She was born with given name Johanna Maria Magdalena and a last name of either Behrend or Ritschel, my sources disagree. Her parents were unmarried, did she receive the last name of her father, Oskar Ritschel, or her mother, Auguste Behrend? In either case it was November 11, 1901. She was one of the most fascinating personalities of her time.
Her mother worked as a servant in Berlin and her father was an engineer who worked in various places around Europe. Soon after her birth, they married, but only for 3 years. Until she was 5, she stayed with her mother. Then she went to Belgium to visit her father who, after a delay of two years and insistent requests from the mother, finally told her that he had sent their child to be educated by the nuns at a convent (Catholic) boarding school in Brussels.
Her mother met and married a Jewish businessman, Richard Friedländer. When, the couple saw the conditions at the convent her mother decided to transfer her daughter to another convent, one that was less strict, in Vilvoorde, Belgium. Her parents moved to Schaerbeek, near Brussels (Belgium), and now she was able to come home to visit. With the marriage, she became Johanna Maria Magdalena Friedländer, and from the age of 7 she was raised in a household that observed both Catholic and Jewish customs.
In 1914, the world descended into the horror of the first world war. As German aliens living in Belgium, overnight the Friedländers became refugees. Eventually they made it to the German border, probably feeling fortunate that there was space available on a cattle car for them. As the modern world is one of passenger jets, the railroad was the transportation mode of the first half of the 20th century. Transport by livestock car is not a pleasant thing. Later, in the second world war, many thousands would be transported this way to the concentration camp at Buchenwald, where Richard Friedländer died. But let us return to her story.
After the family arrived in Berlin, she found a best friend in Lisa Arlosoroff, who recognized her as a fellow refugee from her French accent. She spent a great deal of time with the Arlosoroffs. The Arlosoroffs were Russian Jews who had been driven out of their home in the Ukraine by anti-Jewish pogroms in 1905. Lisa’s grandfather was a famous rabbi.
Eventually she fell in love with Lisa’s brother Victor. Vitaly Viktor Haim Arlosoroff was an ardent Zionist, that is, he supported the emigration of Jews to Palestine, where they would one day (re)create a state, Israel. She spent a great deal of time with Zionists, but never quite felt at home with them as she was not racially Jewish and Victor eventually married in Palestine.
Probably the most important contribution of Victor was the negotiation of the Ha’avara Agreement, an agreement between Nazi Germany, the Zionist Federation of Germany, and the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which allowed Jewish emigrants to put their money into an account that could be used outside the country, but only to purchase German goods.
Victor did not live to see the founding of Israel; instead, on the beach near Tel Aviv, on the 16th of June, 1933, he was mysteriously assassinated. His widow identified two members of the Revisionists, a more militant Zionist political organization. After the war, an alternative theory, which makes a certain amount of sense, appeared. The alternative is that he was assassinated, at least partly due to his early relationship with Johanna Maria Magdalena Friedländer. A few weeks before his death, after he had tried to meet her in Germany, she had written him to tell him that his life was in danger in there and that he must leave immediately. But let us return to her story.
During wartime, trains are destroyed by the enemy as they are used to transport troops. For example, as an American soldier, my grandfather was transported in a French cattle car to the battle at Belleau Wood in 1918. So the first world war destroyed a lot of trains, and in addition, in return for the cessation of hostilities, Germany was made to give up trains to the Allies.
The summer after the Armistice, she was 17, and had completed her schooling. Her biological father Ritschel paid for her tuition at a finishing school, as preparation for her future as a wife and mother. To get to the school near Goslar, Germany she used the train system but with the loss of trains getting a seat was almost impossible; most people were forced to stand.
One of the advantages of being very rich is that one can insulate oneself from some of the indignities suffered by the masses. For elegant railroad transportation, one reserves a car. One then has plenty of room. While standing at the railroad, waiting for her mother to find her a car with a seat, her striking beauty was noticed by Dr. Günther Quandt, who offered her a seat in his reserved car. For very elegant transportation, one would purchase a railroad car and fit it out as one would like. Eventually, she would tour the United States in just such a car.
As they introduced themselves, Quandt was shocked to hear that she was going to finishing school and was only 17. He was two decades older, but he was a wealthy industrialist, and his wife had died in the Spanish flu panepidemic of 1918. And he was taken by her beauty.
Her beauty still leaks through the photographs that remain but they do not tell the whole story. Apparently she had a certain poise, a calmness, that long preceded her time at finishing school. What else can I tell you? She was fluent in German and French, and could speak Italian and English as well. Her favorite book was Via Mala by the Swiss author was John Knittel. Perhaps like Kipling’s cat, all places were alike to her. Or maybe it was the slight French accent with which she spoke German.
In any case, as Quandt spent a few hours in the train car with her, he realized that her beauty was more than skin deep. Before she left his car, he memorized the address on her luggage with the intention of seeing her again. It wasn’t proper for a gentleman more than twice her age to visit a young lady at finishing school, so he wrote her asking if she would see him if he came calling on her as a “friend of her father’s”.
Quandt reminded her of her biological father Oskar Ritschel, and what with the attractions of wealth she wrote back “yes”. He arrived in a limousine with presents of choclates for the head mistress and for all the students. He was treated as visiting royalty. No questions were asked.
It is probably useful to note that the Armistice of November 11, 1918 was only an “armistice”, that is, a pause in the fighting. The war continued. The Allies did not lift the “Starvation Blockade” of Germany until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. By then three quarters of a million people had starved to death in Germany and the rest were very hungry. The fresh memory of starvation in the first world war contributed to the Nazi decision to kill off “undesirable” eaters when the second world war began in 1939. We will get to that part of the story, for now, let us note that in the hungry German summer of 1919, a little candy went a very very long way. In any case the relationship continued and they became engaged.
Marrying someone half your age doesn’t do too well in high society. That could not be fixed, but that she was Catholic and had a Jewish last name could. She converted to Protestant and became Johanna Maria Magdalena Ritschel, returning to her biological father’s name, just before marrying Günther Quandt on January 4, 1921.
First Marriage and Wealth
Quandt was quite wealthy. During the war he supplied the German Army with uniforms. After the war he acquired VARTA a company that sold batteries until the latter half of the century. He also had stakes in BMW and Daimler-Benz.
They had one child Harald Quandt, born November 1, 1921. This was not a good year to be born a German. During the second world war, he joined the Luftwaffe. He was injured and captured in Italy in 1944 and put into a prisoner of war camp in England. When his mother learned of his safety in November 1944 it must have been quite a relief. He was released in 1947 and went on to become one of postwar Germany’s wealthiest industrialists. With his brother Herbert, he ran the Quandt group of 200 industrial companies after their father died in 1954. He died in 1967, in the crash of one of his aircraft. He had a reputation as a “committed playboy”.
Consider the hypothetical case of a man who can have anything he wants just by wishing for it. Such a man has power, but he will develop serious psychological problems. At first he will have a lot of fun, but by and by he will become acutely bored and demoralized. Eventually he may become clinically depressed. History shows that leisured aristocracies tend to become decadent. This is not true of fighting aristocracies that have to struggle to maintain their power. But leisured, secure aristocracies that have no need to exert themselves usually become bored, hedonistic and demoralized, even though they have power. This shows that power is not enough. One must have goals toward which to exercise one’s power.
Perhaps this sort of thing effected Johanna Maria Magdalena Quandt. She became bored. She divorced Günther Quandt in 1929. Perhaps unfortunately for her, the divorce settlement was quite liberal. She had more money than she needed and suffered from boredom, and an absence of goals.
In 1930, she attended a speech by Joseph Goebbels. His extensive diaries have left us a view into the thinking of this man. I think the Unabomber would agree with Goebbel’s diary comment, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, the important thing is belief.”
It was love at first sight. She joined the Nazi party and volunteered at the local office. With her knowledge of foreign languages, she helped at the newspaper archives; she could assess articles about the Nazis in the foreign press.
“Nazi” is an abbreviation for “National Socialim”. They were a party formed from a combination of right wing or conservative, (nationalist), ideals and left wing or liberal, (socialist), ideals. Their right wing side is fairly well known; the insistence on a single, German, culture for Germany. Eventually they were to kill millions who did not belong. Less well known is their left wing side. Their left wing ambitions included abolition of unearned income, confiscation of war profits, nationalization of corporations, profit sharing, old age insurance, break up of large department stores, land for communal purposes, banning usury, and higher education at State expense for the gifted poor. These were included in the 25 points making up the Program of the NSDAP (Nazi) Party, February 24, 1920.
One of the odd features of the human species is that right wing parties tend to do best in the countryside, while left wing parties tend to be best in the cities. This pattern is seen in the United States where the right wing party, the Republicans, generally win the rural vote while the Democrats generally win the urban. But it is more general than just these two countries. The revolutionary history of France is replete with examples. An urban mob stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Reaction to the revolution was concentrated in rural regions. Catholic rural peasants were executed as counter revolutionaries during the Terror. The Revolution of 1848 and the Communards of 1871 show similar splits, conservative peasants versus liberal workers. Whatever the explanation, the same pattern of rural conservatism and urban liberalism applied to inter-war Germany. Berlin was the most liberal part of the country.
In October 1926, Adolph Hitler gave Joseph Goebbels the title and task of Gaulitier or “regional leader” of Berlin. He was in charge of the Nazi party (or NSDAP) there. This was not an easy task; they were far behind the Socialist Democratic Party and likely the Communists in this most urban part of Germany. There were only a few hundred NSDAP members; this was not enough to pay much dues and it was the dues that Goebbels would take his pay from.
To raise the vote for the Nazis in Germany, Goebbels put the party into the news as much as possible. He chose sites for rallies specifically intended to pick fights with the Communists. For these fights he used the SturmAbteilung also called the SA. These were mostly young unemployed workers. They were also called “brownshirts” because their uniform were shirts left over from the war effort, intended for German troops in Africa (possibly manufactured by Quandt). I had always imagined these as a darker shade of brown, but it turns out that they are a light shade, one suitable for soldiers in a dusty land.
As the depression continued, the unemployed crowds in the streets of Berlin grew and Goebbels converted more and more of them to the Nazi party. In the party they were taken care of; for example there was an SA hospital.
By promoting fighting between the Communists and Nazis, Goebbels also increased the violence of the Communists. Faced with the threat of Communist violence, more and more members of the middle class began voting for the Nazis. (This technique is a classic method of insurgency; you use violence to make the government look impotent. The people will move in favor of those who show they can control the violence.) Within 18 months he had raised the Nazi vote to 50,000. He was elected to the Reichstag (Parliament) on May 28, 1928. Goebbels was a man increasing in prosperity and importance. But let us return to her story.
In joining the Nazi party and volunteering, it was several weeks before she got any closer to the man who had so impressed her at the Nazi rally. However, eventually, they crossed paths in the stairway to the Nazi office. Goebbels was accompanied by his adjutant, Count Schimmelmann. The result is worth quoting:
They glanced into each other’s eyes for only a moment, and, ludicrous though it may sound, for that fraction of a second the spark ignited for both of them. Goebbels stopped dead in amazement while she walked to the exit. “Donnerwetter Schimmelmann,” he said, a trace of breathlessness in his voice, “Who was that? An amazing woman!” and then climbed the stairs to his bare study. Five minutes later Goebbels knew that this jewel was working in the gem-free setting of his office. The next morning he called her. “I need someone unimpeachably reliable, someone I can trust.” Not a word of sympathy, no compliments, barely a personal remark. Only his eyes seemed to embrace her. “I thought I would burst into flames beneath that purposeful gaze,” she told me much later. But by then she knew from his own lips that he had fallen in love with her at first sight. And the same was true of her.
Goebbel’s diary of February 15, 1931 provides as much of an explanation for why people shouldn’t keep diaries as anything I’ve ever seen: “She comes in the evening. And stays for a very long time. And blossoms with heady blonde sweetness. How can I describe you my queen? A lovely lovely woman! Whom I shall love very much. Today I am walking almost as though in a dream. So full of sated bliss. It is wonderful to love a beautiful woman, and to be loved by her.” By February 26th they had suffered their first fight, probably over another woman.
They married on December 19, 1931. In her divorce settlement, she had been given the right to use Quandt’s farm in Mecklenburg. Set in North Germany, it must have provided an austere place for a marriage ceremony. Hitler was the witness. She received a new name, the one she is known by in the history books. Going by Magda, short for Magdalena, she became Magda Goebbels, the infamous first lady of the third Reich. Anti-Nazi press carried headlines, “Nazi Chief Marries Jewess”.
The Goebbels Children
In terms of children produced, her marriage with Joseph Goebbels was very successful. They had six children, Helga Susanne (1932), Hildegard Traudel (1934), Helmut Christian (1935), Holdine Kathrin (1937), Hedwig Johanna (1938), and Heidrun Elisabeth (1940). They appeared in German newsreels three dozen times in 1941. One of the advantages of being married to the man in charge of the movie industry is that your home movies are of higher quality than usual, as this 42 minute movie clip of Magda and her children, from the summer of 1942 shows.
In 1939, Goebbels used his children as an example to compare with handicapped children in a film. By 1941, about 5000 children were been killed as part of the total 70,273 killed in Action T4. Their deaths were recorded as pneumonia. Leaders of the Catholic church wrote private letters to the government protesting but these were ignored. In July 1941, a pastoral letter from the Bishops was read in all Catholic churches that it was wrong to kill, except in self defense or in a morally justified war. On August 24, 1941, Hitler ordered the program canceled, and further, that for the duration of the war, no further actions provoking the churches be undertaken.
The Death of the SA
Hitler first became aware of her through her son, Harald Quandt. When he was 10, she sewed up a uniform for him, one matching the brown (shirts) of the SA. She sent him upstairs to Hitler’s room in the luxurious Hotel Kaiserhof, which, in November 1943, was fated to be completely destroyed by British bombers. It is now the site of the North Korean embassy. Of course Hitler was charmed by the child in uniform. “Who made you this lovely uniform?” “My mother.” “And how do you feel in this uniform?” At this the boy stood up rather straighter and said, “Twice as strong!” … “Then give your mother a nice greeting from me, and do come and visit me again.”
Her relationship with Hitler was long and close. Years later, after a total of seven children, her marriage with Goebbels was strained by his going beyond sex with young German film actresses. He fell deeply in love with the Czech actress Lida Baarová.
She had agreed to Goebbels sexual affairs but to share his love was too much and she asked for a divorce. Hitler forced Goebbels to order Baarová out of Germany, and had the Goebbels accept a one year separation, with the agreement that she could have a divorce after the end of that time. Goebbels talked his way back into her good graces and they remained married through the war. They signed a reconciliation contract with Hitler as guarantor, just before the invasion of Poland in September 1939. But back to 1933.
Besides beating up Communists and others in the way of the Nazis, and terrorizing Jews, the SA were also useful to the Nazis in that they protected Nazi leaders. They tended towards the socialist end of the Nazi party, typically fighting on the side of workers in strikes and labor disputes, and this helped party membership. Like a substantial number of Nazi voters, they associated capitalism, particularly banking, with the Jews. One can see little echoes of this association in today’s news reports of the current banking panic; for some reason it seems to me that the religion or ethnicity of bankers are only mentioned when they happen to be Jewish. Interestingly, the website www.nazi.org is currently operated by a group promoting a combining National Socialism, with Green and Libertarian principles. They’ve updated Nazi flag replacing the red background with green.
So the Nazis were theoretically aligned against the people who controlled German industry and money. But then, at the infamous Secret Meeting of February 20, 1933, Hitler gained the financial support of two dozen of Germany’s most important industrial leaders. Günther Quandt was there. With their rising political power, the Nazis gained control over the police, military and industry, and the need for the SA to protect leaders, punish others, and to keep industry in line declined in importance. This was also the year that Hitler met with Ferdinand Porsche and had him design an inexpensive car. Originally called the “KdF Wagen”, it was a part of the Nazi’s leisure program, Strength Through Joy (KdF). The company producing the car was named Volkswagen, or “people’s car”, in 1937. Porche also designed several of Germany’s tanks such as the Tiger I and Tiger II.
The German military was jealous of the attention given the 3 million members of the SA, and contemptuous of their amateur soldiering skills. And in terms of political power, pretty much the only person in Germany who would stand up to Hitler was the SA leader, Ernst Röhm. To top it all, Röhm, along with other SA leaders, was a homosexual and had apparently promoted others on the basis of sexual favors. In 1931, a socialist newspaper published letters by Röhm describing his numerous affairs.
There was also conflict between the socialist branch of the Nazis and German aristocracy. Later, when aristocratic German officers attempted to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, Goebbels wrote in his diary, “When we have removed the last half-Jew, we must set about getting rid of the aristocracy … even without their titles these people are the same. They remain discontented, foreign bodies in the state … They only ever intermarry, and thus deepen their degeneration. Like the Jews, the aristocrats have foreign connections, and they never cease to form a caste of their own. They must be expunged entirely … leaving nothing, men, women and children must be eliminated.” Seven thousand were arrested, 4980 executed. But that was later, at the moment, the German military had plenty of aristocrats as officers and Hitler probably needed to improve his relations with them.
On June 30, 1933, on the pretext that The SA was planning a coup, Hitler had the SA leadership butchered an event known as the Night of the Long Knives. (As an aside, the Night of the Long Knives is the topic of a song, “Last Day of June, 1934″ by Al Stewart.) At the Reichstag, Hitler shouted “The supreme court of the German people during those twenty-four hours consisted of myself!” The deputies rose and cheered. German courts and the cabinet quickly set aside centuries old prohibitions against extra-judicial killings. That Christmas, she sent generous Christmas gifts to the widows of the SA leadership.
Prelude to the Second World War
The Holy Roman Empire, was a collection of Central European states founded in 962AD. A consequence of the peace Napoleon obtained at the 4th Peace of Pressburg on December 26, 1805, was that the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, became Francis I, the first emperor of Austria. He dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
The German states were partially reunited in 1871 by Otto von Bismark under William I. We call the result the German Empire. The last emperor, or kaiser, William II / Wilhelm II, was forced to abdicate on November 28, 1918 as a result of uprisings caused by the end of the first world war. His government was replaced by a Republic. Since the German word “Reich” is related to the English “region” but translates as “Realm” or “Domain” as well as “Empire”. The new, Democratic, state kept German Empire or Deutsche Reich as its official name until May 23, 1945. After a little confusion as a result of its status as a front line during the cold war, Germany was united again as the current Federal Republic of Germany or Bundesrepublik Deutschland.
The peace agreement at the end of the first world war increased the area of the winning countries at the expense of the losers. This left many German speakers now citizens of countries in which they were now ethnic minorities. In addition, the breakup of Austria left German speakers now subjects of successor states where German was no longer the primary language. Of the many bonds possible between people of different lands, the sharing of a common language is one of the most strong. Many Germans who had suddenly become minorities were unhappy with the change and saw Hitler as a method of reversing the situation.
Hitler, in violation of the world war one treaty, began (open) rearming of Germany on March 16, 1935. The former Allied powers realized that the treaty had been excessive and ignored this violation. On June 18, 1935, Britain and Germany signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement which allowed Germany to build its navy beyond the limits of the world war one treaty, up to 35% of Britain’s navy. On March 7, 1936, Hitler moved troops into the demilitarized Rhineland, again ignoring the now dead treaty. Britain’s doing this was a partial repudiation of the Stresa Front an agreement between Britain, France, and Italy to resist German reunification, particularly the combining of Austria with Germany, in that it allowed Germany to exceed its treaty limitations.
The Empire of Japan and Germany had a common enemy in the Soviet Union. On November 25, 1936 they signed an agreement to fight on each other’s side if either were attacked by the Soviet Union. This was the Anti-Comintern (Communist International) Pact. On November 6, 1937, Italy joined the Pact, sealing the fate of the Stresa Front. Poland was offered membership in the Pact but, fearing status as a puppet state, instead stayed with Britain. Later, the Pact would grow to include Germany, Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, the Wang Jingwei government of China, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Manchuko, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain. With the failure of the Stresa Front, Germany was free to reunite with Austria.
In 1934, Austria was torn by a mild civil war. The result was that a group of conservatives ran the government. They banned the socialists, communists, and the Nazis. On February 12, 1938, Hitler demanded that the Austrian government end its ban on political parties, reinstate full party freedoms, release all imprisoned members of the Nazi party, and allow Nazis to hold government office. The government of Austria agreed. Hitler then demanded that Austria unite with Germany.
Partly as a result of Goebbels’ propaganda, many Austrians, Nazis or otherwise, were in favor of unification, or Anschluss with Germany. The Austrian government announced a referendum to be held on March 13, 1938. Since youth was strongly in favor of the Nazis, the government chose a minimum voting age of 24. In fact, the Anschluss was wildly popular in Austria. Small towns where the vote was held as planned on March 13 voted in favor of it by incredible margins of 95% to 5%. Seventy years later, and not speaking German, I can but marvel at the oratorical abilities of Goebbels and Hitler.
On March 12, 1938, one day before the referendum, Hitler accused the Austrian government of planning to steal the election and demanded that Austria immediately allow German troops to cross the border. With a military unwilling to fight at best, and at worst openly supportive of the Nazis, and with no realistic hope of assistance from abroad, Kurt Schuschnigg, the unpopular chancellor / dictator of Austria, resigned.
When German troops marched across the border on March 12, 1938, they were greeted by cheering crowds, flowers, Nazi flags, and Hitler style salutes. Hitler crossed the border that afternoon. Nazi leadership was stunned by the warmth of the reception. Hitler began a triumphal tour of Austria that ended in Vienna, on April 2, 1938 where a crowd of 200,000 heard him proclaim Germany and Austria as one nation. A plebiscite was held on April 10, 1938 with the Anschluss receiving a (non secret) vote of 99.73% in favor. About 10% of the population was not allowed to vote, mostly left wing and Jews.
Nazi party propaganda saw the regaining of lost German territories as a reunification and referred to their country, particularly after the Anschluss, as the “Das Dritte Reich” which is usually translated to English as “The Third Reich”. The first and second Reichs were the Holy Roman Empire, and the empire lost when Wilhelm II abdicated.
While Austria was an easy convert to Germany, more difficult were the German speaking regions of countries where Germans were a minority. In the breakup of Austria-Hungary, many Germans ended up in Czechoslovakia. In particular, they formed a majority in the Sudetenland, mountainous country bordering Austria.
Few of the countries on this planet do a good job of taking care of ethnic minorities and the young republic of Czechoslovakia was certainly no exception. From a position of peacefully demanding equal rights, the German regions were slowly pushed into seeing unification with Hitler’s Germany as a solution. After analyzing the problem, Britain, which had recently lost most of Ireland, agreed. Britain and France forced the Czechs to give the territory up between October 1, and 10th, 1938. The Czechs also had land populated by Poles and Hungarians and at the same time they gave these lands back to Poland and Hungary. Poland had been given land populated by Germans, particularly the city of Danzig which was 95% German.
Another ancient part of Germany, the Memel (German) territory or Klaipėda (Lithuania) region was made independent under French mandate at the end of the first world war. Lithuania ended up annexing it in 1923, as a result of the Klaipėda revolt. France did nothing to stop this and Germany formally recognized the loss on January 29, 1928. By ultimatum to the Lithuanian government, it was returned to Germany on March 23, 1939, in return for a 99 year lease on the port that Lithuania had built there. The return was confirmed by Lithuania, Britain, and France. This was the last peaceful return of German territory.
The Second World War
Somewhat arbitrarily, Neville Chamberlain’s government gave a war guarantee to Poland for its borders. With this guarantee, Poland refused to negotiate with Hitler. This guarantee would be the cause of the war. Pat Buchanan recently discussed the second world war as the unnecessary war as Churchhill called it.
Apparently Magda had word that Poland would be invaded as she told her mother to attend the Reichstag session for September 1, 1939, as a spectator, as it would be a historical event. Hitler announced that Poland had fired on German territory and that German troops were returning fire.
Magda had great faith in Hitler and was enthusiastic over the invasion of Poland, but her mother knew what war would entail. She was shaken by a violent weeping fit. Behind her, one of the Nazi women’s organization members told her to get a hold of herself, then clammed up when another member told her that the weeping woman was Frau Goebbel’s mother.
The Nazi leadership were not surprised when France and Britain gave them an ultimatum to cease. This had happened before with no effect. They were surprised when France and Britain declared war. Goebbels and his rival, the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, had understood the risks before the invasion of Poland and thought that Hitler was taking too much of a risk of a war that Germany was not yet ready for.
As even with a commercial corporation, decisions are made from the top and those under the leader end up implementing policies, good or bad, as best they can, even when they had previously argued against the plan of action that brought them to that point. And though he was against it (for practical reasons, certainly not any moral doubts) Goebbels did his best to keep the German public in favor of the war. His extraordinarily voluminous diary recorded his daily thoughts on the progress of the war and make fascinating reading for those interested in what went on behind the scenes at the Nazi leadership.
The Bitter End
In a sense, wars balanced between equal enemies are far worse disasters than wars where one side quickly overcomes the other. Global wars can go on for decades. In the case of the second world war and Germany, the world is very lucky that Germany was quickly overcome, in less than 6 years, by an inadequacy of industrial production and an insufficient supply of oil.
Despite their early successes, that Germany would eventually, inevitably, lose the war was a fact that dawned on different people at different times. For those focused on control of territories, the turning point was 1942 and the Axis disasters in North Africa, Midway, and Stalingrad. For those focused on military strength, the turning point of the war would have been October or November 1941, by which time the USSR was fielding troops faster than the Germans were able to capture them, and steadily improving their strategies, tactics, and armaments. But for those focusing on industrial production it must have been obvious from the very first.
Her ex husband, Günther Quandt, was an industrialist and must have seen the end coming quite soon. His son, Harald, also understood and his pessimism is remarked upon in Goebbel’s diary. Churchill also understood the industrial situation and never wavered in the expectation that England and her allies would eventually win.
The war years were difficult for the German people. The extensive Allied bombing campaigns, which were substantially directed towards destroying as much civilian housing as possible, took a toll on the morale of the German people, as Goebbels diaries attest. Eventually Magda could see the end coming. A few months before the end of the war she had the opportunity to see the bombing campaign at one of its most terrible moments.
Magda’s sister in law, Ello Quandt, was staying in a sanatorium in the Elb hills close enough to see Dresden when it was firebombed in February 13-15, 1945, just 12 weeks before the end of the war. When Magda visited her a few weeks later, she told Ello, “We have nothing left Ello … total defeat is barely a matter of weeks away. – We’re all going to die, Ello … but by our own hands, not by the force of others!” She went on to explain, “In the longer or shorter term the whole of Europe will fall to Bolshevism. We were the last bulwark against the red deluge. As regards ourselves, we who were at the summit of the Third Reich, we must take the consequences. We have made unimaginable demands on the German people, we have treated other peoples harshly and relentlessly. The victors will take thorough revenge for that … and we cannot appear cowardly. Everyone else has the right to go on living, but we do not … We have failed.”
“I was there. I believed in Hitler, and I believed in Joseph Goebbels for long enough. I am part of the Third Reich that is now being destroyed. You don’t understand my situation … What am I to do? If I stay alive I will be arrested immediately and interrogated about Joseph. If I were to tell the truth, I would have to portray him as he was … I would have to describe what went on behind the scenes. Then any respectable person would turn from me in revulsion. Everyone would think that, since my husband was dead or in prison, I was now most terribly traducing the father of my six children. As far as the outside world is concerned, I have lived by his side amidst brilliance and luxury, I have enjoyed all his power. As his wife I have stayed with him until the bitter end. No one would believe me if I said I had stopped loving him, and … perhaps I still do love him, against my reason, in the face of all my experiences with him. Regardless of what is behind me, Joseph is my husband and I owe him loyalty …, and comradeship beyond death. For that reason I could never say anything against him. After all this, after his plunge into the abyss, I could not do that!” She would also never be able to defend him, as it would go against her conscience.
Regarding her children, Magda said “We’ll take them with us, because they are too beautiful and good for the world’s that’s coming,” and she added that posterity would avenge the father’s crimes upon the children.” Ello violently disagreed.
USSR forces entered Berlin in April 1945. The Goebbels family moved into the same bunker where Hitler stayed, the Führerbunker.
Various people, especially including Hitler, tried to talk Magda into leaving Berlin, with her children, perhaps even to a neutral country, but she remained steadfast in her desires. There was a certain feeling among the Nazi leadership that with the German people losing the war, they did not deserve to live, but still one wonders why she stayed when no other wife of the leadership chose to do so. Perhaps she felt a stronger sense of guilt. But why take her children with her?
Her children provided entertainment to Hitler up until his suicide on April 30, 1945. On that day, he gave Magda his gold Nazi party pin. She wrote about these things on a final letter to her son Harald in a British PoW camp. In this letter she again states why she intended on following her husband to his death. On May 1, 1945, Magda and Joseph killed their six children inside the bunker and killed themselves just outside of it, having arranged to have their bodies set on fire. She was the only Nazi wife to go down with the party in this way, that is, to kill herself or her children others lived out their lives in poverty and /or embarrassment.
Magda’s belief that horrible retribution would be taken against the children of Nazi leadership, and that Europe would be conquered by the Soviet Union, were beliefs likely given to her by her husband. They turned out to be as fantastical as her idea of Germany as a superpower at the beginning of the war. These were themes that her husband gave out as propaganda. From his diaries, it appears that he sincerely believed in this. I’m sure they would have been surprised by events as they turned out.
The surviving children of the Nazi elite seem to have not been particularly badly abused, even the ones that supported Nazism after the war. And the USSR did not roll over Europe, though socialism might have. After seeing the punishment dished out to innocent civilians at Dresden, she could hardly have expected to receive better. But her husband was right that the conflict with the USSR would be the next problem of the western Allies. For that reason it was not possible to punish Germany; both postwar halves would be needed to supply the soldiers that faced off along the Fulda Gap.
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have lived in tribal societies. The human condition is one of an absence of absolute knowledge in every area. In facts, our ignorance and limitations force us to accept the opinions of those around us. We often follow these opinions blindly, as if they were edicts handed down from our dear leader. Inherently, genetically, we are believers to our innermost core.
In morality, our genes have long found that it is better to go along with the majority than to risk banishment or death. The mark of a highly moral human being, is not what they do in private, where no one can know what they’ve done. In the dark anyone can be moral, it’s a matter of choice unconstrained by the distorting opinions of our friends and relatives. Instead, the strength of our inner compass is indicated by what we do while the whole world is watching us; and egging us on.
Humans have a love of morality tales, simple histories with clear and obvious saints and sinners. By leaving things out, by stressing one fact or another, it is possible to slant a history in whatever way the author, consciously or otherwise, desires. Here I have tried to tell her sad story taking into account her point of view, as molded by her experience.
by Anja Klabunde
Normally I pick up books for $1 or $2 at the Half Price Book discount desk. This one I ordered by mail from Amazon, used, at a price of around $5, plus shipping. The book behind it, the one that influenced me to order this one, was the English translation of the final diary of Joseph Goebbels. These are the last 3 months or so of his diary. It deserves a book review on its own. The diary included Magda’s last letter to what would be her sole surviving child, Harald. You can read the letter in translation in various places; it is enough of an introduction to her that I decided to read a biography. The Nazi ideal of the perfect housewife and mother.