During the last couple of days we’ve been pondering the lives of men who were among the most gifted artists of the last century – and who kowtowed to Adolf Hitler himself. We’re indebted throughout to Jonathan Petropoulos’s eye-opening accounts of these men’s shameless stoogery in his recent book Artists under Hitler.
Yesterday we saw that architect Walter Gropius and composer Paul Hindemith, while not Nazis themselves, strove to win the hearts and minds of Nazi leaders in hopes that they’d be granted the extraordinary privilege of becoming artistic faces of the Third Reich. Today we’ll move on – first of all – to expressionist poet-physician Gottfried Benn. He wasn’t a Nazi either, strictly speaking – he never joined the party – but he did welcome the rise of Hitler, whom he saw as a “transformative” figure (well, he was right there), and hoped that the dictator shared his own view that there was no contradiction whatsoever between Nazism and expressionism. In an address given shortly after the Nazis took charge, Benn maintained that as an German intellectual he was obliged to “stand in a positive relation to the new state.”
What did he mean by this? Well, for one thing he meant that he felt compelled to renounce anti-Nazi cultural figures (among them Thomas Mann) who’d fled the country and resigned from the Prussian Academy of the Arts. This mass exile left vacant the position of head of the Academy’s poetry section, to which Benn was now elected. When Mann’s son Klaus publicly criticized Benn for his “repudiation of civilization” and “worship of brute power,” Benn delivered another speech, in which he asserted that Germans living under Hitler were “better off now than ever before” and painted Mann and other prominent émigrés as hedonists who were lolling about on Riviera beaches when they could, and should, be serving the Führer’s “new vision of the birth of man.”
Pretty revolting stuff. Yet by late 1934, having lost his Academy post and also his enthusiasm for Nazi ideology, Benn essentially dropped out of the art world and became an army doctor. Up to the end of the war, maintaining a mostly low profile, he privately deplored the ideology and objectives of the Third Reich yet publicly wore its uniform. His job enabled him to observe junior Wehrmacht officers at close quarters, and what he saw disturbed him greatly: though he assumed that their parents must have been cultured, these young men’s formative years in the Hitler Youth, he recognized, had turned them into monsters whose goal was to “destroy…the continent.”
After the war, Benn was quickly rehabilitated. He won literary prizes in what was now West Germany and gained new readers, and even disciples, around the world. In his last years (he died in 1956), he was universally admired for having turned against the Nazis early on; the truth, however, was the Nazis, by removing him from his position at the Academy, had turned on him first.
Benn’s fellow expressionist Ernst Barlach was both a writer and an artist. Petropoulos describes him, rather bemusingly, as “empathetic and soulful.” He had no illusions about the Nazis, but clearly strove for their acceptance. Like Gropius, he had his own family tree drawn up to prove he was 100% Aryan. When criticized by the art editor of the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter, he got upset, as if a Nazi’s ideologically based judgment of an artwork had any validity or deserved any respect. When Hitler decided to call himself Führer, Barlach enthusiastically signed a petition giving him a thumbs-up. And when the Nazis banned a book of his drawings, he sent Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, a groveling letter begging him to reverse the ban.
But it was no use. In 1935, the SS newspaper condemned Barlach’s work as “alien.” Around Germany, works by him were dismantled, removed from display, melted down, cut into pieces, discarded. This official rejection destroyed his health, and in 1938, aged 68, he died, apparently starved for want of Nazi love.