02/18 The Nazi Sportpalast Speech

One of the few surviving images of the Sportpalast (or, Totaler Krieg) speech of 1943. Goebbels’ audience had been handpicked for their fanaticism and ability to produce noise. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1943, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech to an attentive crowd at the Sportpalast arena in Berlin. Prior to Goebbels’ address, bars and cinemas had been closed down and millions of German citizens tuned in their radios. In his most famous performance, Goebbels announced that a turning point in WWII had been reached, and only the sheer strength and willpower of the German people would save Europe from extermination at the hands of the Soviet Union. Goebbels than asked of his audience:

“Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?

Nazi German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels meeting with a 16-year-old Hitlerjugend fighter in 1945. By that point, Goebbels’ mass mobilizations had resulted in the very young and the very old being pressed into uniform. (Wikimedia Commons)

Continuing on, Goebbels explained the necessity of totaler krieg (total war), a commitment of all national resources and energies towards victory. Citizens would be “compelled” to work 14 hour days and sacrifice comforts in the name of the fatherland. Near the end of his speech, Goebbels – having worked his “well-trained” audience into a frenzy – brought up the “Jewish threat”, and discussed German plans to neutralize said threat. The Nazi orator began to say the word “eradicate”, but caught himself mid-sentence, changing the verb to “suppress”. The Freudian slip was hardly as significant as some historians make it out to be, however: Allied high command already knew about the holocaust, and the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews was an open secret amongst German citizens.

A map of the Soviet advance towards Germany that began mere months after the Sportpalast speech. The Allied invasion of France would follow one year after. (Flickr)

The Sportpalast speech (as it became known to sarcastic German civilians) was, effectively, the Nazi government’s first admission that things were starting to go very badly for the Axis. Late in 1942, Allied victory at El Alamein had turned the tide in North Africa, while the crushing German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943 set in motion the tidal wave advance of the Red Army towards Germany. In July of 1943, Goebbels was put in charge of the total war effort, and set about mobilizing the last of Germany’s reserves. But in the end, totaler krieg only postponed the inevitable. Nazi German forces had been hopelessly overextended to the East, West, and South, and nothing on earth could stop the steamroller of the Allies on their advance to Berlin. By committing to totaler krieg, all Goebbels succeeded in doing was prolonging the suffering of the Germans – and the Allied forces committed to beating them.

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