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Joseph Goebbels: Expressionist Dramatist as Nazi Minister of Culture


The young Joseph Goebbels, caught up in the heady mix of ideas and ideals permeating German artistic circles during and after the First World War, expressed both his convictions and his confusions through writing plays. None of these deserve much attention as serious drama: but all shed light on the ideological development of the future Nazi Minister of Culture. While also developing an argument on the wider relationship between Expressionism and modernism, David Barnett here traces that relationship in Goebbels' plays, as also the evolution of an ideology that remained equivocal in its aesthetics – the necessary condemnation of ‘degenerate’ art tinged with a lingering admiration, epitomized in the infamous exhibition of 1937. David Barnett has been Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Huddersfield since 1998, and was previously Lecturer in German Language and Literature at Keble College, Oxford. His Literature versus Theatre: Textual Problems and Theatrical Realization in the Later Plays of Heiner Müller was published by Peter Lang in 1998, and other publications include articles on Heiner Müller, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Rolf Hochhuth, Heinar Kipphardt, Werner Schwab, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Peter Handke.

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Notes and References

1. Steinweis Alan E., Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany: the Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts (North Carolina: North Carolina University Press, 1993), p. 21.

2. Arnold Arnim, Die Literatur des Expressionismus: Sprachliche und thematische Quellen (Stuttgart; Berlin; Cologne; Mainz: Kohlhammer, 1966), p. 15.

3. Reuth Ralf Georg, Goebbels: eine Biographic, new edition (Munich: Piper, 1995), p. 291.

4. Braimah Renate, Goebbels and German Modernism (unpublished MA thesis, University of Sussex, 1994), p. 16.

5. Michel Kai, Vom Poeten zum Demagogen: die schriftstellerischen Versuche Joseph Goebbels' (Cologne: Weimar; Vienna: Böhlau, 1999), p. 83.

6. Höver Ulrich, Joseph Goebbels: ein nationaler Sozialist (Bonn: Bouvier, 1992), p. 41.

7. Höver, p. 41–2.

8. Schröder Karin, ‘Michael: ein deutsches Schicksal in Tagebuchblättern: Joseph Goebbels als Romanautor. Beiträge zu einer Interpretation’ (unpublished Magister thesis, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Giessen, 1993), p. 125.

9. Cf. Braimah, p. 4 and 32; Bonwit Marianne, ‘Michael, ein Roman von Joseph Goebbels, im Licht der deutschen literarischen Tradition’, in Mayer Hans, ed., Deutsche Literaturkritik der Gegenwart, Vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Goverts Krüger Stahlberg, 1971), p. 490501, here p. 493; and Saalmann Dieter, ‘Fascism and Aesthetics: Joseph Goebbels' [sic] Novel, Michael: a German Fate through the Pages of a Diary (1929 [sic])’, Orbis Litterarum, XLI, No. 3 (1986), p. 213–28, here p. 217.

10. Kai Michel, p. 88. The relationship between Expressionism and Nazism is a fraught one. The Marxist critic Georg Lukács was responsible for systematically espousing a direct link in his book The Destruction of Reason. Sheppard Richard shows, in his article, ‘Georg Lukács, Wilhelm Worringer, and German Expressionism’, Journal of European Studies, XXV (1995), p. 241–32, that archival evidence ‘suggests that by late 1932/early 1933, Expressionism, a movement in which Lukács had taken precious little interest previously, had become a reified mental construct’ (p. 264) which could be used as an Aunt Sally for his own ideas on art. The fact that the prominent Expressionist Hanns Johst became an avid Nazi and that the equally celebrated left-wing Expressionist Johannes R. Becher became the GDR's first Minister of Culture show how problematic is an assertion of a direct link between Expressionism and Nazism.

11. Bonwit, Ibid.

12. Bradbury Malcolm and McFarlane James, ‘The Name and Nature of Modernism’, in Bradbury and McFarlane, eds., Modernism: a Guide to European Literature 1890–1930 (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 23.

13. Sheppard Richard, Modernism – Dada – Postmodernism (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2000), p. 5.

14. Sheppard, Ibid., p. 23.

15. Here I should like to thank Karin Schröder for the three transcriptions which she has prepared for her own doctoral studies and which she has sent to me. Goebbels' handwritten manuscripts, which mainly reside in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, are exceptionally difficult to decipher, written as they are in the now obsolete Sütterlin style. All quotations taken from Goebbels' works have been kindly approved by the solicitor for the literary estate, Frau Cordula Schacht.

16. Goebbels Joseph, Tagebücher, ed. Reuth Ralf Georg, 5 volumes (Munich: Piper, 1992), Volume One, p. 52. The main source from which I am taking bio-graphical information are Goebbels' own Erinnerungsblätter (‘writings from memory’), Tagebücher, 1, p. 49–87. These were written in August 1924, shortly after he decided to keep a diary in June. Michel notes quite rightly that the account is not completely reliable when he points to the re-writing of an early poem (Michel, p. 36). It is difficult to know what one may impute to these memoirs, yet they offer factual information, such as what Goebbels saw in the theatre and when, what he was reading, and other points of information. It is important to remember that Goebbels was writing with hindsight and that opinions and impressions are reconstructed by him.

17. Joseph Goebbels, Judas Iscariot: eine biblische Tragödie infünf Akten (unpublished transcription), p. 26.

18. Lovis M. Wambach, ‘“Es ist gleichgültig, woran wir glauben, nur daβ wir glauben.” Bemerkungen zu Joseph Goebbels' Drama Judas Iscariot und den Michael- Romanen’, unpublished manuscript, provided by Karin Schröder with the permission of its author, p. 7. It is uncertain whether Goebbels knew of Sternheim's play – it is not mentioned in the diaries, but this omission is obviously inconclusive.

19. Cf. Reuth, p. 35, quoting from Goebbels' correspondence in the Bundesarchiv.

20. Reuth, Ibid.

21. Nowadays our associations with the word Kampf are inextricably linked with Hitler's turgid tract Mein Kampf. It is important to note that the first volume was published in 1925, two years after Goebbels completed his final play. Goebbels came into contact with the Nazis in 1922, but did not commit himself straight away. All his plays, except for The Wanderer, were thus written before he found a party-political focus for some of the critiques he makes both in his diary and his drama.

22. Its original title was Silent Heroes (Reuth, p. 623).

23. Reuth, op. cit., p. 40.

24. Reuth, op. cit., p. 41.

25. The ‘Herm’ at the beginning of this name is almost certainly a reference to Anka Stalherm. Goebbels was fond of using ‘meaningful names’, something which now appears unsubtle, as in the protagonist's surname, Kämpfert.

26. Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Kämpfert: ein Drama in drei Aufzügen (unpublished transcription), p. 47.

27. Although the German word Mensch signifies ‘human being’ or ‘person’ as well as ‘man’ in the sense of ‘mankind’, I have stayed with the masculine generalization to underline that Goebbels had no interest in female emancipation.

28. The text has not yet been deposited in the Bundesarchiv, and so was not available at the time of writing.

29. Both instances occur in the section entitled ‘Summer 1919 in Freiburg’ (Tagebücher, 1, p. 66), although Hasenclever's play Der Sohn (1913), an ‘Expressionist classic’, is mentioned by name but without further comment in the ‘Winter 1919–1920 in Munich’ section (Tagebiicher, 1, p. 70). Hasenclever became disillusioned with politics after the German Revolution (1918–19), and so Goebbels' enthusiasm for the writer may be linked with his earlier work.

30. Joseph Goebbels, Die Saat: ein Geschehen in drei Akten (unpublished transcription), p. 10.

31. ‘Nationale oder internationale Kunst? Rundfunkgespräch zwischen Erwin Piscator und Joseph Goebbels’, in Boeser Knut and Vatková Renata, eds., Erwin Piscator: eine Arbeitsbiographie in zwei Bänden, Volume 1 (Berlin: Fröhlich and Kaufmann, 1986), p. 280–92. It is important to note that Goebbels tried to woo Piscator back to Germany through no less a figure than Edward Gordon Craig in 1935. The attempt failed, but shows how Piscator's ‘epic’, modernist techniques were valued even then by the Minister.

32. ‘Expressionism’ is first mentioned in the ‘Summer 1919 in Freiburg’ section, and occurs twice therein (Tagebücher, 1, p. 66). It recurs in the ‘Winter 1919–1920 in Munich’ section (Tagebücher, 1, p. 70), and finally appears in an art-historical context in the ‘from January 1921 to January 1923 in Rheydt' section (Tagebücher, 1, p. 81). The dates are important, since Goebbels' earliest notes coincide with the period before Sowing Seeds.

33. Cf., for example, Silvio Vietta, ‘Zweideutigkeit der Moderne: Nietzsches Kulturkritik, Expressionismus und literarische Moderne’, in Anz Thomas and Stark Michael, eds.,Die Modernität des Expressionismus (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1994), p. 920; or Vietta Silvio and Kemper Georg, Expressionismus (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1983), particularly the chapter headed, ‘Ichdissoziation im Expressionismus’, p. 30.

34. It had its premiere on 6 November 1927, in a performance by unemployed actors at the Wallner-Theater in Berlin (Reuth, p. 131). It re-emerged after 1933 and was performed in Gotha, Leipzig, Jena, Göttingen, and Würzburg (Breimah, p. 27). Braimah reports that the play is about the ‘loss of individuality’ and ‘a united community led by a Statesman with messianic qualities’ (ibid.). She also calls it ‘Expressionist’ (p. 32) in its aesthetics, which may suggest that The Wanderer follows Sowing Seeds in both form and content.

35. Cf. Tagebücher, 1, p. 312, in which Goebbels mentions that he intends to ‘configure Sowing Seeds anew’. No subsequent reference is made to the play. Although it seems Goebbels never did return to the play, his desire to do so is telling.

36. Schröder, op. cit., p. 206.

37. Braimah, op. cit., p. 26.

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