Joseph Goebbels wrote this novel in 1923, at age 26, two years after he’d taken his Ph.D in literature. The book was originally--and rather appropriately, as things turned out--called “Michael: Pages From a German Destiny,” but the subtitle may have caused some queasy moments for the publishers of this first English edition, who have left it off. Variously rejected by German publishers before the author had made a name for himself in politics, it finally came out in Germany in 1929 and by 1945 had gone through 17 printings. Though the author’s position as Hitler’s propaganda minister certainly didn’t hurt his sales figures, he never got around to composing a sequel. That was perhaps his only known act of mercy, considering the literary quality of this early effort--less a novel than a romantic, rhapsodic and rather sophomoric paean to National Socialist revolution.
Goebbels’ story seems to be a blend of his own youthful experiences (probably reconstructed from student diaries); those of his close friend Richard Flisges, a veteran of the First World War who’d introduced him to Marx, then died in a mining accident (Goebbels’ protagonist suffers a similar fate), and those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose louse-under-the-floorboards autobiographical stance in “Notes From the Underground” obviously provided the fledgling novelist with a convenient model.
Michael, this diaristic novel’s first-person narrator and hero, returns in 1918 from the Russian front to his university; there he meets an idealistic, blond-haired fraulein named Hertha Holk, with whom he takes rainy strolls through the Black Forest, conducts high-minded discussions about the Fatherland and--in chaste and exalted fashion--falls in love.
Subsequent “action” includes some ranting political arguments with a demonic Russian student-revolutionary (whose Pan-Slavism bumps head-on into Michael’s Pan-Germanism), a religious seaside interlude during which Michael writes a verse play about Christ, and a rather anti-climactic tryst between Michael and Hertha Holk in Munich’s Latin Quarter, where the hero’s Sturm-und-Drang psychic torments and anti-bourgeois fervor drive his middle-class sweetheart away. Alone, he goes off to the mines to pursue his new-found doctrine of redemption through work and self-sacrifice.
All of this is punctuated steadily by Michael’s ejaculatory, aphoristic commentary, delivered mostly in one-line paragraphs whose relentless ripple-effects at first hold a certain awful fascination, but soon come to feel like the sledgehammer blows of a baby rattle filled with concrete. And Goebbels’ characters never rise above their basic two-dimensionality; they are cardboard cutouts whose greatest glory is to become sounding boards for the author’s lugubrious philosophizing.
Goebbels’ literary sources probably included not only Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Goethe (all revered by Michael) but also such more immediate influences as Knut Hamsun, Ernst Junger and Arnolt Bronnen. But discussing his book in such terms is a little like talking about John Hinckley’s diary in relation to the Confessional Tradition, or comparing Howard Hunt’s spy novels with Joseph Conrad. In short, his historical role is our only reason for looking into Goebbels’ book.
On the face of it, this is not a book about Hitler. Shortly after it was written, in fact, Goebbels, as a National Socialist newspaper editor, demanded the expulsion from the party of “the petty bourgeois Adolf Hitler.” A year later, however, the novelist-turned-journalist attended a Hitler speech and immediately abandoned the party’s “moderate” wing to follow him; the rest, like they say, is history.
“Michael” contains a few passages of evangelical, lyric-ecstatic proto-Nazism, hailing an incandescent, unidentified Fuehrer-figure and denouncing Jews, but these passages were likely 11th-hour, brink-of-publication inserts. The novel’s testimony about its author’s political life is largely a psychological backdrop, a portrait of the Ur-Fascist character achieved quite apart from (and in spite of) Goebbels’ confused and self-conscious “revolutionary” intentions.