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Dangerous disabled people I

Sinners tend to be more interesting than saints. Wickedness and wrongdoing seem to fascinate more th

Unless you've been living on the planet Mars for the last 20 years, you'll be well aware that modern television is very fond of lists. The 100 best pop songs, the 50 most watched films, the top 10 celebrity breast implants (OK, I admit it, I made the last one up).

Anyway, I thought it was about time I came up with my own version.

My initial plan was to give you a run down of the greatest disabled people in history. However, now I come to metaphorically put pen to paper, I've decided I would much rather write about baddies than goodies.

Let's face it, sinners tend to be more interesting than saints. Wickedness and wrongdoing seem to fascinate more than good deeds and gallantry.

Just look at the evidence. My guess is that far more books have been written about Hitler than Nelson Mandela. According to most criteria (military, financial and dynastic) Henry VII was a far more successful and effective monarch than Henry VIII. Yet it's the overweight multiple divorcee who beheaded a third of his wives, plundered the monasteries and left the country heavily in debt who's been the subject of countless documentaries and dramas. His his father hardly gets a mention.

President Nixon, who was forced to resign from office over the Watergate scandal, is rewarded with a West End play and film whereas Franklin D Roosevelt, who skilfully led his country through the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, rarely figures in popular culture.

So I will follow this trend and rather than describing the lives of some ideal disabled role models, this week I will instead give you an account of the three most dangerous - yes dangerous - disabled people of all time.


In third place is Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda and one of the most significant figures in Nazi Germany. In 1929 he was given overall charge of the Nazi Party's propaganda machine and it was thanks to Goebbels' public relations skills that Hitler was able to influence the hearts and minds of the German population and maintain his grip on power. Goebbels himself recognized his achievement, declaring: "We have made the Reich by propaganda".

Joseph Goebbels was born in 1897 with a club foot which made it difficult for him to walk. One of his legs was 5 cm shorter than the other and he was also only a little over five feet tall.

During his time at school he suffered much ridicule from the other children and this left him emotionally scarred. Due to his mobility problem, his application to serve in the German army was rejected so he missed fighting in World War I. Goebbels was devastated to be turned down and it has been said he cried for two days afterwards.

His disability, together with his short stature, is believed to have given him a sense of inferiority which made him bitter, resentful and self-conscious. As he grew, this feeling of inadequacy developed into a strong contempt for humanity and a lust for power. (Later, some of Goebbels' enemies within the Nazi Party used his short height as a weapon against him, calling him the 'Poison Dwarf'.)

After Goebbels joined the Nazis in the early 1920s, it was only a matter of time before his talents were spotted by the party leader. Goebbels possessed a strong intellect, considerable organisational skills and was a powerful public speaker. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Goebbels was appointed Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda, a post he held until the end of Hitler's regime.

Goebbels was a master of mass communication, the ultimate spin doctor. He set out to control what the German people thought and felt, and he exploited every medium possible to achieve his goal - posters, the press, literature, radio, theatre, cinema, speeches, parades and music. Through these tools, Goebbels created the 'Fuhrer myth', the semi-religious cult surrounding Hitler, that captured the imagination of the German public. Goebbels once commented: "The essence of propaganda consists in winning people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that in the end they succumb to it utterly and can never again escape from it". Perhaps the most famous example of his ability to manipulate public opinion were the Nuremberg rallies. These were breathtaking pieces of political theatre that had an enormous impact on anyone who witnessed them.

Goebbels was also quick to employ the latest technology through radio broadcasts and films - some of which were made in colour, highly unusual at the time.

The Eternal Jew promoted anti-Semitism, while Triumph of the Will depicted the strength and glory of Hitler's Germany. After the calamitous Battle of Stalingrad, Goebbels commissioned a film which blamed the defeat on the Eastern Front generals for not displaying enough commitment to the Nazi cause. It was Goebbels who asserted: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

As well as disseminating Nazi propaganda, Goebbels also ensured that messages which undermined Nazi thinking could not be propagated. Soon after Hitler gained control of the German government, Goebbels began introducing measures restricting artistic and publishing freedom. In May 1933 he staged a mass burning of books authored by Jews, Marxists and other political opponents of the Nazis. He excluded Jewish writers, journalists and artists from German cultural life and brought newspapers under government control. From then on, the news was always biased towards Nazi ideology.

Of all Hitler's henchmen, Goebbels is perhaps the person the Fuhrer trusted the most. In 1944, even though it was clear Germany was losing the conflict, Goebbels urged the German people to even greater efforts. He called for "total war" and was appointed Reich Commissioner for Total Mobilisation. As the Russians besieged Berlin in the final weeks of the war, Goebbels stayed with Hitler in the Fuhrer's bunker. It has been reported that Hitler even gave Goebbels his wristwatch shortly before he died to acknowledge the fact he was the only senior Nazi to remain with him to the end.

But most of all Goebbels was a hypocrite. A serial adulterer and someone who, despite having an impairment himself, helped to found and lead a regime which persecuted disabled people on a scale not seen before or since.

From the moment the Nazis seized power they subjected Germans to constant anti-disability propaganda. For example, posters were produced depicting disabled people under the caption "deformed" while another asserted: "God cannot want the sick and ailing to reproduce". It is inconceivable that Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda and the genius behind the Nazis' communication strategy, was unaware of these posters. There is no evidence that he spoke out against the Nazi policy of demonising disabled people as "inferior", "weak" and "unfit" to have children. He believed wholeheartedly in the Nazi concept of a "master race" and the need to maintain the "purity" of the gene pool.

During the 1930s, while Goebbels was in power, thousands of disabled people were compulsorily sterilised and doctors were given the legal right to carry out forced abortions of disabled foetuses.

Later he became one of the chief supporters of the T4 Program, the Nazis' plan to eradicate disabled people using poison gas, lethal injections or starvation.

By the time World War II was over, the Holocaust had killed not only six million Jews but also an estimated 200,000 disabled people. On May 1, 1945, in the dying days of the war, Goebbels poisoned his six children before ordering an SS officer to shoot his wife and himself. It seems he was a danger to himself as well as other people.

Tomorrow: Kaiser Wilhelm II

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.