Review in European History Quarterly

European History Quarterly 2014 44: 318

David B. Dennis, Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture, Cambridge University Press:
Cambridge, 2012; xvi + 541 pp.; 9781107020498, £25.99 (hbk)

Reviewed by: Andrew G. Bonnell, University of Queensland, Australia

David B. Dennis’s topic is the use, misuse, and often outright abuse, of the Western
cultural tradition by the National Socialist party and regime, as presented through
the prism of the official party newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter, from 1920 to
1945. Dennis has exhaustively combed through the twenty-five years of the newspaper
on microfilm (it has not yet been digitized), in search of cultural commentary,
and here presents his findings. Scholars who have also worked through such
voluminous series of papers on microfilm will appreciate the labour involved in
this, and Dennis presents a more thorough selection of Nazi cultural views than
earlier, necessarily more selective anthologies. The work is also justified in so far as
the recent large-scale study of the Vo¨lkischer Beobachter by Detlef Mu¨hlberger
(Hitler’s Voice, 2004) does not particularly focus on the paper’s writing on culture.
Dennis organizes his material thematically, looking in turn at Nazi claims that
all culture showed the creative spirit of the ‘Aryan race’, while also pressing the
Western tradition into the service of anti-Semitic ideology; Nazi appropriations of
classicism and romanticism (with a clear bias towards the latter); Nazi criticisms of
modern culture, at least after Wagner; and the ‘culture wars’ which the Nazis
prosecuted during the Weimar Republic, before turning to the uses to which the
Nazi regime put culture during wartime.
As one might expect from the author of a study of Beethoven’s reception in
German history (Beethoven and German Politics, 1870–1989, 1996), Dennis is perhaps
at his best discussing the reception of music in the Nazi paper. One of the few
surprises in the book is just how extensive the treatment of music was in the
Vo¨lkischer Beobachter: over 1000 of the 1600 articles which Dennis collated on
cultural topics dealt with music. Among the musicians, not surprisingly, Richard
Wagner occupied pride of place in the Nazi pantheon. Wagner admirers who
would prefer to see the composer’s popularity in the ‘Third Reich’ as just the
product of a personal tic on the part of Adolf Hitler will find little comfort here.
Wagner’s emphasis on Germanic culture and his obsessive and virulent anti-
Semitism made him a perfect fit for the lines pursued by the Vo¨lkischer Beobachter.
Unfortunately, for readers familiar with the cultural history of National
Socialism, surprises are few and far between here. (One of the few surprises for
me was the very positive representation of Arthur Rimbaud, who was celebrated in
late 1944 as a ‘poet and arms trafficker’ (231).) Readers will not be astonished to
learn that in the columns of the Volkischer Beobachter, figures such as Leonardo da
Vinci, Shakespeare and Rembrandt were hailed as expressions of Nordic genius;
that Bach, Haydn, and other great composers were characterized as quintessentially
German, and that Jewish writers and artists like Heinrich Heine were reviled.
After a few hundred pages of this, I started to sympathize involuntarily with
Thomas Mann’s exclamation in September 1945 that everything printed in
Germany under Hitler should be pulped. One problem with Dennis’s approach is that it gives a picture of the Volkischer Beobachter as the sole mouthpiece of Nazi views on culture: there is little sense of the battles between Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg and others over the power to make cultural policy. Only rarely does Dennis afford us a glimpse of this, for example, in the case of Richard Strauss, in which Rosenberg had to back-pedal after his attacks on Strauss in the 1920s once Goebbels decided to turn the composer into one of the regime’s leading cultural trophy figures in 1933. When dealing with theatre, there is little discussion of reviews of performances (or ‘commentary’, after actual criticism was banned), as opposed to discussions of the works and lives of authors. Dennis is somewhat reticent in engaging with questions of how to theorize ideology or questions of reader reception of the newspaper until a few pages in the conclusion. And the ease of reading is not assisted by occasionally clunky translations from German (which are not solely due to the stilted quality of the original).

In some respects, Dennis has been handsomely served by his publisher – the
book is a generous length, and is very well illustrated and produced. The only
shortcomings here are the absence of a bibliography and the lack of more rigorous
copy-editing in parts. But Dennis’s labours have produced a work that will be a
very valuable reference for any subsequent scholars on Nazi culture, and it will no
doubt save many other researchers long days slaving over microfilm readers, at
least until someone digitizes the Volkischer Beobachter.

The online version of this article can be found at: