Goebbels’ “Total War” Speech – Which Is the Primary Source?

The digital revolution has, without doubt, changed the way that young people research history. Previously, students pored over books and printed encyclopedias; today, with Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube, access to a broad range of historical source materials – including multimedia files – is only a mouse click away. On the one hand, this makes it easier for students to research topics that would have been difficult to investigate only twenty years ago; on the other hand, it also raises completely new questions.

During my internship at the German Historical Institute Washington DC (GHI), I conducted work relating to the review and expansion of the digital volume Nazi Germany, 1933-1945, which is the seventh volume in the website German History in Documents and Images (known as GHDI). Presently, the volume includes transcriptions of German historical documents (with English translations), images, and maps. As part of the GHDI relaunch, document facsimiles will be added to the Nazi Germany volume for the first time, along with audio and video clips. Adding facsimiles and recordings to the existing document transcriptions will ultimately make the site livelier and more attractive to users, particularly for younger researchers like myself.

Joseph Goebbels delivering his “Total War” speech at the Sportpalast in Berlin, February 18, 1943 © Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J05237

In the course of my work on the Nazi Germany volume, I came across one of the most important speeches of the Third Reich: Joseph Goebbels’ 1943 speech calling for “total war.” In the current version of GHDI, the speech is excerpted and available in transcription; the cited source is the Frankfurter Zeitung, February 20, 1943, p. 7. (An anthology of Goebbels speeches is offered as an additional source.[1]) My job, in this particular case, was to find a facsimile of the page from the Frankfurter Zeitung and to locate an audio recording of Goebbels delivering the speech.

Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, gave this famous speech on February 18, 1943, at the Sportpalast in Berlin. Only two weeks earlier, on February 3, the capitulation of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad had been announced on German radio – a report that came as a demoralizing blow to a German populace that had already grown tired of the war. Goebbels’ propagandistic attempt to counter the news and its negative effects on the collective German psyche was an approximately 109-minute speech delivered to a handpicked audience of 15,000 listeners. In the speech, he called for an intensified war effort and posed the now famous question: “Do you want total war?” [“Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?”] Like no other, the speech demonstrated Goebbels’ talent for manipulating reality by way of rhetoric. Treating the audience members as representatives of the entire German populace, he posed ten rhetorical questions regarding their willingness for war, all of which were answered with a frenetic “yes.” The speech has gone down in history as a prime example of the rhetoric of Nazi propaganda.

In terms of content, the speech, with its demand for “total war,” constitutes a challenge. As a source, however, the speech also constitutes a challenge in its own right – there are pitfalls, for instance, and lots of room for interpretive latitude. This became increasingly clear to me in the course of my research.

In the days immediately following the Sportpalast rally, Goebbels’ speech was published in numerous German newspapers. These printed versions are still reproduced in books and anthologies today. Some of the printed versions include the audience’s response to Goebbels’ words; others do not. This alone is a critical difference that has a significant impact on the reading experience as well as interpretation. Additionally, the situation is further complicated by discrepancies between the printed versions of Goebbels’ speech and audio recordings of the delivered speech.

Audio recordings of the speech, which are now widely available on the internet, were not previously accessible to wider audiences and student researchers. These recordings, often incomplete, were stored away in archives and very difficult to access.[2] Today’s students, however, have relatively easy access to both the printed versions and audio recordings. While listening to the speech on archive.org, I noticed at one point that Goebbels made reference to “the Jewish press.”[3] But in a printed version of the speech that I consulted, he referred only to the “British-American press.” I paused to ask myself: Did the stenographer make a mistake or was there something more? My interest was piqued: What other discrepancies were there? So I decided to do more research on the speech as a source.

Additional challenges arose as I continued comparing the printed sources and the audio recording: there were even more discrepancies, especially when it came to anti-Semitic statements. In multiple instances, references to Jews in the delivered speech (e.g. “the British-American, in other words Jewish, press”) were left out of the printed versions. Among all of the differences, however, one stood out in particular: in his delivered speech, Goebbels emphasized that the crowd before him in the Sportpalast was a “cross-section of the entire German people on the front and at home,”[4] which he then interpreted as representative of the entire nation. He then exclaimed: “Jews, however, are not represented!”[5] to which the crowd responded enthusiastically. But this statement was not included in the printed versions of the speech that I saw, and there was no record of the audience response. The reasons for these omissions make for interesting speculation. Perhaps at a time when the Nationalist Socialists’ genocidal program against the Jews of Europe was already under way, the party still did not want to specifically direct public attention to the “Jewish Question.”

The discrepancies do not stop at omissions, however.  Sometimes the printed versions included exaggerated audience responses and refined formulations. For instance, one printed version issued by the NSDAP reads as follows: “Fifth. The English maintain that the German people have lost their faith in the Führer. I ask you: is your trust in the Führer greater, more devoted, and more steadfast than ever before? Do you have an absolute and unlimited readiness to follow him wherever he goes and to do whatever is necessary to bring the war to a victorious end? (The crowd rises as though it were one man. The enthusiasm of the masses results in a display of unprecedented dimensions. Thousands of voices join in: “Führer command, we follow!” An unabating surge of “Heil Hitler” erupts. As if on command, the flags and standards are raised; they are the fullest expression of the sacred moment in which the crowd pays homage to the Führer).”[6]

Although certain audience responses can, in fact, be heard in the archive.org recording, they do not correspond with the ordering suggested by the parenthetical description in this printed text. For example, in the sound recording, the audience’s response, “Führer command, we follow!” comes after Goebbels’ statement “The English maintain that the German people have lost their trust in the Führer.” There, it does not, as this printed version suggests, constitute a response to Goebbels’ question about the crowd’s faith in Hitler. On this point, this printed version also waxes much more lyrical than the delivered speech. Whereas in the speech Goebbels simply asks “Do you trust the Führer?,” this printed version reads: “is your trust in the Führer greater, more devoted, and more steadfast than ever before?” As a result, this printed version offers a more embellished and exaggerated take on the speech and portrays the crowd as being much more enthusiastic about Adolf Hitler.

At the end of my work, I asked myself, in the case of Goebbels’ speech, is there one single definitive source? Are there many sources? Every variant of the speech could be regarded as its own object of study, its own source; correspondingly, each variant could be examined on the basis of its own set of targeted questions. This is at once a challenge, as I hope to have explained, and an opportunity. Sound recordings of the Sportpalast speech offer the opportunity to experience Goebbels’ propaganda more authentically, as spoken rather than written word. At the same time, one cannot overlook the powerful legacy of the printed versions of the speech in German newspapers.

The Goebbels speech is just one example of this phenomenon. As more and more audio recordings of famous speeches become publicly available through digitization and digital history projects, there will be more and more chances to compare the audio sources with the written transcripts that have largely served as definitive up to this point. This is an important opportunity, not least for a younger generation of historians who already regard digital history and multimedia formats as proven components of historical research.

Translated from the German by Kelly McCullough

[1] Helmut Heiber, ed., Goebbels Reden 1932-1945. Bindlach: Gondrom Verlag, 1991, pp. 203-05.
[2] Günter Moltmann, “Goebbels’ Rede zum totalen Krieg am 18. Februar 1943,” in Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, vol. 12, 1964, issue 1, pp. 13-43, 16.
[3] Sound recording of the speech (excerpted) – Internet Archive (MP3) https://archive.org/details/JosephGoebbels-Sportpalastrede
[4] “Ausschnitt aus dem ganzen deutschen Volk an der Front und in der Heimat”
[5] “Allerdings Juden sind hier nicht vertreten!”
[6] “Fünftens: Die Engländer behaupten, das deutsche Volk hat sein Vertrauen zum Führer verloren. Ich frage euch: Ist euer Vertrauen zum Führer heute größer, gläubiger und unerschütterlicher denn je? Ist eure Bereitschaft, ihm auf allen seinen Wegen zu folgen und alles zu tun, was nötig ist, um den Krieg zum siegreichen Ende zu führen, eine absolute und uneingeschränkte? (Die Menge erhebt sich wie ein Mann. Die Begeisterung der Masse entlädt sich in einer Kundgebung nicht dagewesenen Ausmaßes. Vieltausendstimmige Sprechchöre brausen durch die Halle: „Führer befiehl, wir folgen!“ Eine nicht abebbende Woge von Heilrufen auf den Führer braust auf. Wie auf ein Kommando erheben sich nun die Fahnen und Standarten, höchster Ausdruck des weihevollen Augenblicks, in dem die Masse dem Führer huldigt.)” Source: Kundgebung der NSDAP, Gau Berlin, im Berliner Sportpalast, Joseph Goebbels, 18. Februar 1943, Auszug aus der Rundfunkübertragung, DRA-Nr. 2600052, http://www.1000dokumente.de/index.html?c=dokument_de&dokument=0200_goe&object=translation&st=&l=de

A dual citizen of Germany and Norway, Martin Kristoffer Hamre earned an M.A. in Modern European History as part of a joint program at Humboldt University of Berlin and King’s College London. His M.A. thesis examined the influence of German National Socialism and Italian fascism on Norwegian fascism in the interwar period. He is a project assistant at the Willy Brandt Foundation in Berlin and recently completed an internship at the GHI.