Background: Whatever else one can say about Goebbels, he wasn’t stupid. For months he had known the war was hopeless. He also knew his fate was tied to that of the Reich. He was not going to let himself fall into Allied hands, and he was willing to have as many Germans die as necessary to prolong the war.
This article was published in Das Reich in early April 1945. His argument is the one he consistently made during the end phase of the war: Germans should keep fighting since if they lost the war they would lose what little they still had. He retreated to his favorite historic parallels, comparing enemy tanks to Hannibal’s elephants and asserting that if Frederick the Great could hold out until he won a miraculous victory, so could Germany in 1945. By now few believed Goebbels but he had little else to do than repeat himself.
A month after this article was published Goebbels and his wife killed their six children, then themselves.
The source: “Die Geschichte als Lehrmeisterin” Das Reich, 1 April 1945.
History as a Teacher
by Joseph Goebbels
Here and there someone observes that this war has no parallel in history, and that therefore a reference to historical examples is not persuasive. The political-military situation of the Second Punic War or the Seven Years’ War differs greatly from the present, it is said. Both historically decisive struggles took place under different situations and conditions, particularly since modern technical warfare makes obsolete all previous conceptions of dramatic battles between peoples. These objections are not valid, just as the argument that one cannot stop an Anglo-American or Soviet tank by determination alone is not. To our knowledge no one has said that, only at the most that bravery is the foundation of the military testing of our people, and that each one of us is able to find a way to survive, even if the resources and opportunities to do that vary over time. In short, it all depends on whether a people whose life is threatened gives in to the danger or whether it uses all its strength to resist, and therefore overcomes even the most severe challenges and tests of nerve.
Historical examples are not used to strengthen our fighting morale because they correspond in every detail to our people’s present fateful war against a world of enemies. It would be more than foolish to say that. We know that the three Punic Wars were waged to establish the Roman city state as the center of world rule, and that Prussia had to battle three times against shifting enemy coalitions to win Silesia and gain leadership of the at that time entirely defeated German Reich. It is clear that the battles of Roßbach and Leuthen and have very little in common with today’s battles on the Rhine or the Oder, and that modern battles of matériel take place under entirely different conditions and are fought with entirely different methods than the three Punic Wars or the three Silesian Wars, and that in this respect historical examples have relatively limited persuasive force.
Other historical examples, however, provide lessons for today. Both as a people and a leadership, we can and must learn from them in both good and bad times. They provide guidelines for our behavior from events in the distant past that are indeed dissimilar in terms of the situation, yet are very much the same in terms of the ways that a people and its leadership must respond. In any event, we can always see that reading the letters and writings of Frederick the Great or Mommsen’s history of the Second Punic War give more strength in the critical phases of this war than reading the daily lies in the Anglo-American press. The former documents deal with historical events that can be seen in their full context. They have proved their truthfulness over two centuries or two millennia, while the latter are as long-lived as May flies. The war that we have to survive today is not limited to his current events. It would be more than dreadful were that the case. It has an historic dimension, as do all great and decisive battles between peoples. That is very difficult to see in the blood and tear covered face of this wild and dramatic time, but that is no proof that it does not exist.
A new world will emerge from this war, whether for good or evil. If it ends with the victory of our enemies we Germans will be damned to a future of being the slaves and pack mules of the whole world. One does not need to ask our people whether they are willing to accept such a role. The only question today is which means and opportunities remain for us to stop that from happening. We always have more than enough of them if we keep a cool head and remain on our feet, regardless of the situation. The opportunities change daily, sometimes hourly. During the 18 years of the Second Punic War Rome suffered so many defeats that it more than once stood at the edge of the abyss. The cowards among its citizenry often had opportunity to speak of capitulating to Carthage. The decisive thing was that such voices found no audience in the Roman Senate or among the Roman people. Its men cursed and complained after terrible defeats and their women wept over fallen heroes, but then they went back to the battlefield or back to work. One does not have to tell us that there were no tanks back the. We know that. Hannibal, however, crossed the Alps with elephants, contrary to all thinking and expectations. Their sudden appearance in Northern Italy unleashed just as much fear and terror as does the unexpected appearance of Soviet or Anglo-American tanks. The event is fundamentally the same, and we are therefore of the opinion that the reaction must also be the same if we are to survive.
During the past two years both enemy and neutral countries have often told us that we were finished, even urgently advised us to capitulate unconditionally as quickly as possible. But just as often, have we not overcome the towering dangers that we faced? If one reads contemporary newspapers from the dark years of the Third Silesian War, one will find no voices that speak for Frederick. He was the only one who did not give up, and that was more important to the outcome of the Seven Years’ War and his victory than the fact that his enemies thought he had lost. One should not think us so stupid that we do not realize the differences between modern war and war in the eighteenth century. However, we absolutely reject the argument that technology and motorized warfare have fundamentally changed warfare itself, that earlier wars were determined by the steadfastness of the military leadership and warring peoples (which can hardly be denied given the results we can see), but that wars in our century are decided exclusively through resources and matériel.
That is the cheap but in no way accurate view of cowardly idiots. They probably said similar things about Hannibal’s elephants during the Second Punic War, and during the Third Silesian War they attempted to prove that Prussia, bled dry and with about four million inhabitants, could hardly stand against forty million enemies. However, they did not determine the outcome, but rather men with strong hearts. They found such a crushing refutation that their names were fully forgotten, thank God (and to their own good fortune), while courageous and strong personalities not only proved to be right, but were able to rescue their cause and thereby their peoples.
How often during our struggle for power people proved that our cause was entirely hopeless on mathematical grounds, without causing us to lose heart in the least. Again we hear that argument, which back then was made at the most with bans on our meetings, not with tank battles. Still, the SA and SS man had to throw himself against forces superior by ten- or twenty-fold, even sometimes a hundred-fold. If he died, it was the same as when a German soldier today falls in a tank battle. The dimensions of the battles one is forced to fight for the life of his people are less decisive than the willingness to sacrifice that he displays. A cause is hopeless only when those fighting for it think it is hopeless and act accordingly. History shows repeatedly that an historical crisis can be mastered only through the heaviest risk and loss of blood. Rome lost 70,000 men at the Battle of Cannae, almost the entirely of its armed force. It had every reason to despair, for the way to the Eternal City was open to Hannibal. The Roman leadership hardly had any troops left. Yet Rome did not despair, and its stubbornness was the foundation prerequisite for the later Roman Empire.
It is our firm belief that, in the long view, our people’s current heroic struggle will result in the proudest establishment of a Reich that history has ever seen. But that depends on us alone. Each great individual deed today, be it in battles, be it in suffering and endurance, is a stone on which to build. The time will come when nothing that we must today bear will have been in vain. We admit openly that when we look about us in the midst of this grim and evil era, we feel better with the great heroes of human history than we do with the buyable newspaper writers in London, Washington, and Moscow, who adjust their banners to the wind and are ready at any time to scorn today what they worshipped yesterday. They, however, are never able to give support or consolation at critical times. None of them, not an Alexander nor a Fabius, neither a Scipio nor a Caesar, neither one of our great German Kaisers nor one of our great Prussian kings, would act any differently today in our situation than we act. None would in the face of the destructive rage of the enemy give up his courageous determination or, as Clausewitz says, sacrifice world history for a page of a lying newspaper. That is how we feel, that is how we think, and that is how we will always act.
If so-called public opinion in enemy states recommends to us the opposite, they do so as we all know not in our interest, but entirely in theirs. They want a cheap triumph over us using hypocritical eloquence, which they would renounce with brutal cynicism at the moment they succeeded, and we would be the losers. What is left of those peoples who left our side and deserted to the enemy? They would sing hymns of praise if they could exchange their present hopeless situation with the tolerable conditions before capitulation. But it is too late for that. They choose false wisdom. Instead of following the command of national duty and honor, they now have to pay, and will have to pay even more in the future. History has no pity for subservient peoples. She shows them her most terrible harshness and punishes them for their lack of bravery and courage of the heart in body and soul, unto the third and forth generation. Anyone at present who loses his overall view of things and is no longer able to distinguish the essentials from the nonessentials should remember that. History is a strict teacher. She rarely repeats her advice, and only seldom gives a second chance to those peoples and leaders who attempt to ignore her laws. We must, therefore, bow to her hard advice, however much bitter sorrow it daily gives us. We have no other choice, unless we give up any hope of national life and surrender ourselves to the mercy of the enemy.
Neither the German people nor its leadership are inclined to do that. We have learned much in this war, but not how to bow down and worship an enemy that is far below is from a moral and human perspective. We would rather fight bravely to defend our rights, as hard as it may be, standing firm and trusting in them. We have already lost so much in this war that almost all we have left is our honor, our lives, and our freedom. That, however, is also the main thing and the prerequisite for our continued national existence. Of what use are undestroyed cities to us if the people that lives in them bear the chains of slaves, and how quickly would we rebuild them with unprecedented splendor if we maintain our freedom and the substance of our national life. The German Reich needed over two centuries to regenerate itself after the lost Thirty Years’ War. Completely devastated Prussia after it won the Seven Years’ War needed only a few years to awaken into new life, to rebuild its cities and villages, and gain the respect of the other great European powers despite its limited territory.
We have the choice today to do one or the other. That choice cannot be difficult. Each must decide for himself, but we must also decide in our entirety as a people. Our brave fathers are watching us. They have the right to demand of us that we do not need to be ashamed before them. They made the same sacrifice for the Reich that we must make today. They expect of us that we display the same calm bravery of heart that they displayed.
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