David Dennis on the Nazi Distortion of the Western Tradition [INTERVIEW]Historians/History
tags: Nazis, Western culture
Robin Lindley (email@example.com) is a Seattle writer and attorney, and features editor for the History News Network. His interviews with scholars, writers and artists have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change, The Inlander, Re-Markings, and other publications. He is a former chair of the World Peace through Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association.
The worst readers are those who act like plundering soldiers: they take a few things they can use, dirty and tangle up the rest, and desecrate the whole.
Nazi Germany laid claim to the works of the most prominent creators in the Western tradition to support its authoritarian, militarist and racist ideology, and to advance the belief that the Third Reich was bringing about a political and cultural order that represented the pinnacle of civilization.
In his most recent book, Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture (Cambridge University Press), historian Dr. David B. Dennis presents a comprehensive examination of cultural references in the Völkischer Beobachter, the main publication of the Nazi Party and the most widely circulated newspaper in the Germany of the Hitler era.
Dr. Dennis describes how that newspaper interpreted and twisted the history and aesthetics of Western culture, from the Greek classics through the Renaissance and into the Weimar Era to fit the Nazi worldview. He shows how the Nazis appropriated great Germans thinkers and creators such as, Luther, Goethe, Beethoven, Wagner and Nietzsche as well as other so-called “great men of the Nordic West” such as Dante, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Dickens.
To create Inhumanities, Dr. Dennis painstakingly read through and examined every page of the Völkischer Beobachter from January 1920 through April 1945 “in search of each major article it published on literature, philosophy, painting, sculpture, architecture and music.” He then undertook the mind-numbing task of analyzing each pertinent article for ways the paper’s writers distorted the iconic figures and works of Western humanism to conform to the murderous Nazi ideology.
Historians Jeffrey Herf, Celia Applegate and Glenn Watkins, among others, as well as Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, and other press and media outlets, have praised Inhumanities for its wide scope, vivid writing, and extensive research. In TLS, Yvonne Sherratt described Dr. Dennis’s book as “one of the most important, authoritative and meticulous studies of Nazi propaganda to date.”
Dr. Dennis is a Professor of History and the Graduate Program Director at Loyola University Chicago where he teaches courses on modern European cultural history. He also wrote Beethoven in German Politics, 1870-1989, an examination of the uses of Beethoven’s biography and music by all of the main nineteenth- and twentieth-century German political parties. His current interdisciplinary project, A Modern History of Computing and Its Cultures, co-authored with George Thiruvathukal, surveys the stages of computing history with critical historiographical methods and explores the relationships between these developments and their social and cultural contexts.
Dr. Dennis recently talked by telephone from his office in Chicago about his book and the enormous task of reading through twenty-five years of the major Nazi Party newspaper.
* * * * *
Robin Lindley: How did you decide to spend years researching references to culture in the newspaper of the Nazi Party in Germany, Völkischer Beobachter?
Dr. David Dennis: The background of the work is my graduate studies and even my undergraduate work in areas of curiosity motivated by my intellectual heroes. At the University of Wisconsin, I had the privilege of working with George Mosse and other great historians of Europe such as Michael Petrovich and Harvey Goldberg. A lot of students don’t realize that their professors are people of great scholarly stature. We knew it at Wisconsin [and] such professors also inspired the careers and works of historians like Steven Aschheim, David Sabean, Jeffery Herf and Michael Berkowitz.
What was your area of study in graduate school?
From Wisconsin, George Mosse helped place me at UCLA, since I grew up in Madison and he felt I should see another part of the world. At UCLA, Robert Wohl, Eugen Weber, Peter Reill, and subsequently Saul Friedlander were leading a strong program in modern European history that was still growing at the time. I went to study specifically with Robert Wohl, but I’ve always straddled the Rhine. I was interested in French things as well and worked with Edward Berenson and Debora Silverman and, of course, Professor Weber. It was another privileged opportunity to study under a set of great figures.
The work on reception and music that turned into my dissertation and then my book on Beethoven and Politics came out of seminars with Robert Wohl who was tremendously interested in any innovative historiographical approach. His seminars were great because he is so open-minded. One seminar was about exploring what one could do with different media, so some looked at film, some concentrated on literature, and some did visual arts, others radio -- the full gamut -- and I happened to pick music and explored issues that historians not trained in musicology would be able to write about. In doing so, I came to the conclusion that reception is something we could write about.
I was greatly interested in Beethoven personally, so I undertook to investigate, with the help of Robert Winter in Musicology, what I might be able to do on the reception of his music in particular—in a way, combining my fascination with Beethoven and my awareness of Mosse’s work on Nazi culture.
I won’t forget the moment in the archives when I found a Völkischer Beobachter article that presented Beethoven in very strong Nazi terms. That was the start of the my book, though that work wasn’t just about National Socialist interpretations of Beethoven and his music, but also was about interpretations of the composer across the board, from the far left across to the far right—and from the time of his life to 1990. This battle over the cultural tradition in German politics is important to keep in mind in considering my new book, Inhumanities, because all of the parties -- from left to right -- were laying claim to the Western tradition, or Kultur, as Germans called it. The Nazis were part of a competition, and the Beethoven book is highly indicative of that.
I am most gratified that it was so well received. Though I’m not a musicologist, I’m often told that it has influenced music historians in their shift from the traditional analytical mode to more of a cultural studies approach. They’ll occasionally come to me and say the Beethoven book had impact in giving them permission in some ways to take a broader view. That’s truly satisfying.
Was the Beethoven book a springboard for looking more closely at the Nazi period?
Someone should write a book about “writing the second book” in American academia.
For this project, I had no funding for further work abroad and at this stage in your life you have much less time for research, because your teaching position and family come first. But I learned from an article about Eugen Weber which indicated that many of the articles that he wrote were influenced by his life-situation at any one time. He found himself in a small town in France, went to their archives, and that became Peasants into Frenchman. He was dean of the college of arts and sciences and that’s when he wrote the important textbook, A Modern History of Europe.
So, you have to work with what you have. I considered what was available in Chicago and, with all the research libraries in the area, we do have full runs of major German newspapers. My initial plan was to broaden the Beethoven focus and do a survey of what the main German political parties did with other composers. I started with Völkischer Beobachter, but I also looked at the Socialist and Communist papers. I probably spent two years or so drawing together that material, but it felt like this approach wasn’t fresh enough.
Then I did two years of research on the reception of German music in French political culture. I went through all the major French political journals and newspapers to see if they were putting similar spins on it. They were, but the French were a little subtler, so there was nothing quite as dramatic as what the Nazis or the German Left were doing. Moreover, I had to tip my hat to Jane Fulcher, who’s done a great job on French music and politics.
So, I had a lot of material, but felt like I had hit a dead end. Then, in one of those three in the morning moments, I recalled that as I had been going through Völkischer Beobachter during the first two years -- when looking for the music articles -- I had kept track of the dates when features on major figures in other media appeared in the paper: pieces on great painters, literary figures, philosophers, etc. So I decided to go back and gather all of those articles too, and that meant another year or so of work with the microfilm. Everyone knows that this sort of archival work takes a lot of time and effort: scanning through microfilm for hours and hours until one is literally nauseous as it rolls by -- but I persevered, sensing that this comprehensive approach would be worthwhile
I admire your persistence. How did you maintain your sanity going through years of this Nazi newspaper on microfilm?
I literally went through every page. Although the most of the articles I was looking for appeared in the cultural section, I had to pay attention to what might have appeared on the front pages or other sections. So, I’m one of the few people who has at least scanned through every page of that paper.
Of course, it’s fascinating. You can see all the main the headlines on the days of the rise of the Nazi Party and the days of the war, and that is an amazing experience. It was also fascinating to see how the newspaper evolved from a four-page sheet to a full-fledged newspaper, and how advertising crept in more and more. Once the Nazis were in power, you see ads from major German and even American concerns such as big oil and auto companies. There’s a whole book to be written about the Völkischer Beobachter. I don’t know if I’m the one to do it, but a full study of every aspect of the newspaper would be most worthwhile.
More to your point, I met David Blackbourn, one of the great historians of nineteenth-century Germany, who had just had a conversation with his friend Ian Kershaw about how he dealt with the constant focus on the horrible stories of the Nazis. I told him that the key for me was that I was also thinking about the great creative minds of the Western tradition. To properly read and interpret the Nazi “versions,” I had to draw upon, and increase, my learning about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Mozart and Beethoven, etc. Indeed, constantly and enthusiastically teaching Western Civ prepared me to better see what the Nazis were doing with that material. I had to use what I know about the Western humanities tradition as we generally perceive it in order to identify the different angles the Nazis used. So, in this case, my broad survey teaching and writing were very closely related.
I also saw your book as a primer on Western civilization and how the Nazis twisted that work. It inspired me to go back to some of the great works. Can you tell us a bit about how you organized all this material? You have been commended for the structure of the book.
That’s great to hear. On the structure of the book, it was very important to me that all this material be presented in a comprehensive way so that it in fact can be compared to the works undergraduates read on the history of the Western Tradition, allowing them to make such comparisons. I was hoping precisely for a response such as yours.
Some early readers looked at it and said it didn’t have to be so comprehensive, noted that there’s a lot of repetition, and suggested that perhaps I should have packaged it in smaller articles: a chapter on Goethe reception, and another chapter on Wagner, etc.. But I held out for a comprehensive approach, and my editor -- Michael Watson at Cambridge University Press -- agreed.
That said, it’s not just a chronological recreation of what the Völkischer Beobachter said from day to day, or even a chronological presentation of Western Civ from the Greeks up to Nazi contemporaries. I integrated a thematic analysis into the survey in order to give readers an analytical basis for interpreting the material. But I did want [readers] to see it all, and experience precisely that repetition -- to experience how [the VB writers] hit the same themes over and over, although in different ways and contexts. That was part of the strategy and technique of what Hitler called “the art of propaganda” --fundamental to what he felt was effective: and it did turn out to effective. Germans would hear and read these things over and over -- and you can imagine that they might become used to learning that “so-and-so” was a nationalist, that “so-and-so” was a militarist, and that “so-and-so” was an anti-Semite. The reiteration of such sloganeering was at the base of Nazi propaganda and the party’s use of cultural references.
That’s the Nazi Big Lie in practice.
To be sure: a high-cultural version of it, but drawn from the same basic principles. I start many of the chapters with quotations from Mein Kampf -- rather than the most recent “historiographical theory” -- because I wanted it to be accessible to a general audience. I picked pithy statements from Hitler and Goebbels where they announced their views and what they intended to do with them. They were clear about these things. The material that follows is quite consistent with the main themes that they set out.
Indeed, people won’t be unfamiliar with what they read here, but it adds nuance, showing very specifically how they applied this method in the cultural sphere, and, for instance, precisely how they made Goethe out to be a Germanic patriot/anti-Semite, or how they made Mozart out to be more a Romantic than a Classicist. The book shows the nuance that Hitler’s minions formulated in a cultural-intellectual version of what [Ian] Kershaw has called “working toward the Fuhrer.”
Most of these articles were written by nonentities, along with a few known Nazi leaders and also some leading scholars. Part of the story is that academics were undeniably involved and the recent scholarship on the history of National Socialism correctly points a condemning finger at many literature professors, historians, scientists, psychologists, and so forth, who collaborated in this cultural-historical propaganda effort.
The other part of the story is that many of these articles were produced by nonentities, and that’s actually more interesting because the tricky part of reception history is how to get closer, closer, closer to what the average person on the street thinks, and what is the connection between their lives, politics, and high culture. Many of these lesser known -- or anonymous -- contributors were probably contracted to write a tribute article on a birth- or death-day -- or some other occasion -- and in doing so they worked to fit these figures into Nazi ideology, as generally stipulated by the party leadership. It is a two-way process, in this sense, and therefore an interesting example of “reception” historiography.
I don’t know if we’ll ever bridge the gap completely. Carlo Ginzburg may have come as close as you can in The Cheese and the Worms because he found a document by a barely literate individual in the sixteenth-century writing about his world perspective, but it’s rare that you have such ”access” to the average world view.
By going into the newspaper and paying attention to the work by nonentities, [who were] intellectuals, but writing for a popular audience, we get a little bit closer -- perhaps not exactly to what average Germans thought, but at least to what they believed they were supposed to think.
How did you choose to look at Völkischer Beobachter -- there were probably other Nazi publications? What was Völkischer Beobachter and who read it?
It was the primary daily newspaper of the party, period Subsequently, the Nazis took over other papers, but the Völkischer Beobachter was the main mouthpiece for the party from the earliest days. As early as 1920, Hitler already said he knew how powerful a newspaper was. Essentially, he said that the meetings and rallies weren’t enough: you need a newspaper. He got funding to buy a weekly, but they quickly transformed it to the daily Nazi paper.
Originally, it was a party rag, so you probably mainly have party members reading it. But it competed with all of the other papers. In Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, his main character sells papers and, at one point, he sells the Völkischer Beobachter. He’s representative of a naïve, average guy on the street who read of all of the newspapers that were available, including this one. So, the Völkischer Beobachter was among the surfeit of newspapers that were part of the Weimar political and cultural scene.
But, as the Nazis come to power, it became the newspaper. Party members were required to subscribe and expected to read it. Another was Der Sturmer, but that was not an official Nazi organ. Goebbels started one more, Der Angriff, in Berlin which was not really a full form daily.
The Völkischer Beobachter became a full daily that had news, sports, weather, crossword puzzles -- the gamut of what is a daily newspaper, and not just a political rag. Ultimately, of course, you could read other papers that were seized and subsequently Nazified, but the Völkischer Beobachter conveyed the main editorial line for the party, as Jeffrey Herf has articulated in his analysis of the anti-Semitism expressed in its the front-page political stories. It was the main media outlet during the Nazi period.
It’s stunning how the Nazis used the Völkischer Beobachter to twist some of the most humane and tolerant figures of the Western tradition into their ideology.
The value of my analysis of this publication is that it gives the reader an indication of how the Nazis attempted to appropriate every major recognizable figure in the Western tradition, from the Ancients on. They don’t write as much as one might expect about the Classics, but they do discuss Socrates in negative terms and they analyze Alexander the Great as making a mistake in trying to put together a multiracial empire. They don’t like the Roman Empire, which is somewhat surprising. Rather than as a predecessor to their own “Reich,” they see ancient Rome as a decadent precursor to Weimar society.
Things really kick in with the Renaissance and the Reformation. They targeted what they call the German Renaissance, especially on [Albrecht] Durer and [Martin] Luther, as the start of their tradition and generally move forward from there.
In thinking about all this, it is important to remember that there was a Germanic version of Western culture in place that the Nazis tapped into. They were not constructing this historical view afresh. Its formulation began with the Wars the Liberation and the Romantic effort to formulate a German identity in cultural and historical terms, as well as other things, before there was a unified German state.
So you had a Germanic spin on tradition that was operating already in the nineteenth century, and people like Houston Stewart Chamberlain wrote well before Hitler came around that the great Italian Renaissance painters like Michelangelo and Leonardo were probably Nordic, so they could be included in this Germanic cultural sphere.
That was their first main theme. They wanted to demonstrate that these great figures were of Germanic/Nordic/Aryan blood. Then they wanted to show them to have been politically oriented, because of the view that art should be dedicated to the nation. So they looked for signs of patriotism and militarism broadly defined, whether Florentine patriotism on the part of Dante or German patriotism on the part of Luther. In addition, they wanted to show that even though these heroes were intellectual, they were still in touch with the Volk. They couldn’t be presented as too snobbish because that would come too close to the arid, urbane Jewish intellectualism that Völkisch ideology derided.
Then, of course, each of these figures was analyzed for signs of anti-Semitism. Contributors to the paper ferreted out any indication -- any letter, conversation, record -- that they could find indicating that a person like Goethe or Luther had articulated anti-Semitic values. If it wasn’t expressed in racialist terms—but rather, religious or “mere” cultural terms -- the paper would quickly say that these early figures understood the “Jewish Problem,” but they were just too early to understand that it was actually a biological problem.
Of course, that’s the big shift that George Mosse showed to be the difference between earlier forms of anti-Semitism and what becomes Nazi hatred toward Jews. Völkischer Beobachter contributors always wrote, in these cultural-historical articles, that it was a mistake to think anti-Semitism was a religious or a cultural issue but instead had to be understood as a biological issue. So they used this “cultural” material, to a degree, as a conceptual preparative for what would be their eliminationist policies.
That gets to the use of these great figures of tolerance to support arguments that led to the Holocaust as well as the eugenics and the rationale for destruction of the weak and the mentally ill and enemies of the state.
Yes, it pertains to all of this. Houston Stewart Chamberlain was arguing similar things at the end of the nineteenth century and Hitler picked up such ideas. It was nothing new, but the German race [to the Völkisch right and ultimately many Nazis] was the only creative race, so all of the great creators had to be shown to be Germanic or Aryan or Nordic, no matter whether they happened to have existed in ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, or even Enlightenment France; if they were creative, they were German.
On the opposite end, the “others,” mainly the Jews, were identified as the destroyers of culture -- at best imitative of their “host” cultures, but usual conspiratorial. They insinuated themselves into German society by very cleverly learning to imitate, and by imitating, they gradually gained control -- at least in a financial sense. The big example they used is Heinrich Heine. Because he saw and lashed out sarcastically at so many problems in their germinal stage at the beginning of the nineteenth century, including anti-Semitism and romanticized nationalism and so forth, Heine gave them a lot of ammunition they could use to say “Here is the Jew incarnate. He’s written beautiful poetry but that’s just a phony, imitative step. He’s sarcastic and in the end, he will turn against us and use our own culture as weapon to destroy our tradition.”
So, the paper vilified Heine as the enemy incarnate and implied that all Jews are as wily and clever and duplicitous as Nazis thought he was. And frankly it took the German nation until his bicentennial in 1997 to acknowledge what a great figure he was, when they pulled out the stops for a tremendous tribute to him.
It’s clear, then, that anti-Semitism is present throughout the cultural coverage of the Völkischer Beobachter. Specific material about eugenics and the weeding out of the disabled in general shows up in a couple of places within the Beethoven material, where they debated about his alcoholic father. This may come as a surprise, but that’s one of the diseases the Nazis worried about and there were some arguments that, under their policies, Beethoven’s father would have been a candidate for sterilization or elimination. Therefore, some argued, you wouldn’t have a Beethoven. As a result, contributors to the paper went through all sorts of tortuous argumentation that Beethoven’s father wasn’t actually an alcoholic, or that he wouldn’t have been sterilized since people drink a lot of beer in the Rhineland, so he really wasn’t out of context, etc.
And was there any indication that others had a physical or racial limits like Beethoven’s father?
With Richard Wagner, there were rumors that he may have been the son of his mother’s second husband, who was thought by some to have been Jewish. That’s patently not true, but this was a problem for the Nazis, and they go at it with both barrels saying that it was all part a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the honor of this great German character.
This said, Wagner figures prominently throughout all the cultural coverage of the Völkischer Beobachter. Of course, today there’s an ongoing debate about whether we should or shouldn’t listen to Wagner, and whether we should even respect him as a creator because of his anti-Semitism. My job as a historian of reception isn’t to argue one way or another, but to show very clearly what the Nazis actually said or didn’t say about Wagner.
In previous articles, I’ve written that they did not say that Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger was a Jew, despite the fact that some people interpret his features in Jewish stereotypical terms. But the Völkischer Beobachter did run a series of articles where they correlate the Ring cycle with everything that happened in Germany from the Wilhelmine period to the First World War. They're actually quite hard on [Kaiser] Wilhelm II, comparing his mistakes with those supposedly committed by Wotan. And in these articles, it is clear that the Nibelungen are ciphers for the Jews and the Jewish threat. So here, Nazis did say that the opera and its music itself was indicative of Wagner’s agreement with their anti-Semitic views.
The other thing they do with Wagner is very strongly emphasize his political writings. He did write Judaism in Music and published it twice: first anonymously and then under his own name. On the other hand, they leave out his operating as an early socialist and emphasize the aspects of his politics that represent a more Völkisch agenda. In any case, Wagner is everywhere in Völkischer Beobachter cultural coverage. Every major thematic section in the book includes portions showing how they used Wagner and the Bayreuth festivals as symbolic references for their basic claims.
The Nazis go through contortions with almost every major figure in Western history. With Beethoven, they have to ignore his humanism and his opposition to tyranny.
Without a doubt, the Beethoven case is difficult for them. The other one they have to really work on is Goethe. One of the lessons from all of this is a recognition that, in most cases, it’s not a process of fabrication, but usually one of selective biography. They generally take words out of context such as offhand comments about Jews and so on. For instance, Goethe said some things about intermarriage that they latched onto. They would argue that, because of the supposed Jewish conspiracy, these passages had been extricated from the record, and they were doing the world a service by restoring them. Then they said that not only were these passages important, but they were central to what thought. Arguably, the Western tradition did de-emphasize those aspects of these figures. We don’t want to know that Goethe or anyone else had moments of anti-Semitic bile. It has been underplayed, but they make it central to the Western cultural tradition -- a main theme of its greatest creative figures.
For the record, though, they did not indicate that Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart were anti-Semitic. They couldn’t find anything on them. But, believe me, if they could have found it, they would have used it. Regarding Beethoven in particular, my first book goes into much greater depth about this, showing that every major political group in Germany battled over the rights to Beethoven, from the far left to the far right. For instance, you can say that his initial respect for Napoleon was because Napoleon embodied principles of the Enlightenment and a revolutionary shift toward an elite based on talent. Or, you can say that he liked Napoleon because he was a Fuhrer-type -- a leader who provided order and was a great general (leaving out the moment when Beethoven throws down the manuscript of Eroica and complains that Napoleon was a tyrant like all the others).
The Völkischer Beobachter did acknowledge that figures we consider “humanists,” such as Schiller and Beethoven, were initially enamored with the French Revolution, but also that when they saw the real implications of the Revolution, they changed their opinions. That’s not altogether wrong, but if you’re writing from the position of the far right, you just emphasize that part and leave out the rest.
And they use Shakespeare by selectively reading The Merchant of Venice?
That’s a good example of the contributors combing the Western tradition for things they could use. In their view, Shakespeare is the playwright of probably the fullest representation of the Jew as moneylender capable of great cruelty. They also ran through his other plays and found every line in which a character voiced anti-Semitic views. So, for them, Shakespeare is political -- in the sense that he wrote the great History Plays -- but he’s also anti-Semitic. Similarly, they use Dickens to the extent of reprinting the whole of Oliver Twist. That surely wasn’t because Dickens was condemning social policies in London. It was clearly because of the character Fagin [the Jew].
It was odd to me that the Nazis embraced the Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch yet rejected German Expressionists such as Beckmann, Dix and Grosz as “degenerate.”
The fact is that they are inconsistent in many cases. One has to be used to that hypocrisy and paradox in studying ideologically based material like this -- the same is true through the nineteenth-century iterations of bookish thought, as well as in the actual policies of the Nazis.
One the one hand, they condemned social realists outright, but on the other hand they write very positive things about artists whom we might identify as social realists in the German tradition -- because they’re writing about the Volk. There’s a tension there. They don’t like Gerhart Hauptmann and they don’t like Heinrich Mann, whom we’d put in the realist category. But they do like people like Theodor Fontane, for example.
As far as the Expressionists, the essence of the issue is that, compared to bona fide Realists whom they don’t like because they’re dealing with the economy from a leftist perspective, or Impressionism, which they considered French and superficial, Expressionists seemed to emphasize the spiritual, soulful, Germanic tradition which is an extension of Romanticism. So they do celebrate people like Arnold Böcklin whom they consider as continuing the inquiry into the German soul in terms that we might call neo-romantic.
However, because of this, Emil Nolde [an Expressionist] was shocked when he was rejected and ostracized by the Nazis. He thought he could work with the Nazis and they would embrace his work because he was painting the German landscape and the German soul. But he was surprised, instead, to be associated with Beckmann and Dix and Grosz who were doing what we call Expressionist painting within the city, revealing what Nazis considered the degeneracy of Weimar in what they called “asphalt culture.”
So, Expressionists could be seen as an extension of the German romantic tradition or just as easily associated with urban, modernist art. [Ernst Ludwig] Kirchner was a bit of both: showing kept women or even prostitutes shopping in Berlin, as well as little nymphets splashing around in water. Then think of Grosz and what he was doing when aligned with the Dadaists and leftist intellectuals. Otto Dix was clearly disaffected coming out of the First World War, and they didn’t like him either. And Beckmann showed the decadent world of the clubs and other aspects of German nightlife. From the Nazi perspective, those artists were degenerate. Nolde was lumped together with them. That inconsistency is part of the record, and if he couldn’t sort it out, I don’t think we can completely either. This material simply specifies how it played out.
We know that Goebbels himself thought the Expressionists were all right and, in fact, their art exists today because he didn’t have it destroyed: he knew the value of it and secretly sold it. Overall, the Völkischer Beobachter record on this issue makes it clear that “Nazi Culture” was not as monolithic as we often make it out to be. There were plenty of inconsistencies and contradictions and outright disagreements as this supposedly stable “world view” was cobbled together from all the elements of Western cultural history.
The First World War looms large in much of the literature the Nazis condemned, except for Ernst Jünger and a few others.
There’s no doubt that the memory of the First World War is central to Nazi self-identification and, indeed, Hitler’s own self-identification. People like George Grosz, Otto Dix and especially Erich Maria Remarque were condemned as shirkers and traitors and their works were opportunities for the Völkischer Beobachter to tap into the despair of German veterans who were never able to reconcile themselves to the fact that they had lost the war. Of course the veterans had sacrificed, and we have to put this in that context. If you’re a veteran and you went through all that, but you’re later told that your friends and comrades died for nothing, it is a difficult pill to swallow. The Nazis showed how powerful it was for them to effectively tap into the romanticization of war and to highlight writers who did that. Ernst Jünger and a few others looked for an ennobling justification for suffering that war brought -- claiming that they had overcome the horrors of the storm of steel in Beethovenian romantic style. So the paper did promote him and others who wrote about the war in a similar vein.
That also meant that when they went after artists like Remarque, they took advantage of a very powerful media opportunity. They got a lot of press for leading demonstrations, along with veterans’ groups, against the publication [in 1929] of his [antiwar novel] All Quiet on the Western Front. Then, when the movie came out shortly after, with a German Jewish film producer, Carl Laemmle, the Nazis went nuts --and they got a lot of press for doing so. They went to the theaters and demonstrated and used these stunts to gain attention. Even George Mosse said that when he was a teen, he went to the movie in Berlin, and was there when the Nazis released white rats and mice in the theater. At this time, the Nazis were just starting to gain momentum -- they were by no means the dominant party -- but they were able to get a lot of attention by disrupting movie openings, so it was perfect for them.
They also went after George Grosz in a blasphemy trial for a drawing of a crucified soldier wearing a gas mask. He was found not guilty but the Nazis went crazy over that cultural “cause” too. In the music world, there was a similar controversy over Ernst Krenek’s modern opera that used jazz idioms and featured a character in blackface who plays a saxophone and interacts with white women. It was called Johnny Strikes Up [the Band], and the Nazis went berserk when it opened. It was a popular show at the time, but the Nazis led demonstrations trying to shut it down. So they definitely used these cultural events as a means of drawing attention to themselves.
That brings things around. Culture is central to what the Nazis were doing -- not just in the publicity sense. From the start they perceived themselves not just as a political movement, and not just as an anti-Semitic movement, but as the keeper and protector of the German cultural tradition. The historiography has made it clear that Hitler perceived himself first as an artist, then as a soldier, and only later as a politician. He consistently speaks of his world view and plans in cultural terms and his followers either shared that view, or “worked toward it” by constructing a version of the German past that was the model for what would be the German future under his leadership.
\What was the most surprising aspect of your work on this material?
We think of Nazism as a hateful and incomparably destructive ideology, and obviously we’re justified in doing so. But the most surprising and terrible aspects of my findings are indications that, at least among the true believers, Nazis wrought destruction in the interest of something they perceived as creative. They were invoking the Western cultural past -- identified as Germanic -- as a means to provide people with an image of Germany that could be revived after a period of crisis. They had lost the war. The economy was in shambles. And the vision of the future that they offered was based on this version of the creative past. Ultimately, they kill in the name of beauty, which is shocking to realize. But, it was generally consistent with the fact that Germans at the beginning of the nineteenth century -- who weren’t politically unified, who were spread out over central Europe, and who had to base their sense of unity on something other than physical borders–did so by constructing an identity around culture and language and music, promoting themselves as the land of the poets and composers and thinkers. The Nazis tapped into that construct explicitly and, I’m afraid, effectively.
Is there anything you would like to add or mention in terms of the resonance of your work now?
First, I think people have to recognize the power of the media as ideological tools rather than “objective” sources of information. We are now getting more used to this idea because of the multiplicity of news sources today. On a global scale, it is becoming more and more like Weimar society was in that we have countless channels of opinionated news casting, much like the wide range of newspapers that confronted Germans on the streets of Berlin and Munich. We’re getting accustomed to the idea that a newspaper -- or cable broadcasting system, or web site -- isn’t just presenting the news. It’s usually presenting an opinionated perspective. Given this, we have to be careful neither to be swayed too much by one or another media outlet, nor to let ourselves succumb to feelings of helpless “confusion.” Both of these responses do nothing but serve the interests of extremists on all sides.
And second, if we look at the experiences of the Nazi era in Germany and simply demonize the perpetrators -- as supernatural forces of evil capable of “brainwashing” the masses -- then we’ll never really be able to understand how something so horrible could come about. It is by no means a matter of condoning their acts, but it is necessary to try to understand how real people came to form such views. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to really understand what took place then -- or how to avoid similar mistakes and horrors.
comments powered by Disqus