The Cultural Axis

“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.” This philistine wisecrack is often attributed to Air Marshal Hermann Goering, or some other Nazi notable. Benjamin Martin sets us straight on its source: the 1933 play Schlageter by the Nazi Party member Hanns Johst, in which a character says: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I release the catch on my Browning.”

Martin’s illuminating book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture shows how badly astray this famous quip leads us: cultural concerns were in fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally associate their violent and aggressive regimes with “soft power.” But the two dictators were would-be intellectuals—Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how the Nazi and Fascist empires were constructed.

German power and success gave the Nazi case particular salience. The special meaning of Kultur in Germans’ evaluation of themselves is an important part of the story. According to a famous essay by Norbert Elias, the meaning of Kultur for Germans is hardly comprehensible without reference to a particular historical development.*Kultur, he explains (along with Bildung, or education), denoted in pre-unification Germany those qualities that the intellectuals and professionals of the small, isolated German middle class claimed for themselves in response to the disdain of the minor German nobles who employed them: intellectual achievement, of course, but also simple virtues like authenticity, honesty, and sincerity.

German courtiers, by contrast, according to the possessors of Kultur, had acquired “civilization” from their French tutors: manners, social polish, the cultivation of appearances. As the German middle class asserted itself in the nineteenth century, the particular virtues of Kultur became an important ingredient in national self-definition. The inferior values of “civilization” were no longer attributed to an erstwhile French-educated German nobility, but to the French themselves and to the West in general.

By 1914, the contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation had taken on a more aggressively nationalist tone. During World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of Western Europe. Martin’s book shows how vigorously the Nazis applied this traditional construct. Hitler invested considerable money and time in the 1930s, and even after World War II began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn them into instruments of German power. These projects had some initial success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power they were designed to reinforce.

In a parallel and even less enduring effort, Mussolini’s Fascist regime tried to establish the primacy of Italian culture under the umbrella of Hitler’s conquests. Mussolini’s cultural executives, such as his Minister for Press and Propaganda Dino Alfieri, asserted that the Mediterranean and classical tradition of Italy was the proper foundation of a European “cultural Axis.” Having thrown in their lot definitively with Hitler, the Italians could hope to be the contemporary Greece to Germany’s new Rome, but the Nazi leaders never entertained the slightest doubt that German Kultur was the foundation stone of the “new cultural order” for Europe.

An extensive network of international cultural organizations already existed before Hitler came to power. They had been greatly expanded after 1919 in the orbit of the League of Nations. Hitler saw them cynically as instruments of French cultural influence and as a reinforcement of Allied hegemony. Just as he planned to overthrow the political system set up by the victorious Allies after World War I, he was determined to overthrow the democratic cultural network. He intended to replace it with his own organizations headquartered in Berlin and dedicated to spreading throughout Europe the Nazi conception of the unique racial character of each national culture.

The word “international” acquired a special meaning in its usage by Nazi and Fascist cultural officials. The Allies’ international cultural associations had rested on a set of liberal democratic assumptions: that works of art and literature should be evaluated by universal standards of quality; that masterpieces were the product of individual creativity; and that no national culture deserved hegemony over another. The Nazi and Fascist dictators reversed all of these assumptions. They measured the merit of works of art and literature by their significance within unique national cultural traditions. Masterpieces, in their view, grew out of community roots. And national cultural traditions were ranked in a natural hierarchy, with the German and Italian ones at the top.

Hitler concerned himself with cultural matters as soon as he became chancellor of Germany in January 1933. 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. During this dispute the president of the Italian PEN club, the provocateur Futurist intellectual Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, supported the German position. Thus from the earliest days, Nazi cultural projects proved capable of enlisting foreign support.

Hitler made his ambitions for German culture clear from the beginning. At a Nazi Party Congress on Culture in September 1933 he promised that the Nazi state would intervene more actively in cultural matters than the Weimar Republic had done, in order to make art an expression of the “hereditary racial bloodstock” and to transform artists into defenders of the German Volk.

Hitler left the daily tasks of his bid to reorganize European culture under German dominance to his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels—another would-be intellectual and a failed novelist—threw his frenetic energy, his ideological passions, and a generous budget into spreading abroad the Nazis’ racialist and nationalist approach to the arts.

Cinema was the Nazi leaders’ first cultural target. Goebbels and Hitler were as obsessed with movies as American adolescents are today with social media. Convinced that cinema was their era’s main engine of cultural influence, they tried to control filmmaking as far as their influence could reach. At the Venice Film Festival in 1935, at Goeb- bels’s instigation, delegates of twelve nations agreed to create an International Film Chamber (IFC) designed to establish a continent-wide system of film exchange and regulation. As the possessor of the continent’s largest and most powerful film industry, Germany became the dominant force in the IFC. Fascist Italy, however, assured for itself a strong second position by exploiting its considerable film-producing assets, such as the technologically advanced studios of Cinecittà and the Venice Film Festival, which continued to be the main venue of IFC activities.

The IFC was a genuinely European organization, and even had a French president in 1937. Its inspiration had been German, however, and its organizational form was less international than something Martin usefully calls “inter-national,” a federation of national arts organizations on the model of the Reich Film Chamber, which Goebbels had formed in July 1933 on corporatist principles. Corporatist doctrine required that capital, management, and labor abandon their separate advocacy groups and sit down together to find their common interests, alongside state representatives. Corporatism smothered internal conflict in film production and gave determining influence to the state rather than to the market.

Each IFC member nation was expected to have a national film organization similar to the Reich Film Chamber. Within Germany the Reich Film Chamber became the instrument through which the Nazi regime controlled an increasingly concentrated German film industry purged of Jews. In 1942, the largest production companies, such as UFA and Tobis, were merged into one state-controlled entity.

Benjamin Martin shows most interestingly that the Nazi and Fascist “inter-national” organizations had authentic appeal to some European intellectuals and arts executives who were not themselves Nazis or Fascists. These organizations promised material as well as intellectual advantages. The IFC provided access to a market of continental dimensions, a feature particularly attractive to European filmmakers who all suffered from the limited size of their national audiences. It also simplified thorny problems of cross-boundary payments and differing copyright laws.

SZ Photo/Scherl/Bridgeman Images

Sepp Hilz’s Peasant Venus, shown in the ‘Great German Art Exhibition,’ Munich, 1939

The main role of the IFC was to combat the Hollywood menace. The dominance of American films had troubled European filmmakers and intellectuals from the beginning. By 1928 54 percent of all films shown in France, 72 percent in Britain, and 80 percent in Italy came from Hollywood. Already in the 1920s most European countries had imposed quotas on American films or limited them by reciprocity agreements. The respite given to European films by the arrival of “talkies” in 1929 had been brief, as expert dubbing soon allowed Hollywood films to predominate again. Many Europeans endorsed the IFC position that American films were trivial entertainment designed to make money, while European films were artistic creations that deserved protection. Although the British and Dutch refused to join, IFC membership extended by 1935 “from Belgium to Hungary [and] revealed a Europe,” according to Martin, “ready to accept German leadership.”

German military conquests early in World War II enabled the Nazis to tighten even further their control of European cinema. In August 1940 they banned American films altogether in the territories they occupied. A similar ban within Germany itself followed in 1941. The Fascist regime had already reduced the number of Hollywood films shown in Italy by the “Alfieri law” of 1938 that created a state monopoly with sole authority to buy and show foreign films (Hollywood’s four biggest studios withdrew from the Italian market in response). The unintended result of such protectionism was to give Hollywood films the allure of forbidden fruit and to prepare their triumphant return to Europe in 1945. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance film Army of Shadows, two underground leaders are smuggled out of France to consult personally with Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle. The first thing they want to do in London, after eating a filling meal, is to go see Gone with the Wind.

Beyond cinema, the Nazis meant to reorganize the whole range of German cultural activities along corporatist lines. The Reich Chamber of Culture contained subgroups for music, literature, theater, press, radio, and so on. The Nazis soon tried to extend the reach of these cultural corporations to the entire European continent, according to their geopolitical vision of a world divided into blocs, or “great spaces,” continent-scaled, self-sufficient economic systems aligned with the appropriate cultural associations protected by authoritarian states. Their European “New Order” was meant to be cultural as well as economic and political.

Music was a realm that Germans felt particularly qualified to dominate. But first the German national musical scene had to be properly organized. In November 1933 Goebbels offered Richard Strauss the leadership of a Reich Music Chamber. In June 1934 Strauss invited composers from thirteen countries to the annual meeting of the German Music Association in Wiesbaden. The delegates created a Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers.

The Permanent Council grew by exploiting an aesthetic rift in European musical culture. Since the early twentieth century a generation of gifted innovators had created new musical languages, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Organized in the influential International Society for Contemporary Music, the avant-garde had come to have a powerful influence on the European musical scene. Traditional composers resented the modernists’ celebrity, and the Nazis (Mussolini remained more open to modernism) attracted conservative support by attacking the avant-garde as internationalist, rootless, and Jewish. In a famous speech in December 1934 Goebbels derided “an atonal noise maker,” by whom he was generally assumed to mean the composer Paul Hindemith (who was not Jewish). Goebbels organized in Düsseldorf in 1938 a presentation of “degenerate music” following the better-known 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art.”

Most of the composers who were affiliated with the Permanent Council, advocates generally of a national, rural, or folklorist approach to musical composition, are forgotten today. The council did draw some prestigious composers who were not really Nazi or Fascist, like Jean Sibelius and Albert Roussel. The presence of Richard Strauss, a onetime moderate modernist who resented the decline of his fame, gave legitimacy to the IFC. He continued to preside over it even after he had been removed from the Reich Music Chamber in 1935 in a dispute over his continued association with Stefan Zweig, who had written the libretto for his opera Die schweigsame Frau.

The Permanent Council’s attention to composers’ material problems was an additional attraction. These included inconsistencies among different national copyright codes, problems of international royalties payments, and droit moral—the right claimed by authors and composers to assure that their work was not presented in a deformed way or with offensive associations. Thus the Permanent Council was able to fill a busy schedule of concerts in various European capitals through the late 1930s.

The Nazi organization of European literature came later, but by similar tactics: a federation of national corporative bodies. German authors already gathered annually in Weimar. In connection with the 1941 Weimar authors’ meeting, Goebbels invited fifty foreign writers to visit the city of Goethe and Schiller at the expense of his Propaganda Ministry (an indulgence that caused many of them trouble after the war). The following October authors from fifteen European countries met at Weimar to found a European Writers’ Union.

As with music, the Nazis were able to attract writers outside the immediate orbit of the Nazi and Fascist parties by endorsing conservative literary styles against modernism, by mitigating copyright and royalty problems, and by offering sybaritic visits to Germany and public attention. Some significant figures joined, such as the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in literature, but most were minor writers who employed themes of nationalism, folk traditions, or the resonance of landscape. Martin unravels these multinational connections with clarity and precision, aided by research and reading in at least five European languages.

Painting and sculpture, curiously, do not figure in this account of the cultural fields that the Nazis and Fascists tried to reorganize “inter-nationally,” perhaps because they had not previously been organized on liberal democratic lines. Within Germany, of course, modernists could not show or sell their work, but this was not the case in occupied Paris, where Picasso and Kandinsky painted quietly in private and Jean Bazaine organized an exhibition with fellow modernists in 1941. Nazi cultural officials thought “degenerate” art appropriate for France.

Hitler made effective use of some German intellectuals’ resentment at being shut out of international cultural institutions after 1919. Martin seems to accept this sense of victimhood as legitimate, but it is difficult to square with the prestige of German cinema, music, and science in the 1920s.

Science would have made an interesting case study, a contrary one. Germany dominated the world of science before 1933. Germans won fifteen Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine between 1918 and 1933, more than any other nation. Far from capitalizing on this major soft power asset, Hitler destroyed it by imposing ideological conformity and expelling Jewish scientists such as the talented nuclear physicist Lise Meitner. The soft power of science is fragile, as Americans may yet find out.

Without specifically setting out to do so, Martin casts interesting light on soft power and the conditions for its success. Nazis and Fascists turned out to be poor at it. Inherent contradictions undermined their attempts at cultural dominance. Dictatorial methods clashed with literary and artistic independence. Nazis had burned books, and both Germany and Italy had excluded prominent writers and artists. Their evident desire to put their own cultures first undermined their lip service to “inter-national” cooperation.

Within the “cultural Axis,” the relationship between Germany and Italy was strained. Martin was right to include the Italian case, even if Mussolini’s parallel bid for cultural power, like his parallel war, accomplished little. Hitler always accepted that Mussolini was his forerunner—the Duce’s bust stood on his desk—and while always ready to try to upstage him never let him drop. And so his “inter-national” organizations often attributed a strong second role to the Italians. But the Italians worked from within to subvert German claims to primacy.

A major obstacle to the success of Axis “inter-national” cultural organizations—especially with the Nazis—was their ideological narrowness. While an alignment with militant antimodernism attracted conservative writers and artists, these generated little excitement compared to the modernists. Hitler’s efforts to stem the mass appeal of Hollywood films and jazz only made them (as Martin suggests) more seductive and, in a final irony, prepared for the triumph of American music, jeans, and film in the postwar world by trying to make them taboo.

Soft power seems to have thrived best without direct military occupation. The global influence of French language, manners, and ideas began in the seventeenth century, and depended little on the conquests of Louis XIV and Napoleon. The ascendancy of the English language began with the commercial and financial power of the City of London in the nineteenth century, and owed little to conquest or colonial occupation, though those helped. The soft power of the United States, the most successful yet, spread far beyond direct American military presence. It prospered by appealing to mass popular tastes in music, dress, and entertainment, while the “cultural axis” aimed at conventional forms of high culture. The United States government did not ignore high culture—consider the activities of the United States Information Agency and the Congress for Cultural Freedom after World War II. But American soft power thrived mostly through the profit motive and by offering popular entertainment to the young.

Far from reaching for a revolver to deal with “culture,” Hitler (with Mussolini struggling behind) tried with at least some initial success to use international cultural organizations to enhance his military power. This story has been approached mostly, if at all, in individual national terms, but Martin has brought the whole Axis cultural project admirably into focus.

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