Background: On 12 January 1945 the Soviets began a major offensive that quickly drove German forces back. Soon the enemy was on German soil. Goebbels was a good enough propagandist to know that he could not conceal the seriousness of the situation. In this essay, written a month after the beginning of the Soviet assault, he begins by admitting the grimness of the situation, then develops his standard argument that, no matter what the enemy does, German will and German strength will hold back the storm. He drops a hint, entirely false, that Germany is preparing new weapons and forces that, at the proper moment, will save the day.
The source: Joseph Goebbels, “Ein Volk in Verteidigungsstelle,” Das Reich, 11 February 1945.
A People on the Defensive
by Joseph Goebbels
The major Soviet winter offensive that began from the Baranow bridgehead and in an unusually short time spread from the General Gouvernment [occupied Poland] into the Wartegau and the other German Gaue in the east has radically altered the military situation. In the past the Reich defended itself far from its borders, but now the enemy occupies German territory that is very important to us both militarily and agriculturally. We can no longer use wide-open spaces as a weapon. We are now fighting almost entirely for and on German home territory. Each village and each acre, each city and each factory, that we are forced to give up means a direct reduction in our war potential, entirely aside from the fact that giving them up is a bitter loss to countless Germans, perhaps even costing them their lives. It makes no sense to talk around this or to ignore it, entirely aside from the fact that it does not improve the situation, but worsens it. It is good that we all know exactly where we are so that each of us knows what has to be done. The long lines of those fleeing from the east flows towards the west through our cities and villages. Even the most inattentive observer cannot miss them. It is hard to describe their misery and privation. Still, the people in these wandering columns are fortunate in comparison to those who had to remain at home and fell into the hands of the Bolshevists.
The ignorant know-it-alls throughout the world are getting a clear answer to their cynical question as to whether the Soviets are really as bad as we always said, or whether perhaps those stories were only the massively exaggerated product of war propaganda. Naturally, there are always people who learn only from experience, not from education. We have never flattered ourselves by believing that they could be persuaded with words or warnings. We did make our own people strong in the face of the deadly danger that threatens them and the entire Continent from the East. One can only tear out one’s hair when a leading politician of the USA-plutocracy says that the United States would welcome shift to the left in Germany and all of Europe as long as it did not end in Bolshevism. Looking at our Continent, one does not need to be a particularly sharp observer to see that the radical Red wave is rising slowly, but with uncanny consistency, and that if we do not halt and restrain it, it will devour all of Europe. Our wandering columns know what that means. Horror is reflected in the eyes of men, women, and children. When a farmer leaves house and farm and land and livestock, walking for many hundreds of kilometers with only what he can carry, thinking “anything to escape from that terrible prison,” it is because hell is behind him. We have reports and pictures of the atrocities committed against men, women, and especially children, by the bestial Bolshevist soldateska. They are too terrible to publish. The cultured world should cry out with anger and horror, if not about the misery that threatens us, at least about the misery that threatens them.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are racing across the east and southeast of our Continent. Only naive souls can believe that they will stop for no reason, thus sparing these peoples and their leaders the demanding task of defending themselves against the dark danger that faces them. True, we will be the first victim, but it is a concern of the whole civilized world whose very existence is threatened should we fall.
There was a POW camp for English airmen in an area of Upper Silesia that the Soviets captured. At the moment of crisis they had to choose between going over to their Bolshevist allies or withdrawing in an orderly way with their guards. They started marching without a second thought — and not to the east, but to the west, supporting their weary comrades, filled only with the burning desire to avoid falling into the hands of Bolshevist beasts in human form. A camp with captured Polish officers could not be evacuated in time and was captured by the Soviets. They were all shot in the back of the neck by their allies from the east. How would they treat us, their enemies, if that is how they treat their allies? And how bloodthirsty it is over against the mockery of the Lublin Soviets who ostensibly embody Polish popular will, but in reality are only a collection of deserters, egotists, and other dubious Stalinist creatures who only have the task to throw sand in the eyes of the world’s public, concealing the people’s tragedy that is transpiring in former Polish territory exactly as we had predicted.
One could almost weary of being a prophet, since the bourgeois world simply does not want to see. They are entirely unmoved by the horrible misery that Bolshevism brings upon the unfortunate peoples that fall under its power, waiting until it reaches them when defensive is usually impossible. What would happen, or would already have happened, to Europe if the German people had faced Bolshevism with the same weakness and lack of character as the Bulgarians, Rumanians, or Finns! One cannot imagine the resulting misery for us and for the whole continent. And no one should imagine that such a step can be reversed. It is a matter of life or death. The present storm from the East against Fortress Europe is naturally directed against our whole part of the planet. It differs from the Mongol and Hun hordes of the past only in that it uses the tools of political trickery and diplomatic lies to make its terrible destructive campaign against Occidental culture seem harmless for as long as possible. That, however, is its danger. If it revealed its full goals at the beginning, even the stupidest brain would resist. It goes its way step by step, with an occasional pause for breath, giving naive and weak people the vain hope that it perhaps will not be half so bad, until unalterable facts are created that can no longer be changed. He with eyes to see can confirm that without much effort.
Can one believe that the German leadership would allow such enormous sorrow, misery, and suffering to afflict their people, from whence they themselves came and to whom they devote their whole hearts, were there a way to escape the looming danger? They know that our suffering today is only a pale shadow of what we would have to bear, of what a grim fate would fall on us, if we gave up on this battle before victory or dully resigned ourselves to hope for the generosity or cooperation of a bitter and revenge-seeking enemy. We know the pain and misery that millions of people in Germany endure today. We can only admire the stoic equanimity with which our people bears them, but it must do so if it is not to lose everything. There will be an end to this vast and shattering world conflict. Several times in its nearly two thousand year history, the Reich and Europe faced similar danger. Each time the Occident was driven to the edge of desperation. Each time there were desperate and bloody battles, after which as legends have it, the dead fought on in the heavens and at the end the German Reich as the predominate power on the Continent led the way to victory. Such conflicts are not to be compared to ordinary wars; they cannot be measured by normal standards. The rage in the deepest depths of the peoples involved, they are battle of life or death, and the general crisis leads to the last and deadliest climax.
We do well to constantly make that clear. This is where we find the strength to resist at any cost. No change in feelings, however justified it may seem given the situation, may diminish our unshakable steadfastness, the foundation of our continued martial existence. As bitter as it may be to give up cities and provinces and the treasure and blood of our people, it must be borne bravely and steadfastly. There are only a few in Germany whom war has not touched with its rough hand. We do not begrudge them that, but we do demand that they that see the misery and suffering of millions of those who are less fortunate, and look past their comfortable possessions and life to a higher duty to the fighting community of our people. In this stage of the war that demands everything of us, we have no right to personal advantage and comfort. The war is a great equalizer, also in this regard. It pays no heed to birth, class, or possessions; we may not either. At the front the son of a millionaire fights next to the son of a worker, and in the caravans from the East the landowner’s wife is alongside the wife of the small farmer, and both in common misery hold their new-born child close to their breast to protect it from cold and frost.
We are a people on the defense. We work and fight, walk and trudge, suffer and accept, doing it all with a quiet dignity that in the end will earn the deepest admiration of the entire world. Europe should be happy that it still has such a people. It is its salvation today, and will, therefore, be its pride tomorrow. We do not for a moment doubt that we will break the danger to the world in the East; how and when depends on new and slowly developing military countermeasures. The steppe will be halted at the moment of greatest danger when everything is clear. Until then keep a cool head. We may show no weakness, we may not waver for a second. We must stand firmly, even if we bleed from a thousand injuries and bruises and the body of our people bears countless wounds. They later will be our badges of honor. The nation then will forever bear the face of the warrior. Peoples that stood aside during Europe’s great battle with fate will look toward it with pale and silent faces. We already know who will have earned the world’s greatest fame and admiration.
We will never have to be ashamed before anyone. We have tasted all the sorrow of war and will, therefore, be the victor. We believe that today more than ever. No power on earth can shake our faith. It is rooted deeply in our strength, in our conviction of the justice for which we fight, and in our confidence in the moral order of the world. One can threaten it, but not defeat it. Common misery does not make us weak, but rather strong. We well end this war as a people of heroes. The lesson of history is that such peoples begin new eras.
We are determined. In the eternal give and take of war, we stand at our posts, defending ourselves against every danger we face with bitter determination, and know that in the end we will achieve our great goal. The harder it is for us, the more fanatically we fight and work. The time for strong hearts has come. The war rattles and shakes individuals and peoples, and who seeks to escape will be trampled. Having no other choice, we are ready. The war will find us ready at every moment. We will not bend to it, it will have to bend to us. That is our choice that is and will remain unalterable.
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