November 9 marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom ordered by Adolf Hitler in which more than 1,000 synagogues were set on fire or destroyed, and at least 91 Jews murdered, in more than 1,000 cities and towns across Germany.
Most articles and books about Hitler deal with his antisemitism and military aggression. But Hitler also concerned himself with cultural matters as soon as he became chancellor of Germany in January 1933.
In September 1933, he promised that the Nazi state would intervene more actively in these than the Weimar Republic had done. This, he contended, would be necessary in order to make art an expression of the “hereditary racial bloodstock” and to transform artists into defenders of the German volk.
From 1933 to 1945, the Reich Chamber of Culture exercised a profound influence over hundreds of thousands of German artists and entertainers in the fields of music, theatre and the visual arts.
States, declared Hitler, had the sacred duty to defend national art against the degenerative force of global cosmopolitanism.
He purged the German section of PEN International of “leftist” and Jewish writers. When PEN International protested, Hitler dissolved the German section altogether at the end of 1933.
Jewish composers and music, too, were banned. The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics fired their Jewish members and ceased to perform the music of Jewish composers.
While Jewish performers fled, eminent men like Karl Bohm, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan and Richard Strauss stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Vienna orchestra would become a fixture at the Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies. Just after the German army overran Poland, it performed in Krakow, under the baton of Furtwangler, who called music the art that expressed the soul of the nation most completely.
The Berlin Philharmonic, within a couple of weeks of the occupation of France, staged three concerts in Paris and Versailles.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.”
Movies, too, needed to be restored to “Aryan” control. According to Ofer Ashkenazi, in his book Weimar Film and Modern Jewish Identity, cinema in Germany prior to the Nazi takeover was a crucial space for “the contemplation and exhibition of Jewish experience in Germany” and a significant body of films (mostly by Jewish filmmakers) worked “to promote the formation of a liberal, multicultural, transnational bourgeois society, in which ‘the Jew’ could be different, but equal.”
This was obviously unacceptable to the Nazis. Film became an important ingredient in the toxic brew of Nazi propaganda.
The German film industry came under the complete control of the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. Its head, Joseph Goebbels, believed ideological indoctrination worked best when conveyed through entertainment, so Nazi cinema put forth its political propaganda in the form of genre films such as comedies, musicals, and melodramas.
The most famous and controversial films produced were documentaries by Leni Riefenstahl. She directed films that extolled the values of physical beauty and Aryan superiority. Triumph of the Will, a celebration of a 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, is one notorious example.
The Nazis also saw modern art as “Jewish-Bolshevist” and condemned it. This culminated in the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937, where Hitler delivered a speech declaring “merciless war” on cultural disintegration. It included 650 works of art confiscated from 32 German museums.
The exhibition handbook explained that the aim of the show was to “reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them.”
Whole movements were labelled as “diseased,” including Expressionism, Impressionism, New Objectivity, Surrealism, and Cubism. Many of Germany’s most talented and innovative artists suffered official defamation.
With this exhibition, the visual arts were forced into complete submission to censorship and Nazi “coordination.”
Initiated by Goebbels and by the president of the Reich Chamber of the Visual Arts, Adolf Ziegler, the exhibition travelled to twelve other cities from 1937 to 1941. In all, the show drew more than three million visitors.
Some of the artists featured in the exhibition are now considered among the greats of modern art.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.