand how these acts can stem from a religion of compassion and mercy.”

    The scene with the 20,000+ men yelling “death to America” in unison is a tad disconcerting. It ought to make any contributor to this forum think twice about the feasibility of a military solution to this 21st century problem.

  21. anonymous Says:

    neo
    Am so far behind on book that your very reasonable “assignment” is beyond my schedule now, but here’s conclusion from one of the finest books on generaltopic, “Hitler The Fuehrer and the People,” by J.P. Stern:
    “…he (Hitler) knew the truth about himself – the truth that not conquest but indiscriminate annihilation was his aim. This, rather than any heroic self-assertion or the prospect of material gain, emerges as the secret that bound his followers to him; and not his followers only. On this dark understanding his whole career is based.’
    Now, how did so many Germans (and quite a few non-Germans) get bound together in this “dark understanding?’
    Nietzsche (and to some extent Freud) knew better than most. Fritz Stern’s account of German culture explains much. An honest and thoughtful person in Sarajevo could tell. The blood in the soil of Europe offers testimony. The conversations between Naphta and Settimbrini in Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain” offer a glimpse.
    Many glimpses, in high culture and among the “low lives,” put many–not all- the pieces of the puzzle together.

  22. neo-neocon Says:

    anon 2:07: As I said, I’ve read a lot, including attempts to explain how the “regular, ordinary” Germans felt. Some things are understood, but at the heart of the whole thing there remains a mystery, IMHO.

    However, I’d be very interested to hear your point of view. Could you write a small summary of what you think explains the phenomenon of Nazi Germany, as gleaned from the sources you mention?

    I guess in my case I’m not just interested in the usual economic and post WWI explanations–although they are important, and do shed light on the matter–but how the very obvious and horrific evil at the core of the thing was not recognized by so many. That, to me, is the central mystery.

  23. anonymous Says:

    neo

    Not trying to be condescending, but we learn more about your approach to “understanding” Nazism from your choice of Magda Goebbels and then citing the Sereny book on Speer than about the origins and rise of Hitler and his henchmen. I suggest getting into the “trenches” of Germany from pre-WWI Vienna and Berlin to the “Ordinary Men” of Robert Browning’s book, to the tenements and beer halls of Munich and farms in Silesia, the schoolrooms of Ulm and Bremen (all in chronicles, letters, histories) for a broader understanding. Got to combine the “psycho” with the “history” to produce good psycho-history.
    This topic demands no less.

  24. neo-neocon Says:

    anon at 11:58 AM: How strangely condescending of you to think this might be all I’ve read about Nazi Germany.

    Actually, I’ve read a great deal about it–including, just as an example from among the scores, this one, which I recommend.

    I reiterate that our understanding is extremely incomplete, and probably always will be. At the bottom is a mystery of the human mind, heart, and spirit that we probably can never quite understand, however hard we try and however many books are written–in English, German, or any other language. That’s what the last sentence of my essay refers to.

  25. Van der Leun Says:

    “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.”

    The mechanism of arriving at evil in our present civilization seems always to be that it is done by steps, by inches, that in the end cover an unfathomable distance.

  26. David Thomson Says:

    “Hitler’s secretary, OTOH, was a young and wilfully ignorant hanger on who only acknowledged this the year before her death.”

    Hitler’s secretary was almost certainly chosen for her child like qualities. The Fuhrer probably did not want a hard core true believer as his personal assistant. Such people are exhausting on a day to day basis. Hitler and the other monsters of history often seem to prefer keeping their true believers at arms length.

  27. anonymous Says:

    neo–good intentions, but so little history. We are much closer to understanding how and why Germany turned into the Third Reich than exclaiming “the horror, the horror.” But to understand more, more is required than one biography. Knowledge of German will be helpful, so you could read “Die Kinder des Reichsministers,” by Petra Fohrmann. (About the Goebbels family, esp. the children.)
    But you need to start earlier, possibly with the (now translated) history of young Hitler in Vienna, with Fritz Stern on the course of German cultural despair and nihilism, and on and on.
    Come back in a year or two and find out if you’ll still make the same of Magda’s life and her link to Germany’s path in the first half of the 20th century as you do now.

  28. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Neo, you simply have great visitors at your salon.

    CS Lewis
    “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

    gcotharn said
    “Maybe what we truly regret is our willful refusal to perceive what we know to be true.”
    Yes, and some Christian theologians would tell you that this is close to the heart of the Unforgiveable Sin, or the sin against the Holy Spirit. What we know to be wrong but will not admit becomes a sin we can never confess. Eventually, the heart becomes calloused, and the wrong is no longer perceived. It is seldom a dramatic renunciation of the good, but is instead a systematic rejection.

    patca said
    “I think we discount the chaotic aftermath left to Europe after the relentless and futile bloodletting of WWI;”
    In chaos after trauma, amorality prevails. We underestimated, for example, how deeply the Iraqi people had been traumatised, and how this would give a certain random and unreasonable quality to their responses. So would we all. It may become more difficult to choose the good, but it is not impossible.

    anonymous’s argument using the Goering quote is that because evil men can send their people to war by using true arguments deceitfully, therefore only evil men send their people to war. It’s one of those things that looks comfortingly logical if you don’t think about it too hard.

    If a nation IS attacked, then pacifists do expose their country to danger and are unpatriotic. If the attack on them was just, then the pacifism and lack of patriotism are good acts. If the attack was unjust, then they are evil acts.

    You can push someone out of the path of a moving car or into its path. It’s not all just shoving people in the street. Compare anon’s moral equivalence with gcotharn’s comment I quote above.

  29. PatCA Says:

    I guess this is the tired old Bushitler comparison, Anon. However, the Jews did not bomb Germany or Europe several times over a 30-year period, nor did their leaders state publicly over and over that they wished to destroy us, so the analogy does not fit, except in some sophomore’s addled brain.

  30. vieome Says:

    I am out of time but I really enjoyed your blog so far and will
    be back again… The truth about anything comes down to what you believe…

  31. Anonymous Says:

    “Why, of course, the people don’t want war. . . . Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship . . . voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
    – Hermann Goering, 1938

  32. colagirl Says:

    Thanks for the explanation, neo-neocon! (And I can’t wait for your next change post.)

  33. PatCA Says:

    This is an excellent post and subject, especially as storm clouds grow over the ME.

    The movie Downfall portrayed Magda as a true believer who was going down with her fuhrer–too simple a portrait, this biographer would claim. Hitler’s secretary, OTOH, was a young and wilfully ignorant hanger on who only acknowledged this the year before her death.

    I think we discount the chaotic aftermath left to Europe after the relentless and futile bloodletting of WWI; left to draw on only its own wounded psychic arsenal of recovery, Europe soon collapsed in madness once again with Hitler. Women like Magda and Hitler’s secretary were exemplars of the time. Their complicity, however neurotic, allowed it to happen.

  34. neo-neocon Says:

    colagirl: Meissner doesn’t discuss Speer per se. But the picture he does present (based on a good deal on the testimony of Magda’s best friend, Ello) is of a person who was indeed weak and ill towards the end. I have no trouble believing she was very distraught at the prospect of murdering her children.

    So, all of that jibes with what Speer reports. What he perhaps had no way of knowing was that all the evidence also points to the fact that she was fully behind the decision to kill the children, for the reasons I’ve discussed in my essay.

    By the way, the son, Harald, was her stepson from her first marriage, not her biological son. Since I’ve taken the Meissner biography back to the library, I’m doing this from memory. But my recollection is that she was married very young to an older man, Quandt, a widower with two young children whom she helped raise and was very close to; Harald was one of them.

    And, by the way, her friend Ello was a friend from those days. If I recall correctly, Ello was a young woman also, married to Quandt’s brother. I think she also ended up divorcing her husband, as Magda did with Quandt. But the two women remained close friends for life.

  35. colagirl Says:

    Interesting post, neo-neocon! The impression I always had of Magda’s final days, based on Albert Speer’s report on his final visit to the bunker in Inside the Third Reich,, was that Magda experienced tremendous distress at the thought of her children dying but was essentially too weak (mentally and perhaps physically) to take action to save them….p. 608:

    An SS doctor informed me that Frau Goebbels was in bed, very weak and suffering from heart attacks….She was pale, and spoke only trivialities in a low voice, but I could sense that she was in deep agony over the irrevocably approaching hour in which her children must die. Since [Herr] Goebbels remained persistently at my side, our conversation was limited to the state of her health. Only as I was on the point of leaving did she hint at what she was really feeling: “How happy I am that at least Harald (her son by her first marriage) is still alive.”

    I always thought Speer’s depiction was of a woman who did *not* want her children to die, but was simply not a strong enough character to take action to save them (which, as you rightly pointed out, certainly does not absolve her of guilt–if anything, it might make her more contemptible: a mother who is too spineless to save her children?).

    Earlier, Speer relates another story that helped to form my image of Magda, in which during one of Herr Goebbels’ affairs, Magda herself threatened to leave him and took another lover whom she intended to be with, but essentially folded when threatened by her husband (p. 209):

    Frau Goebbels looked very drawn. She spoke quite candidly with me: “It was frightful, the way my husband threatened me I was just beginning to recuperate at Gastein when he turned up at the hotel. For three days he argued with me incessantly until I could no longer stand it. He used the children to blackmail me; he threatened to take them away from me. What could I do? The reconciliation is only for show. Albert, it’s terrible! I’ve had to swear never to meet Karl privately again. I’m so unhappy, but I have no choice.” …. Frau Goebbels cried silently throughout the performance [of Tristan and Isolde]. During the intermission, she sat, bowed and sobbing uncontrollably in a corner of the salon, while Hitler and [Herr] Goebbels…both strenuously pretending to be unaware of the embarrasing episode.”

    I’ve heard people assert that Magda deliberately planned to kill her children, but it just didn’t seem to jibe with the way Speer had written of her in Inside the Third Reich. To be sure, Speer doesn’t talk very much about her, but I was just wondering: does Meissner discuss Speer’s depiction of her at all?

    Thanks for this interesting post on a fascinating and chilling figure!

  36. gcotharn Says:

    I find myself considering Magda in light of your Road Not Taken/Milan Kundera post. Not only is it difficult to correctly perceive events as they happen, but one also never knows what is coming next. Both Frost and Kundera’s protagonists were forced to choose blindly, and to walk into the unknown.

    Was Magda’s choice really any different? We can say her choice was immoral; and yet, in light of her Buddhist beliefs, her choice likely appeared to be the most moral and humane option available – like putting down animals to spare them agonizing pain.

    The Frost/Kundera post has had me thinking about regret for a week and a half. It is surely proper to regret unfairly hurting or damaging another, and it is surely proper to make amends. And yet, is there ever truly a reason to berate ourselves for the actions we take? In the moment of taking action, doesn’t it always look to us like the most logical action to take – based on what we perceive at that moment? After-the-fact perspectives are invalid, as future understandings were not present at the moment of decision.

    Maybe what we truly regret is our willful refusal to perceive what we know to be true. When I stay up late into the night, I am willfully denying what I know to be true: the lack of rest harms the quality of my life, and decreases my odds of living a lengthy life, because fatigue decreases the odds of my making optimal food and exercise choices the next day.

    Which may have little to do with Magda’s final decision to murder he children, but does have to do with her decisions to willfully ignore what she knew to be true about the Nazis.

    As an aside, I wonder how any prospect of her children’s adult scorn for her might have played into Magda’s decision? Such a prospect might have made it easier to tightly embrace faith in reincarnation. Guess we’ll never know.

  37. mizpants Says:

    A fascinating, chilling story. Magda’s “weakness and blankness” were abetted by her Buddhist ethic of self-abnegation, and that has a sinister familiarity these days. We’re learning, or at least some of us are learning, that radical self-abnegation actually undercuts morality. Maybe I’m seeing it too schematically, but Magda’s life and death (and her childrens’) can almost be seen as dramatizing, on a small scale, the suicide of the West that we’ve been reading about.

  38. Karl Kuhn Says:

    Darf man MAGDA GOEBBELS verachten,
    verurteilen und kriminalisieren ?
    NEIN !

    Darf man MAGDA GOEBBELS bewundern ?
    Ich bin der festen Meinung: JA !
    Man kann und sollte sie bewundern:
    als deutsche Frau, als Mensch – und als besorgte, liebevolle Mutter !

    Magda Goebbels hat in allem nur das Beste gewollt.
    Daran glaube ich und danach handle ich, indem ich diese tapfere deutsche Frau in Schutz nehme und für sie einstehe !

    Frage: was hätten die Russen mit den unschuldigen Kindern getan ?
    Wer die russischen Greuel von Nemmersdorf und Gumbinnen kennt, weiß die Antwort !
    Und dann in Berlin ! Zehntausende von Mädchen und Frauen, von 8-80 Jahren, wurden viehisch vergewaltigt…oder ermordet.

    Stellen wir uns die Frage, was mit den Kindern von Magda und Joseph Goebbels geschehen wäre, so ist die “Auswahl” vielfältig.
    Hätte man die unschuldigen Kinder in Moskau ausgestellt und der Moskauer Bevölkerung wie Tiere vorgeführt ?
    Hätte man die Mädchen vergewaltigt oder auf sonstige Weise mißbraucht ?
    Hätte man sie einem gewaltigen “Umerziehungsprogramm” unterworfen ?
    Wir wissen es nicht.

    Aber ich glaube, die unschuldigen Goebbels-Kinder hätten keine gute, anständige und kindgerechte Zukunft gehabt !
    Ihr Tod war eine Erlösung.
    Es war der bessere Weg.

    Viele Grüße

    Karl Kuhn

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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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