The best spy ever?

Richard Sorge

We’ve written about a few spies on this website, but Richard Sorge, the subject of a new biography by Owen Matthews, was not just any spy. As Joseph Bottum wrote in a recent review of Matthews’s book, An Impeccable Spy, Sorge was “possibly the greatest spy who ever lived.” A German nationalist in his youth, he emerged from World War I (and a subsequent doctoral program in political science) as a diehard Communist. Moving to Moscow, he was hired by the Soviets as a spy and sent back to Germany to work undercover as a journalist and pretend to be a loyal Nazi even as he was spying not only on the Nazis but on their Japanese allies.

He was so good at posing as a Nazi that Goebbels became a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance.

Joseph Goebbels

That wasn’t all. He infested the social and professional circle of Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe with fellow Soviet agents. The German ambassador to Japan, Herbert von Dirksen, trusted him so much that he became a fast friend, appointing Sorge to an intelligence post, and giving him “the run of the German embassy.” (Apparently the ambassador didn’t know that Sorge had bedded his wife.) For eight years, as Bottum puts it, Sorge “managed to convince the Germans that he was working for them, the Japanese that he was an important Nazi to whom secrets could be revealed, and the Soviets that he was their man.” It was thanks to him that the Kremlin learned about the establishment of the Axis alliance, about a German-Japanese pact banning the Comintern in those countries, about the Japanese decision not to attack the USSR through Manchuria, and about the planned German invasion of Russia in 1941. Meanwhile Sorge led a social life that makes at least a few of the James Bond movies look tame and unimaginative.

It all had to come crashing down eventually, and so it did. After the Japanese secret police heard one of his secret radio transmissions to te Soviets, they arrested and tortured him, wringing from him a confession before he was hanged in 1944. Although he had provided the Soviets with an extraordinary amount of useful information, and although he proclaimed his undying loyalty to the Communist cause even as he was being executed, the Kremlin repaid his intense devotion by arresting his wife after his death on charges of being a German spy, which she almost certainly was not.

East Germany issued a commemorative stamp hailing Sorge as a hero of the Soviet Union

Whether Sorge really was the greatest spy ever seems doubtful. Does the best spy ever end up being caught and hanged by the enemy? Never mind: if not the greatest spy, he was surely one of the most colorful ones. There’s enough material here for a thrilling spy movie. It has sex and skullduggery, drinking and carousing, Nazis and Commies, glimpses of two world wars and a gallery of famous historical figures, plus a whole bunch of picturesque international settings. There’s everything, in fact, except somebody to cheer for: Sorge was, after all, spying against two of the most loathsome regimes in history on behalf of another of the most loathsome regimes in history. What, after all, to make of a German who spied against Hitler to help Stalin? The Soviets, in later years, made him a national hero; to those of us today who despise both Hitler and Stalin equally, he remains one of those puzzling figures whose contempt for one form of totalitarianism was equaled only by his adoration for another form of it.

Yet more anti-Semitism at Columbia University

Hamid Dabashi

In February of last year we wrote about Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia University who had attained the distinction of being – in the eyes of students – one of the most anti-Israeli professors in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC). He has accused Israel of committing “incremental genocide” of the Palestinians (in reality, the Palestinian population is steading climbing) and equated Gaza with Ausckwitz. He has called Israel a “miasmatic mutation of human soul into a subterranean mixture of vile and violence,” and after a visit to the country he wrote:

Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people…the way they talk, walk, the way they greet each other….There is a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture. A subsumed militarism, a systemic mendacity with an ingrained violence constitutional to the very fusion of its fabric, has penetrated the deepest corners of what these people have to call their “soul.” No people can perpetrate what these people and their parents and grandparents have perpetrated on Palestinians and remain immune to the cruelty of their own deeds.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Just a few highlights from his professional history: in 2011, he condemned ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq who have risked their lives to speak out about the lack of human rights in Islam. For Dabashi, however, these people are not heroes but traitors who “have demonized their own cultures and societies…to advance their careers.” In 2012, after Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad gave a lecture at Columbia University, Dabashi savaged university president Lee Bollinger – not for inviting the barbarian to speak at his college, but for including a few critical words in his introduction. (Bollinger’s remarks, wrote Dabashi, oozed “mind-numbing racism.”)

Lee Bollinger

In 2015, Clemens Heni noted that Dabashi, as the result of a speaking tour of German universities, had “become the darling of German academe,” where his readiness to “defame Israel and downplay the crimes of the Holocaust” found a receptive audience. In 2016, after the terrorist attack on the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando drew attention to Islamic gay-hatred, Dabashi was quick to respond – namely, by equating “Islamophobia and homophobia,” by trying to blame the massacre on the U.S. government, and by arguing that other religions are antigay, too. (Of course, there is a slight difference between committing a massacre in a gay club and refusing to bake a same-sex wedding cake.) 

During all this time, and despite all these outrages, Dabashi has kept his job at Columbia. There has not really ever been any question about him keeping his job, not even after he published those comments about Jews that might just as easily have been written by Goebbels. But he has continued to attract notice. On May 31, the Jewish Journal reported that Columbia was “facing pressure to discipline Professor Hamid Dabashi for referring to Zionists as ‘hyenas.” On May 8, Dabashi had written a post on Facebook that included the following statement: “Every dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious happening in the world just wait for a few days and the ugly name ‘Israel’ will pop up in the atrocities.” In the same post, he called critics of President Obama’s Iran deal “Fifth Column Zionists working against the best interest of Americans and for the best interests of Israelis.”

In response to this Facebook post, a group called Alums for Campus Fairness wrote to Bollinger asking him to do four things: “denounce Dabashi’s comments, make it clear that Jewish and pro-Israel students are welcome on campus, discuss how campus climate can be improved and not allow Dabashi to continue teaching at the school until he ceases his ‘anti-Semitic rhetoric.’” The letter was signed by several members of the Columbia faculty and staff, among others. At this writing, Bollinger has yet to respond to the letter. We will follow the story closely. We will not hold our breath, and we will not be betting any money that the despicable Dabashi will be disciplined, let alone fired.   

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. 

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.

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. 

Putin’s British billionaire

On October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrated his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’re spending a few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world. Today: the grand poobah of auto racing.

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Putin with Bernie Ecclestone

He’s 83, he’s worth over $8 billion, and he’s the head of the Formula One Group, which manages Formula One racing. He’s also a fan – and buddy – of Vladimir Putin.

Speaking last fall to a reporter for a Russian newspaper, British tycoon Bernie Ecclestone called the Kremlin leader “a first-class person,” saying “I always supported him.” In the same interview, Ecclestone also made the bemusing statement that Putin “could control Europe or America; he is able to deal with it. But I think he is very busy. Let him finish what he’s doing and then we’ll see.”

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Two vicious homophobes sharing an intimate moment

That wasn’t the first time Ecclestone had praised Putin. “I’ve great admiration for him and his courage to say what he says,” Ecclestone said in a CNN interview in February of last year. He singled out for special approbation Putin’s hostility to gay people, his view that children should not be exposed to gays (or to any non-condemnatory mention of them), and his public warning to gay athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics last year that they should stay away from children while on Russian soil. “I completely agree with those sentiments,” Ecclestone told CNN, “and if you took a world census you’d find 90 per cent of the world agree with it as well.” Such views, he added, “may upset a few people but that’s how the world is. It’s how he sees [the world] and I think he’s completely right.”

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Ecclestone with Max Mosley

As a member of Bernie Ecclestone’s pantheon of heroes, Putin is in interesting company. Among Ecclestone’s other idols (and chums) is Max Mosley, son of the notorious Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), founder of the British Union of Fascists and himself a close pal of Joseph Goebbels, at whose home in Berlin Mosley married his second wife, Diana Guinness, in 1936. (Among the wedding guests was Adolf Hitler himself.) Years ago, Ecclestone suggested that the younger Mosley – who started his career as a political associate of his dad’s and who for 16 years ran Formula One’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile – would make a great prime minister for Britain; auto exec Alan Curtis told the Conservatives in 2005 that if they could find a safe parliamentary seat for Mosley, Ecclestone would pour cash into the party. (Asked about this seven years later, Curtis affirmed: “Bernie would always support whatever Max did.”)

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Ron Lauder

But Ecclestone’s enthusiasm for Mosley is small potatoes compared to his 2009 comments about Hitler. In an interview with the London Times, Ecclestone expressed admiration for the Führer’s leadership skills – his ability to “get things done,” which, in Ecclestone’s opinion, made him a considerably more effective politician than, say, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. “I prefer strong leaders,” he explained. Among those who called for Ecclestone’s resignation was World Jewish Congress (WJC) president Ronald Lauder – in response to which Ecclestone suggested that the WJC, rather than criticizing him, should have “sort[ed] the banks out” (his point, he explained, being that Jews “have a lot of influence” in that sector).

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A thumbs-up for a “first-class person”

But back to Putin. Ecclestone first met him in February 2013 in Sochi, when Russia was preparing to host its first Grand Prix there. (The Kremlin now pays Formula One a $47 million yearly fee to hold a Grand Prix within its borders.) The two men forged a friendship, and Putin invited Ecclestone to attend the February 2014 Sochi Olympics as his personal guest. After Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014, apparently by Russian or pro-Russian troops, Ecclestone came under intense pressure to cancel the Sochi Grand Prix, which was scheduled for the following October. But he stood firm, saying: “I don’t see any problem with going. We are not involved in politics.”

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Ever the charmer

In the end, Ecclestone professed to be so thrilled with the way the Sochi race turned out that in December he presented his Russian colleagues with the Race Promoters Trophy, which is given annually to the organizers of the year’s best Formula One Grand Prix. At the awards ceremony, Ecclestone showered Putin with even more accolades. “Ignore all this nonsense from America and Europe,” he advised Russia Today. “It would be very nice to have him running Europe. He knows what he’s doing. He is positive and in the end he will succeed because I think all these silly things like these sanctions are completely[,] utterly wrong.”