Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture

Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture
David B. Dennis
Cambridge University Press   541pp  £25

This revelatory book illustrates the extent to which some of the greatest historical figures in European culture were appropriated by the Nazi propaganda machine with the objective of bringing a veneer of intellectual credibility and respectability to the ideology that underpinned the Third Reich.

Scouring all the cultural pages of the Nazi daily newspaper Völkischer Beobachter, which began publication in 1920, the US historian David Dennis has amassed a wealth of evidence to support his argument that this programme of cultural manipulation was executed with thoroughness and consistency from the moment the Nazis appeared on the political scene. Furthermore, it was regarded as an essential tool in the drive to heighten a sense of national renewal in Germany and justify authoritarian and racist attitudes.

As one might expect, presenting a specifically Nazi worldview of European culture necessitated a recalibration of the historical, biographical and aesthetic backgrounds that surrounded a number of seminal figures and the requisitioning of Michelangelo, Leonardo and even Shakespeare as ‘Nordic’ superheroes. Evidence was twisted so that it could be construed as supportive of the prevailing attitudes of the Nazi hierarchy, while any counter-arguments were denounced as products of a Jewish-led conspiracy. Inevitably the degree to which figures of the past were manipulated to serve the Nazi present was subject to a considerable degree of variation. Thus reinterpreting Martin Luther and Richard Wagner in Nazi colours appeared to require far less sleight of hand than, say, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose allegiance to Freemasonry and willingness to collaborate with the Jewish-born librettist Lorenzo da Ponte proved a source of embarrassment to the regime. For non-Germans evidence of a proto-Nazi attitude rested on selective interpretation of the respective artist’s outlook. In the case of Shakespeare, a sequence of quotations from Henry IV Part One, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Two Gentlemen of Verona were presented as evidence of the playwright’s antisemitic stance.

One danger posed by the material that Dennis has unearthed is the potential for the narrative to seem repetitive; one of the prime objectives of Nazi propaganda was to hammer home the same message over and over again. Yet Dennis avoids this trap by sustaining a lively and incisive writing style and ensuring that each chapter covers a wide range of issues with specific case-studies drawing parallels between figures in the visual and literary arts and certain key philosophers, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Instead of opting for a strictly chronological survey that charts the newspaper’s evolution over a period of 20 or so years, Dennis has devised a more imaginative broad-brush structure. In the first section he explores those newspaper articles that deal with the purportedly Germanic origins of western culture and present a position that bolsters a long-standing anti-semitic outlook. This is followed by sections dealing with the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Nazism and Modernism, the crisis unleashed by culture in the Weimar Republic. Finally, Dennis considers the ‘solutions’ outlined by the regime once it had seized power and the compromises that had to be made once Germany was engaged in war.

Not surprisingly, articles on the great composers in the Völkischer Beobachter assume a prominent position, given the Nazi argument that music was ‘the most German of all the arts’. Although not a trained musicologist, Dennis is well equipped for handling this particular task, having already written authoritatively on the Nazi appropriation of Beethoven. It is espec-ially fascinating to chart Nazi attitudes to musical modernism and to note that, at least in the case of Richard Strauss, the newspaper was prepared to eat humble pie and repudiate its previously hostile response to his music, once the composer was given the post of President of the Reichsmusik-kammer in 1933.

Perhaps the most disturbing information to emerge from Dennis’ book is that even at the end of the war, when Germany was preoccupied with a bitter struggle for its very survival, the cultural pages of Völkischer Beobachter sustained an unshakeable belief that its articles were serving the best interests of the nation. Moreover, at this juncture the main writers of such material were not necessarily hack journalists with limited educational backgrounds but, more often than not, prominent members of Germany’s academic community, who were only too eager to lend their support to the Nazi cause.

Erik Levi is author of Mozart and the Nazis: How the Third Reich Abused a Cultural Icon (Yale University Press, 2011)

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