Those wannabe Nazi courtiers

Yesterday, drawing on Jonathan Petropoulos’s fascinating book Artists under Hitler, we began taking a look at various German cultural figures who, during the Nazi era, chose not to flee their country and instead tried to find a modus vivendi with Hitler. In other words, useful stooges.

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Walter Gropius in 1919

Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century, was one of these.  No, he was not a Nazi. “He detested their intolerance,” Petropoulos emphasizes. On the other hand, he was very proud of his German identity and – viewing himself as a man who was “above politics” – he believed he possessed “qualities that would enable him to flourish in the Third Reich.” Without complaint, he supplied Nazi authorities with copies of his family tree to document his pure “Aryan” heritage so he could join official arts groups.

Try though he did, however, Gropius couldn’t get a professional foothold under the new regime. He entered a design competition for the Nazis’ new Reichsbank, but lost. He entered another design for a recreational facility called the Houses of German Work – complete with four high-flying swastika banners – and lost again.

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Gropius’s design for the Reichsbank

Working closely with the Reich Propaganda Ministry, he did help plan an ideology-drenched exhibition called “German People – German Work.” But all in all, his career prospects proved to be lousier in Germany than they were abroad. So in the mid 1930s, he spent a good deal of time in Britain, where he worked with an English colleague on a building for a college in Cambridgeshire and designed lamps and wastepaper baskets for a furniture company. Later in the decade, he accepted an invitation from Harvard to serve as chairman of that institution’s department of architecture.

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The PanAm (now MetLife) building

During these first years in the U.S., Gropius refused to involve himself in anti-Nazi causes. When the war began, however, he chose to stay in America, and in 1944 became a citizen. He went on to design New York’s iconic Pan Am (now MetLife) Building and many other notable structures. He became, in short, an iconic American architect, whose attempts to ingratiate himself with the Nazis were dropped down the memory hole. Like several of the other stooges whose lives Petropoulos recounts, Gropius was spared the kind of postwar ignominy experienced by (say) Albert Speer only because he couldn’t secure enough decent work in his homeland to make it worth staying there.

Paul Hindemith was as important to modern music as Gropius was to modern architecture. Even more so, perhaps: by the time the Nazis came along, he’d been serving for some time as a sort of cultural ambassador for his homeland around the Western world, especially in America. As Petropoulos puts it, Hindemith hoped the Nazis would look upon his “sterling and increasingly global reputation,” as well as upon his background as a World War I veteran, and see him as a potential ornament to the Third Reich.

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Paul Hindemith

Like Gropius, Hindemith was no Nazi. Since he had a half-Jewish wife and Jewish friends, it could be argued that he wasn’t anti-Semitic either (although he never opened his mouth to protest the official abuse of his Jewish colleagues). In any event, he did what he thought necessary to advance his career under the Nazis. He signed a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler; he publicly badmouthed fellow modernist composers who were out of favor with the regime; and he trimmed his sails musically (retreating from modernism back into German Romanticism and post-Romanticism) to please his new masters.

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Wilhelm Fürtwangler

And yet none of it worked. Why? Quite simply, Hitler disliked his music. For a time, thanks largely to the support of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the revered conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Hindemith was able to keep staging his works. But Furtwängler’s support only kept Hindemith afloat for so long; after his inclusion in the Nazis’ 1938 “Degenerate Music Exhibition” made it clear that he wasn’t welcome in the new Germany, he and his wife finally decamped for Switzerland and then, in 1940, relocated to the U.S., where he taught at Yale for thirteen years. In a letter he wrote on the ship to New York, he said that if only he had “the prospect of a somewhat secure existence,” he’d gladly return to Hitler’s Reich. The reason for his departure, then, wasn’t at all ideological. As with Gropius, however, his timely getaway ensured that he was one German artist who, after the war, escaped the taint of collaboration.

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