Even among the various cultural eminences who chose to stay in Germany and submit to Nazism rather than become exiles – and whose pusillanimous lives we’ve been looking at during the last few days – Gustaf Gründgens stands out. Emil Nolde was already a longtime Nazi when Hitler took over; others had traditional or nationalistic sentiments that made them feel they could find some kind of meeting ground with Nazism. By contrast, Gründgens, during the Weimar years, was a left-wing radical who starred in one Marxist agitprop play after another. Even more sensationally, his homosexuality was an open secret in the German theatrical community. “Both Goebbels and Hitler,” writes Jonathan Petropoulos in Artists under Hitler, “were ‘aghast’ by what the former characterized as a ‘swamp’ of homosexuality that Gründgens had ostensibly encouraged” at the Prussian State Theater in Berlin, which he ran beginning in 1934.
Yet Herman Goering – who was officially in charge of the Berlin theaters, and had put Gründgens in charge of the Prussian State Theater – consistently protected Gründgens, prompting Goebbels to confide in his diary in 1937: “The entire Gründgens shop [is] completely gay. I don’t understand Göring here at all.” (Yes, the word gay sounds anachronistic, but that’s how Petropoulos translates it; we don’t know what Goebbels actually wrote in the original German.) For whatever reasons, Goering stuck by Gründgens to the very end of the war – even, at one point, imprisoning two editors for running negative reviews of Gründgen’s production of Hamlet, and sparing the lives of several Jewish actors at Gründgens’s request.
How could somebody who was known by Hitler himself to be gay have survived in the Third Reich? Petropoulos quotes historian Alan Steinweis’s statement that the case of Gründgens “perhaps best exemplified” what Steinweis called the Nazis’ “flexible approach to the purge of homosexuals.”
Not only was Gründgens spared; he benefited from the Nazi crackdown on other minority-group members, one of his two glamorous residences being a country estate that had previously belonged to a Jewish banker. In 1936, he entered into what was apparently (at least for him) a pragmatic marriage with another movie star, Marianne Hoppe – and the two of them, weirdly enough, became public “symbols of the new Reich.”
And after the war? Gründgens was locked up by the Soviets for nine months, but by May 1946 he was back on the Berlin stage, and in 1949 he was invited to perform at the Edinburgh Festival. For all his closeness to the center of Nazi power, he ended up getting off scot-free.
Or did he? In 1963, age 63 (he was born on December 31, 1899), Gründgens killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills. Was it a case of long-suppressed guilt feelings finally coming to the fore? Or, possibly, PTSD?
Then there’s sculptor Arno Breker. He’s less well known today than some of these people, but of all of them – leaving aside Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl – he was the one whose art most captivated the Führer. Hitler loved his intimidatingly monumental sculptures, which perfectly captured the Nazi will to greatness and love of power. Indeed, the French writer Jean Cocteau, who was a friend of Breker’s and a fan of the Nazis, once said that Hitler “loved” Breker, whom he regarded as an “adopted son.” During the occupation of France, Breker socialized in Paris’s chic-est night spots with the crème de la crème of Gallic collaborators, including Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Coco Chanel. (We should probably get around to them one of these days.)
As Hitler’s darling, Breker wielded considerable influence – and he used it. He helped save Picasso from deportation by the Gestapo, had publisher Peter Suhrkamp released from Sachsenhausen, and prevented the deportation of a Jewish model who worked for the artist Aristide Maillol. Do these good deeds mitigate the offense of being a useful stooge for Hitler? No. As Petropoulos admirably explains:
Breker assisted others when it did not diminish his own political capital. Helping or saving threatened individuals enabled him to exercise his own considerable power. By aiding persecutees, he demonstrated his power and thereby increased it.
Indeed. The same holds for several of Hitler’s other cultural stooges who used their connections to help friends. The help they offered didn’t make them saints; on the contrary, the connections that enabled them to help – connections they had willingly forged with a man who was the very personification of sheer, inhuman evil – made them parties to that evil.
In any event, Breker, too, was quickly rehabilitated after the war. He designed sculptures for buildings all over West Germany. He did a portrait bust of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who (perplexingly) admired him. To the end – he died in 1991 – Breker refused to apologize for his past. As with so many other Nazi collaborators from the world of high art and culture, his after-story is striking, not only for his own unwillingness to express so much as a drop of remorse, but also for the readiness of others, both in and outside of Germany, to forgive and forget his reprehensible Nazi past.