The child-killer

Magda Goebbels

Anja Klabunde, translated by Shaun Whiteside <em>Little, Brown, 367pp, £20</em>

I

No woman in the higher ranks of the Nazi regime arouses such fascination as Magda Goebbels, wife of Hitler's propaganda chief. Nothing in her life made her more famous than the Medea-like gesture of immolating her six children in Hitler's bunker in Berlin in May 1945. Meagre biographies of her have been published in German, but Anja Klabunde's version is the first to appear in English, in a fluent translation by Shaun Whiteside.

Frau Goebbels does not seem to have been a particularly likeable person, as perhaps you might expect, but she certainly had an interesting life. An attractive, even beautiful, woman, she appears in this women's-magazine version as an ambitious femme fatale. A social climber who moved seamlessly between lovers and husbands, she finally produced a great brood of children for Joseph Goebbels and the Fatherland. Their names all began with the letter "H": Helga, Hilde, Helmut, Holde, Hedda and Heide. Magda's mother, in a postwar memoir, claimed simply that Magda's first child, with Gunther Quandt, was named Harald, and she had continued the tradition, searching for Christian names beginning with H. Many people assumed that they must have been so called in honour of Hitler.

Her first love, obviously an intriguing aspect of her early life for a biographer, was Chaim Arlosoroff, one of the early leaders of Labour Zionism. Magda's step-father was a Jew, Max Friedlander, and she was brought up in Berlin, after being forced out of occupied Belgium in 1914. (She spoke French better than German.) The Arlosoroffs lived round the corner, Chaim's sister was Magda's close friend, and she was soon caught up in the cosy rituals of Jewish life. This biography makes much of how Magda might have gone off to Palestine with Arlosoroff as an early pioneer, but the evidence suggests that this was only a teenage fantasy. Magda was clearly not destined to make the desert bloom; she was more ambitious for herself. She was carried off from her finishing school by Gunther Quandt, a balding textile millionaire twice her age. This was hardly a love match, and it ended in divorce, but not before Magda had become attracted to her stepson. He died before they could do much about their mutual infatuation.

Goebbels appears on the scene at the end of the 1920s. Magda was initially attracted to him when listening to him speak at public meetings. She joined the local branch of the Nazi party, and then secured a job in Goebbels's office. Soon they were lovers, and then they were married, much to everyone's surprise. Goebbels was known to have a roving eye, and the club-footed dwarf seemed no match for the handsome and wealthy Magda. From here, all is too familiar, as Magda's story becomes that of Goebbels himself. He soon tired of the haughty hostess, preferring youthful film stars, notably the Czech starlet Lida Baarova. Hitler, like many dictators, was puritanical and liked to be surrounded by bourgeois decorum. He read the riot act to Dr and Frau Goebbels, and they were obliged to establish some kind of modus vivendi.

Arlosoroff makes a brief reappearance in Berlin in 1933, just after the Nazi victory, and there is some suggestion that he hoped contact with the wife of a senior Nazi might have enabled him to smooth the negotiations about Jewish emigration taking place between the Jewish Agency in Palestine and the new regime. There is not much in this story. He failed to make contact with Magda, and he was assassinated in Tel Aviv on his return to Palestine. His death is usually attributed to the Jewish "revisionists", the spiritual predecessors of Ariel Sharon, but Klabunde revives an old story peddled by an Israeli journalist some years ago to suggest that he was assassinated on Goebbels's orders. There are no real facts to support this version, but it helps to pad out a bleak story.

Magda Goebbels, in Klabunde's hands, emerges as the heroine of a cheap novel, and unfortunately her book is novelettish, degenerating at intervals into a tedious soap opera. Even her retelling of the Gotterdammerung in the bunker is less than satisfactory, providing no fresh details of an oft-told tale. It seems to have been Magda's decision to kill the children, because they were "too good and too beautiful for the world that is coming". Her former sister-in-law, her chauffeur and Albert Speer all tried to persuade her to change her mind. But she remained steely to the end. The children were given a goodnight mug of chocolate laced with sleeping pills. Joseph Goebbels shot himself and Magda bit into a cyanide pill. "The next day the Russians forced their way into the bunker. They found the six lovely children in their white nightgowns, the girls with bows in their hair, as though asleep in their beds."

Richard Gott is writing a short history of Cuba