Jewels in the Nazi crown

Last week we explored the disquieting lives of four men – Walter Gropius, Paul Hildemith, Gottfried Benn, and Ernst Barlach – all of them giants of the imaginative arts who, when Hitler came to power, readily bowed and scraped to the moral pygmies of the new regime. Historian Jonathan Petropoulos’s accounts, in a recent book, of how these and other prominent artists chose to be collaborators rather than émigrés make for a remarkable document in the modern history of useful stoogery. Today we’ll look at a couple more of these stooges.

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Emil Nolde

None of the cultural figures we’ve examined so far were card-carrying Nazis. Emil Nolde was. He joined the Danish Nazi Party way back in 1920, after his native southern Schleswig, formerly part of Prussia, was ceded to Denmark in a post-armistice plebiscite. He was an outspoken anti-Semite from early on, but his prejudice against Jews grew even stronger over the years. He also sincerely admired Hitler. “The Führer,” he told a friend in a 1933 letter, “is great and noble in his aspirations and a genial man of deeds.” In 1938, he wrote to Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, that he was “convinced of the world importance of National Socialism.” In short, he was no hypocritical suck-up – he was a true believer.

Vierwaldstätter See. Um 1930
Nolde’s The Sea (1930)

Even so, like many of the other figures profiled in Petropoulos’s book, he had to struggle to win the Nazis’ hearts. In a 1934 autobiographical volume he proclaimed his belief in Nordic superiority; in the same year he signed a declaration of loyalty to Hitler. Still, the regime couldn’t figure out whether to give him the official seal of approval or not. Goebbels wondered in his diary: “Is Nolde a Bolshevik or a painter?” Nolde sent Goebbels several letters pleading for recognition, assuring him: “My art is German, powerful, austere, and profound.” Yet until the very last days of the Nazi era, he continued to received mixed signals from officials. (A major blow came in 1937 when his work was included in the “Degenerate Art Exhibition.”) Unlike Barlach, however, he at least survived the war, and, like many other artists who’d been unrepentant Nazis and Nazi collaborators, was quickly rehabilitated afterwards. He even won a major prize at the 1952 Venice Biennale – a remarkable achievement so soon after the Nazi nightmare. 

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Richard Strauss

On to Richard Strauss, the composer of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), famously used on the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and of the operas Der Rosenkavalier (1910) and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912). By the time Hitler came along, Strauss was pushing seventy, was one of the most respected composers on earth, and was a cultural treasure whom the Nazis wanted to identify with their regime (even though Hitler personally considered him second-rate). When Goebbels named Strauss president of the Reich Chamber of Music in 1933, Strauss accepted without hesitation, having earlier described Goebbels in a letter as “very art-inspired and sensitive.” Within a few months he’d dedicated a song, “Das Bächlein,” to Goebbels.

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Stefan Zweig

Trouble came, however, in 1935, when a letter Strauss had dispatched to Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, then living in Switzerland, was intercepted by the Nazis. In it, Strauss repudiated anti-Semitism and, although the Nazis had forbidden such a collaboration, expressed a wish to continue working with Zweig, who’d written the libretto of his opera Die schweigsame Frau. The letter found its way to Hitler himself, who forced Strauss to resign from his position at the Reich Chamber of Music – in response to which Strauss sent the Führer the most sycophantic of missives, which closed with an assurance of his “deepest veneration.” 

Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, during a speach in September 1934.
Joseph Goebbels, 1934

Though he lost his official post, Strauss kept his career. He was even commissioned to compose the Olympic hymn for the 1936 Berlin games; its performance at the opening ceremonies by the Berlin Philharmonic, the National Socialist Symphony Orchestra, and a 1000-voice chorus, all under the direction of Strauss himself, was featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia. On his eightieth birthday, Strauss received congratulatory telegrams from both Hitler and Goebbels, and Ariadne auf Naxos was specially staged in Vienna.

To the end, then, Richard Strauss continued to be a jewel in the Nazi crown – a distinction that kept his Jewish daughter-in-law from being swept up in the Holocaust, but that was insufficient to enable him to save her grandmother and two dozen other relatives, all of whom were murdered in the death camps. The American troops who arrested Strauss at the end of the war treated him with “utmost respect,” writes Petropoulos, and his rehabilitation was even swifter than that of many others: only two years after V-E Day, he was fêted at a Strauss Festival at Royal Albert Hall in London, where he received a standing ovation.

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