Another noteworthy point is that the Government made no attempt to ease the people into the war by tactful stages. Quite the reverse. Nazi spokesmen tell you frankly that they cracked down hard from the start and made things just about as tough as the civilian population could bear. Indeed, they say that severe rationing of food and clothing from the very beginning was done not merely to avert present waste and ensure future supplies; it was done also to make people realize that they were in a life-and-death struggle for which no sacrifice was too great.
This was stiff medicine for a people as stunned, depressed, and jittery as the Germans certainly were during the first two months of the war. I do not recall any other Government which has prescribed a course of treatment so drastic, under similar circumstances. Flag-waving and assorted heroics are the orthodox formula.
I was therefore deeply interested to discuss this original method with the man who carried it out. He was no less a person than Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, head of the vast propaganda machine which is perhaps the most outstanding feature of the Third Reich.
This lithe, brunet Rhinelander, with his agile mind, cynical humor, and telling gestures, is an excellent person to interview. He is mentally on his toes every instant, and he is full of what the journalist calls „good lines.“ He got one of them off early in our conversation when he stigmatized the British blockade of Germany by exclaiming: „It’s high time that forty million people stopped dictating to eighty million when they should have a cup of coffee!“ As Dr. Goebbels warmed to his subject, his words flowed with the smoothness of a well-oiled machine.
„Mr. Minister,“ I began, broaching the subject uppermost in my mind, „the thing that strikes me most since I’ve been in Germany this time is the great difference between the popular mood now and in the last war. No hurrahs, parades, bands, and flowers like in 1914.“
„That’s right,“ he shot back quickly, „and the reason is very simple. In 1914 the German people didn’t know what it was all about. They had no clear war aim. Some French iron mines! A bit of Belgium! _Gott strafe England_! Slogans and phrases! That’s no way to wage a war. And our rulers then couldn’t make them understand. They were an aristocratic caste, out of touch with the people.“
„And now?“ I put in.
„Now?“ he countered. „We National Socialists are men of the people. We know how our fellow-citizens think and how to make them understand. But, really, the British have done it for us. They’ve given us our war aim by forcing the war on us.“
„Meaning what?“ I asked.
„Meaning this,“ he replied. „We made it clear to the British that we didn’t want to disturb their empire. We carefully kept our hands off sore spots like India and Ireland. Why, we even offered to give them a military guarantee of their empire’s integrity. But we made it clear that, in return, they were to keep their hands off our sphere of interest–Central Europe. Well, they wouldn’t have it that way. They’re trying to crush us. So, this time, every German knows what it’s all about.“
„And that’s why they’re so quiet about it?“ I asked.
„Exactly,“ nodded Dr. Goebbels with a quick smile. „We Germans don’t like this war. We think it’s needless–silly. But, since England feels that way, we see it’s got to be gone through with. The average German feels like a man with a chronic toothache–the sooner it’s out, the better. And he doesn’t need brass bands and flowers to get it over with. That’s where our aristocrats went wrong last time. They forgot old Bismarck’s saying that hurrah-patriotism isn’t like pickled herring that you can put up in barrels and store away for years. Listen! If I wanted to get the German people emotionally steamed up, I could do it in twenty-four hours. But they don’t need it–they don’t want it.“
„Then, psychologically–“ I began.
Dr. Goebbels cut in with a sweeping gesture. „Psychologically,“ he answered, „we are way ahead. Last time, I admit, it was very different. Then, at the crucial moment, both France and England produced great men–Clemenceau and Lloyd George, both men of the people. If we on our side could have produced a Bismarck or a Hitler, we should have won. This time, we have the right men and the others haven’t. We National Socialists understand profoundly that it is the human being who counts–not just material resources. England is socially unsound. She is a colossus with feet of clay. Furthermore, England has a negative, defensive war aim. This time, it’s the British who talk in vague phrases like ‘aggression.’ What does it mean to Tommy in the trenches to tell him he’s fighting ‘aggressors’?“
„Would you mind enlarging on that a bit, Mr. Minister?“ I asked.
„Certainly not,“ he answered. „The more you examine British war aims, the more negative they appear. The English admit they have nothing tangible to get out of this war but that they have a lot to lose. We, on the other hand, have very little to lose and a lot to win. Here we Germans are–eighty million of us, all together. And right next to us is our sphere of influence in Central Europe–everything under one roof. Sooner or later, we massed Germans are bound to get what we need. The British, on the contrary, are spread all over the map. They draw their resources from the four corners of the earth. Their empire is too dispersed, too artificial. They’re bound to lose in the long run.“
„Then the British Empire–“ I began.
„Please understand,“ broke in Dr. Goebbels. „We had no designs upon it. We showed this clearly when we made the naval treaty with England limiting our fleet to one-third their size. In face of that fact, any responsible German who might have meditated an attack upon the British Empire would have been guilty of criminal madness. It is only now, when England forces us to a life-and-death struggle, that we hit back in every possible manner. All we asked was that England regard us, too, as a great nation with its own special sphere. After all, nations should be treated on their merits, for what they are. Live and let live was our motto toward England. It is the British who would not have it that way.“
„The English,“ I remarked, „seem to believe that this is a struggle between democracy and dictatorship.“
„Dictatorship!“ shot back Dr. Goebbels scornfully. „Isn’t the National Socialist Party essentially the German people? Aren’t its leaders men of the people? How silly to imagine that this can be what the English call dictatorship! What we today have in Germany is not a dictatorship but rather a political discipline forced upon us by the pressure of circumstances. However, since we have it, why shouldn’t we take advantage of the fact?“
„Just what do you mean by that, Mr. Minister?“ I queried.
„I’ll give you an example,“ answered Dr. Goebbels. „Take the difference between the way we and the English handle radio. We don’t let our people listen to foreign broadcasts; the English do. Why should we permit our people to be disturbed by foreign propaganda? Of course we broadcast in English, and the English people are legally permitted to listen in. I understand lots of them do. And can you imagine what is one of the chief discussions about it across the Channel? It is, whether our German announcer has an Oxford or a Cambridge accent! In my opinion, when a people in the midst of a life-and-death struggle indulge in such frivolous arguments, it doesn’t look well for them.“
„Then, Mr. Minister,“ I asked, „you don’t think there is much likelihood that history will repeat itself?“
Dr. Goebbels’ dark eyes lighted. „History never repeats itself,“ he exclaimed with a sweeping gesture.
„History is like a spiral–and we believe that, since the last war, we have made an ascending turn while Britain has made a descending one. Today, we have a national unity, discipline, and leadership vastly superior to that of 1914, and even more superior to anything which England has as yet produced. The rightful claims of the German people were thwarted a generation ago. They cannot be denied a second time.“
So saying, the world-famous Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda rose briskly from his chair and gave me a vigorous handshake. One last look at the slim, dynamic figure and his spacious office hung with historic portraits, and the interview was over. I had got „the dope,“ all right, from headquarters. And the more one studies the text of that interview, the more revealing it becomes–in many ways! It certainly was propaganda of the Goebbels brand.