Magda Goebbels by Anja Klabunde

LITERARY REVIEW                                 22 May 2002

Magda Goebbels
by Anja Klabunde
Little, Brown 384pp £20)

The Nazi movement was quintessentially male. It was founded on the backs of disaffected servicemen in the years after the First World War. It was consolidated in the carefully choreographed parades led with flags drenched in the blood of fallen heroes. Women were supposed to confine themselves to the three Ks: Kirche, Kuche, Kinder, a phrase which, while not invented by Hitler, perfectly chimed with his paint of view,

For whatever reasons (and speculation on the nature of his sexuality has become increasingly fevered). Hitler remained unmarried.  Eva Braun was a shadowy figure hidden away at the Alpine retreat of the Obersalzberg. This left a vacancy for the post of First Lady of the Third Reich, and the woman who filled it – although largely ignored by posterity – was as extraordinary a figure as any of the men in the Nazi story. She is the subject of Anja Klabunde’s biography.

The only previous study of Magda Goebbels was written in 1978 by Hans-Otto Melssner, who had family connections with her. His father had been State Secretary to Hindenburg and continued to serve throughout the Nazi Era;  his mother was an acquaintance of Magda’s: as a young man, he himself encountered Magda and Joseph Goebbels at social functions. Meissner relied for much of his information on Ello Quandt, the sister of Magda’s first husband, who was determined to portray Magda as the primary victim of Goebbels’s propaganda machine.

Klabunde follows Meissner in most respects, her chief innovation being the emphasis she places on Magda’s adolescent friendship with the Zionist pioneer Victor (later Chaim) Arlosoroff.  ‘Nazi Chief Weds Jewess’, screamed the headline on one opposition paper when Goebbels, then merely the Gauleiter of Berlin, married Magda in 1931.  This deliberately provocative – and erroneous – claim was prompted by her connection not to Arlosoroff but to her stepfather, Max Friedlander. Like that of a surprising number of key Nazi figures, including the leader himself, Magda’s parentage was contentious. She was born illegitimate (a fact glossed over by the gentlemanly Meissner), and, although her parents married a few months later, they divorced soon afterwards. Magda’s mother later married the Jewish Friedlander, whose name Magda took and to whom she was, by all accounts, devoted.

Friedlander was an assimilated Jew, but his observation of festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur meant that Magda grew up with a degree of familiarity with Judaism. This was strengthened by her schoolgirl intimacy with Lisa Arlosoroff and her charismatic brother Victor. She became a member of Arlosoroff s Zionist youth group – a commitment which Goebbels subsequently found so threatening that, according to Klabunde, he was behind Arlosoroff s assassination in Tel Aviv in 1933.

Magda seriously contemplated a life with Arlosoroff and was devastated when, deeming her insufficiently dedicated to Zionism, he broke with her. Shortly afterwards, she was sent to finishing school, and, following a courtship straight out of a romantic novel, she married Gunther Quandt, a wealthy industrialist twenty years her senior. Many years later, the journalist Bella Fromm noted a comment she heard at a ball: ‘If rich Gunther Quandt had not come along, who knows where [Magda would] be now? Probably doing sentinel duty in front of a Palestine kibbutz, rifle on shoulder and an Old Testament password on her lips.’

Quandt was fabulously rich. One of Germany’s top industrialists, he successfully preserved his fortune through the hyperinflation of the 1920s and, later, the economic collapse of the Second World War. Magda, however, found that her romance soon palled. Quandt was cold and distant, and, although the couple had one son, she felt unable to share his life on any meaningful level. She established a far closer bond with her stepson, Hellmuth. The youth fell passionately in love with her, and, if he had not died of a botched appendix operation in Paris, where he had been hastily dispatched to study, Magda might have found herself playing Phaedra. As things turned out, she was to end her life in the role of an altogether different heroine from Greek tragedy.

After her divorce from Quandt, Magda was left young, beautiful, wealthy and intensely bored. The gap in her life was filled when, at the instigation of an aristocratic Nazi sympathiser, she attended an election rally at the Palace of Sport. She was swept up by the oratory of the principal speaker, Joseph Goebbels. She immediately joined the Party and became the leader of her local women’s group, an exotic figure among a membership of concierges and shopkeepers. She then volunteered her services at Party headquarters, where, after a chance meeting, Goebbels asked her to organise his private archive.

Magda was a great catch for the Nazis, bringing them an aura of respectability. She was an even greater catch for Goebbels, who was puny and misshapen with a deformed left leg. Hitler himself was enormously taken with her, remarking to one of his aides that she ignited feelings in him that had lain dormant since the death of his niece, Geli. Some commentators have suggested that Magda only married Goebbeis to gain access to Hitler; but, while cynicism may have been a motivating force in much Nazi conduct, it would not seem to have been a factor here.

Magda deeply admired Hitler and respected his sense of vocation, but she loved Goebbels, which was why she was so stung by his betrayal.  Cynicism was certainly one of Joseph Goebbels’s principal character traits, just as lies were his stock in trade. Magda discovered this for herself when, while honouring her as his wife and the mother of his six children, he embarked on a series of extramarital affairs, notably with young actresses whom he held in his sway as the panjandrum of German cinema. These would have remained a matter of domestic rather than historical interest, were it not that Magda’s complaint to Hitler about the most serious of them – with the Czech film star Lida Baarova – led to Goebbels’s fall from favour. It was in a desperate bid to regain his position that he orchestrated the anti-Semitic horrors of Kristallnacht.

Goebbels’s anti-Semitism is a matter of public record;  Magda’s is largely one of private conjecture. It is evident from her remarks to Ello Quandt that Goebbels had informed her about some of the horrors of the Final Solution. Although she would have had no power to moderate such a fundamental aspect of Nazi policy, it is clear that, even when she might have been able to exert some influence, she refrained. Not only did she refuse to lift a finger to assist a Jewish schoolfriend who appealed to her on behalf of her daughter (indeed, the formal letter of reply, which may or may not have been authorised by Magda, rebuked the woman for neglecting to add the requisite Sarah to her name), but she did nothing to save her stepfather, who, in the early days of the Nazi regime, was summoned to Goebbels’s office and never seen again. His precise fate remains a mystery, although recent commentators, including Klabunde, identity him with a Max Friedlander who died in Sachsenhausen.

Whatever the extent of her complicity in the Final Solution, Magda was a major beneficiary of the Nazi dictatorship. It was this that impelled her to take her own life on its collapse. She declared to Ello Quandt: ‘We who were at the summit of the Third Reich, we must take the consequences… Everyone else has the right to go on living, but we do not.’ She signally failed to extend that right to her children, for, in an act of matricide unparalleled since Medea, she murdered them in Hitler’s bunker shortly before she and Goebbels committed suicide.

The reasons for her action and the degree to which she was compelled by Goebbels remain matters of dispute. Some, such as Albert Speer, see her as entirely her husband’s agent; others, taking their cue from a party guest who claimed never to have seen ‘such ice-cold eyes in a woman’, place the responsibility on Magda herself.  Meissner believed that she was fortified by a Buddhist faith in reincarnation. Klabunde, in line with her more psychoanalytical approach, holds that she regarded her children as extensions of herself with no independent life.

Magda’s life is the stuff of myth and fairy tale: a first marriage out of Cinderella gave way to a second out of Beauty and the Beast, followed by a death out of Gotterdammerung. Klabunde’s account pays more attention to these romantic elements than to Magda’s public career. For example, she makes no mention of her war work. Almost alone of the leaders’ wives, she supported the government’s Total War policy by working in the Telefunken factory, even travelling there by tram so as not to alienate her colleagues.

Klabunde has an unfortunate love of atmospheric descriptions for which she can have no authority – whether it be the condensation on the mirror in Magda’s bathroom, to which the author appears to have privileged access, or the frequent smells by which Magda is assailed (‘the stale smell that lingered in the air’ of Paris; ‘the smell of her perfume’, which ‘still seemed to float through the room’, etc). Stylistic cavils aside, however, this is an engaging and lucid account of a supposed anomaly: a civilised, cultivated woman at the heart of the Nazi regime.