Goebbels, the "Minister of Film"


Goebbels, the "Minister of Film"

There are few histories of National-Socialist period film that have failed to deal with the dominating figure of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Images of an omnipotent "Minister of Film," a Nazi "Film Dictator," and a so-called "Genius of Propaganda" long dominated specialist literature, but are now recognized as being in need of revision.

What is indisputable is Goebbels" considerable interest in film as a mass medium. Proving this are the countless, often daily journal entries that Goebbels devoted to the topic beginning in the mid-1920s. His active engagement in film production in National-Socialist Germany has also been substantiated (in his own notes and in statements by others), from the political measures leading to the state control of German film to personal interventions in specific productions, particularly in the casting. In his capacity as Minister for Popular Education and Propaganda, this self-styled "Patron of German cinema" succeeded in replicating in the film world the power structures of the National-Socialist state itself, establishing a kind of "Führer-principle" according to which all key operations were gradually combined and subordinated to his personal control. The Nazis" hierarchically organized cultural-political apparatus was legally tied to and centered around Goebbels" person: Not only were the Film Office of the Reich Propaganda Ministry and the Central Censorship Bureau under his jurisdiction, but as President of the Reich Chamber of Culture, he was likewise in charge of the Reich Chamber of Film, one of its departments.

Goebbels" position was considerably strengthened by a 1935 law that gave him the right of veto over other authorities on questions of censorship; and he also had the last word on film rating.

Source: DIF
Joseph Goebbels (on the left, sitting) visiting the Rosenhügel-Ateliers in Wien

Despite his wide-ranging authority to determine Nazi film policy, Goebbels" power was by no means unlimited. In fact, as in other areas, there were considerable internal power struggles here — such as, for example, the conflict between Goebbels and Reich Marshall Hermann Göring. Goebbels" position on film policy was often disputed amongst the National-Socialist rank-and-file, with Hitler himself occasionally intervening. In particular, Goebbels" preference for popular entertainment stood in stark contrast to radical demands for more heavy-handed "ethos films" [Gesinnungsfilme].

On the one hand, Goebbels" central role and responsibility as Minister of Propaganda must be understood in terms of National-Socialist film policies and their support of Nazi crimes. On the other hand, the image of an all-powerful "Minister of Film" invites a simplistic historiography that not only ignoring inherent power-struggles and contradictions, but also absolving all the others who took part in the planning and actual execution of Nazi film policies. Goebbels may be seen as a dominant but limited contributor to National-Socialist film policy; this is especially because the Nazi leadership had, with a few exceptions, little trouble finding willing minions in the German film industry. The demonizing image of an "otherworldly mastermind of propaganda" has thus effectively continued the National-Socialist leadership cult and not only in principle: Following the war, filmmakers who had worked under the Nazis found this image fitting conveniently with their attempts to exculpate themselves.