Background: This article was published in Das Reich on 15 April 1945, the penultimate of Joseph Goebbels’s lead articles. Goebbels takes note of those who surrendered to the oncoming Allies rather than fought to the death, asserting that they are a tiny minority of cowards, and claims that if Germany can only hold out a little longer the enemy coalition will collapse. By the time the article appeared, much of Germany was already in Allied hands, and it was clear that the vast majority of Germans were not going to follow his injunction to die fighting.
The source: “Der Einsatz des eigenen Lebens,” Das Reich, 15 April 1945.
Risking One’s Own Life
by Joseph Goebbels
I turn to all Germans throughout the Reich, regardless of class, occupation, or age, at one of the most dramatic moments in the history of our people. I will say what the hour demands of us, of what we must do for our own salvation and for the continued existence of our people. I know better than most of us the enormous difficulties that stand in the way of the successful continuance of our courageous resistance against a bloodthirsty and revenge-hungry enemy in the East and West. I know that the nation is at the edge of exhaustion and the chances of resistance have significantly decreased as a result of the most recent territorial losses in the East, Southeast, and West. However, I also am one of the few of us who knows the extraordinary pressures that the enemy camp faces, and can prove from a thousand witnesses that it must win quickly if it is to win at all. I have proof in my hands that the enemy coalition suffers from internal tensions and is held together only by military successes and by the hope of an immanent final victory. At this stage of the war, to win time is to win everything. We can only win time if we remain firm and continue to resist, regardless of the conditions and disregarding the fact that this resistance costs us sacrifice after sacrifice and strains our nerves to a level that almost seems unbearable.
I believe that history has meaning. The misfortunes that have struck us cannot destroy this faith. I am certain that the Führer will find a way out of the dilemma, and that only then will the outwardly lost meaning of this war be renewed. The tests that we have to withstand today are enormous and put the German people through trials it has only seldom faced in its history. Nonetheless we must stand firm, or else everything will be lost. This war will be decided one second before midnight. Should we lay down our weapons before that, things can only go against us. Each of us knows what that would mean. Our enemy has told us that himself often and openly enough so that no one any longer can have the least doubt. If one of us now and again forgets that in the midst of the war’s events and surrenders himself and the nation to common disaster, he must be taught better by friendly reminder or firm warning. It is no time to forgive weakness or faintheartedness. Our focus is entirely and only on our people, which is in the midst of a severe life crisis. Only we can resolve this crisis. If we succeed, we win everything; if we fall, we lose everything. Everyone knows what he must do.
Our enemies in the East and West have the same perfidious plan to destroy the German people. It is, therefore, entirely in vain to set one’s hopes on one side or the other of the coalition. One way or the other, life for our people under their tyranny would be hell on earth. We do not have the option of trying one side or the other. Such an attempt could not be undone and would lead to the total extinguishing of our national substance. Who would want even to think about living under such conditions? For this reason alone we are obligated to ourselves and to our people to do everything to hinder that, to exhaust every means and each possibility available. He who does not do that is a cowardly traitor. He sins in the worst way against the most holy duty to the fatherland. If it were up to him, Germany would cease to exist. The generations that will come after us would shed tears of shame over our disgraceful failure in this hour of our nation’s fate. The misery that we would do would be a thousand times more unbearable than the misery we today endure to prevent that.
Throughout the entire war I have written openly to our people each week. I need not be embarrassed about anything that I have written. If occasionally I made a mistake, this was the result of human weakness. Today, however, it is not a question of who is right and who is not. The hour demands of us unity, firmness, and steadfastness, from every one of us. He who falters in his duty to the people must be called firmly to account, for only in that way can discipline be upheld in these critical days. We must preserve the threatened existence of our people. Other considerations must be forgotten. We must be willing to risk our own life, and if need be sacrifice it. Only our hard resistance can stop the enemy. There is no other way. It will be enough if we use it to the full everywhere. There are cities behind the German lines that have resisted the enemy’s assault for two months and forced the enemy to make sacrifice after sacrifice in blood. They must be the model and example. If each German city acts in that way, the enemy will not be able to march forward. In this battle for our freedom, we note the heroic actions of individuals that breath the spirit of antiquity. Each German can imitate them. Only so can the enemy be halted, forced in countless small battles to bleed, to have his insolent arrogance reduced. National resistance is not only for the army, but rather a matter for the entire people. No one can stand to the side.
We must learn to improvise, to make a virtue out of necessity. A few brave men and women can work miracles. Do not always expect help from above, but look around and see what you can do until help arrives from above. We are not fools. The enemy is relying on our fear, and his basing his risky operations on it. If we face him courageously he will have to respond, bring up reinforcements or hold back forces from his advanced positions. That weakens him in the long run, chasing way the fear of his tanks. He does not, after all, have inexhaustible reserves. He is also limited by his manpower and matériel. He is using his forces so recklessly only because he believes he will face no opposition. That is our opportunity. He who even indirectly aids him is a traitor to our people. He will receive the penalty he deserves. But it is not enough to resist the enemy passively; one must defend actively. That ranges from showing him icy contempt to using weapons against him. He who thinks he has to defend his own house and home must be told that if everyone behaved in that way, the nation would lose its freedom, and with the loss of that national freedom his house and home, and his own life, would be worthless. The people’s freedom can demand any sacrifice of us. It is cowardly and despicable to demand heavy sacrifices of someone else, or of a neighboring city, that one is oneself unwilling to bring.
There have been isolated cases in which individuals without character did not face the enemy with the cold and contemptuous manner that he deserves. These disgraceful cases make them guilty, and they will feel shame until their hopefully immanent death. What despicable weakness is shown by facing the enemy even with indifference, he who has turned our cities and villages into heaps of rubble merely to torture our civilian population! What more could he do to earn our hate and our contempt? English and American newspapers make such isolated events the general rule, drawing the conclusion that the German people has no national character, If, on the other hand, a city shows heroic resistance and falls only after honorable battle, and where when other methods of active resistance are unavailable the population shows only hate as he marches in, then the enemy is full of fearful admiration. Cowardly creatures who think that they can quiet the enemy’s lust for revenge by surrender only earn his contempt. Disaster does not rob people of their character. Those who do not meet the enemy with the required inner and outward attitude should note that. They are a disgrace to our people.
Thank God, that is only a tiny minority. But they may not be tolerated. They harm our good name in the world, which takes no notice of the accomplishments of our fighting front and homeland, but tries to draw from a few examples of cowardly submission broad evidence of our sinking war morale. That is why it is necessary to take hard and strict action in this matter, regardless of whether it gives opportunity to the enemy to draw false conclusions. We have no cause to be ashamed. The achievements of the German people in this war are already part of history. No filthy enemy hand will be able to steal the victory wreath that our people already wears. We will not allow members of this people who have forgotten their duty to add weeds to this glorious wreath. The war’s heroism obligates us all. In this critical time we must display conduct that is worthy of the misfortune that has struck us. We must bear it calmly. Only in that way will we deserve the respect of the world without losing our respect for ourselves. This war is the destroyer of bourgeois comfort. We surrender to its pressures not only the external, but also the internal aspects of this comfort. When a nation has lost as much in a war as the German nation has in this one, it must assiduously guard against also losing its honor in the midst of the general confusion, for without it, it would lose everything. Loss of confidence in national honor would end in nothingness. Any future attempt at salvation would be in vain.
My appeal is to all who hold the honor of their people higher than their own lives. They must stand guard, ensuring that the nation suffers no internal harm. They must do their duty, without regard for themselves or their property. Silence is a sin when one must speak. We must overcome lethargy and weariness and challenge passivity. The enemy can be stopped if we all worth together. That will happen not only with weapons, but also with attitude. If he meets a passive population, he can move on. If he faces a population that resists, he must stop. If that becomes our general military policy, much will be gained and nothing lost. Each leader in the army and party here must set a good example. Withdrawing before the enemy is easy and can, if repeated, lead to a general weakening of national resistance. And where can we go if we continue to withdraw? We will have to fight in the end. It is better to do our duty near our house and home, near our workplaces, where the simple but hard demand is to fight, to win, or to die.
That is how we must see things if we are to survive. No one is exempt from this categorical imperative. And what life is to previous to sacrifice for the fatherland! The people wants to see examples that it can follow. It wants examples of courage and contempt of death so that it can be courageous and contemptuous of death. We are in the midst of a crisis in which a man can prove himself only by deeds. Everything else is incidental. War determines the value not only of peoples, but also of individuals. Each must prove himself anew, each must again prove his inner and outer steadfastness in the face of difficulties. Otherwise he will lose his honor and his good name. That is true for our entire people. The true man shows himself only in the face of death. Everything else falls aside and only that which is lasting, which is genuine, which cannot be destroyed by the external destruction of this war, will survive this war. It may be as a living personality, or as the memory of a man who did not seek to avoid his death, but rather gained a new, never before seen radiance.
This is the foundation of our work for ourselves and for our people. We must, every one of us, without emotion, swear to die than to accept the yoke of slavery. Better to risk everything than to give up, and a thousand times better to fight to the last breath than to capitulate in disgrace. Only so can the nation be saved, We are in the final stages of the war. By human standards, it cannot continue much longer. Now is the decisive hour. Will we be its victims or its master? We have mastered all its burdens for nearly six years. We are now at its last and hardest phase, perhaps in its center. Let us go on with pride and character! We can master it only with we leave no possibility unused. The decisive factor in war is always the risk of one’s own life.
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