Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich. Edited by Richard A. Etlin. Chicago IL: Chicago University Press, 2002. xxii + 384 pages.
In reviewing Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich, I find myself thinking about the controversy surrounding the CBS miniseries, Hitler: The Rise of Evil, which aired in spring 2003. In an interview with TV Guide, the executive producer for the miniseries got himself fired from Alliance Atlantis, the production company for the program, after comparing American public support for the Bush administration’s 2003 preemptive strike in Iraq to German public support for Chancellor Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. “When an entire country becomes afraid for their sovereignty, for their safety,” Gernon is quoted, “they will embrace ideas and strategies and positions that they might not embrace otherwise”(Lisa De Moraes, “Producer Is a Casualty in CBS's “Hitler” Miniseries,” The Washington Post 11 Apr. 2003: C7, LexisNexis Academic, IPFW Helmke Library, Fort Wayne IN, 19 Feb. 2004).
Etlin’s anthology will escape much of the hyper-nationalist rage that Gernon faced following these remarks, perhaps not just because it is a relatively obscure scholarly book and Gernon produced a miniseries on Hitler for national network television. Rather than suggest that present-day society looks like Nazi Germany, this intelligent collection quietly explores the ease with which Nazi racial ideology could make fear appear acceptable, natural, and normal in the 20th century. To suggest that Nazi anti-Semitism was so persuasive, not because of its presence but because much of its barbarity was shielded from public view, is hardly heretical, and yet it is exactly the use of fear to camouflage barbarous or irrational ideologies from everyday life that persistently seems to define much of contemporary society since the end of World War II, even in 2003. What the book demonstrates successfully is that the explicit or obvious instances of an ideology based on fear are less consequential than the manner in which ideological fears manage to pervade almost every aspect of culture in ways that appear acceptable, natural and normal.
In what may be the book’s most compelling intervention, the emphasis upon what Richard Slotkin has described as mythogenesis, or the creation of myth, brings cultural theory to bear upon the history of the Holocaust. Rather than view culture under the Third Reich as being a state-sponsored ideology imposed upon German civil society in one-way fashion, Etlin begins the volume with an introductory essay exploring the way in which Nazi ideology could capitalize upon and inflect an already ongoing process of mythogenesis within German culture. The Nazi inflection of this mythology, admittedly heavy-handed or hamfisted at times, nonetheless could articulate emergent racial discourses already present long before the Nazis first were democratically elected to power in Germany.
Of course, the attempt to understand Nazism on its own terms is not new. However, the attempt to locate this perspective minus the obsessive concern with psychopathology characterized by such works as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York NY: Vintage-Random Hosue, 1997) seems somewhat of a departure, perhaps because the perceived psychopathology of some national Other provides a comfortable distance from which to view the way in which barbarous ideologies continue to manifest themselves into the 21st century. What is striking about the mythos under Nazism is not the absurdity of its premise, but rather the sophistication with which it could camouflage the absurdity of its premises. Perhaps when seen less as psychopathology and more as myth, the parallels between myths of pure blood and the United States’ own myths, such as Manifest Destiny, become uncomfortably aligned. Manifest Destiny served to justify the wholesale slaughter of indigenous people as part of westward expansion in this country. Does German mythmaking differ all that much from the American mythmaking that Richard Slotkin finds at work in his three-volume study, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown CT: Wesleyan U P, 1973), The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrializiation, 1800-1890 (New York NY: Atheneum, 1985), and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York NY: Atheneum, 1992)? What if the Bush Administration’s Preemptive Doctrine simply continues that venerable myth of Manifest Destiny, now on a global scale, and the so-called War on Terror is simply the latest iteration of apocalyptic and Manichean worldviews?
The anthology does not raise these concerns directly, though one can reasonably draw these humbling conclusions from this excellent set of essays. Rather, Etlin has skillfully positioned this scholarship in relation to and away from scholarship that focuses upon the most extreme instances of cultural Nazification, whether through state-sponsored propaganda or through state purges of and direct control over the arts. This is a somewhat precarious task, since losing the specificity of this history risks falling into the trap that Lawrence Langer has so eloquently warned against: a pre-empting of the Holocaust through poorly conceived and flattened notions of universal guilt and victimhood. Proposing to explore Nazism as an outgrowth of culture, Etlin has grouped the essays according to four sections: Weltanschauung or worldview, propaganda, empire building, and appeasement. By grouping the essays in this fashion, Etlin offers an alternative perspective to simplistic but prevalent explanations of culture under the Nazis. The essays in the Weltanschauung section of the book attempt to understand the pervasiveness of the Nazi worldview, not in terms of being imposed by the state but rather as a confluence of disparate articulations of racial ideology that were manifest within popular culture well before the Nazis came to power. In this section, musicologist Albrecht Dümling considers how a 1938 Degenerate Music exhibition in Düsseldorf capitalized upon popular German notions that music could express served as the singular expression of a national soul. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn and Gert Gröning explore how popular discourse surrounding landscape architecture reinforced the Nazi policy of genocide. Architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt, an expert on Auschwitz, considers the provocative intersection between learned scholarship and pulp fiction at the site of mythmaking--in this case, how mythic notions of an ancestral German empire in the East under the apparent yoke of Asiatic and Slavic influences could justify military expansionism as a way to liberate an imagined historical past.
Even the second section of the book--devoted to addressing propaganda--itself problematizes some of the deeply held but nonetheless simplistic assumptions of propaganda scholarship concerning audience and media influence. David Culbert’s essay, for example, compares the relative success of two Nazi anti-Semitic films, finding the documentary The Wandering Jew (1940) a commercial failure when compared to the wildly popular feature film Jud Süss. Culbert uses this comparison to assert that the films did not so much indoctrinate as much as they reinforced already held views, and then only in terms of their value as popular entertainment told through narrative, not outright propaganda told through a voice-of-god narrator. Mary Elizabeth O’Brien continues this line of reasoning in her essay on the so-called Nazi home-front films, escapist narratives that de-emphasized combat in favor of community during wartime. Both Culbert’s and O’Brien’s essays recall how even Erwin Leiser’s Nazi Cinema, which assumes that Nazi films were propaganda, finds propaganda not in terms of anti-Semitism, but in terms of the escapist melodramas and comedies promoting conformity and even terror. O’Brien, however, offers an alternative to this view, maintaining that such escapist fare can insulate audiences from the harsh realities of war only for so long. Thus for O’Brien, film propaganda is not a matter of the monolithic power of media influence, but rather a shifting negotiation between the state and its audience. Kathleen James-Chakraborty makes a similar argument in her essay on Nazi light shows, noting the expressionist and spiritual roots of artificial illumination in both the German avant-garde as well as populist movements were not in an of themselves totalitarian. Rather, the Nazis capitalized upon the powerful meaning of these light shows through a cultural negotiation with audiences over how these shows promoted a utopian vision of community.
If this second section seeks a more nuanced view of propaganda, I interpret the section with the misleading title of “Empire Building” as an attempt to develop a more rigorous understanding of authorship within totalitarian society. Communication scholarship often seems to have accepted at face value the anonymity of propaganda, perhaps itself a vital part of the meaning of propaganda and a characteristic of mass media in gernal. Yet the articles in this section usefully remind us that even propaganda has its individual and collective authors, and that even (or especially) propaganda must be considered beyond simply its literal or surface meanings. Jonathan Petropoulos considers the sculptor Arno Breker as a case study of how the state can co-opt individual artistic expression, and how the artist in turn can escape moral and legal culpability in the aftermath of the Holocaust, asserting the problematic assumption that the art was merely apolitical. Paul Jaskot’s fascinating essay interprets Nazi architecture not so much in terms of design as in terms of production, finding a kind of authorship in the human suffering of forced labor that was inscribed within the meaning of architectural monuments built during the war. Finally, Ruth Ben-Ghiat explores the complex phenomenon in which individuals and groups vie to claim authorship for culture itself by considering the uneasy alliance between Italian Fascists and National Socialists from 1933 until 1943.
The title of the final section—“Appeasement”--similarly falls short of capturing with what this section really seems to engage: the reception of German culture and cultural representatives abroad. Again, what seems striking about this section is the way in which the reception of art can become as politicized as the work of art itself, and yet how at the same time, like the ideology of the artwork, the ideology of reception seems most effective when camouflaged amid assertions of being apolitical or historical revisions omitting key identifications and affiliations. Such were the shifting fortunes of the Bauhaus architectural school, discussed in a Karen Koehler essay, which served as the basis for a 1938 Museum of Modern Art exhibition that intentionally downplayed the movement’s leftist roots and the difficulties it faced under a Nazi regime. Koehler explains the decisions to depoliticize the exhibition in terms of the isolationist and interventionist tensions roiling at the surface of American popular discourse at the time. Karen A. Fiss’ essay explores the role that the French government played during the 1937 Paris Exposition in accommodating Nazi demands for their German Pavilion. In hoping to establish its own role as an effective broker for diplomacy, as Fiss argues, the anti-fascist Front Populaire coalition succeeded only in launching a renewed legitimacy for the Third Reich and its ideological project. The last essay by Keith Holz considers how the reputations of exiled artists from Nazi Germany could serve a variety of ideological and aesthetic ends that often had little to do with the artists or art works themselves.
The anthology of course is not perfect. As mentioned above, the internal logic of grouping the essays around shared if implicit themes seems more compelling than the actual titles given to some of these sections. I would also question the placement of some of the essays, such as the inclusion of James-Chakraborty’s article on Nazi light shows in the section on propaganda. Furthermore, some essays might venture further than they go. Culbert’s comparative analysis of Der Ewige Jude and Jud Süss, for example, seems more preoccupied with whether these films succeeded--a determination that could be argued along any number of lines when taking a cultural perspective--than it is concerned with one of the powerful themes of this book, the central role of mythmaking within culture.
Ultimately, though, this book helps realize two important concerns. One is simply how few books there are that attempt to understand the cultural texts of Nazism not as instances of overtly rabid propagandizing, but as expressions of the internal logic that a culture uses to make the barbarous ideology of Nazism appear normal, natural, and entirely acceptable. In his introductory essay, Etlin aptly recalls that famous phrase coined by Hannah Arendt at the 1962 trial of Adolf Eichmann: “the banality of evil.” Another related concern is how desperately American culture needs its Nazis, and for its Nazis to be evil. How reluctant this present-day culture still seems at times to confront the banal part of the equation. While Bush certainly will not be the last American president inspiring a misguided comparison to Hitler, it was the present-day parallel to the role that fear plays in suppressing civil liberties that caused so much consternation and ultimately Gernon’s dismissal.
Etlin’s anthology represents a powerful and provocative shift away from our own present-day mythogenesis of Nazism and Nazi ideology. It is, as demonstrated by the recent Gernon controversy, a shift sometimes provoked at one’s own peril. How ironic, then, that it is Leiser’s 1968 book on Nazi propaganda that ultimately warns of why we must be both sensitive to and wary of mythogenesis in all of its shapes and guises. In Nazi Cinema, he cautions that it is “the totalitarian system’s abuse of the mass media” that “demonstrates just how necessary is the democratic social structure and the right of freedom of information,” since “a number of arguments employed by Nazi propaganda against the parliamentary system are being revived in the present-day political scene.” Like Gernon, Leiser looks to the past to see the looming present-day dangers: “the unpolitical German public were terrified. Drunk with sleep, they were easily steered in the required direction, with the truth concealed and any undesirable thought process obstructed. It was necessary to produce a state of panic, permanent fear of an enemy who went under many names and who was made responsible for every adversity and every failure” (Erwin Leiser, Nazi Cinema, New York NY: Macmillan, 1975). While Art, Culture, and Media Under the Third Reich offers an overdue view of culture that is more nuanced than either Gernon’s or Leiser’s, the picture of culture that Etlin’s book offers is as humbling as the point that Leiser was making in 1968. It is a lesson as relevant as it is unsettling for a 2003 America, pumped up on its own hubris and self-righteous indignation, where making the very point that Leiser was making can get the producer of a television miniseries on Hitler fired.
Steven Alan Carr
Fort Wayne, Indiana