I really shouldn’t be writing about Nazis again. First of all, the last thing I want to do is attract neo-Nazis to my site and you wouldn’t believe the creepy searches I already get because of what I wrote earlier this year about the German movie “Downfall,” a dramatic film that depicts Hitler’s final days in the bunker. Second, the minute I include any photos of Hitler or his buds, I can just hear people clicking off my site in disgust. Third, I’m writing this from my usual weekend perch on La Brea Blvd. in the heart of the most ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Los Angeles. I feel guilty enough that the religious Jews passing me on their way to synagogue are witnessing my disregard for the Sabbath, but if they or one of their many children happen to see a swastika dancing across my computer screen, they might think that I am a bona fide anti-Semite looking for trouble.
Oh well, fears of Googling neo-Nazis and judgmental Chasids aside, I feel compelled to comment on the documentary I saw the night before last called “The Goebbels Experiment.” This is an absolutely riveting and revealing portrait of a Hitler’s maniacal minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, told exclusively through the journals he kept from the mid-1920s until his murder/suicide in Hitler’s bunker in 1945. Unlike the propaganda techniques he mastered for the benefit of the Third Reich, Goebbels’ own diaries expose all his warts, his rapidly changing moods, his alternating reveries and rants about his wife Magda and his mentor Adolf Hitler, his tempestuous affair with actress Lida Baarova, and his vicious hatred of the Jews including his fervent hope that every last one of them would be exterminated. Again, there’s not a single word of narration in the film, every comment comes straight from Goebbels own twisted brain, as read (quite effectively) in English by actor Kenneth Branagh. Accompanying his ravings are rare films from the German archives of Goebbels in action and unsettling home movies of the picture-perfect Goebbels family.
The diary entries provide an amazing glimpse into what made Goebbels tick, and it isn’t pretty. To start with, he had a botched operation on his foot when he was young that left him with a permanent brace and made him the subject of frequent ridicule. It also prevented him from fighting in World War I which was a big source of shame. (How many of the world’s most evil figures were gripped by shame in their youths?) Goebbels was always trying to reinvent himself and gain credibility and in 1921 he received a PhD from the University of Heidelberg. He was a frustrated writer and managed to publish a novel called “Michael” that didn’t exactly set the German literary scene on fire. Joining the fledgling Nazi party in 1924, Goebbels took an immediate liking to Hitler and pronounced him the most brilliant man he’d ever met (it’s taking all my self-control to not focus on Harriet Miers’ recent comments about Bush—I’ve already made several comparisons between Karl Rove and Joseph Goebbels and I really have to stop).
Here’s the scary thing, and if you haven’t clicked off my site yet, you may in a second: I could relate to many of Goebbels’ pre-war ravings. Not his vile politics, of course, or his fascination for the charismatic orator from Austria. But hearing him go from A to Z in a single diary entry, full of angst and despair one minute and rabid enthusiasm about his life the next, it reminded me of some of my own mood swings and questioning. It’s a good thing I didn’t have the perversion, hatred, or ideological zeal that Goebbels had or I might have gone to the Dark Side during the difficult periods in my life.
After several bouts with severe depression and a couple of failed romances, Joseph Goebbels met divorcee Magda Quandt and married her in 1931. His best man was none other than that romatic softy Adolf Hitler who apparently made a very moving toast to the loving couple (oy). You get the feeling that Magda (who grew up with a Jewish stepfather she refused to help during the war—he died in Buchenwald) was even more of a staunch Nazi supporter than her husband and it seems like she had a real thing for Hitler.
Magda had a son, Harald, from her first marriage, and she began popping out Aryan youth for her new husband in rapid succession. Their six tow-headed children were named Helga, Hilde, Helmut, Hedda, Holde, and Heide. Cute, huh? Were all the “H” names in honor of the kids’ godfather Hitler? The home movies of the family reminded me of the creepy films that Joan Crawford forced her adopted children to participate in (Crawford rivaled Goebbels in her ability to employ propaganda techniques to further her own career). The Goebbels children were always dressed in ridiculous frilly costumes and they looked impossibly blond and blue-eyed as they were paraded around in front of the camera. Apparently, like their contemporaries, the von Trapps of Salzburg, the Goebbels children were known to “spontaneously” break into song (after frequent rehearsals led by Magda) at official Nazi events and parties. They were the models of everything Hitler claimed was good and pure about Aryan youth. The poor kids never stood a chance.
I had never heard of Goebbels’ intense affair with actress Lida Baarova. The clips from several of Baarova’s popular films revealed one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, and an excellent actress. If only she had managed to hightail it out of Germany with Marlene Dietrich instead of falling into Goebbels’ clutches, I have no doubt that she would’ve been snapped up by MGM and we’d all know her name today. Instead, it sounds like her affair with Goebbels reached all sorts of hideous dysfunction and came to a head when the formidable Magda found out about it. Magda went straight to Big Daddy Adolf to complain about her husband’s philandering and found a very sympathetic ear. Adding to Hitler’s disgust was the fact that Baarova was Czech and thus an inferior race, not worthy of his Germanic friend. Goebbels longed to leave Magda during this time and emigrate to Japan with Lida but Hitler ordered him to end the affair at once. He was despondent at first and attempted suicide in October 1938, but he eventually did break it off. Some say to get back in Hitler’s good graces he orchestrated the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938 in which many Jews were killed and countless synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed.
Lida Baarova didn’t know it, but Magda Goebbels probably saved her life. Because of Magda’s intervention, Lida was forced to leave Germany and survived the war in Prague. Returning to Germany in 1945, Baarova was promptly arrested by the American military forces as a collaborator. She was imprisoned briefly in Munich, and then extradited back to Czechoslovakia. Unable to shake her reputation as Goebbels’ lover, she moved to Argentina where she lived in poverty. Lida attempted a movie comeback in the 1950s and moved back to Europe where she appeared in Fellini’s “I Vitelloni.” One of her last films was Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” She published her autobiography in 1995 in which she wrote “There's no doubt that Goebbels was an interesting character, a charming and intelligent man and a very good storyteller.” Lida Baarova died in Austria in 2000.
The documentary also reveals Goebbels’ love-hate relationship with Leni Riefenstahl, who, with Goebbels’ support, made some of the Nazis’ most successful propaganda films including her masterpieces “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” which she shot at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “Today I was treated to more of Riefenstahl’s lunatic histrionics,” he complains in his journal as we see him on the screen extolling her virtues at an awards ceremony. Looking at Riefenshtal in her acting days and then directing her films, I was struck also by Leni Riefenstahl’s stunning beauty. (Yikes, is this my new thing? Next I’ll be changing the name of my blog to “Hot Babes of the Third Reich.”) Even though he couldn’t bear Leni personally, Goebbels recognized that her masterful filmmaking talents would serve his propaganda needs beautifully. Riefenstahl spent the rest of her life trying to distance herself from Goebbels, Hitler, and the Nazi Party (“No anti-Semitic word has ever crossed my lips,” she claimed in later years. “I have thrown no atomic bombs. I have never betrayed anyone. What am I guilty of?”) and I used to defend her to a limited degree. But watching her in this footage as she is shooting her films and mingling with the top echelon of Nazi society, it is hard to see her as a naïve victim. At best, Riefenstahl was an immensely talented opportunist whose work helped push an entire nation into a 12-year bout of insanity. Like Baarova, it’s a shame Riefenstahl didn’t join Dietrich in exile. However, if you look at it from purely a career perspective, it’s unlikely that any of the Hollywood honchos would have ever permitted her to direct an Andy Hardy film, much less the kind of major productions she was able to make with the support of Goebbels’ propaganda ministry. When Riefenstahl visited Hollywood before the war in 1938, the Jewish studio heads (to their credit) refused to meet with her. Her only allies during that trip were Henry Ford, himself a raging anti-Semite and Nazi supporter, and Walt Disney. But whatever her politics, Riefenstahl was a genius behind a camera lens and she continued working well into her 90s. She died in September 2003 at the age of 101.
Did you know that Joseph Goebbels was actually Chancellor of Germany…for a day? Following Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, Goebbels became the official leader of the Third Reich, per Adolf’s final wishes. On May 1, after realizing that they were not going to be rescued from the bunker by German troops, Joseph and Magda put their murder/suicide plan into action. The cheerful, singing Goebbels kids had no idea what their parents had in store for them. It would be fascinating to hear from them today, and had they lived they would now range in age from 72 to 65. But they did not survive. Knowing that Germany was about to lose the war, Magda couldn’t bear the thought of her children living in a world without National Socialism so she slowly and methodically put them to sleep with morphine and then cracked cyanide into their mouths, killing them one by one. Joseph didn’t participate in the murders, but he agreed to Magda’s plans. Oddly, this was one of the few things that all of the survivors of the bunker agreed on—during their interrogations after the war everyone who was there condemned the killing of the Goebbels children by their mother’s own hand.
Joseph and Magda then went into the courtyard where Joseph shot Magda and then himself. SS officers were instructed to burn the bodies and the film shows the charred remains of the propaganda minister. It also shows footage of the still pajama-clad Goebbels children who were found in their bunks where they died. In 1970, the remains of the Goebbels family along with Hitler and Eva Braun were reburned and scattered in the Elbe River by the Soviets.
Joseph Goebbels was nothing if not a prolific journal writer. He undoubtedly would have made an excellent blogger. But now I need to stop shielding the images in this post from the religious community that is walking by and go pick up my daughter from her rehearsal. She’s playing Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” in early December and today she is working on one of the captain’s anti-Nazi diatribes. What can I say? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? (Did you know that was originally a German expression?)