The paradox of Nazi culture

The Nazis were so obsessed with the otherness of the Jews that they created an alternative cultural universe for them


This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Herman Goering is famous for supposedly having said, “When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver.” In fact, the quote originated elsewhere. It would have been surprising if the case were otherwise, since the Nazis, being Germans, could hardly regard culture as something to be ignored or suppressed. Quite the contrary, they had their own complex and contradictory ideas about it — as Professor Moritz Föllmer’s new book explores in rich detail.

What makes any study of culture in National Socialist Germany particularly interesting rests on two paradoxes. One is that while the Nazis thought they knew what they didn’t like in art, music, and film, there was never any final agreement on what they did.

Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was mildly friendly to certain kinds of impressionism and could be surprisingly tolerant in dealing with specific painters, actors and composers, while his rival Alfred Rosenberg (founder of something called the Fighting League for German Culture) was wedded to notions of primitive Germanic kitsch. The difference might well be attributed to the fact that Goebbels had a doctorate in literature, whereas Rosenberg had no university training at all.

While the Nazis thought they knew what they didn’t like in art, music, and film, there was never any final agreement on what they did

Such ambiguity in high places offered unexpected opportunities for integration (Gleichschaltung) for personalities like Richard Strauss or Paul Hindemith, while others were predictably shown the door or departed as quickly as possible. Goebbels’s more flexible approach was dominant throughout most of the period, however, wherein he also showed a remarkable sophistication in the arts of censorship.

Anyone who visits the room dedicated to the Nazi period at the Berlin Film Museum is immediately struck by the similarities with Hollywood. Until the war, most German films were frothy Busby-Berkley type musicals, cape and sword romances, or small town comedies. Goebbels understood that an overdose of propaganda would lead to a loss of audiences so the regime got its message across in the newsreels that preceded the main attraction.

After 1939, for a brief period Rosenberg was able to win back some terrain in cultural policy in his capacity as supremo of the conquered territories in Eastern Europe, where together with SS chief Heinrich Himmler, he dreamed of a racial empire adhering strictly to more ancient customs and styles. After Stalingrad, however, Goebbels once again gained the upper hand.

Culture in the Third Reich By Moritz Föllmer translated by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe Oxford University Press, £20

The other paradox is that there were, Föllmer writes, “hidden continuities with the Weimar period”, and cultural policy was also shaped by “international trends and bourgeois traditions”. This makes the subject matter of this book both complex and puzzling at the same time. The Nazis, he writes, tapped into middle-class and neo-romantic values long rooted in German tradition, but in innovative ways. Their purpose was to create a holistic vision of culture but one that at the same time was also modern. “National Socialism,” he writes, “emerged from Weimar culture. Its mythic narrative, its utopian visions, its pageants and rhetorical figures belonged to an era attempting to combine loyalty to tradition with looking to the future.”

Compare, for example, Fritz Lang’s film M (1931) with Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to see how the expressionist style of late Weimar filmmaking bled directly into the first UFA Nazi productions. (Characteristically, the major star of the latter was Heinrich George, who was promptly forgiven for his past membership in the Communist Party and went on to direct Berlin’s Schiller Theatre.)

While all this was going on, two groups formerly active in cultural life had to be marginalised or suppressed. This was done, however, in a maddingly ambiguous way. Artists, writers and composers formerly committed to the left could be deprived of their livelihood by the expedient of licensing through the various “chambers” (art, literature, film, press) of Goebbels’s ministry, but not always. Those whose leftism was not particularly conspicuous might yet earn acceptance.

Others were driven into exile, where the limitations of language, among other things, forced many into silence. A fortunate few were able to find work in Britain, Palestine or the United States. Meanwhile small groups of anti-fascist artists, writers and intellectuals (Hans Fallada and Ernst Wiechert, for example) remained in Germany, but in a kind of cultural limbo. For their part, Föllmer writes, many hard-headed Social Democrats were “constantly expressing amazement at the attraction exerted by National Socialism, both in popular culture and intellectually”.

The chief victims of Nazi cultural policy (as with Nazi policy generally) were the German Jews. Their total exclusion from official cultural life was to be expected, but this book reveals (for the first time, as far as I am aware) a surprising twist to the affair. The Nazis were so obsessed with the “otherness” of the Jews that they actually went to the trouble of creating an alternative cultural universe for them, complete with lectures, concerts, art exhibits and so forth.

Out of this policy of forcible separation there emerged a publishing house (Schocken) which still exists in Israel and the US. While some Jews, notably diarist/professor Viktor Klemperer (I Will Bear Witness) found this ghettoisation distasteful and unappealing, it did flourish to a remarkable degree until 1938, when it was shut down to make way for a murderous policy that had nothing to do with culture at all.

The last section of the book deals with cultural policy in wartime. During the first years of the conflict there was some attempt at cultural collaboration with occupied countries, notably in France. The existence of the Vichy regime produced a rich harvest of Nazi-friendly writers and artists, but Hitler’s refusal to treat France either as a fully-privileged ally or indeed anything else undermined the project’s longer-term objectives. In the Netherlands and Norway the harvest of potential cultural allies was extremely exiguous. There was a more modest success in Pavelic’s Croatia, and to a lesser extent in Admiral Horthy’s Hungary.

In Eastern Europe matters were more complicated. Although the regime in Romania was Nazi-friendly, the country had long been in the French sphere of cultural influence. The Nazis harboured no interest whatever in collaboration with Poland or among the Czechs, Serbs or Russians, all of whom were regarded as racially inferior and scheduled to be exterminated and replaced by German peasant settlers. At first Ukraine seemed more promising, particularly to Rosenberg, since it shared a proto-fascist political culture and a rich tradition of antisemitism. But the notion of Ukrainian independence was anathema to Berlin, and once made clear, allowed the Soviets to recover their hold over a potentially rebellious province.

By 1944, when it became obvious that Germany was losing the war (or at any rate, not winning it), there was a sudden shift of direction in cultural policy. The massive losses in men and materiel on the battlefront, combined with the growing destruction of German cities by Anglo-American air raids, introduced two new themes to cultural policy. The one was “poor Germany”, unjustly set upon by an unholy combination of Anglo-Americans and Soviets intent not merely on defeating the country militarily but destroying its inhabitants and their cultural identity. To some extent this argument received enhanced credibility in the late months of the war by the growing representation of Nazism and German culture as one and the same thing in Allied media and public declarations.

The other theme was the potential of resistance as a key to victory. Goebbels’s last film project, Kolberg, told the story of a town in East Germany which heroically and successfully resisted Napoleon’s armies in the wars of liberation. It was a megaproduction involving tens of thousands of soldiers pulled from the front and outfitted with early nineteenth-century uniforms costing millions of Reichsmarks. Completed in the last weeks of the war, by the time it was ready for release there was no cinema in which to show it: the regime had collapsed. No more eloquent epitaph for Nazi cultural policy could be imagined.

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