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.