A real coup needs to be well prepared. Especially if it has to take place in public. In mid-February 1943, Joseph Goebbels knew that he would soon have to give a particularly important speech, perhaps the most important of his life.
The 6th Army had gone under in Stalingrad, which had caused mood in Germany to sink to a low point last seen in 1918/19. The immediate future did not promise good news either: Erwin Rommel's tank army was coming under increasing pressure in the theater of war in North Africa, and Germany's major cities were suffering from increasing Allied bombing.
Overcoming this low mood was the first of four goals that Goebbels tried to achieve with his production. Second, he wanted to popularize the slogan of "total war," which would allow for an even greater war effort. Third, the speech was an attempt to warn neutral states and anti-war Westerners against "Bolshevism," that is, Stalin and his tyranny. Fourth and above all, Goebbels wanted to expand his own position in the Nazi leadership.
This is exactly what the historian Peter Longerich is primarily concerned with. The Nazi expert, who worked for many years at the Royal College in London, puts Goebbels' speech in his book "Die Sportpalastrede 1943" (Siedler Verlag Munich. 206 p., 24 euros), published to mark the 80th anniversary, in the "context of an internal power struggle within the NS-System", which "in February 1943 found itself in its greatest crisis to date".
Hitler, however, rejected Goebbels' idea of risking a comprehensive liberation even with a big speech. On the one hand, this should include an appeal to the "Eastern peoples" to take up the fight against the "Beast Stalin" on Germany's side, on the other hand, the propaganda minister wanted the entire German society to be mobilized for the war. But most Germans still remembered corresponding calls in 1916, which had led to defeat two years later.
In any case, the “Fuhrer” did not want to take this risk personally. He decided not to hold his next public address until the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov had been recaptured and a "turnaround" on the Eastern Front seemed tangible. So Goebbels had to change the mood in the country, and that meant talking for himself.
Such a decisive appearance had to be prepared: He would "have this meeting broadcast again on all channels in order to put pressure on public opinion in the individual districts," he dictated to his secretary. The propagandist felt transported back – or at least he did so in his diary, which was also intended as a collection of material for later publications – to the “time of struggle” of the Nazi movement: “We now have to use the tried-and-tested weapons from before 1933 again.” He saw himself "as a driving force" and wanted to resort to harder means: "I will use the whip until the lazy sleepers wake up."
In the late afternoon of February 14, 1943, the propaganda minister dictated the first draft of the speech: "I think it turned out very well. Maybe it will even be a masterpiece of my previous speaking work," he said. In the days that followed, he revised the text several times - and in the process convinced himself more and more of its importance: "I think it will be a masterpiece of rhetoric," he said of February 15th.
So it went on, unusually intense for the practiced orator Goebbels. About February 17, his dictation says: "Incidentally, during the day I spend a long time busy with the final editing of my Sportpalast speech." I checked the remarks relating to foreign policy again by the Foreign Office and then I got the impression that the speech was a big hit.” Although one cannot say in advance how it will work, he qualified: “But in In this case I think I can prophesy with a fair degree of certainty that she will be very successful.”
In any case, his apparatus did everything for it. The speech was scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday, February 18, 1943. The location was the Sportpalast in Berlin-Schoeneberg, the second largest hall in the Reich capital - the even larger Deutschlandhalle, built for the Olympic Games in 1936, was no longer available after a bomb hit in mid-January 1943.
In any case, the Sportpalast was more important for the party tradition. The NSDAP held more than 60 mass meetings here between 1930 and 1932, and more than 40 each in 1933 and 1934. But then "in the following years Goebbels reduced the program to a few highlights," says Longerich's book: "The Sportpalast became primarily a stage for his own performances." Even Hitler and Göring only spoke here in exceptional cases - so Goebbels made sure " for the fact that the Sportpalast was primarily associated with his person".
Selecting the willing audience soon became routine. On Thursday, February 18, 1943, many celebrities appeared, including actors Heinrich George, Eugen Klöpfer and Bernhard Minetti. Also documented is the participation of Minister of Armaments Albert Speer, head of the "German Labor Front" Robert Ley and Fritz Sauckel, head of the use of forced laborers; probably also by Justice Minister Otto Thierack and at least three State Secretaries. Also in the audience were Magda Goebbels and the two eldest daughters of the family, Helga and Hilde.
Numerous newsreel cameras were set up strategically. The brief was primarily to capture images of enthusiasm on celluloid – preferably of the supposedly typically “Aryan” people who made up the audience. Among them were BDM leaders, handsome soldiers on home leave and - not too badly - wounded soldiers. The front of the massive lectern was covered with a swastika flag; two other large NSDAP symbols hung on the wall in the background. A banner reading "Total War - Shortest War" hung above the elevated rank at the speaker's back.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Goebbels stepped up to the lectern. Energetically and with tension in his face, he began his 109-minute speech - addressed to "My German comrades! Party comrades!”
In the main part of his book, Longerich places the text reproduced after the sound recording on the left-hand side and comments on the passage on the right. The broadcast on Reichsrundfunk was not live, but only from 8 p.m.; The historian therefore rightly writes: "It cannot be ruled out that the sound recording was changed before it was broadcast, for example by lengthening the storm of applause or increasing the volume of the audience's reactions in the hall." Only excerpts of the newsreel recordings have survived.
Soon after the speech began, Goebbels announced that Stalingrad was "the great alarm call of fate," the symbol of the "heroic struggle" against "the onslaught of the steppe." Longerich comments aptly: "He pushes aside the question of the causes of the crisis in order to invoke the anti-Bolshevik tradition and experience of the NSDAP instead."
Goebbels deliberately frightened his listeners: "Behind the onrushing Soviet divisions we can already see the Jewish liquidation squads, but behind them terror is rising, the specter of millions of hunger and a complete European anarchy." interrupted several times by excited interjections and chants from the audience". Of approval, not protest.
After further similar explanations, he came to his central rhetorical idea, a sequence of eleven questions in total. The first read: "So I can say with complete justification: What is sitting here in front of me is a section of the entire German people at the front and at home. Is that correct? Yes or no!” Of course, a “Yes!” resounded at him from thousands of throats.
More questions followed, each worded more stimulatingly than the next. In the fourth place, Joseph Goebbels used the formulation that has been inextricably linked to his name ever since, with his voice almost cracking: “I ask you – do you want total war? Do you want it, if necessary, more totally and radically than we can even imagine today?”
The producers of the newsreel later cut images of the most frenetic reactions to this question: “Yes! Yes! Yes!” It cannot be determined with certainty whether that was really the case, i.e. whether this fourth question really triggered the greatest storm of enthusiasm. But it is also irrelevant, because the speech achieved its decisive effect as a repeatedly repeated newsreel compilation.
After the speech, Goebbels, exhausted but happy, went to his official villa at the Brandenburg Gate, where he had invited celebrities to a party. Late that night he dictated to his secretary that he had been "in very good rhetoric form" and had "brought the congregation into a state" that was "like a total mental mobilization."
Peter Longerich's book dissects the notorious performance and sheds light on the background. This is appropriate to the meaning of this speech and well resolved. There are no sensational insights or previously unknown sources, but the volume definitely offers very solid historical craftsmanship.
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