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Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts

Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts

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Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts

769 pages
12 hours
Jun 28, 2016


This provocative study asks why we have held on to vivid images of the Nazis’ total control of the visual and performing arts, even though research has shown that many artists and their works thrived under Hitler. To answer this question, Pamela M. Potter investigates how historians since 1945 have written about music, art, architecture, theater, film, and dance in Nazi Germany and how their accounts have been colored by politics of the Cold War, the fall of communism, and the wish to preserve the idea that true art and politics cannot mix. Potter maintains that although the persecution of Jewish artists and other “enemies of the state” was a high priority for the Third Reich, removing them from German cultural life did not eradicate their artistic legacies. Art of Suppression examines the cultural histories of Nazi Germany to help us understand how the circumstances of exile, the Allied occupation, the Cold War, and the complex meanings of modernism have sustained a distorted and problematic characterization of cultural life during the Third Reich.
Jun 28, 2016

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Pamela M. Potter is Professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler’s Reich, and coeditor of Music and German National Identity.

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Art of Suppression - Pamela M. Potter

Art of Suppression


Edward Dimendberg, Martin Jay, and Anton Kaes, General Editors

Art of Suppression

Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts

Pamela M. Potter


University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit www.ucpress.edu.

University of California Press

Oakland, California

© 2016 by The Regents of the University of California

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Potter, Pamela Maxine, author.

    Title: Art of suppression : confronting the Nazi past in histories of the visual and performing arts / Pamela M. Potter.

    Other titles: Weimar and now ; 50.

    Description: Oakland, California : University of California Press, [2016] | "2016 | Series: Weimar and Now : German cultural criticism ; 50 | Includes bibliographical references and index.

    Identifiers: LCCN 2016005856 (print) | LCCN 2016007028 (ebook) | ISBN 9780520282346 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780520957961 (Epub)

    Subjects: LCSH: Arts and society—Germany—History—20th century. | National socialism and art. | Arts, German—20th century. | Art—Historiography.

    Classification: LCC DD256.6 .P68 2016 (print) | LCC DD256.6 (ebook) | DDC

Manufactured in the United States of America

25  24  23  22  21  20  19  18  17  16

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

In keeping with a commitment to support environmentally responsible and sustainable printing practices, UC Press has printed this book on Natures Natural, a fiber that contains 30% post-consumer waste and meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992 (R 1997) (Permanence of Paper).

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Ben and A. Jess Shenson Endowment Fund in Visual and Performing Arts of the University of California Press Foundation, made possible by Fred M. Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation.

For my parents, in loving memory

Ethel S. Potter (1915–2008)

Sewall B. Potter (1918–2013)


List of Illustrations

List of Abbreviations


1. Visual and Performing Arts in Nazi Germany: What Is Known and What Is Believed

2. The Exile Experience

3. Occupation, Cold War, and the Zero Hour

4. Totalitarianism, Intentionalism, and Fascism in Cold War Cultural Histories

5. Modernism and the Isolation of Nazi Culture

6. Cultural Histories after the Cold War


Works Cited



1. Paul Ludwig Troost’s House of German Art, Munich, 1937

2. Day of German Art procession, Munich, 1937

3. Page from the Degenerate Art ( Entartete Kunst ) catalog, 1937

4. Cover of the Degenerate Music ( Entartete Musik ) exhibition brochure, 1938

5. Models by Manfred Jonas, 1984, of the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, and Grosse Halle

6. John Heartfield, Adolf, the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk, 1932

7. Advertisement for 1938–1939 season of MGM films in Germany

8. Stalinallee, East Berlin, 1954

9. Adolf Ziegler, The Four Elements (triptych), ca. 1937

10. Otto Dix, To Beauty ( An die Schönheit ), 1922

11. Closing scene of Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf!, 1927

12. German poster, Work Triumphs ( Arbeit siegt ), 1933–1945

13. American poster, Work to Keep Free, 1943

14. German and Russian Pavilions, 1937 Paris International Exposition

15. Adolf Wissel, Peasant Woman, 1938

16. Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930

17. Arno Breker, Readiness ( Bereitschaft ), 1939

18. Arlington Memorial Bridge statuary, Washington, D.C., 1939

19. Federal Reserve Board Building, Washington, D.C., 1937

20. Gallery in the Degenerate Art ( Entartete Kunst ) exhibition, 1937



There are too many people to name who have inspired, challenged, and guided me over the many years that I have been thinking about this book, formulating its ideas, and preparing the final product. I began to consider the problems addressed here while teaching a course on Nazi cultural policy at the University of Wisconsin shortly after I arrived at the university in 1997. I was fortunate to get to know the legendary George L. Mosse, who shocked my undergraduates with his accounts of attending Nazi meetings as a Jewish teenager in Berlin and finding himself overcome by the enthusiasm of the crowd. Over the years, an increasing number of those enrolled in the course challenged me with probing questions and stimulating discussions, and I am grateful to my hundreds of students for their inquisitiveness.

The realization that a book like this one was needed came in 2004, in a conversation I had with Michael Kater while we were both taking part in the Miller Symposium of the Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington. I had the opportunity to work out preliminary concepts for the book and get feedback on draft chapters in a teaching setting in 2013, thanks to my colleague, art historian Barbara C. Buenger, who agreed to co-teach a seminar of undergraduate and graduate students from the departments of art history, history, French, German, and musicology. Her expertise and the rich and varied backgrounds the students brought to the forum were invaluable resources for enriching my knowledge and testing my theses.

I am grateful to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation for its generous support in the form of summer salary and student research assistantships. As a recipient of the Romnes Faculty Fellowship and the Kellett Mid-Career Award, I have had generous resources available to me to underwrite my research and the final preparation of this manuscript. I received travel support from the DAAD Center for German and European Studies, under the directorship of Marc Silberman, and I was also fortunate to benefit from sabbatical leaves provided by the University of Wisconsin at early and late stages of writing.

This book has profited immensely from the inordinate time committed by cherished colleagues in the fields of history, art history, musicology, German literature, film and theater studies, and modern German history. Through careful scrutiny of the text at various stages, they pointed out factual and conceptual errors and offered crucial editorial suggestions. These colleagues include, in alphabetical order, Barbara Buenger, Jost Hermand, Paul Jaskot, Michael Kater, Jonathan Petropoulos, Marc Silberman, Alan Steinweis, and Richard Taruskin. I am additionally very grateful to the two anonymous readers who indicated the critical need to clarify the scope, methods, and purpose of the study. Thanks also go to my colleagues Mary Trotter and Andrea Harris for pointing me to resources in theater and dance studies, and to Patrick Jung for introducing me to the collection of industrial art at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. I have also been fortunate to receive excellent assistance from graduate students, who have taken on a wide range of tasks in research, editing, and manuscript preparation: Mary Allison, Justin Court, Christine Evans, Jennifer Gramer, Lesley Hughes, Berit Ness, Rebekah Pryor Paré, Sarah Reed, Melissa Sheedy, and Yi Hong Sim.

At the University of California Press, my deepest gratitude goes to Mary Francis. I have profited from her undying faith in the feasibility of the project and her countless hours of coaching me through this long process. I am also thankful for the guidance and assistance of Bradley DePew, Zuha Khan, Dore Brown, and my copy editor, Genevieve Thurston, and I am grateful to the editors of the Weimar and Now series for including my work in their illustrious roster of seminal scholarship of modern German history and culture.

Above all, I am indebted to my family. This book is dedicated to the memory of my parents, who instilled in me a love of learning, always took tremendous interest in everything I wrote, including this book, yet sadly did not survive to see its completion. They lived through the entire period I write about. My mother taught English to relatives who came to this country as Holocaust survivors. My father, a Jewish GI stationed in Germany during World War II, witnessed Eisenhower’s horror on the discovery of the conditions at the Buchenwald concentration camp, but he was himself shaken by the antisemitism he observed among his fellow soldiers while touring the camp. My most heartfelt gratitude, however, is reserved for my husband, Robert Radwin, and for my daughter, Sydney Radwin, who entered our lives at the beginning of this project and has not yet experienced life without mama working on her book. I am profoundly grateful to have them in my life, and I thank them for their patience, support, and encouragement. They have cheered me on with their love and humor throughout this very long journey.


Visual and Performing Arts in Nazi Germany

What Is Known and What Is Believed

What do we know about the visual and performing arts in Nazi Germany? According to Wikipedia, art of the Third Reich was the officially approved art produced in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Upon becoming dictator in 1933, Adolf Hitler gave his personal artistic preference the force of law to a degree rarely known before. Only in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, where Socialist Realism had become the mandatory style, had a state shown such concern with regulation of the arts.¹ With regard to music, the History Learning Site reports that the policy of ‘Gleichschaltung’ (coordination) meant that music had to conform to the Nazi ideal, and that Hitler, along with art, films and architecture, played a major part in what was musically tolerated and what was not.² The official site of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum further reinforces this narrative: Goebbels began the synchronization of culture, by which the arts were brought in line with Nazi goals, and he supervised and regulated all facets of German culture. . . . Nazi aesthetics emphasized the propagandistic value of art and glorified the peasantry, the ‘Aryan,’ and the heroism of war. . . . This ideology stood in stark contrast to modern, innovative art, such as abstract painting, [which was] denounced as ‘Degenerate Art,’ as well as ‘art bolshevism’ and ‘culture bolshevism.’³ In a nutshell, a common view of the arts and culture in the Third Reich holds that Hitler, with Propaganda Minister Goebbels at his side, controlled all manifestations of artistic creation and established rigid guidelines, according to their own personal tastes, of what was acceptable or unacceptable. They stamped out all forms of modernism and debased the arts, à la Stalin, to mere tools of ideology and propaganda.

If this had been the case, then the arts might stand out as some of the most carefully monitored and rigidly managed spheres of Nazi society. We have learned from decades of intensive research and debate that the Third Reich was not a monolithic totalitarian dictatorship; instead, it evolved out of something more decentralized, improvised, and polycratic. We have come to understand that Hitler’s role in actual policy-making was far less decisive than it was previously believed to be. We have further learned of his aversion to associating his name with unpopular measures that would dilute his demagogic powers of persuasion. We also know that, instead of an aggressive enforcement of conformity to rigid ideological principles, there was a constant give and take in Nazi society. Public opinion was closely monitored, and the information was sometimes used to determine whether to pull back or conceal certain policies and actions to avoid risking revolt, such as in the case of the euthanasia program. Especially in the cultural arena, the intensity of anti-Jewish and anti-communist campaigns lessened after the first wave of targeted attacks against prominent celebrities, and any explicit restrictions on artistic production and taste failed to become high priorities on the Nazi agenda. To the contrary, many of the highest-ranking Nazi officials aspired to be seen as arts connoisseurs and patrons, if not artists, and they exhibited a wide variety of opinions on what constituted culture.

Research conducted since the early 1960s has contributed to a composite picture showing that art, architecture, music, theater, dance, and film were operating under far fewer constraints than current popular conceptions convey, although the most favorable working conditions were reserved for those artists who had managed to elude political, religious, or ethnic victimization and exclusion. The earliest explorations of art policy in the Third Reich revealed a lack of central authority in Nazi cultural policy; the persistence of modern art (in some cases with the ardent support of Nazi organizations); and an absence of any definitive architectural style or aesthetic.⁴ In the 1970s, dissertations and theses looking at the performing arts in Germany showed how very little changed in day-to-day theater operations after the Nazis assumed power, how government control of the film industry was neither invented by the Nazis nor particularly invasive or detrimental to film production, and how music censorship was virtually impossible to carry out.⁵ Investigations also revealed that the administrative body credited with the synchronization, or Gleichschaltung, of the arts, the Reich Culture Chambers (Reichskulturkammer), was not a Nazi innovation but rather something that grew out of years of lobbying by creative artists for professional and economic security.⁶ Further research has continued to amass evidence to destabilize the notions that oppressive arts policies constrained all facets of Nazi cultural life. Such evidence, however, still tends to be ignored by the mainstream and even in academic circles, where scholars may still look for the stamp of Hitler’s personal taste and for signs of the Nazi elimination of the avant-garde. Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths, published in 2015, successfully outlines and dismisses many myths about Nazi Germany, but it nevertheless singles out the Reich Culture Chambers as the epicenter of cultural Gleichschaltung and reaffirms Hitler’s power over dictating artistic tastes.⁷ The catalog of the 2014 exhibition Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937 at the Neue Galerie in New York reasserts that the National Socialists produced mediocre, politically motivated art and aesthetic irrelevancies and undermined the conditions of real art and destroyed artistic modernism.

The purpose of this book is to understand why certain assumptions about the Nazis’ manipulation of the visual and performing arts have remained so compelling, even as mounting evidence continues to erode their credibility. Drawing on an extensive bibliography consisting primarily of Anglophone and West German histories of the arts published from the end of World War II to the present, this study offers a critical historiography of art, architecture, music, theater, film, and dance in the Third Reich. (It does not, however, include a study of literature, as explained below.) As a historiography, rather than a history, this book does not seek to draw on archival research to advance any new interpretations of what really happened to the arts in Nazi Germany. Instead, it uses as its primary sources existing histories of the arts, analyzing their genesis, development, interactions, tensions, and contradictions over the past seven decades. It considers how the circumstances of exile, the Allied occupation of Germany, the Cold War, and the complex meanings of modernism have profoundly influenced the characterization of cultural life in the Third Reich. Above all, it seeks to explain how the forces of global politics, intellectual traditions, and moral imperatives have at various points hindered progress toward a deeper understanding of the role of the arts and media in Germany in relation to their roles in other modern industrial nations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The ultimate goal of this work is to provide insights into the ways future endeavors may move in new directions, through changes in scope and approach and through a reformulation of the questions typically posed up to now.

As my title, Art of Suppression, suggests, there is a cognitive dissonance between a belief in the Nazis’ wholesale suppression of creativity and evidence of more favorable conditions existing for artists than what we have been led to believe. Rather than trying to sustain a notion of such Nazi suppression, I suggest we look at the evidence supporting a postwar suppression of inconvenient truths about artistic productivity during the Third Reich, artists who enjoyed flourishing careers under Hitler, and similarities between Nazi culture and our own culture. Despite all the complications of this latter suppression, the Western world relied on it to come to terms with one of the most troubling puzzles of recent history: how Germany, the land of poets and thinkers, could have committed the atrocities of the Holocaust. As the West continued to revere and emulate so many of Germany’s artistic achievements even during the Nazi period, it was easier to come to terms with the harsh reality of modern Germany committing the brutalities of war and genocide if those twelve years between 1933 and 1945 could be isolated as a historical aberration that had little to do with the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven. In addition to the diachronic isolation of the Nazi years—an era that was bookended by the exuberance of 1920s Weimar culture and the postwar renaissance after 1945—a synchronic isolation maintained a clear barrier between Nazi culture and the culture of Germany’s adversaries by sustaining these assumptions about the Nazis’ destructive motives to dominate and degrade the arts. This mode of thinking not only skirted the obvious surface similarities among the artistic styles and techniques employed in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the industrialized world but also kept at arm’s length any comparative analyses of public relations and mass communication that may have been common to all these systems in the 1930s and beyond.

Before actually launching into the historiographic investigation that will take up most of this book, I will use the remainder of this introductory chapter to highlight the main features of the cognitive dissonance between what is believed and what is known about the arts in Nazi Germany. First, I look at what has come to symbolize Nazi culture, and then I offer a synthesis of research that has challenged many of these first impressions about Nazi control of the arts. I employ the term nazification to represent a consensus that credits National Socialism with effectively micromanaging all artistic activity (what I refer to as structural nazification) and with establishing and enforcing artistic guidelines (what I call aesthetic nazification). I then offer general considerations that could assist in resolving this cognitive dissonance. For one thing, it is important to distinguish between the Nazis’ concrete goal of identifying and removing undesirable individuals or groups from society and the far more abstract goal of identifying and removing undesirable artistic trends. In other words, the exclusion of certain people (Jews, communists, and others) may have been carried out with shocking thoroughness, but it did not necessarily lead to the eradication of their artistic influences. We also have to keep in mind that the Nazis’ boastful and violent claims of purifying German culture cannot be taken literally. These claims must be weighed against the known penchant at the time for bold rhetoric, ostentatious public displays, and manipulation of mass media. At the same time, that such messages were greeted at first with enthusiasm by those in the arts professions requires us to consider other factors that distinguish the German situation, such as the timeliness of Nazi promises to ensure order, unity, and international recognition for Germany in the wake of the disorder, disunity, and disgrace that followed the country’s defeat in World War I. Finally, a historiography of the visual and performing arts needs to keep in mind the disciplinary particulars and priorities of the fields involved, as well as the insularity and lack of communication among historical disciplines as a whole.


Despite the contradictions inherent in assumptions about Nazi control of the arts, it is easy to imagine how one could have arrived at such an understanding in the first place. Neoclassical edifices, including stadiums, party grounds, and cultic open-air theaters designed explicitly for party ritual and pageantry, were built to last for a thousand years and stood as constant reminders after the war of the hubris of Nazi leadership. Hitler’s passions for art, architecture, and music (at least the music of Wagner) were well-known, lending support to the idea that he took an active role in steering all cultural policy and artistic production and, with the help of Goebbels, erected a powerful administrative structure to ensure conformity. Paintings and sculptures that filled Nazi Germany’s newly consecrated museums employed realistic styles and favored subjects that seemed to bolster ideals of racial purity and militarism. Above all, the thousands of individuals compelled to leave Germany despite their artistic and intellectual gifts, not to mention those whose lives were lost to the Nazis’ murderous campaign of intolerance, provide the most harrowing reminder of the zeal with which National Socialism identified, pursued, and eliminated its perceived cultural adversaries.

When we think of Nazi culture, some of the most enduring symbols coming to mind will include Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens), the brilliant piece of film propaganda about the 1934 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg, and her equally compelling cinematography for the filming of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; the sleek and imposing neoclassicism of the Berlin Olympic stadium, adorned with its heroic, muscle-bound statuary; Albert Speer’s party rally grounds at Nuremberg; and Paul Ludwig Troost’s monumental House of German Art in Munich (renamed after the war as House of Art, see fig. 1). If we wish to find out more, we will soon discover, for instance, that Hitler laid the cornerstone for Troost’s art museum amidst a pompous procession of the history of German art that borrowed shamelessly from antiquity, and that the museum’s grand opening in 1937 with the inaugural Great German Art Exhibition featured a collection of paintings and sculptures selected for their truly German quality (fig. 2). One year later, it was music’s turn in the spotlight with the debut of the Reich Music Days (Reichsmusiktage), a convocation of music organizations from around the country, which Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels opened with a speech on the ten commandments for German music. For a brief period of time, the Propaganda Ministry also financed the building of numerous open-air theaters designed for specially commissioned theater pieces (Thingspiele) that fused hypernationalist (völkisch) myth with such common themes as the martyrdom of Nazi heroes and the injustices of World War I.

FIGURE 1. Paul Ludwig Troost’s House of German Art, Munich, 1937 (bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, New York).

FIGURE 2. Day of German Art procession, Munich, 1937 (akg-images).

But even more shocking than these celebrations of true German arts were the public assaults on those who were considered to be enemies of German culture. Following the book burnings of May 1933, the public defamation and expulsions of many famous artists and intellectuals, and the closure of the progressive Bauhaus design school, two alarming events in 1937 and 1938 attacking un-German arts seemed to provide blueprints for Nazi aesthetics. The first was the 1937 exhibition Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst), which opened alongside the Great German Art Exhibition and the boisterous celebrations surrounding it. It featured a mocking display of modernist art that had been confiscated as part of the Degenerate Art Action and presented the works as creations by charlatans, racial inferiors, and the mentally deranged, all of whom had supposedly ruled the art world of the 1920s under the short-lived Weimar Republic (fig. 3). The second event was an exhibition on Degenerate Music (Entartete Musik), held during the Reich Music Days that took place one year later, in 1938. The exhibition vilified jazz, atonality, and the alleged Bolshevik and Jewish domination of German musical taste during the Weimar years.

FIGURE 3. Page 31 of the Degenerate Art ( Entartete Kunst ) catalog (1937), comparing drawings by Oskar Kokoschka to the work of mentally ill patients (bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, New York).

By this time, the Nazi government had established a complex bureaucracy of state and party administration that spread its tentacles into the arts. The Ministry of People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda), established in March 1933 and headed by Goebbels, had divisions for art, film, and music. It also oversaw the Reich Culture Chambers, which brought together all arts professions and industries into one central union, requiring all those engaged in arts-related fields to petition for membership to one of its seven chambers (which included separate chambers for art, music, film, and theater) in order to secure employment. Other state and party organizations also exerted their influence on the arts, such as the German Workers’ Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, or DAF); the Education Ministry; and the Rosenberg Bureau, the notorious party agency under the leadership of Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, which was charged with ensuring ideological conformity in cultural and intellectual spheres of activity. The mere existence of so many overlapping structures that each claimed influence over the arts gave the strong impression that Hitler, Goebbels, and a few select others galvanized their resources to ensure that all facets of the arts could be closely monitored and directed. The multitude of bureaucracies also suggested clues for understanding the meaning of Gleichschaltung, the elusive term used at the time to describe a wide variety of acts of reorganization after the Nazi seizure of power.

Ever since the end of World War II, the discovery and rediscovery of all these phenomena fueled the conviction that a tightly organized bureaucracy mandated the promotion of pure and healthy German art and the elimination of degeneracy, which was understood as all things modern and progressive. Nazi culture brokers had linked these Bolshevist cultural movements to a widespread Jewish conspiracy to control the hearts and minds of Germans and to dismantle Germany’s cultural legacy, and they used this distorted logic subtly and incrementally to bolster the rationales for exterminating European Jewry. As Allied troops liberated the concentration camps and discovered the horrors of mass extermination, they could only conclude that the physical wasteland they encountered was the inevitable outcome of a cultural wasteland in which Hitler had eradicated all traces of Germany’s past achievements. Enraged over the discovery of the Final Solution and aware of the hair-raising accounts told by German refugees, the Allies became convinced of the Nazis’ total manipulation and debasement of German culture. They were also inclined to believe the claims of German artists and performers who had remained in the country during the Third Reich, who told stories of the obstacles they had encountered under the Nazis but also presented themselves as indispensable for building a new democratic culture after the war. Considering the long and impressive legacy of German contributions to the arts, letters, and sciences, the West could only understand the Nazi phenomenon as a momentary aberration in Germany’s otherwise illustrious cultural history.

This notion of a nazification of the arts—the twelve-year ideological domination and debasement of artists and their work—proved to be remarkably resilient. To be sure, an epithet such as Nazi, nazification, or any similar derivative never would have been uttered in the Third Reich in speaking of the arts; rather, the stated cultural goal of the National Socialists was to revitalize German (not Nazi) culture, in all of its forms. As a term often invoked in postwar writings, however, nazification (Nazifizierung) serves us well here as a historiographic construct. The term itself appeared in the American press as early as 1933,⁹ and in subsequent years it started to be used with increasing frequency in cultural histories appearing in both English and German. When employed in the context of the visual and performing arts, it tends to assume that the National Socialist machine succeeded in taking over institutions and organizations, imposing ideology, downgrading artistic quality, and brainwashing individuals or entire segments of society—in effect, causing all the presumed damage that would have to be undone after World War II through the Allied programs of denazification and reeducation. The concept and its implications have been repeatedly challenged, however, casting serious doubt on the implementation of either a structural nazification, in the form of a powerful cultural bureaucracy, or an aesthetic nazification, in the form of enforced guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable art. As this book will show, much of the research since the 1960s continually questioned the intentions of Nazi leadership to control artistic operations, let alone the existence of any successes, but it has also identified the Third Reich’s much higher priority, and the aggressive implementation of it: targeting individuals and groups of artists as enemies of the state and systematically excluding them from participating in German cultural life.


The greatest appeal of the concept of nazification in the arts is that it circumvented the troubling paradox of German civility and Nazi barbarity. The notion of structural nazification implies that the artistic community was powerless to fend off the regimentation of cultural life that came with the creation of numerous government and party administrative entities. But it also made it easy to overlook questions that should have been troubling from the start: Did the excessive bureaucratization of culture really facilitate total control, or did it breed competition, redundancy, and inefficiency? Could this bloated cultural administration realistically follow through on its blatant attacks on modernism and degeneracy with enforceable policies of censorship and artistic mandates? How would it have been feasible to carry out this kind of control over such a wide range of arts and media, many of which could be produced and consumed in any number of nonpublic venues? And, given the more pressing issues of fixing a broken economy, suppressing political rivals (including those within the Nazi ranks), ridding German society of any enemies of the state, and gearing up for war, how could Hitler, Goebbels, and other high-ranking officials have time on their hands to micromanage arts operations and dictate aesthetic guidelines?

A few scholars started to entertain similar questions early on and began to address them by looking at what had predated the Nazi cultural infrastructure. The formation of the Reich Culture Chambers has attracted the most attention as definitive proof of Nazi designs on artistic control and the clearest illustration of the Gleichschaltung (which is variably interpreted as coordination, synchronization, centralization, steering, and equalization) of all cultural professions and industries. Yet research carried out as early as the 1960s revealed that the institution was neither a Nazi innovation nor an entirely unwelcome power play forced upon the artistic community. In the aftermath of World War I, the dissolution of court patronage and the assumption of cultural affairs by individual provinces and municipalities translated into a loss of economic security for vast numbers of those engaged in the visual and performing arts. With former court-sponsored institutions left to local jurisdiction, the diversity in economic resources and cultural attitudes gave individual states and cities the choice either to withhold funds or to lavish them on cultural institutions as they saw fit, inevitably creating gross inequities from place to place.¹⁰ Those working in the visual and performing arts who were trying to sustain their careers despite these regional inconsistencies also struggled with the ambiguity of their professional status and credentials. For example, policies regarding private music instruction varied from state to state, making it difficult for qualified teachers to compete with amateurs who were teaching for lower fees in regions that had no strict regulations. In addition, the growth of the film industry left many theater personnel uncertain about the future of their careers, and other technological advances threatened to render further types of live performance superfluous and raised legal questions about intellectual property. These circumstances paved the way for large numbers of special interest groups (Interessengemeinschaften) to lobby for the legal and economic protection of arts professions. They sought to standardize health and unemployment benefits, wage scales, professional certification, and training; mediate hiring and labor disputes; and, in some cases, obtain copyright protection. Most of these professions were represented by a number of competing and often redundant organizations, with memberships ranging from several hundred to over twenty thousand.¹¹

In 1933, the new Nazi government set out to correct these inequities, taking steps to eliminate regional discrepancies and address demands for professional and economic security. But who would ultimately be capable of overseeing this ambitious program? The best-positioned individual up to that point had been Alfred Rosenberg, the only leading figure in the early years of the Nazi Party to display any interest in cultural questions. Author of the foundational ideological tract The Myth of the Twentieth Century (Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts), Rosenberg headed the Fighting League for German Culture (Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur), an elitist group of artists and intellectuals that was formed in 1928.¹² Its influence came not so much from its large membership numbers as from its widespread geographic inclusion of a multitude of affiliate organizations, including a large number of special interest groups representing professional artists that attached themselves to the Fighting League’s departments (Fachgruppen).¹³ Hitler, however, had little faith in Rosenberg’s organizational skills and turned instead to Joseph Goebbels, the newly appointed propaganda minister, to carry out the needed reforms. Goebbels worked to devise a national umbrella organization for cultural professions, and he sold Hitler—a self-proclaimed artist—on the idea of creating the Reich Culture Chambers, over which Goebbels would preside. Its establishment brought cultural activities under the supervision of one Reich body that was devoted exclusively to a wide range of cultural matters. The Reich Culture Chambers, with its seven sub-chambers for music, theater, visual arts, literature, film, radio, and the press, promised, at least in principle, to revamp cultural affairs by implementing uniform practices and providing financial securities.

The ideas behind the Culture Chambers date back prior to World War I, and they were reiterated by the Fighting League’s initiative to organize and protect arts professions and the unions’ bargaining measures for social and economic safeguards. The Culture Chambers’ central aim was to enlist the cooperation of cultural professionals by allaying their fears of threats to their careers and giving in to a number of their demands for financial and professional security. Goebbels worked closely with existing organizations, allowing them a certain amount of autonomy by preserving professional associations (Berufsverbände) and special interest groups (Interessengemeinschaften), collectively renaming them Fachverbände. The Fachverbände would continue to function within each of the Culture Chambers. This eliminated the competition that existed in the Weimar Republic among splinter groups with similar goals and appealed to a large number of prominent artists who would otherwise have felt no attraction to the Nazi movement.¹⁴

By the end of 1933, everything looked quite promising. The Reich Culture Chambers’ law provided that Fachverbände would be allowed to retain their own administration and finances. Each chamber was organized according to the leadership principle (Führerprinzip), occasionally with well-known cultural figures at the helm (most famously, the music chamber had the composer Richard Strauss as its president and conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as vice president). The Culture Chambers became the obligatory unions for all practicing cultural professionals, broadly defined. The Reich Music Chamber, for example, included departments for composition, performers, orchestras, entertainment music, music education, choral music, church music, concert agencies, copyright questions, music and instrument vendors, and financial and legal matters, and it also had thirty-one regional offices.¹⁵ The Music Chamber boasted great accomplishments within a relatively short amount of time, including setting wages for professional musicians, establishing regulations for professional certification and for restricting amateurs from performing for money, introducing exams and training courses for private music instructors, and setting up a pension plan.¹⁶ Initially, in 1933, there was also no specific exclusion of Jews and other political, social, or ethnic undesirables, only of those not demonstrating reliability and aptitude.

But in 1935, all of this changed when Goebbels, breaking his promise not to interfere with the chambers’ internal affairs, took away the financial independence of the Fachverbände (renaming them Fachgruppen) and removed some of the heads of chambers, replacing them with more malleable appointees. There were many reasons for this change of policy. These measures were part of a broader initiative in the Nazi administration to consolidate power, a move that included the Night of Long Knives, the bloody purge in 1934 of the Sturmabteilung (SA) leadership; the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws, which severely reduced the rights of Jews; and Germany’s rearmament, breaking of treaties, and overall preparation for war. Goebbels also felt that his liberal measures had been abused, and he sensed the need to strengthen his authority not only by reducing the autonomy of the chambers but also by setting up parallel departments within the Propaganda Ministry. He was also in the midst of turf battles with the heads of other entities, such as Robert Ley, head of the DAF, who was overseeing the consolidation of existing unions (including the NSBO, the Nazi Party workers’ unions, formed in 1928) and claiming that his organization had jurisdiction over arts professions as well; Bernhard Rust, minister of the newly established Reich Ministry of Education, an expansion of a former Prussian entity, who vied with Goebbels for control over arts institutions and their civil servant personnel (educators, museum directors, state architects); Hermann Goering, appointed as Prussian prime minister, who circumvented Goebbels’s authority to enhance the prestige of the Prussian museums, orchestras, theaters, and opera houses under his jurisdiction; and, above all, Alfred Rosenberg.

Rosenberg’s well-known resentment toward Goebbels for grabbing the power he had coveted prompted him to waste no time in stirring up trouble by calling out Goebbels and others for what he regarded as ideological lapses. To calm these disturbances, Hitler issued to Rosenberg a vaguely worded order on January 31, 1934, authorizing him to supervise the ideological education of the party. Rosenberg took this order and unofficially created an entire office out of it, coining his own cumbersome title from the wording of Hitler’s communication: Deputy to the Führer for the Total Intellectual and Ideological Education and Training of the NSDAP. Better known simply as the Rosenberg Bureau (Amt Rosenberg), this base of operation offered him an opportunity to expand his questionable authority toward imposing a uniform ideology (Weltanschauung) on all German citizens, even though his sphere of influence was officially limited to the Nazi Party. Above all, it encouraged Rosenberg to compete with other high-ranking party and state officials, despite the fact that his effectiveness was constantly hampered by financial insecurity, formidable rivals, and his own uncompromising personality.¹⁷

For the next few years, Rosenberg proved to be mostly a thorn in the side of Goebbels and others, but sometimes this was enough to destroy individual careers. In his first year as Deputy to the Führer, Rosenberg challenged Goebbels’s authority on a handful of issues, including the famous cases of Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Paul Hindemith, and Max Reinhardt. Rosenberg brought attention to Strauss’s collaboration with Jewish author Stefan Zweig on the opera Die schweigsame Frau, ultimately bringing about Strauss’s resignation as president of the Reich Music Chamber and the failure of the opera in question. He also raised objections to Furtwängler’s promotion of the works of Hindemith, a composer who—Rosenberg claimed—had exhibited decadent tendencies in his earlier years. The ensuing complications led Furtwängler to retreat from public life and resign from his position as vice president of the Reich Music Chamber (although he returned to his other posts after a public apology) and eventually resulted in Hindemith leaving Germany altogether.¹⁸ Rosenberg’s Fighting League had directed its earliest attacks against theater director Max Reinhardt, yet, as late as 1943, the Rosenberg Bureau was complaining about the continued influence of Reinhardt’s 1920s experiments. Similarly, Rosenberg’s barrage of attacks had no effect in bringing down celebrities with ideologically questionable pasts who were being protected by Goering and Goebbels.¹⁹ The Fighting League had, by this time, been absorbed into the DAF division for workers’ recreation, forming the National Socialist Cultural Community (Nationalsozialistische Kulturgemeinde, or NSKG).²⁰ The DAF had also been a formidable contender for controlling cultural professionals before the Culture Chambers’ powers were fully consolidated. It managed to incorporate the existing educational activities of labor unions and night schools into its National Socialist Community organization, Strength through Joy (NS-Gemeinschaft Kraft durch Freude). The Cultural Community oversaw a wide range of departments in charge of cultural activities, including those for after-hours recreation (Amt Feierabend), adult education (Deutsches Volksbildungswerk), military liaisons (Amt Wehrmachtheime), sports (Sportamt), and vacation planning (Amt für Reisen, Wandern und Urlaub). As will be discussed below, the DAF, with its in-house factory exhibits, also became the unlikely refuge for modernist art.

In 1938, Rosenberg managed to secure an independent budget after years of failed attempts at extracting funding from the Nazi Party and the DAF, but the order for total war mobilization ultimately diminished the entire Rosenberg Bureau to nothing more than a name until a new and unexpected opportunity opened up for him. Rosenberg had earlier proposed establishing the Hohe Schule der Partei, an elite school that would train party leaders, in an attempt to control National Socialist education at the university level. During the war, Hitler allowed Rosenberg to proceed with preparations for setting up research facilities and a party library.²¹ With limited financial resources for acquiring books for this library, he reached an agreement with the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD) and the Foreign Ministry to divide up the spoils of occupation, leading to Rosenberg’s most successful venture, the development of a special unit known as the Rosenberg Taskforce (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), which would implement the large-scale seizure of cultural property in occupied territories.²² The Rosenberg Taskforce defied international law, extending its plundering activities to Masonic lodges; Jewish homes; state, community, and organization libraries; schools; universities; museums; and academies. Rosenberg also gained a strong ally in Hermann Goering, who authorized the taskforce to seize property for Hitler, for Goering’s own private collection, and for German museums, as well as for the Hohe Schule.²³

As much as the new regime succeeded in conveying impressions of restoring order to the economic and professional chaos of Germany’s art world, the power struggles show that neither Goebbels nor any of his rivals—not even Hitler—wielded full authority over all aspects of cultural operations by any means. Historians have long argued that Hitler had no direct involvement in many of the affairs of state and that his function was, instead, that of symbolizing the steady hand leading Germany out of the chaos following Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication in 1918.²⁴ But it may be more accurate to regard the project of cultural Gleichschaltung not so much an empty threat but more as an empty promise. Those working directly in the arts had little, if any, awareness of the behind-the-scenes internal rivalries. Instead, they held out hope for the economic securities promised by the new order. Indeed, evidence suggests that the proposed Gleichschaltung of arts professions was probably received less as a threat of forced control and more as a promise of long-sought-after order and stability. As was noted earlier, the creation of the Reich Culture Chambers is often cited as the most comprehensive and aggressive means for total control of cultural life, and the Nazi-coined term Gleichschaltung comes up not infrequently in this context to convey the single-mindedness of Nazi leaders to micromanage every aspect of cultural activity. Yet we cannot assume that the term would have prompted such fear and revulsion among the majority of those in the cultural professions in 1933. Much to the contrary, given the multitude of grassroots attempts to organize cultural professions prior to 1933, the suggestion of Gleichschaltung would have more readily inspired confidence in a leadership willing to eliminate the perceived chaos of the preceding decades. The implementation of such a Gleichschaltung—with its successes in consolidating special interest groups and eliminating federalism—could very well have been interpreted as a necessary step toward reaching the long-sought-after goals of the artistic community, enabling many professions to establish uniform, enforceable systems of professional standards and credentials and secure their place in the German economy.

Economics played a central role in other examples of what we have retroactively perceived as hostile government takeovers. On closer inspection, we can see that individual institutions as well as entire industries often welcomed the bailout prospects the newly created government provided, especially those of the Propaganda Ministry. At least at the outset, struggling institutions, organizations, and entire professions felt they had much to celebrate in the prospects of economic security offered by new government and party agencies. The largest bailout of all involved the film industry. Already closely tied with the military and with investors who were also conservative statesmen, German film studios were in serious financial straits in the 1920s, unable to compete in the international marketplace with Hollywood. The Nazi establishment of the Reich Film Chamber and the Film Credit Bank positioned lawyers and economists to head up a restructuring of major studios to make them function more effectively without taking them over completely. Only in 1942, in the midst of the war, was a more comprehensive nationalization of the industry finally carried out, with the aim of increasing film production and dominating the European market.²⁵ The establishment of new sources of state patronage also benefited other private and semi-private entities. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra had begun its life as a unique orchestra corporation, a structure that became untenable within a short period of time. In the 1920s, the orchestra appealed to numerous municipal, provincial, and federal bodies to take over its operations entirely, all to no avail, until the Propaganda Ministry presented itself as a willing partner. The organization averted dissolution by becoming a fully subsidized Reich orchestra, with each orchestra member selling his share of the corporation to the government, and its musicians were placed in the highest wage category.²⁶ An even more prominent rescue mission was that of the Bayreuth Festival, the annual showcase of Richard Wagner’s stage works, which the composer himself had launched in 1876 in a theater complex he designed and built with lavish support from King Ludwig II of Bavaria. With performances of Wagner’s works in German opera houses falling off dramatically after 1926, and with the Bayreuth Festival facing financial ruin, Hitler channeled large sums of money into the festival to keep it running throughout the years of the Third Reich, and he averted its complete closure during the war by opening performances of Die Meistersinger to soldiers as part of an official war festival.²⁷

A similar situation transpired with Max Reinhardt’s internationally acclaimed experimental theater, the Großes Schauspielhaus, which the renowned Jewish director signed over to the state in 1933 to secure its future existence. Goebbels initially hoped to enlist Reinhardt’s continued involvement but ultimately failed to convince him to stay at the helm, even after offering him honorary Aryan status.²⁸ The economic crisis had been difficult for all publicly subsidized theaters, despite various measures in the 1920s to try to protect personnel from losing their jobs (the Nazis—in the form of the NSBO—as well as the communists were consolidating unions to protect their party members from dismissal on political grounds). After 1933, the Reich Theater Chamber, a direct outgrowth of pre-Nazi movements to organize theater professions, was able to establish numerous programs to improve the economic, educational, and working conditions in these professions, resulting in a substantial rise in standards of living among theater personnel, thanks to established wage and benefits policies.²⁹ The dance profession also profited from Theater Chamber policies and from the patronage of other organizations. Groups of dancers demanding more security benefited from raised professional standards, large-scale education initiatives, and new employment opportunities in public theaters, Thingspiele, youth organizations, and Strength through Joy projects.³⁰

A completely different sort of economics played out among art dealers, where—perversely—significant economic gains resulted from the seizure of art as part of the Degenerate Art Action and the subsequent sale of these items on the international marketplace. Transactions bolstered Goering’s plan to facilitate the sale of these works in exchange for much needed hard currency. Owing to explicit restrictions on displaying or selling seized artworks within Nazi Germany (although these rules were often ignored), a number of dealers simply chose to hold on to these works and kept them in their private possession, a practice that explains the trove of highly valued art discovered in 2013 in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of one such dealer. However, being stigmatized as a degenerate did not necessarily lead to the financial ruin of individual artists. There were no restrictions on selling or exhibiting any of the works of these artists that had not been seized as part of the Degenerate Art Action, and the Aryans among them did not necessarily face obstacles when it came to obtaining work or even acquiring membership in the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts.³¹

Ultimately, however, any assaults on artistic freedom in the visual and performing arts would have depended entirely on the inherent controllability of those arts. If any one medium could have been subjected to more government oversight than the others, it would have been film, an industry that had already been closely monitored by Weimar-era censorship, exploited by the military, controlled by conservative government interests, and supported after 1933 by public and private investments and safety nets operating under the watchful eye of the propaganda minister. The symbolic examples of Nazi cinema—such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Veit Harlan’s antisemitic feature film, Jud Süss (Jew Süss)—have only reinforced the impression that all Nazi-era films touted loyalty to Hitler and hatred toward Jews. And evidence does show that Hitler and Goebbels considered controlling all media to be of the highest importance and that both men recognized the power of print, radio, and film in winning over the German public. Film was subjected to a formal process of censorship (which was also the case in many other countries, including the United States, especially during the war), but film censorship had existed in Germany since 1931 and allowed films to be prohibited if they were considered to be against state interests. Positive incentives for promoting acceptable films—such as the Prädikate, a ratings system to assess the educational merit of films and accordingly reward them with tax subsidies—also predated the Third Reich.³² Censorship guidelines were left intentionally vague, so most filmmakers chose to concentrate their efforts on projects with innocent escapist themes to avert possible censorship and on musicals that could be easily exported.³³ Despite the iconic status Triumph of the Will has acquired as a typical Nazi film, film production during the Third Reich was remarkably diverse. The majority of movies produced at the time were intended for pure entertainment, and the desire of most filmmakers to compete in the international marketplace was in itself a strong deterrent to injecting German cinema with heavy-handed ideology.³⁴

In the theater, German officials had learned well before 1933 that censorship had to be handled with extreme caution. Until 1918, theaters were required to have all scripts screened by the police for obscenity, blasphemy, or lese majesty, but in most cases, the authorities were surprisingly lax. They recognized the cathartic value of political satire and risqué entertainment and its ability to appease discontented citizens, and they also understood that the scandal of censorship could backfire by drawing more attention to a performance than they would have wanted. Heeding this wisdom, Nazi theater administrators even noted the potential of cabaret—the mode of entertainment

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