M. VAN HALDEREN
Nazi Aesthetics: Perceptible Affect in the Third Reich
‘Fascism’ and ‘culture’ are two words which are usually perceived as contradictory or incompatible. What comes to mind are idolized symbols, books set ablaze, and vast uncluttered bulwarks. It is true that these phenomena are often found in 20th century fascist societies, but what is often overlooked is the sophisticated cultural machine which had a central role in the realisation of fascist ideas. Fascist power was made known through visual means, namely with the use of aesthetics. Benjamin states that “the logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life” (1935/1988, Benjamin, Arendt & Zohn, p. 241). Human existence was perceived as inextricably intertwined with art, including political conduct. Politics, then, reciprocated this artistically perceived life by being experienced as a form of art: something Benjamin coined as ‘the aestheticization of politics’ (Jay, 1992, p. 41-42). Fascism’s aesthetics should be understood as a tool for promoting a civic religion, an unconventional belief, realised through its own symbolism and liturgy. Unconventional, because the focus lay on the nature of the state and the orthopraxy of its citizens; hiding behind ‘holy aesthetics’, fascists tried to instigate revolutionary governmental reform. The European idea that beauty was associated with the Platonic transcendentals ‘the good, the true, and the beautiful’, was key for the effectiveness of fascist aesthetics (Mosse, 1996, p. 246). Everywhere in fascist society, these ‘holy aesthetics’ were expressed through the use of symbols, inducing one to the devout enchantment of its belief. Consequently, fascist ideologies are not something to be understood based on rationality alone (Mosse, 1996, p. 245-246).
In this essay I will focus on the period of 1933 until 1945 in which Germany was known as the Third Reich, led by the fascist national socialists, or ‘Nazis’. I will analyse the Nazis’ aesthetics, and try to identify its roots and essence, its societal propagation, and its political raison d’être, all while taking the broader historical perspective of European Modernity into account. I shall demonstrate that the Nazis created a hyperreality through the use of their aesthetics, a concept defined by Baudrillard as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (1994, p. 2). To do so, I will first present different approaches and critiques of Nazi art in general. Then, I will discuss central concepts of Nazi aesthetics, such as the alteration of the perception of reality through the use of myths, along with the Nazis’ attitude towards mainstream modernist art, and how they deemed it ‘degenerate art’. Lastly, I will analyse the importance of visual aesthetics in Nazism, and how its totalitarian societal implementation through film, had an effect on people’s perception of Nazi society, after which I will end with an overarching conclusion.
“It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist” (Adorno, 2014, p. 1). The opening sentence of Aesthetic Theory by Adorno can be specifically applied to Nazi art, as its existence has been numerously doubted through history. Nazi art was created for the specific reason of supporting and glorifying the vicious totalitarian ideology of the Third Reich. In the period shortly after World War II, bourgeois liberalists refused to consider the place of Nazi art, let alone acknowledge it; it was categorized as non-art for which “every word... is too much” (Pevsner, 1992, as cited in Strathausen, 1999, p. 5). This negligence posed several problems. Nazi art was disbarred from public memory, following the exact same modus operandi of the Nazis’ own selective exclusion of art while they were in power. By distinguishing true art from non-art, or simply by excluding something, one declares fidelity to the type of aesthetics to which they do affiliate, even when incognizant of actively doing so (Strathausen, 1999, p. 6).
Another consequence of solely perceiving art produced in the Third Reich as non-art is the assumption and recognition that all works share a stylistic or dogmatic unity, which therefore acknowledges, even emphasizes, the precise intent of the Nazis’ cultural revolution: the creation of a sui generis form of art (Strathausen, 1999, p. 6). Thus, perceiving Nazi art as non-art is contradictory, as it eventuates in a single categorisation, a single bundling together, of Nazi art. This is precisely the outcome that the non-art endorsers initially so gravely tried to foil. For the abovementioned reasons, I argue that Nazi art should be considered as a true form of art, possessing its own sub-categorisations and idiosyncrasies, which I shall now elaborate upon in the following sections.
One of these sub-categorisations is Nazi paintings. These were primarily ‘genre-paintings’ depicting 17th and 18th century scenes. Genre painting has an element of genuine realism, but this realism experienced two changes overtime. This is claimed by Hinz in his book Art in the Third Reich (1980). From a Marxist perspective, he argues that Nazi paintings entailed a gradual deceit in their portrayals of reality. Firstly, the genres stayed somewhat unchanged since the 17th century; therefore, the realistic contents became unrealistic as time passed and societal circumstances changed. Nazi genre paintings thus depicted something of the past, hence losing their original realistic attitude; genre paintings became thematically anachronistic (Appendix A).
Once the Nazi genre paintings lost their realistic attitude, one had to pretend that they actually reflected reality, which had consequences for both their form and content. The justification of their realistic significance was thus based on the subjective interpretation present in society’s dominant belief, such as the perception of the ideal family (Hinz, 1980, p. 104). This justification would come about in genre painting through the principle of immanence, according to which the physical realm holds some form of celestial presence. Genre paintings lost their realistic attitude even further by the subsequent attempt to obtain the absolute by transcending this immanence. When a representation has already lost its legitimacy to reality, the attempt to regain this legitimacy by making it a symbol of primal forces will only worsen the situation. This is the case as sticking with the past warrants persistence, which will then lead to distortion; this spawns a vicious cycle with regards to the connection between art and reality (Hinz, 1980, p. 109). Thus, Nazi paintings create a distorted image of reality which rejects the notion that society’s superstructure is changing, opposes modernity and its industrialisation and urbanisation, ultimately subduing it under Nazi fantasies.
Deceptive untruthfulness can also be seen in the vast uncluttered bulwarks of Nazi architecture, such as the New Reich Chancellery designed by Albert Speer (Appendix B). These structures appear as Neo-Classicist, as they try to attain a certain archaic aesthetic, just as the Nazi genre paintings. However, in reality beneath their surface, a steel framework is necessary to hold it all together. The reinforced concrete used is an essential characteristic of modern architecture. Hence, the Third Reich’s propaganda machine set in motion by Joseph Goebbels contradicted itself, as it was discreetly constructed upon that which he tried to remove, namely modernism (Strathausen, 1999, p. 7). I will return to the Nazis’ view of modernist art towards the end of my essay.
In the previous sections the untruthful nature of Nazi art, and its position in the realm of art in general has been analysed. I shall now move on to a different, broader, way of approaching Nazi aesthetics and their societal effect. Scholars can reject Nazi art in its totality, but cannot deny that there exists something as Nazi aesthetics. Hegel defined aesthetics as “the science of sensation, of feeling” (1988, p. 1). Hence, aesthetics is concerned with the feelings evoked by art. Rentschler states that when one speaks of National Socialism, one also speaks about aesthetics, as these are inseparable concepts (1996, p. 21). Strathausen, in turn, describes Nazi aesthetics as both a “National Socialist approach towards art in theory and practice, as well as the specific psychological effects of this approach upon the German population” (1999, p. 7). This analytical approach of Nazi aesthetics allows for the dismissal of the disagreement surrounding Nazi art’s normative approach; one supposes that Nazi art is not concerned with a mimetic depiction of reality, but with the glorified mythical reality the Nazis hoped to come true. The Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935), directed by Leni Riefenstahl, is a perfect example for this. The mainstream press reported it to be both an objective documentary as well as a keen confession to the ideology. Official critics did not oppose the co-existence of fact and fiction, they even espoused the idea that ‘objectivity’ was asserted by the prowess of the artist in portraying the world as desired by the Nazis, instead of how it actually was (Strathausen, 1999, p. 7-8). Through their aesthetics the Nazis depicted an alternate mythical reality which constructed their truth. A better way to understand this construction of reality through aesthetics is by considering several art forms simultaneously.
Wagner’s idea of total art form, or ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, formulated in his essays Art and Revolution (1849), and The Artwork of the Future (1849), strongly emphasised this very idea of considering several art forms simultaneously. It describes art that carries a compelling force due to its use of all forms of art at once. Wagner used this term to describe music drama, an art form he perceived as the coming together of society through the defeat of the imbalances between individuals; an antidote to society’s fragmentation which accentuated the existence of a coalesced German Volk. The Nazis used this concept for the very same reason (Zabel, 1990, p. 408). They emphasized that the unified use of different media was more flawless than reality itself; different mediums could depict the world as they saw it as more real than anything else. Categorical critiques based on the terms of ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’, and ‘historical reality’ were redefined in Nazi aesthetics. Therefore, a rigid framework of tangible traits, specific artistic styles such as neo-classicism, or certain characteristics, cannot be used for the pinpointing and classification of Nazi art. Instead, Nazi culture questioned aesthetics through the lens of the central issue of the concept of reality, and how the latter was perceived by humans. Therefore, advanced critique must be viewed in the context of the greater effect of all Nazi aesthetics on the totality of their cultural environment (Strathausen, 1999, p. 9).
Artists respected as cultural assets in Germany today were contrarily perceived as part of the cause of society’s fragmentation under Hitler’s rule, therefore producing the exact opposite effect of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. Hence, these modern artists were labelled as the “enemies of the German people” (Goggin, 1991, p.85), as their works were not considered to be aligned with the Nazi regime and its perception of art. The Nazis drew the basis of their ideas regarding the function of art in society from texts such as Degeneration by Nordau (1892), and Kunst und Rasse by Schultze-Naumburg (1928). These Nazi treatises included in their analyses how different societal stratifications, notably race, played a role in art (Mueller, 1954, p. 39-41). Furthermore, the Nazis used these precedents in combination with Hitler’s ideas to instigate anti-modern-art campaigns, in which artists and their works were branded corrupt and ‘degenerate’. This was part of Hitler’s propaganda in which he blamed the socio-political and economic issues on specific targetable minorities, including artists, and their various supporters such as art collectors, critics, and curators.
Modernist art exemplified by Expressionism, Cubism, and Futurism, was an important backdrop to which Nazi art provided an alternative. There was a clear gap between these two conceptions of art. Because the modernist conception involved making radical alterations to how one should perceive art, the visceral imaginary of Nazi art was more familiar and identifiable to the general public. Despising modernist art, the Nazis made sure to exploit this gap to consolidate their power (Hinz, 1980, p. 228; Goggins, 1991, p.85). The Nazis contended that since modern artists held the view that everything in one’s surroundings can potentially be considered as art, therefore as ‘beautiful, heroic, and pure’, the regime could parallelise these values to ‘ugly, base, and erotic’, therefore as immoral art (Sabile, 1947, p. 25). Thus, the Nazis believed that modern art posed a threat to German morality; the anti-modern-art campaigns were propelled by the fear that the masses would begin to view the world in the same way as represented by the modernist artists. Hence, it can be said that the specific mediums of modernist artistic expression were not perilous to the stability of the Nazi aesthetic, but rather the danger lay in the effects it could have had on society, which may emanate from the radical modernist way of seeing, therefore knowing. The Nazis’ principal objective was to control worldly perception by using art as an ideological tool to solidify the regime’s power (Strathausen, 1999, p. 14).
Such a very effective ideological tool was film, which became significantly influential on Germany’s cultural system after World War I. Film’s impact on politics, art, and literature was a hot topic amongst the German public (Kaes & Levin, 1987, p. 7). Hence, film turned into a prime leitmotif of the German aesthetic debate. This is to some extent due to the technological essence of film: its form provided a metaphorical paradigm for societal fragmentation and its desire for unity, which was a primary issue on the plane of culture during modernity (Strathausen, 1999, p. 15). This may seem paradoxical as film is literally composed of fragments, which could be interpreted as the aesthetics of disunity. However, these isolated fragments are coherently united into a beauty otherwise unable to perceive, making film compensate for its own fragmentation, which Birdsall argued is the modern reappropriation of Wagner’s notion of music drama as a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (2012, p. 171). Thus, film offered a new form of aesthetic perception, which favoured the Nazi’s idea of aesthetics (Strathausen, 1999, p. 15).
Consequently, the Ministry of Propaganda attached great value to film, as it was considered a dogmatic weapon and mass mobilizer. Goebbels once emphasized that films are one of the most modern and sophisticated ways of influencing the masses (Rentschler, 1990, p. 257). Cinematic content made in the Third Reich, along with a collection of Nazi activities such as radio programs, and mass rallies consisting of cavalcades, uniforms, flags, and other Nazi symbols, infused daily life with a persisted ambience of thrilling drama. These spectacles were to be found throughout the whole of society, residing in physical space, as well as in the psyche; any deviating experiences and autonomous beliefs were despised collectively and individually (Rentschler, 1990, p. 257). In short, the political plane became firmly interwoven with aesthetics and entertainment. Films made during the Third Reich represent the advanced construction of totalitarian rule, which caused the persuasive integration of public fantasies, state terror, and eventually world war.
As film was a key aspect of influencing and controlling the masses, the National Socialists immediately began to organize the film industry on all fronts when they came to power in 1933: “from finance, distribution, advertisement, and critique to the choice of material, cast, crew, and directors” (O’Brien, 2006, p. 6). This all started with the establishment of the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, led by Goebbels who called himself ‘Patron of the German film’, and which tried to account for the whole of Germany’s cultural fabrication. The film industry received a complex bureaucratic supervision, something central to Nazi praxis. The ministry was responsible for rating and censoring films, in which a subsidiary branch, the ‘Reich Film Chamber’, was a trading organisation which controlled economic matters, as well as individuals’ membership to the film industry. All necessary aspects of filmmaking were included in the organisation; directors, actors, editors, cameraman, etc. were all obliged to become members of the organisation (O’Brien, 2006, p. 6). Membership was only possible for ‘pure’ Aryans, and Jews had been banned from the film industry halfway through 1933; as the long arm of callous Nazi racial laws also swayed in the entertainment industry.
Film stars were an important feature to the success of film in the Nazi genre, as they served as the embodiment of the Nazi secular myths, as well as a bridge between the people and these myths. Film critic James Monaco stated that film stars exemplify “political and psychological models who demonstrate some quality that we collectively admire” (1981, p. 222). Identification and affiliation with these myths were naturally possible for the masses, who had successfully integrated Nazi ideals, contributing to the establishment of the hegemony of the Third Reich. Celebrities such as Zarah Leander, Brigitte Horney, Gustaf Gründgens, and Heinrich George satisfied the masses’ expectations by acting in customary ways, and displayed characteristics which the public admired and strived to mimic.
Apart from structural control over the film industry, Goebbels also had his own theory about the National Socialist approach of art and its function in society. He argued that propaganda should transcend its potential conversive function on society. More accurately, he believed that art is a mere shaper of feelings, which come from the emotions, not from reason, whereby the artist only serves as these feelings’ interpreter (O’Brien, 2006, p. 8). Film was regarded as the most prominent means to accomplish the goal of shaping people’s feelings. Fritz Hippler, the filmmaker who oversaw the Reich Film Chamber, specified that unlike other forms of art, film’s primary virtue is the capacity to essentially appeal both to the optical and emotional, which he perceived as parts of the non-intellectual realm, therefore having a powerful long-term effect on the masses (1943, p. 14).
A perfect example of a propaganda film which had significant impact on the viewer’s emotions is the aforementioned Triumph of the Will, by Leni Riefenstahl, which “objectively” depicted the annual Nazi party Congress in 1934. Emotional appeal situated viewers in their own psyche; viewers identified with the myth produced by this ‘nonfiction’ film, as its illusionary discourse was fashioned in the ‘national character’ of Germany (Kracauer, 1947, p. 8). The masses are literally portrayed on the canvas themselves (Appendix C). This recognition makes one identify with the camera’s point of view, as if one stood there themselves. Such cinematic ‘subject-effect’ relies mainly on the apparatus theory, a film theory predominantly developed by Lacan and Althusser, which from a Marxist perspective states that every film is ideological in its making and presentation, due to the fact that the passive viewers’ subconscious cannot distinguish cinema from reality due to thorough identification with what is depicted, making them credulous for dogmatic positioning (Strathausen, 1999, p. 17; Wees, De Lauretis, & Heath, 1982, p. 51). This was the case in Triumph of the Will, in which one of the prominent ‘tricks’ was the repeating glorification of the swastika flag. According to Hoffmann, the flag was used by Riefenstahl as a “emotional and sentimental prop with which to orchestrate a dizzying symphony of flags which disseminated the Nazi worldview in staged aesthetic events that indicated the ‘correct’ way to regard art” (1996, p. 18). Hoffman even goes so far as to say that Riefenstahl fetishizes the flag: “the optical opium of the people, forests of flags as a psychological field of force” (1996, p. 19). The film’s ‘spectacle of reality’ was transformed into ‘true reality’; the nexus of vision and sound fabricate an image which fortified the zeitgeist, appearing as real for numerous viewers (Tomasulo, 1998, p. 102). Sontag stated that the film “has no commentary because it doesn’t need one, for Triumph of the Will represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater” (1980, p. 83).
In this essay, I have shown the method by which the Nazi regime used aesthetics to create a hyperreality. First, I argued that Nazi art should to an extent be recognized as such. Second, by analysing Nazi genre paintings and architecture, I have demonstrated how Nazi aesthetics possess deceptive untruthfulness and result in the production of certain delusional ideals, namely the Nazis’ rejection of modernity. Then, I have explained how Nazi aesthetics are generally concerned with the glorified reality they espouse; this evokes the Gesamtkunstwerk, which calls into question the concept of reality itself, by providing an alternative depiction of reality that could transcend people’s individual conception of reality. Afterwards, I explained how Nazism’s opposition and rejection of modernism created a categorial gap between the two corresponding conceptions of art, and how the Nazis utilized this gap by means of their own aesthetics. I discussed how film was a modern reappropriation of Gesamtkunstwerk, and how the Nazis took control of the film industry and used it to manipulate the masses, with the example of Triumph of the Will.
National Socialism aimed to control and exploit citizens’ ethos to facilitate the achievement of their political intent. The totalitarian authorities attempted to supervise the formulation of dreams by altering the perceptions of reality through the realisation of myths. Mass pathos replaced the individual and communal ethos, mesmeric symbolism replaced logos and critical thinking, and indoctrination replaced consciousness, ultimately replacing conscience (Mandoki, 1999, p.80).
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