By Peter Longerich

But for the horror of the regime he served, Joseph Goebbels would have some claim to being one of the great comic figures of the twentieth century.

This thorough new biography by scholar Peter Longerich (author of a previous, equally weighty biography of Heinrich Himmler) relies heavily on Goebbels’ extensive diaries, which have only recently become fully available. The diaries offer an incomparable source of insight into the inner workings of Nazi power, but like all diaries they are primarily an effort in constructing a self-image. What makes them comic in Goebbels’s case is the significant gap between that image and the reality, and his obliviousness to it.

Goebbels wanted to be a player. He soon learned he wasn’t going to be able to achieve this ambition on his own so he began looking for a rising star to hitch himself to. Longerich’s diagnosis of this condition is narcissism, and indeed Goebbels’s self-abasement before an idealized other, often cast in sexual and religious language, was extreme. As early as 1924 he was writing that “Germany yearns for the One, the Man, as the earth longs for rain in summer. . . . O Lord, give your German people a miracle! A miracle!! A man!!!”

The answer to these prayers was Adolph Hitler, who Goebbels would go on to idolize and serve for the rest of his life. The whole meaning of his existence, both in terms of his public and private identity, became bound up in that of his master. This was essential because Goebbels himself was a nobody.

Goebbels is known today as the mastermind behind Nazi propaganda but even this has to be qualified. He was not that effective at handling propaganda and was never in absolute control of the party’s message. Hitler’s method of rule was always to have different power bases with overlapping jurisdictions competing for his favour, never picking a clear favourite among the cast of third-rate personalities that made up his court. Goebbels liked to think he was special, a key member of the ruling elite, but in fact he was kept out of the loop on most matters and it’s difficult to say what Hitler thought of him, or if he thought of him much at all.

If anything, Hitler was more interested in Goebbels’s wife, Magda. Longerich doesn’t speculate on the creepiness of this connection, but he doesn’t have to. The bizarre pseudo-familial relationship between the three speaks for itself.

We are left to wonder just how much Goebbels was aware of what was going on between Hitler and Magda and how much was self-delusion, but we could say the same for everything else in his life. It’s often said that the worst trap a celebrity can fall into is believing their own publicity. Goebbels was in an even worse position: believing his own propaganda, and investing himself fully in it. Shortly after Hitler committed suicide, he killed himself along with his wife and six children, all of whose names began with “H.” Reality had caught up with him at last.

Review first published online November 30, 2015.