Background: This article appeared in late December 1941 when the situation on the Eastern Front was dire. The German offensive had stopped and the Russians, better equipped for winter warfare, were striking back with fury. Although the German homeland was not told how grim the situation was, Goebbels wanted to reduce the amount of grumbling and complaining about the privations the war was bringing.
This article was also sent to the Nazi speaker corps with instructions to use its arguments in encouraging the home front.
The source: Joseph Goebbels, “Was ist ein Opfer?” Das eherne Herz (Munich: Eher Verlag, 1943), pp. 145- 151. The article originally appeared in Das Reich, 28 December 1941.
What is Sacrifice?
by Joseph Goebbels
Words sometimes lose their real meaning during times of great emotions and feeling — war is such a time — and language has the danger of losing its force and power. The longer such emotions and feelings last, the more people incline to adjust their everyday life, and phrases that once set the world in motion become today’s slang. Although we work hard to separate the things of everyday life from questions of our national fate so that they keep their meaning, one can here and there observe that certain concepts lose their meaning through too frequent use. When we then really need to express something, we have no appropriate way of saying it any longer.
Soldiers speak differently than civilians. Aside from technical military words and phrases, one gets used to talking in a different way at the front. That is because the situation at the front is entirely different and they live under entirely different conditions than the homeland. When the homeland speaks to the front or the front to the homeland, they must use a different language than they are used to. There must be words that are reserved almost exclusively for the front, or at least for things that have directly to do with the front or war events. One such word is sacrifice.
The soldier who has been in the field since 1939 makes a sacrifice. He has marched through Polish dust and French sunlight, in the Southeast along muddy roads and then in the East, where he has risked his life for the future of his people in six months of barbaric battle. Today he stands unshaken along a 2000 kilometer front stretching from the White Sea to the Black Sea, in snow and ice, frost and cold, sometimes without food, sometimes without munitions, fully cut off for a half a year from the press, radio, film, theatre, and any kind of culture. He waits weeks for mail, has no roof over his head, no bed on which he can sleep, surrounded by desolate reaches, facing the enemy, subordinating his own wishes and needs to the whole. He makes a sacrifice.
The same cannot be said of a people’s comrade who must wait half an hour for a streetcar because of transportation cutbacks caused by the war and gets home at 7:30 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., where he shares a modest evening meal with his wife and children. Then he reads the newspaper or turns on the radio, for which he need only turn the knob to find, if not dozens, perhaps several or at least one station. If he is weary he goes to bed. If his work is particularly hard he can at least sleep in on Sunday. If he has half an hour or an hour to spare, he can even buy a ticket for the movies or the theatre and on Saturday or Sunday see a film or an opera.
Either we do not call what the civilian does a sacrifice or we need to find a new word for the soldier. In any event, we refuse to use the same word for both. Aside from the areas endangered by the air war, the homeland has at most restrictions or more or less unpleasant shortages. The front, however, makes sacrifices.
The individual may never make the mistake of overestimating his own importance to the war effort. It is wholly uncalled for to make the state or the government or the party responsible for whatever discomforts it brings. There are some who believe that because they pay taxes, they have a right to everything they want without themselves having to do anything. The war we are waging today is not a war of the government, the Wehrmacht, or the party. It is a war of the entire people. Just as the entire people, without exception, will enjoy the fruits of this war, so also must the whole people, without exception, share in its burdens. One may not think that while some fight and risk their lives others have the right to play at peace.
Obviously no one will arbitrarily be given a burden heavier than he can bear. But if there is a shortage of tobacco at home so that at least our soldiers can smoke, no one will complain even if he has to stand in line an hour to buy a few cigarettes. Certainly it is hard for a mother to let her son go to the field. But what should a woman say who lost her husband and four sons in the World War, and now has lost her fifth and last son in the battles in the East? It is no pleasure to sit three hours at night in an air raid shelter and have to get up weary and tired two hours later to go to work. Still, we know a mother who lost both of her children in a bombing attack and received news a few days later than her husband had fallen in the East. She brings a sacrifice, a hard and terrible sacrifice, but one that must and can be borne.
Certain people who have hardly been touched by the war have gotten accustomed to take their small, often trivial, daily troubles as all too important. There are those among us who, when their barber is drafted and they have to find a new hair stylist, would like to put on mourning clothing. The complain excitedly for hours because during the Christmas season the railroad is transporting potatoes, coal, and vegetables for the homeland and weapons, munitions, woolen clothing, and food for the front, and therefore has no room for pleasure trips to Oberhof or Garmisch. They act as if the war had nothing to do with them, as if they had the right to be sheltered from it, as if soldiers are there to win it for them so that they can later benefit from victory. There cannot be spoiled young girls who spend the day doing nothing while a nurse in a Berlin hospital works hard from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and then has to care for her household and three children until 1 a.m.
She would have reason to complain or be unhappy, but she is not. She does her duty with constant friendliness, gentleness, and helpfulness. She is overjoyed when, after a year of hard work, she is given a ticket to the movies for Christmas and does not complain in the least when, dressed for the movies, she receives the order to get ready for a major operation. A young woman loses her husband, a pilot in Spain. After overcoming her pain at that loss, she marries a second pilot and loses him in this war after a brief marriage. She then writes a letter that brings tears of emotion and pride, and one feels with his whole heart respect and admiration for the calm, spiritual heroism of a German woman.
When our troops marched into Poland in September 1939 they found 60,000 murdered ethnic Germans. Thousands lost their parents and all their siblings. Hundreds of parents had their children shot or strangled before their eyes. An old mother had to watch while the eyes of her only son were poked out. Her husband was kidnapped and never returned. The survivors are alive today. They keep their sorrows to themselves; they have been carried away by the stream of events. Sometimes one receives a letter from such a person who, with a thousand apologies, asks for a book or a picture of the Führer, or even so much as a small radio — but if our soldiers need it more, then one should consider the letter to be unwritten. A reply is not necessary, but if there is time return postage is included, and hopefully the Führer is well and nothing has happened to him, and one believes in his victory and builds mountains on that faith.
Does someone complain because during an evening bombing raid the Deutschlandsender ceases broadcasting and he needs to work hard to find another German station? Does someone leave a bookstore in a huff because he cannot invest his extra money in books, or who grumpily reads his newspaper that must limit itself to four pages because of the paper shortage, who mutters because the subway or streetcar is packed full, because Christmas is no fun any more because there are no candles for the Christmas tree, who does not enjoy the New Year because there are no red noses and paper hats to be had?
There is a hospital in Berlin with more than a hundred blinded by the war, mostly young men between 18 and 24. We gave each a radio for his room, and they were all happy as children. As soon as they were halfway back on their feet they began to live again. They began to retrain, to prepare for a new job. One lost his whole left arm and half the fingers on his right hand along with his eyesight. With this stump of a hand he learned to type. Everyone first said that was impossible, but he did it with iron determination. You are mistaken if you believe misery and despair are at home in that hospital. Nowhere in Germany is there so much confidence in the Führer, nowhere are our OKW reports anticipated so eagerly, nowhere are their fewer complaints or better attitudes.
Is it asking too much if i insist that we all use the word sacrifice with more care and piety? What should one say! It is no sacrifice if one donates twenty pfennig to the Winter Relief if at the same time it is a sacrifice when one loses his eyesight for the fatherland. We have no reason to dramatize our burdens, but rather have every reason to bear them with pride and dignity, having respect and honor for those who make real sacrifices for the nation. The war is a community task of the front and homeland, but they are not equal. The homeland can only do its duty to the front through a higher consciousness and of duty and a constant willingness to do one’s duty. The restrictions we accept are necessary and can be accepted. If anyone has the right to complain more than the others, also in making sacrifices, it is only the solder. But he does not do that because he is a soldier.
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