The Master Race’s master builder

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Albert Speer on trial in Nuremberg

Leni Riefenstahl was an intimate friend of Hitler’s, and sculptor Arno Breker was like a son to him; but the artist who worked most closely of all with the Führer, and whose oeuvre is most inextricable from the Third Reich project, was Albert Speer.

A Nazi Party member since 1931, Speer was tapped by Hitler two years later to oversee the artistic and technical design of Nazi rallies. In 1934, Hitler, who saw Speer as a “kindred spirit,” made him the Party’s chief architect; in 1937, he put him in charge of inspecting buildings in Berlin. Speer designed the Zeppelinfeld stadium (where the annual Nuremberg rallies took place), the German pavilion for a world exposition in Paris, and a new Reich Chancellery. His biggest assignment of all – though it never came to fruition – was almost certainly the most massive architectural enterprise ever conceived. The goal was nothing less than to design an entirely new Berlin.

Speer showing Hitler his design for the German pavilion at the 1937 Paris exposition

The thoroughly transformed city would be called Germania, and would be the capital not only of Germany but of the whole civilized world, once it came under Hitler’s thumb. There would be new airports, two new railroad stations, four new ring roads, and new suburbs big enough to house 200,000 people. A building called the Grand Hall would have been the world’s largest enclosed space, with a dome sixteen times the size of St. Peter’s Basilica. Unveiled in January 1938, the plans for Germania – which envisioned a gleaming metropolis of white stone that was reminiscent of ancient Rome – provided a vivid measure of the scale of Hitler’s ambition, not to say megalomania. The demolition work necessary to clear the ground for the construction of Germania was carried out by about 130,000 prisoners of war and forced laborers between 1939 and 1942.

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Hitler and Speer inspect a scale model of Germania

Riefenstahl was able to get off scot-free after the war; not Speer. Tried for war crimes at Nuremberg, he was found guilty, but the judges bought his claim to have been unaware of the Holocaust while it was underway and thus sentenced him only to twenty years in prison instead of death by hanging. Not until 2007, sixteen years after his death, did a letter emerge, written by Speer in 1971, in which he admitted to having attended a speech by Gestapo and SS chief Heinrich Himmler outlining plans for the Holocaust. In short, he had known about the extermination of the Jews all along – and it was foolish of anyone to have believed otherwise.

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Germania

But they did believe. And consequently, during his prison years and afterwards, Speer underwent an considerable image boost. He came to be viewed as the “good Nazi” – as a gifted architect who had simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was sheer nonsense. Speer, as noted, had joined the Nazi Party early on. Although he lied about his knowledge of the Holocaust, he never denied having been an ardent believer in Hitler and a fervent supporter of the war. He looked forward to a world run by his Führer; their glorious plans for Germania, after all, would only have made sense if the city was the capital of the entire Western world.

Speer knew, then, the nature of the man he served; and he approved of that man, and dedicated his art to the singular task of glorifying him. He was no victim of circumstance, but a conscious instrument of evil – a stooge of the first order. 

Leni Riefenstahl, heroine?

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Springtime for Hitler and Riefenstahl

Yesterday we surveyed the career of Hitler’s “perfect German woman,” close friend, and personal filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, who lived to be 101 years old and to party with Mick Jagger. Hers was a fascinating life – so fascinating, indeed, that more than one major Hollywood player has made serious efforts to get a film about it off the ground.

In 2007, for example, it was reported that Jodie Foster, after spending seven years trying to put together a movie in which she would play Riefenstahl, had “settled on a script by British writer Rupert Walters” and was looking for a director. During Riefenstahl’s life, Foster had tried to persuade her to cooperate with the project, but Riefenstahl had refused – partly because Foster wouldn’t grant her script approval, and partly because Riefenstahl would have preferred to be played by Sharon Stone, not Foster.

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Jodie Foster: Hitler’s “perfect German woman”?

By 2013, the project had passed into the hands of director Steven Soderbergh, who explained that he wanted “to see if we could make the audience root for her and treat Hitler and Goebbels as like the studio heads [!] and treat her as the aggrieved artist who is being held back by Philistines.” Soderbergh thought it “would be interesting if you could somehow over 90 minutes convince somebody to root for someone who probably on some level was pretty horrible.”

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Sharon Stone

Soderbergh (who has directed such films as Erin Brockovich and Contagion) emphasized that the Riefenstahl movie would “at no point leav[e] her point of view, or delv[e] into any of these moral questions,” because the moral questions would already be “there for the audience. They don’t need to be there for her.” At the same time, however, the goal of the picture would be to manipulate the audience into “rooting for her to win.” As Soderbergh imagined it, the film would end with Riefenstahl “onstage after the premier of ‘Triumph of the Will’ with people throwing roses at her.”

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Steven Soderbergh

What to make of this?  Granted, there may be a legitimate concept for a motion picture somewhere in there: movies have been made, after all, about various monstrous personages, both historical and fictional, in which part of the filmmaker’s challenge has been to trick viewers into identifying with (if not necessarily sympathizing with or “rooting for”) them, so as to personalize and enrich and deepen the audience’s experience of evil. But this kind of approach requires immense moral discrimination, historical understanding, and aesthetic delicacy on the part of a director; somebody capable of drawing a glib equation between Hitler and a Hollywood studio czar is unlikely to fit that bill. 

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Stephen James as Jesse Owens in “Race”

So a movie centering on Leni Riefenstahl has yet to be made. But guess what? She’s now a character on the big screen, anyway – in a new biopic about Jesse Owens, the black American runner who collected four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. Those victories famously infuriated Hitler, who saw them (quite rightly) as undermining Nazi race ideology. The Owens film, Race, directed by Stephen Hopkins, reportedly depicts Riefenstahl as downright heroic. In one sequence, according to a June article by Will Lawrence for the Telegraph, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels orders Riefenstahl’s cinematographer not to film the 200-meter sprint. Why? Because Goebbels suspects Owens will win, and no Nazi film is going to show a black man emerging triumphant. The cinematographer complies, and covers the cameras. Riefenstahl, hearing of this interference by Goebbels, “storms into the stadium and pulls the covers off her cameras.” Writes Lawrence:

Nobody is going to tell her what she can and cannot film. She will film Owens. The Reich minister can go to hell. The implication could not be clearer: Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, had no truck with Nazi dogma, and documented Owens’s triumphant performance in the 200 metres against Goebbels’s wishes.

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Carice van Houten as Riefenstahl in “Race”

Portrayed in Race by Carice van Houten, an actress familiar from the TV series Game of Thrones, Riefenstahl is described by Lawrence as “a benign presence throughout the movie.” Tim Robey, the Telegraph‘s film critic, liked the movie but wondered aloud if the real-life Riefenstahl was really such a charmer. 

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Stephen Hopkins

For her part, Van Houten drooled over Riefenstahl, telling Lawrence: “I have a huge fascination with, and admiration for, her work….If you see the footage from Olympia, it is unbelievable what she did.” Okay, we’ll give Van Houten a break: she’s young (and an actress). But Hopkins – a guy in his late fifties, old enough to know about World War II and to have given some thought to the subject of Nazism – was also quick to say unsettlingly positive things about Hitler’s “perfect German woman” (who, let’s recall, praised her beloved Führer for “achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind”). In an interview with Lawrence, Hopkins called Riefenstahl a “bohemian, café-society artist with lots of Jewish friends” who “wasn’t necessarily a political animal.” Oh, not a political animal! Yes, she knowingly worked with and glorified on celluloid a mass-murdering dictator; yes, she witnessed an execution of innocent Jews by soldiers under that dictator’s command; yes, she knew that when gypsy extras were through working on her movie Tiefland they’d be sent to gas chambers. But she “wasn’t necessarily a political animal.” So by all means, let’s applaud her memory.

Hitler’s “perfect German woman”

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Leni Riefenstahl and friend

Last week we began looking at several German cultural figures who served as useful stooges for the Third Reich. Better known than any of these stories of Nazi collaboration is that of Leni Riefenstahl, director of the films Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938). She may well have been the greatest female film director of all time, but to hear her name is to think, first and last, of Hitler – for unlike, say, Walter Gropius or Richard Strauss, she was actually an intimate friend of the Führer’s, and her famous Nazi-era films were the products of direct consultation with him and were produced under his government’s auspices. 

“My perfect German woman,” he called her. She socialized with him frequently. “At times,” writes Jonathan Petropoulos in Artists under Hitler, “they dined together several times a week.” Repeatedly, she articulated her passionate support for him in private notes and telegrams cheering his military victories. (In one of them, addressing him as “my Führer,” she gushed: “You exceed anything the human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind.”)

Riefenstahl was a demanding woman, and whenever one Nazi functionary or another rejected her demands, Hitler came through. Denied by Goebbels a request for additional funds to complete Olympia, she turned – successfully – to her beloved Führer. In 1939, he even approved of plans to build Riefenstahl her own massive film studio, a project that failed to come to fruition only because of the war. Riefenstahl wielded remarkable power: at her word, the Jewish wife of Olympia‘s production designer was saved from the death camps. Also at her word, a recalcitrant extra on her her film Tiefland was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. (Other extras on that film were gypsies who, after doing their job onscreen, were murdered at Auschwitz.)

Interrogated by Allied officials after the war, Riefenstahl repeatedly contradicted herself. She was tried by four different denazification courts; ultimately, in 1952, she was exonerated on charges of collaboration. She went on to make National Geographic-type films about the Nuba trime in Sudan and about undersea life, and, as Petropoulos puts it, “battled for respectability,” desperate to be seen not as a Nazi propagandist and former pal of Hitler’s but as a great cinematic artist. Many famous people obliged her. During the 1970s, she chummed around with such pop-culture heroes of the day as Mick and Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, and photographer Helmut Newton.

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Riefenstahl and Mick Jagger

Decades after the war, public curiosity about Riefenstahl remained so intense that her 1993 memoirs made the New York Times bestseller list; a 1994 documentary about her life, which challenged her own self-exculpating account of her relationship to the Nazi regime, also gained widespread attention. She finally died in 2003 at the age of 101. Petropoulos notes the influence of her two famous Nazi films on pop culture: George Lucas borrowed from her in Star Wars; Olympia became a model for TV sports coverage around the world; the impact of her production design can be observed in the staging of concerts by such artists as Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Jagger. In addition, Petropoulos might have pointed out that a great many music videos, by performers ranging from Madonna to the Pet Shop Boys, feature imagery right out of Triumph out of the Will. 

Nor does Petropoulos mention another development – namely, the decades-long effort by major Hollywood players to make a Riefenstahl bio. We’ll look at that effort tomorrow.

Goering’s gay actor, Hitler’s sculptor “son”

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Gustaf Gründgens

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. 

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Gründgens as Hamlet, 1936

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.

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Gründgens and Marianne Hoppe acting together in a film

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.”

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(This and next picture) Gründgens in other roles

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.”

gruendgens6_v-contentgrossAnd 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?

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Arno Breker

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.)

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Breker’s scupture Die Partei

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.

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Breker’s bust of Adenauer

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. 

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.

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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.

Creating art, worshiping power

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.

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Gottfried Benn

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.”

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Good guy: Thomas Mann

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.”

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Good guy, jr.: Klaus Mann

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.

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Ernst Barlach

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. 

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.

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.

Sons of the KGB

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Alex and Tim shortly after their parents’ arrest

Quick recap: yesterday we started telling the story of Tim and Alex Foley, two brothers who thought they and their parents were Canadians but discovered, as the result of a 2010 FBI raid on their Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, that their folks were not only Russians but Russian spies, living in deep cover since Soviet days. The family’s tale was a key inspiration for the current FX series, The Americans. 

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“Donald Heathfield” and “Tracey Foley”

When “Donald Heathfield” and “Tracey Foley” were taken into custody and deported to Russia, the story made headlines. Since then, both brothers – who, then aged twenty and sixteen, were obliged to follow their parents to Russia, but left as soon as they could – have kept a low profile, but they agreed to speak to the Guardian as part of an effort to regain their Canadian citizenship, which was rescinded after their parents’ arrests. Both young men insist that they have no sense of belonging to their parents’ homeland. In a recent affidavit to a Canadian court, Tim wrote: “I do not have any attachment to Russia, I do not speak the language, I do not know many friends there, I have not lived there for any extended periods of time and I do not want to live there.” Alex, for his part, told the Guardian: “I feel like I have been stripped of my own identity for something I had nothing to do with.” Although both boys’ relationship with their parents has been “difficult” and “sad” (they visit them in Russia every few months), Alex, after having thought long and hard about “whether he hated them or felt betrayed,” claims he eventually decided “that they were the same people who had raised him lovingly, whatever secrets they hid.”

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Tim and Alex in Bangkok, 2011

Speaking on behalf of both himself as his brother, Alex also says this about his parents: “I’m glad they had a cause they believed in…but I wish the world wouldn’t punish me for their choices.” Ponder that sentence. Admittedly, one can’t expect kids who’ve been put in such circumstances to come out clear-headed. But if we were counseling Alex, we’d suggest he’d put some more thought into his assertion that he’s “glad” his parents found a “cause” to serve – and into his apparent conviction that it’s “the world” that’s responsible for the punishment he and Tim have undergone. Granted, perhaps he has a profound psychological need to cling to the belief that his parents, in spite of everything, were “loving” – but as someone at the threshold of adulthood he must address the question squarely: just how loving was it for “Don” and “Tracey” to put their children in such a situation? For people who made the choice they did – and who clung to it even after living for years in the free world, all the while knowing that their Western-raised sons might ultimately have to pay dearly for their deception – “loving” is, shall we say, hardly the mot juste.

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Tim and Alex in Kazakhstan, 2013

To be sure, although they spent decades operating in the same ideological territory as many of the unsavory characters we’ve studied on this site, “Don” and “Tracey,” as born-and-bred Russians who chose to become KGB spies, don’t qualify as “useful stooges.” On the contrary, they were full-fledged pillars of Soviet totalitarianism (and, later, of whatever you want to call Putin’s own distinctive brand of thuggish tyranny). They and they alone created the nightmare in which their sons are now living. By all means, give Tim and Alex back their Canadian passports; but first make certain that they understand completely just who is responsible for their “punishment” – and just who is being “loving.” In other words, make sure that these two young men, who have been so intent on completing their educations, learn perhaps the most important thing they can ever learn: that their parents weren’t serving just any “cause,” but were, in fact, fighting to eradicate the very freedom that Tim and Alex now seek to live under again.  

 

Spy story

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Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-cover KGB spies in The Americans

In early May, the Guardian recounted a fascinating true story that, as it happens, helped inspire the current FX series The Americans. It’s about a Canadian couple, Donald Heathfield (a consultant) and Tracey Foley (a realtor), and their two sons, Tim and Alex Foley, who, on June 27, 2010, when they were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were in the middle of celebrating Tim’s twentieth birthday when “a team of armed, black-clad men holding a battering ram…streamed into the house, screaming, ‘FBI!’ Another team entered from the back; men dashed up the stairs, shouting at everyone to put their hands in the air.”

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The family’s house in Cambridge

Some of the G-men drove Don and Tracey away in handcuffs, while others remained behind to search the house. From those investigators, the boys learned that their parents were Russian spies who’d been living under deep cover since Soviet times, using names stolen from long-dead Canadians. Don was really Andrei Bezrukov; Tracey was Elena Vavilova. The deep-cover system was a well-known KGB specialty (no other country has ever trained spies to pose as foreigners) but it was widely believed to have been shuttered after the fall of the Iron Curtain. On the contrary, as it turned out, old KGB hand Vladimir Putin saw to it that it remained alive and well.

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“Tracey” with Tim in 1991

Visiting his parents in prison after their arrest, Alex, then sixteen, didn’t ask them about the charges: “I refused to let myself be convinced they were actually guilty of anything….They were facing life in prison, and if I was to testify, I would have to completely believe they were innocent.” On their mother’s advice, Tim and Alex decided (rather bemusingly) to “escape the media circus” by flying to Moscow, where they’d never set foot. There, colleagues of their parents in the SVR (the KGB’s successor agency) met them at the airport, showed them around town, and introduced them to relatives they hadn’t known existed. After a few days their parents joined them, having been exchanged, along with eight other SVR operatives, for Russians who’d been spying for the West. They “were welcomed back…as heroes.”

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“Donald” with Alex and Tim in 1999

It turned out the FBI had been on to “Don” and “Tracey” for years. Their home had been bugged. G-men had scoured Foley’s safe-deposit box as far back as 2001. Tim denies a 2012 report that his parents had told him the truth “long before the arrest” and that he’d agreed to train as a “second-generation spy” for Russia. On the contrary, both sons insist they have no affection for their parents’ homeland. Tim, now 25, says they both underwent a “real identity crisis” when, having been stripped of their Canadian citizenship, they were given Russian passports and a new surname (Vavilov). Both maintain they were eager to leave Russia ASAP. Tim, after completing college there, was able to go to London to earn an MBA; Alex, however, couldn’t get visas to Canada, the UK, or France; now 21, he is studying in an unnamed (but presumably less desirable) country in Europe. What’s the deal with them now? Tune in tomorrow.