This week we looked at rise of the Nazi’s in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s.
How can we make sense of the rise of the Nazi state? While countries like Spain, Italy, the Soviet Union, Turkey, and Japan all experienced totalitarian regimes in varying degrees, none had quite the intensity and impact of Nazi Germany (though it would be fair to say that Stalin came close). What distinguished the Nazi’s from other regimes? How did a country with one of the richest cultural heritages in the world give themselves over to abject barbarism?
Naturally we think of the Nazi regime as one built on hatred and violence, and there is much truth to this. But unless we see that the strongest appeal of the Nazi’s for people was their fervent hope, hope for better Germany and a better world, we will miss the fundamental basis of their appeal.
Germany, of course, had only recently been a nation (since 1871), but before that greater ‘Germany’ had often been the stomping grounds of Europe. When the European powers wanted to fight they often came to the divided German principalities to do so, dating back to the 30 Years War in the early 1600’s. As a political and national unit, “Germany” lacked the strength to prevent it. The Versailles Treaty made the incredibly foolish blunder of humiliating Germany with its war guilt clauses. The Nazi’s vowed that they would erase the stain of humiliation the world had inflicted on Germany. If we can remember what it feels like to be humiliated, we remember too the anger and desperation we felt, and the desire to do nearly anything to rid ourselves of that wretched feeling. The Nazi’s claimed to be able to do just that.
Hitler was obviously a cruel man, but he also believed that he had ‘high’ taste in art. Many in the Nazi party leadership, like Hitler himself, were either failed artists, minor poets, or small time authors of some sort or another. We saw Friday how Hitler was a big fan of opera, especially Wagner. Hitler himself said that one could not understand Nazism without understanding Wagner’s music. He filled his operas with romantic visions, grandiose themes and sets, and an idealization of antiquity. All this moved Hitler, but perhaps Wagner’s deepest appeal lie in his theme of purity and sacrifice, and escaping the bonds of this ‘sordid’ world to achieve perfection, a kind of worship of death.
In Wagner we see a link between fulfillment and extinction. In his Tristan and Isolde the two take a love potion, which also causes their death. Wagner’s mistress, Cosima von Bulow, styled their relationship as a “death-in-love.” Wagner became enamored with King Ludwig of Bavaria, and Ludwig of him. Ludwig promised Wagner, “Rest assured that I will do everything in my power to make up for what you have suffered. . . .I will procure for you the peace you desire in order that you may be free to spread the mighty wings of your genius in the pure aether of rapturous art.” Once again, we see in Wagner not only life imitating art, but the concept of art and purity. Hitler’s own death recapitulates in some ways the finale of Wagner’s Reinzi, where the hero, betrayed by those he trusted, dies as the city is engulfed in flames. So too did Hitler die, feeling ‘betrayed’ by his generals, in flames, as Berlin burned around him.
When we think of Nazi rallies, one can see links with Wagner. Many have commented on the theatrical nature of the rallies, as well as their over-the-top production. They are spectacles that seek to overwhelm and get people to ‘lose’ themselves in the experience.
For the Nazi’s a great culture needed great art to embody and inspire it. They had this in the past, in the form of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, and so on. They believed so strongly in this idea of a “healthy” culture that when the Nazi’s seized power, state doctors and ministers of culture often wore military uniforms. Both doctors and artists had the charge of bringing ‘health’ back to Germany, be that health racial, moral, or cultural. Doctors did not serve the individual, they served the “people,” the nation, the “race” as a whole, and this of course had horrible consequences later on.
In their eyes a ‘high’ culture would create a ‘healthy’ people, and a ‘healthy’ people would create an unbeatable army. This is why they banned ‘mongrelized’ and ‘decadent’ culture like jazz (whose biggest stars tended to be either African-American or Jewish). The Nazi’s didn’t just dislike the music, they viewed it as a threat to their national well-being. But the same horrible logic applies to the euthanization of the mentally unfit. Eventually we know that the ‘protection’ of the German nation meant the ‘protection’ of German blood. Eradicating that threat meant eradicating the Jews, who had done more than anyone else to ‘pollute’ German blood over the years. They had ‘infiltrated’ German society to a greater degree, and intermarried more than any other non-German ethnic or religious group.
Hitler, therefore, did not just promise an economic recovery, or to put people back to work. He promised a kind of spiritual redemption on a national scale, one that primarily would touch the soul of the people. Not surprisingly, he rose to power at a time when attendance in both Catholic and Protestant church had been in decline. Spiritual power has always been more potent (for good or ill) than mere political power, and this helps us understand Hitler’s hold on Germany. We know how great art and music can move us. But when we ascend to such heights of feeling the possibility of good and evil both increase. Perhaps this is why a nation with such a rich cultural heritage could fall so far so quickly.
This has been a ‘heavy’ post so if you wish, join me and Looney Tunes in poking fun at Wagner, who certainly deserved it: