Nazi Art. Cultural Foundations of National Socialism, part 1.

At Nuremberg, Northern Bavaria in 1938, Adolf Hitler addressed in a speech the purpose of art and its relation to National Socialism. Recalling Hellenism, the culture of the Greeks, which he defined as “a proclamation of the Greek body and of the essential Greek spirit,” Hitler called for a German renaissance in the arts to achieve the same- to “herald the common view of life” among citizens of the Third Reich. His party, the N.S.D.A.P. (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) came into power five years prior. The Second World War had not yet commenced, therefore other matters were focused on, such as the revival and upkeep of German culture, which for the National Socialists was of utmost vitality. National Socialism is an all-encompassing ideology; that is to say, it extends from the political realm and has direct influence over every aspect of life among the citizens of the nation under its rule. Ultimately, it’s a racially conscious approach to politics, recognizing hierarchy among men and its differing races as one would to any other species of animal and variations among breeds.

In a world that had just undergone an industrial revolution, and suffered the horrors of World War I, the philosophy of National Socialism was a renaissance in itself- one that venerated rural life, sought glory only associated with golden ages of the distant past, and considered race, nation, and destiny, in a tribal sense, the most vital collaboration of elements that exist.

It was not an entirely new ideology, but an amalgamation of a number of schools which all shared a common root of affinity for German Romanticism. Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist and so-called ‘Volkisch prophet’ was active in the decade before Hitler’s rise to power and died in 1919. He “Insist[ed] on the literal transfer of the laws of biology to the social realm, and call[ed] for a religious reformation in German life” so the Germans would live closer in accordance with nature; he promoted, one would infer, a revival or semi-revival of the pre-Christian Germanic religion, which was venerated by another proto-National Socialist group, the Thule Society or Thule Gesellschaft. Ideas spawning from Haeckel, the Volkists, the Thule Society, and an array of historical German thinkers and innovators such as Martin Luther, Arthur Schopenhauer, and composer Richard Wagner are all cited as direct influences of National Socialism.

As World War II raged, beginning in 1939, the National Socialists continued to produce definitive texts, speeches, and other propaganda to ensure support on the home front and to avoid any inkling of “defeatism” in the public sphere. The sources emit an almost tangible urgency especially as Germany’s loss became more imminent, revealing their ‘true colors,’ so to speak, while assessing the war and criticizing their enemies without remorse. Naturally, the ideology formed to the mold of the circumstances it was born into and suffered (and continues to suffer) blows of scorn from its victors- however, before the depths of the war was upon Europe, and the fall of the Reich which coincided with Hitler’s suicide in 1945, National Socialism lifted Germany from depression into full bloom economically, culturally, and in spirit.

In order to give a fair verdict on the National Socialist worldview, which is fiercely demonized in the west today, one must examine the factors that it opposed in its conception; ideologically speaking it was Marxism, which the National Socialists viewed as the bane of mankind. The two worldviews share one main quality, which is their unforgiving nature. Because of this, they could be the two extremes of a political spectrum, which explains their equally fanatical bases. The Bolshevik revolution that occurred in Russia in 1919, which resulted in Communist Russia, was Germany’s main opponent in World War II; Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda said towards the War’s end that it boiled down to a conflict “between Christ and Marx.” Like the Social Democrats in Germany during the 1920’s, the Bolsheviks adhered to Marxist doctrine, which according to Hitler also informed Modernism in art and nihilism in men, and is the same force that gripped Germany during the era that prompted Hitler’s rise to power- that is, post World War I Germany in the Weimar Republic.

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1924

Although considered a time of creative and social achievement to many contemporary critics, German cities in the 1920’s, especially Berlin and Zurich, were breeding grounds for prostitution, venereal disease, economic depression, organized crime, and drug abuse. Hitler considered the elimination of what he called “moral pestilence” as necessary above all things. In his autobiography and political manifesto Mein Kampf, penned while serving a jail sentence for treason against the democratic government in 1924, he explains without deviation the need to combat the cause of German decline, instead of attacking its individual symptoms, which he blamed almost entirely on the workings of “Jews…and their fighting comrades, the Marxists” and referred to as the process of the “Judaizing of [German] spiritual life.”

Vehement antisemitism also was nothing new in German thought, having been which endorsed by multiple reputable ideologues from Martin Luther, who published On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543, to Karl Lueger, founder of the Christian Socialist Party in Austria a generation before Hitler. Antisemetic literature could be found in political pamphlets in any city within greater Germany.

In his young adulthood, Hitler himself was highly skeptical of and anxious towards the topic of antisemitism until “the moment [he] discovered the Jewish activities in the press, in art, in literature, and the theater,” all of which he denounced as “poison…worse than the black plague of long ago.” As an artist within the classical realm himself, and having been an aspiring architect before becoming involved in politics, his distaste for the sexualization and abstraction of Modern art fueled his antisemitism, as such things might to both a creative and nationalistic individual. Giving credit to Jews for Modernism is intellectually reasonable when one also gives credit to Jews for Marxism; both schools similarly dismiss national and racial boundaries. The international rhetoric of Marxists, including global capitalists who would ‘desertify’ the world for profit, according to Hitler, was the same force that would spiritually desertify peoples of all races.

By the 20’s, Modernism in Europe had been burgeoning for decades. Even today, the philosophies and styles of the Bauhaus school of modern art, which in the architectural field is known as the ‘International school,’ born during the Weimar era, dominate today’s art world and curriculum in university. Regardless of its attachability to political doctrine, its offshoots such as Cubism, Futurism (an Italian movement), and Dadaism, stylistically and philosophically clashed with Hitler’s preference for objective beauty and classical skill in the European tradition. His artistic taste was sober, so to speak, in addition to being a man who never smoked or drank alcohol. By merely glancing at one of Hitler’s own paintings next to one of critical praise in Weimar Germany, or Modernist circles in the contemporary art world for that matter, one can clearly make the distinction between the differing spiritual approaches to each style.

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Adolf Hitler, Mother Mary with the Holy Child

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Entartete Kunst

Julius Evola, a Traditionalist philosopher who for a period contributed to the Dadaist and Futurist movements in Europe, describes his involvement as a result of “an existential crisis which emerged within me after the [First World] war,” the horrors of which “left no other alternative to choose” from at the time. In other words, the absurdist, provocative nature of Dadaism “had a deep existential dimension” for a young, creative individual returning home from the trenches without a true sense of purpose. However, instead of continuing down a road of existentialism, “commit[ing] suicide or withdraw[ing], as some Dadaists did,” upon feeling alleviation from his crisis, Evola naturally ceased to express himself by the same means he had while in the throes of said crisis.

While Evola went on to distance himself from both Italian Fascism and National Socialism, especially Hitler who he decried as having “dangerous” and “possessed” qualities, he admitted fellow feeling for the “discipline style within the nation” and its reconstruction of “hierarchical formation.” Furthermore, his involvement in the early Dadaist movement is a useful analogy for the widespread overcoming of the tightening grip of nihilism that National Socialism lead the German people out of in the mid-1930’s. The dismantling of the spirit of Dadaism, which is ultimately fashionable, arrogant, and apathetic, hard to comprehend, and therefore easily placed at high costs for the wealthy class who have lack “judgement of their own in art matters,” was a top priority at the start of the Third Reich.

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Nazi Art

Hitler called for abolishing of the “standard of yesterday and today, of modern and unmodern” and the adoption of “the standard of ‘valueless’ or ‘valuable,’ of ‘eternal’ or transitory,’” supporting this cause within the context of, instead of separate from, reformations in politics and economy. The platform of German Nationalism relies heavily on the longevity and glory of its culture which is created by and for Germans, having “intimate association with a people,” rather than being an ‘international experience’ of trends invented and peddled by so-called ‘intellectual’ bourgeois classes.

The reality of this moral threat was emphasized by the great mass of inferior works that could be produced because of “the lower the moral and intellectual level” they require to create. An initial step towards the “cultural cleansing” Hitler desired in the Third Reich was the National Socialist-hosted art show called “Degenerate Art” or Entartete Kunst wherein Modernist works were openly displayed to the public to satirize them and presumably to showcase a physical manifestation of what National Socialists considered decaying to the morality and spirituality of Germans.

By 1943, at the opening of the 7th German Art exhibition, Joseph Goebbels went so far as to claim that Germany and Italy (Fascist allies of the Reich) the “protectors of human culture,” citing both nation’s contributions to art over the ages, implying the importance of art to the consciousness of a people, and boasting German and Italian cities as “containing more eternal manifestations of Western culture than the entire North American continent-” an attack on their newfound American adversaries. This was during the later stages of war for Germany, and the beginning stages of their defeat in which Goebbels’ output would become more extreme- but now that they were engaged in total war with ideological opposition, the consequences of an Axis loss became more dire.

Still, he recited the new value of art in the Reich as it had been presented at conception of National Socialism, and ensured that “new pictures, sculptures, plays, novels, symphonies, and operas [would be] no longer of interest only to intellectual critics in the newspapers, as was once often the case,” and that “they must withstand the eye and ear of the people” instead. That German Expressionist films, made and praised in Weimar-era Germany, are still shown to university students with reverence suggests common influence on our culture that existed in Germany before National Socialism. M by Fritz Lang, a famous example of film from this time, in its apparent artistry, lacks any inherently German elements. Instead, it tells a story of high crime, gang violence, and kangaroo courts: all global subjects. Likewise, Modernist visual and performance art, as well as literature, ignores national and racial identity in favor of universality, much like Christianity.

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A ‘sculpture’ by Jessica Stockholder, presented to the student body during my art studies in Northern Ireland.

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Arno Breker in studio, the ‘Nazi’ sculptor.

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