The ones who stayed

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Marlene Dietrich

When we think of top-flight German creative and intellectual types during the Nazi era, we tend to focus on the ones who understood exactly what Adolf Hitler was about, didn’t like it at all, and got out while the getting was good.

Whole books have been written about the tsunami of actors, artists, authors, architects, composers, and scientists that flowed from Europe to America during the 1930s. Among them were such luminaries as the novelist Thomas Mann, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, the film director Fritz Lang, the composer Arnold Schoenberg, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, and the actress Marlene Dietrich. Not to mention Albert Einstein himself. 

But there’s another group of German cultural eminences who (with a couple of notable exceptions) have received considerably less attention. We’re referring to the ones who chose to stay and work in Nazi Germany. Jonathan Petropoulos puts it this way in his recent book Artists under Hitler:Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany:

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Jonathan Petropoulos

The German émigré community during the Third Reich represented the greatest assemblage of cultural talent ever to leave a country. Yet the image of virtuous émigrés has long overshadowed the fact that a wide array of cultural figures who were trained or who worked in a modernist tradition attempted to find a place in Hitler’s Reich.

As Petropoulos notes, no two of these figures had the same politics going into the Nazi era. Some of them actually believed in Nazism to various extents, although several of them changed their minds at one or another point in the 1930s. Others were amoral careerists – former liberals or Communists who didn’t see a professional future for themselves abroad and bought into Nazism in order to preserve their careers. 

We’ll spend the next few days looking at some of these cultural figures – gifted Germans who, faced with a choice of escaping to New York or knuckling under to one of the most loathsome monsters in human history, somehow decided (at least for a time) that it was a good idea to do the latter.

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Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1919

Petropoulos, a professor of European history at Claremont McKenna College, devotes whole chapters to ten major names. But he also mentions several other stooges in passing. For example, Fritz Ertl studied architecture at the Bauhaus, went on to become a Waffen-SS officer, and ended up putting his skills to work by helping design the death camp at Auschwitz, and, later, the gates at Buchenwald. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a founder of Die Brücke – the famous group of expressionist artists whose work is represented in the world’s best modern-art museums – protested a 1933 effort by the Nazis to remove him from the Prussian Academy of the Arts by professing that he was “neither a Jew nor a Social Democrat” and had struggled to create “a new, strong, and authentic German art.”

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Oskar Schlemmer

Then there’s architect Oskar Schlemmer, who, after hearing that somebody had identified him as Jewish, was quick to assure a Nazi official that he could prove his “Christian-Protestant” background going back to the seventeenth century; when he was removed from his academic post, he shared his frustration with a friend: “I myself feel pure and that my art corresponds to National Socialist principles.” The great soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf certainly felt that way: she joined “at least three different Nazi organizations” (in addition to the Party itself), had “a close personal relationship with Goebbels,” performed for SS troops in Poland (where they were busy murdering local civilians), and probably had an SS officer for a lover. (She went on to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1964 and to be awarded the title Dame Commander by Queen Elizabeth II.) And Emil Jannings, who in 1927 had won the first Oscar for Best Actor (for The Way of All Flesh), appeared in Nazi propaganda films and was designated a “state artist” by Goebbels. 

As for the people to whom Petropoulos devotes entire chapters – among them such eminent figures as Walter Gropius, Paul Hindemith, and Richard Strauss – well, we’ll start in on them tomorrow. These are stories well worth knowing about men who, while freighted with artistic genius, utterly lacked the moral compass of people like Mann and Dietrich, who recognized that the only proper reaction to Hitler was to reject him, flee him, and – when the war finally came – take part in the fight against him.

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