I'm half German, half Italian. My grandparents lived through the Third Reich and I still recall many of their stories from that era.
Magda (Johanna Maria Magdalena) was born in 1901 in Berlin, Germany to a domestic servant, Auguste Behrend, and a wealthy engineer, Oskar Ritschel. The couple married later that year but then divorced in 1905 with Magda ending up first in Cologne and later in Brussels, Belgium, where she was enrolled at an Ursuline Convent. In 1908 her mother married Jewish merchant Richard Friedländer who adopted Magda so that she had his last name. The family lived in Brussels until the outbreak of World War I when they moved back to Berlin where Magda attended high school.
During her school days, she fell in love with Viktor Chaim Arlosoroff who later became a Zionist politician. Through him, she was introduced to the Judaic faith and even wore a necklace with the Star of David for some time.
First Marriage with Günther Quandt
In 1920 while traveling by train Magda by chance came to know an exclusive gentleman taking the seat opposite her. Günther Quandt, a wealthy industrialist who founded a business empire including BMW, was struck by the charming young girl with blue eyes and blond hair.
Though twice her age Quandt courted Magda and the two eventually married on 4 January 1921. Before tying the knot Quandt demanded she changed her adopted Jewish surname of her stepfather Friedländer, back to Ritschel. In November 1921 Magda's first child, Harald, was born.
Over time Magda grew frustrated in her marriage as Günther was heavily occupied with the expansion of his business empire, while Magda, in addition to Harald, had also to look after the two sons of Günther's previous marriage and three children of a friend who had died.
When Günther in 1921 discovered that Magda was having an affair he separated from her, with Magda nonetheless obtaining a generous divorce settlement.
Finding a Cause
The alimonies allowed Magda the life of a rich divorcé so that the 1929 economic crisis did hardly affected her. As her mother would later observe: most young women would have been happy with a fraction of what her daughter had, yet Magda was nonetheless unsatisfied and bored. What was apparently missing was a cause to make sense of it all.
Unhappy about her life the hitherto politically uninterested Magda at a dinner party met Prince August Wilhelm von Hohenzollern who against her boredom suggested she should join the Nazi party and support a good cause. The following day Magda headed to the Sportpalast in Berlin where the National Socialist German Worker's Party, still a fringe party in 1930, held a rally. One of the speakers at the event, a certain Joseph Goebbels, then Gauleiter of Berlin, completely hooked her: Magda reportedly was so fascinated by his voice that she did not even pay attention to the meaning of this words.
Second Marriage with Joseph Goebbels
The little limping man did not exactly match the standard of the Nazi Übermensch, yet Joseph Goebbels was a rising star in the Nazi movement because of his intellectual and speaking capabilities.
Magda soon offered her services to the party and, being multilingual, ended up in the secretary department where she would meet Goebbels. Not before long, the two got romantically involved and eventually tied the knot on 19 December 1931, both dressed in black, with Hitler as best man.
Magda's mother did neither share nor could she understand her daughter's enthusiasm for the arrogant, wild-eyed Goebbels. Indeed astonishing how a privileged and well-educated girl with no interest in politics became a Nazi in such a short time. Yet in the movement, Magda had found both an ideology and her identity.
In the following 9 years, she would bear 6 children: 5 girls and 1 boy. As the Führer himself had no family, the Goebbels would soon become the symbol of the ideal Nazi family.
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The (Unofficial) First Lady and First Mother of the Third Reich
In Magda, Goebbels had found not only an attractive and intelligent woman, but he was also delighted about the world she would open for him. In its early days, the Nazi movement was seen as too left-leaning by many on the conservative right. Magda, having formerly been married to one of the richest men in Germany, had connections that would undoubtedly prove to be helpful. Her luxurious apartment in Berlin soon would become a sort of a party headquarter, where aspiring Nazi politicians and sympathizing businessmen would meet.
To gain a wider consensus and win over the masses, the Nazi movement needed a presentable woman. Who better fitted this role than Magda? When in 1933 the newly-elected chancellor Adolf Hitler was attending the opening of the Berlin opera, at his side stood not Eva Braun (Hitler's mistress, who remained hidden from the public until the end of the war), but Magda Goebbels.
For propaganda purposes, Hitler also needed images portraying him with children. Not having a family of his own, who was better at hand than the Goebbels children? They were often shown with the Führer and scenes from their family life were regularly recorded by the propaganda ministry and shown on screens all over Germany.
Not as Propaganda Would Have it
The proclaimed ideal German family, in reality, was not so harmonious: Joseph was abusive of Magda and had numerous affairs with other women, most notably with the Czech actress Lida Baarova. In 1938 a divorce could only be avoided because the Führer himself (to whom Magda was devoted) intervened. Playing the marriage counselor might have been self-serving: a divorce would have been disastrous for Nazi propaganda.
The Desert Fox visits the Goebbels children
Der Untergang (Downfall)
During the war years, Magda and her children spent most of the time at their villa at the Bogensee lake outside the capital. Yet on visits to Berlin, she saw the once glorious capital crushed under the Allied bombardments and was reminded that things would not always remain as they were. Despite Goebbels' propaganda rhetoric, she was well aware that the war could not be won.
As the Red Army was closing in on Berlin in the spring of 1945 she had to take a crucial decision for herself and the children. Friends urged her to flee to a safe place in a territory controlled by the Western Allies. Her former husband Quandt offered to provide a safe refuge in Switzerland for her or at least the children, yet Magda would not listen. Sadly, on 22 April she opted to move into Hitler's bunker, disguising the trip from Bogensee to the capital as an adventure. Reportedly even Hitler, though respecting Magda's loyalty, did not consider it the best decision.
By that time Magda had so fallen into Nazi ideology that she could no longer imagine living in a world without the Führer and Nazism. Like a religious fanatic, she chose to stay in the bunker and die. A day after Hitler had gone, Magda poisoned her six children before she and her husband killed themselves in the garden of the Reich chancellory. A farewell letter written by Magda from the bunker to her oldest son Harald reveals her final thoughts:
Farewell Letter by Magda to Her Son Harald Quandt
"My beloved son! By now we have been in the Führerbunker for six days already—daddy, your six little siblings and I, for the sake of giving our national socialistic lives the only possible honourable end ... You shall know that I stayed here against daddy's will, and that even on last Sunday the Führer wanted to help me to get out. You know your mother—we have the same blood, for me there was no wavering. Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvelous that I have known in my life. The world that comes after the Führer and national socialism is not any longer worth living in and therefore I took the children with me, for they are too good for the life that would follow, and a merciful God will understand me when I will give them the salvation ... The children are wonderful ... there never is a word of complaint nor crying. The impacts are shaking the bunker. The elder kids cover the younger ones, their presence is a blessing and they are making the Führer smile once in a while. May God help that I have the strength to perform the last and hardest. We only have one goal left: loyalty to the Führer even in death. Harald, my dear son—I want to give you what I learned in life: be loyal! Loyal to yourself, loyal to the people and loyal to your country ... Be proud of us and try to keep us in dear memory."
Magda Goebbels, by Anja Klabunde, Sphere (2003)
Magda Goebbels: First Lady of the Third Reich, by Hans-Otto Meissner, Nelson Publishing (1981)
Magda Goebbels, Wikipedia
Haim Arlosoroff, Wikipedia
Magda's Farewell Letter to Her Son Harald Retrieved from http://spartacus-educational.com/Magda_Goebbels.htm
© 2019 Marco Pompili