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. 

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. 

Berlin, 21. Januar 1936, "Hamlet" im Staatl. Schauspielhaus unter der Regie Lothar Müthels. Gustav Gründgens in der Titelrolle. 909-36
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.