Review in Cosmopolitan Review

2013 VOL. 5 NO. 3 / BOOKS

Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture

Posted by  on November 14, 2013 at 5:10 am


Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture
By David B. Dennis
Cambridge University Press; 2012

The staggering rise to power of the Nazis; the invasion of Poland and subsequent occupation of Eastern Europe; mass population transfers, settlement, deportation, and the legacy of the Holocaust; while all of these attest to the grandiose plans of Hitler to create a purely German living-space in East-Central and Eastern Europe, it is important to note that the philosophy of National Socialism originally began as a spiritual movement that sought to awaken the slumbering Germanic “racial-soul” to the dangers posed by the seemingly unrelenting advance of modernity and cosmopolitanism, both of which were ascribed by the Nazis to the Jewish race, and in particular, the role of the Jewish “racial-soul” in corrupting German society.

In his book, Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture, David B. Dennis of Loyola University Chicago examines in depth the bulk of Nazi philosophical thought through the writings, editorials, cartoons, and art criticism within the Volkische Beobachter, the primary Nazi party organ which, between the years 1919 and 1945, sought to ascribe all advances in culture, the sciences, and the arts to the active intersession of a Germanic “racial-soul” onto the creativity of the artist and which likewise accused other artists of becoming spiritually corrupted or contaminated by the workings of the Jewish “racial-soul,” which according to the Nazis blurred concrete identities, tore down established boundaries, and eliminated cultural and racial distinctions by espousing a universal cosmopolitanism.

Dennis’ comprehensive translation of the Volkische Beobachter, much of which has not been translated to date, is beautifully summarized in 533 pages and which, divided into five sections, demonstrates the fervent desire of the Nazis to expropriate the cultural and literary “greats,” from Michelangelo and Goethe to Schiller and Shakespeare, as representative of the active workings of the Germanic “racial-soul” and in essence allow the Nazis to claim what Dennis describes as a sense of “cultural worthiness” (2).

Part one, The Foundations of Nazi Cultural History, describes in detail the belief among the Nazis that the major figureheads of the Western cultural canon derived their creativity precisely from their Aryan racial origins and sought to appropriate as “spiritual comrades” those figures who, though not necessarily German, represented the culmination of Aryan spiritual creativity. In illustrating the manner in which the Nazis drew distinctions between those deemed “Germanic-in-spirit” and those they condemned as racially and spiritually corrupted, Dennis describes the perpetual conflict that the Nazis saw between what they termed Kultur—consisting of the Volk, which is to say a community of blood, race, and cultural tradition to which all members owe deference and allegiance—with Zivilization, a term which bore connotations of liberalism, commerce, materialism, and which, in espousing notions of equality and universal citizenship, was seen by the Nazis as the threat to the racial and spiritual integrity of the Volksgemeinschaft, or Volk community.

Thus, in keeping with the continuity of race and creativity, Michelangelo, despite his Italian background, was declared by Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg as “one of the great men of the Nordic West” due to the manner in which his artwork espoused action rather than intellectual contemplation and therefore the “dynamic Germanic nature” based upon, in thematic parallel with Nietzsche, a continuous struggle to overcome the world (18). Likewise, the Dutch artist Rembrandt was characterized as “restless [and] ever-searching,” whose art had no patience for “stagnation of the soul” and sought to render the “invisible visible” (22), a key thematic among Nazi intellectuals, who identified abstract, intellectual art as reflective of the racially “impure” soul of the artist and who emphasized clarity, forthrightness, raw emotion, and permanence as characteristics of the Aryan. Finally, Shakespeare, who had been described by Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Shirach as the equal of Goethe and a “fighter for bravery and loyalty” (23) was used incessantly by the Nazis who, in taking from The Merchant of Venice, sought to illustrate the spiritual incompatibility as well as establish the eternal historic conflict between Aryans and Jews.

Part two, Blind to the Light, and part three, Modern Dilemmas, continue the chronological path that Dennis sets out towards the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where he demonstrates the Nazi rejection of “proto-modernist” thought among the Enlightenment thinkers, whose ideas are instead rooted in the nationalist and romanticist traditions. In its treatment of Goethe for instance, the Volkische Beobachter sought to downplay any association between the German poet and his reputation as a “citizen of the world,” which was denounced by the paper as a “liberal-leftist ploy,” and instead characterized Goethe as deeply connected to his homeland and which spared no opportunity to denounce the “cosmopolitan” and “bourgeois” nature of Goethe’s contemporaries (68). In reference to the wars of liberation taking place against Napoleon’s armies, Goethe was characterized by one editor as “deeply regretted [for] not belonging to a great, strong, respected, and feared Volk for which national honour is not a dream…embattled by internationalist utopians without character” (69) while the author Hans Johst described Goethe’s Germanness as characterized through his “impulsive idea of expansion and sense of mission” as opposed to the “global drivel” of the “internationalist utopian view of humanity” (70).

Similar to Goethe, Frederick Nietzsche, a monumental figure whose reputation had been greatly affected by his later appropriation by Nazi theorists, was used as a major cultural authority by the editors of the Volkische Beobachter, in particular, his theory of the Ubermensch, which was used to justify German racial superiority. Ignoring the fact that Nietzsche eschewed biological determinism, favoring instead the cultivation of a worthy “spiritual aristocracy,” editor Jozef Stolzing, in response to Nietzsche’s popularity among the “international-democratic literati,” wrote that “Nietzsche hated and fought every form of democracy, both political and spiritual,” and in regards to notions that all men are at base the same, that “the weak, fat, and cowardly were symbols of this equality” and that Nietzsche considered “the rule of the humble amounted to a blow against life itself: the herd instinct—the mass mentality—[that] considered peace to have higher value than war” (254).

Part four, ‘Holy’ War and Weimar ‘Crisis,’ traces the story of the Volkische Beobachter in that tumultuous time following the First World War called the Weimar Republic which, up until the assumption of power by Hitler in 1933, was the period that saw the genesis of several cultural “greats” including author Thomas Mann and playwright Bertold Brecht, as well as the appearance of new art forms such as Dadaism that would later be put on display during the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition (Entartete Kunst Ausstellung) as evidence of the racial and spiritual corruption of artists who produced such art. The threat of Bolshevism is threaded throughout Nazi commentary at the time, which understood communism not simply as a military or material threat but as seeking to subvert and overturn all existing social relations. While artworks such as that of Pablo Picasso or George Grosz reflected the moral wasteland in the aftermath of the war, the Volkische Beobachter railed against what it called “art bolshevism” and attacked everything from the “hooting, moaning, and whining [of] atonal negro music” (269) to the lack of definition and idealism in modern art, which was overly intellectual and lacked the Sehnsucht, or “longing,” that was said to characterize the eternal nature of the Aryan soul.

It is in this section, as well as in Part five, Nazi “Solutions,” that it becomes more apparent how the Volkische Beobachter assumed its full function as a Kampfblatt, or “combat paper,” in which all of the literary figures of German and European history were used to justify the overthrow of the Weimar republic as necessary as an impediment to the rebirth or “awakening” (Erwachung) of the German people as well as the necessity of war. Following the release of the 1929 film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which takes a critical look at the seemingly senseless killing that the war engendered, the Volkische Beobachter published article after article invoking the spirit of Goethe, of Nietzsche, or of Wagner, in denouncing what it called the “asphalt literati…[those] enemies of the Volk, those who scorn anything heroic” (241), in order to help mobilize the youth of Germany to take up arms for the Reich.

It is clear that through its appeal to literature and to high culture, the Volkische Beobachter sought both to claim cultural legitimacy as well as appear legitimate to Germany’s middle classes, many of whom agreed with the views presented in the paper. In the chaotic aftermath of the First World War when the paper was first published, Germans no doubt sought explanation for the moral and economic collapse of their nation in the wake of the war and Dennis describes Hitler’s self-image as an artisan forming a concrete, immutable, and eternal image of Germany built upon the shoulders of the timeless masters and in opposition to the considerable chaos that engulfed Germany during the Weimar era. Dennis also shows us the extent to which the Nazis went to create a cultural mythology that legitimized their takeover and which also provides fantastic insight into how totalitarian regimes rely on myths to justify and rationalize their actions. Inhumanities provides us a glimpse of Nazi totalitarianism that is seldom discussed; the fervent work of academics, newspaper editors, journalists, and authors, people who are often identified at the forefront of combating tyranny, as the primary originators and disseminators of National Socialism, and which should also draw our attention to the politically-motivated distortions, embellishments, and omissions in media today.


Stephen Drapaka is a graduate student in History at the University of Alberta. His research interests include the ideological history of Fascism and Communism as well as topics in East-Central Europe pertaining mainly to Poland and Hungary. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education and taught English as a second language in Krakow for three years. Stephen is fluent in French, German, Polish, and Hungarian and is currently learning Persian.

Interview about Inhumanties on History News Network


David Dennis on the Nazi Distortion of the Western Tradition [INTERVIEW] 

by Robin Lindley 

Robin Lindley ( is a Seattle writer and attorney, and features editor for the History News Network. His interviews with scholars, writers and artists have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change, The Inlander, Re-Markings, and other publications. He is a former chair of the World Peace through Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association.


Image via Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

The worst readers are those who act like plundering soldiers: they take a few things they can use, dirty and tangle up the rest, and desecrate the whole.

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Nazi Germany laid claim to the works of the most prominent creators in the Western tradition to support its authoritarian, militarist and racist ideology, and to advance the belief that the Third Reich was bringing about a political and cultural order that represented the pinnacle of civilization.

In his most recent book, Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture (Cambridge University Press), historian Dr. David B. Dennis presents a comprehensive examination of cultural references in the Völkischer Beobachter, the main publication of the Nazi Party and the most widely circulated newspaper in the Germany of the Hitler era.

Dr. Dennis describes how that newspaper interpreted and twisted the history and aesthetics of Western culture, from the Greek classics through the Renaissance and into the Weimar Era to fit the Nazi worldview. He shows how the Nazis appropriated great Germans thinkers and creators such as, Luther, Goethe, Beethoven, Wagner and Nietzsche as well as other so-called “great men of the Nordic West” such as Dante, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Dickens.

To create Inhumanities, Dr. Dennis painstakingly read through and examined every page of the Völkischer Beobachter from January 1920 through April 1945 “in search of each major article it published on literature, philosophy, painting, sculpture, architecture and music.” He then undertook the mind-numbing task of analyzing each pertinent article for ways the paper’s writers distorted the iconic figures and works of Western humanism to conform to the murderous Nazi ideology.

Historians Jeffrey Herf, Celia Applegate and Glenn Watkins, among others, as well as Times Literary Supplement, the Literary Review, and other press and media outlets, have praised Inhumanities for its wide scope, vivid writing, and extensive research. In TLS, Yvonne Sherratt described Dr. Dennis’s book as “one of the most important, authoritative and meticulous studies of Nazi propaganda to date.”

Dr. Dennis is a Professor of History and the Graduate Program Director at Loyola University Chicago where he teaches courses on modern European cultural history. He also wrote Beethoven in German Politics, 1870-1989, an examination of the uses of Beethoven’s biography and music by all of the main nineteenth- and twentieth-century German political parties. His current interdisciplinary project, Modern History of Computing and Its Cultures, co-authored with George Thiruvathukal, surveys the stages of computing history with critical historiographical methods and explores the relationships between these developments and their social and cultural contexts.

Dr. Dennis recently talked by telephone from his office in Chicago about his book and the enormous task of reading through twenty-five years of the major Nazi Party newspaper.

* * * * *

Robin Lindley: How did you decide to spend years researching references to culture in the newspaper of the Nazi Party in Germany, Völkischer Beobachter?

Dr. David Dennis: The background of the work is my graduate studies and even my undergraduate work in areas of curiosity motivated by my intellectual heroes. At the University of Wisconsin, I had the privilege of working with George Mosse and other great historians of Europe such as Michael Petrovich and Harvey Goldberg. A lot of students don’t realize that their professors are people of great scholarly stature. We knew it at Wisconsin [and] such professors also inspired the careers and works of historians like Steven Aschheim, David Sabean, Jeffery Herf and Michael Berkowitz.

What was your area of study in graduate school?

From Wisconsin, George Mosse helped place me at UCLA, since I grew up in Madison and he felt I should see another part of the world. At UCLA, Robert Wohl, Eugen Weber, Peter Reill, and subsequently Saul Friedlander were leading a strong program in modern European history that was still growing at the time. I went to study specifically with Robert Wohl, but I’ve always straddled the Rhine. I was interested in French things as well and worked with Edward Berenson and Debora Silverman and, of course, Professor Weber. It was another privileged opportunity to study under a set of great figures.

The work on reception and music that turned into my dissertation and then my book on Beethoven and Politicscame out of seminars with Robert Wohl who was tremendously interested in any innovative historiographical approach. His seminars were great because he is so open-minded. One seminar was about exploring what one could do with different media, so some looked at film, some concentrated on literature, and some did visual arts, others radio — the full gamut — and I happened to pick music and explored issues that historians not trained in musicology would be able to write about. In doing so, I came to the conclusion that reception is something we could write about.

I was greatly interested in Beethoven personally, so I undertook to investigate, with the help of Robert Winter in Musicology, what I might be able to do on the reception of his music in particular—in a way, combining my fascination with Beethoven and my awareness of Mosse’s work on Nazi culture.

I won’t forget the moment in the archives when I found a Völkischer Beobachter article that presented Beethoven in very strong Nazi terms. That was the start of the my book, though that work wasn’t just about National Socialist interpretations of Beethoven and his music, but also was about interpretations of the composer across the board, from the far left across to the far right—and from the time of his life to 1990. This battle over the cultural tradition in German politics is important to keep in mind in considering my new book,Inhumanities, because all of the parties — from left to right — were laying claim to the Western tradition, orKultur, as Germans called it. The Nazis were part of a competition, and the Beethoven book is highly indicative of that.

I am most gratified that it was so well received. Though I’m not a musicologist, I’m often told that it has influenced music historians in their shift from the traditional analytical mode to more of a cultural studies approach. They’ll occasionally come to me and say the Beethoven book had impact in giving them permission in some ways to take a broader view. That’s truly satisfying.

Was the Beethoven book a springboard for looking more closely at the Nazi period?

Someone should write a book about “writing the second book” in American academia.

For this project, I had no funding for further work abroad and at this stage in your life you have much less time for research, because your teaching position and family come first. But I learned from an article about Eugen Weber which indicated that many of the articles that he wrote were influenced by his life-situation at any one time. He found himself in a small town in France, went to their archives, and that became Peasants into Frenchman. He was dean of the college of arts and sciences and that’s when he wrote the important textbook,A Modern History of Europe.

So, you have to work with what you have. I considered what was available in Chicago and, with all the research libraries in the area, we do have full runs of major German newspapers. My initial plan was to broaden the Beethoven focus and do a survey of what the main German political parties did with other composers. I started with Völkischer Beobachter, but I also looked at the Socialist and Communist papers. I probably spent two years or so drawing together that material, but it felt like this approach wasn’t fresh enough.

Then I did two years of research on the reception of German music in French political culture. I went through all the major French political journals and newspapers to see if they were putting similar spins on it. They were, but the French were a little subtler, so there was nothing quite as dramatic as what the Nazis or the German Left were doing. Moreover, I had to tip my hat to Jane Fulcher, who’s done a great job on French music and politics.

So, I had a lot of material, but felt like I had hit a dead end. Then, in one of those three in the morning moments, I recalled that as I had been going through Völkischer Beobachter during the first two years — when looking for the music articles — I had kept track of the dates when features on major figures in other media appeared in the paper: pieces on great painters, literary figures, philosophers, etc. So I decided to go back and gather all of those articles too, and that meant another year or so of work with the microfilm. Everyone knows that this sort of archival work takes a lot of time and effort: scanning through microfilm for hours and hours until one is literally nauseous as it rolls by — but I persevered, sensing that this comprehensive approach would be worthwhile

I admire your persistence. How did you maintain your sanity going through years of this Nazi newspaper on microfilm?

I literally went through every page. Although the most of the articles I was looking for appeared in the cultural section, I had to pay attention to what might have appeared on the front pages or other sections. So, I’m one of the few people who has at least scanned through every page of that paper.

Of course, it’s fascinating. You can see all the main the headlines on the days of the rise of the Nazi Party and the days of the war, and that is an amazing experience. It was also fascinating to see how the newspaper evolved from a four-page sheet to a full-fledged newspaper, and how advertising crept in more and more. Once the Nazis were in power, you see ads from major German and even American concerns such as big oil and auto companies. There’s a whole book to be written about the Völkischer Beobachter. I don’t know if I’m the one to do it, but a full study of every aspect of the newspaper would be most worthwhile.

More to your point, I met David Blackbourn, one of the great historians of nineteenth-century Germany, who had just had a conversation with his friend Ian Kershaw about how he dealt with the constant focus on the horrible stories of the Nazis. I told him that the key for me was that I was also thinking about the great creative minds of the Western tradition. To properly read and interpret the Nazi “versions,” I had to draw upon, and increase, my learning about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Mozart and Beethoven, etc. Indeed, constantly and enthusiastically teaching Western Civ prepared me to better see what the Nazis were doing with that material. I had to use what I know about the Western humanities tradition as we generally perceive it in order to identify the different angles the Nazis used. So, in this case, my broad survey teaching and writing were very closely related.

I also saw your book as a primer on Western civilization and how the Nazis twisted that work. It inspired me to go back to some of the great works. Can you tell us a bit about how you organized all this material? You have been commended for the structure of the book.

That’s great to hear. On the structure of the book, it was very important to me that all this material be presented in a comprehensive way so that it in fact can be compared to the works undergraduates read on the history of the Western Tradition, allowing them to make such comparisons. I was hoping precisely for a response such as yours.

Some early readers looked at it and said it didn’t have to be so comprehensive, noted that there’s a lot of repetition, and suggested that perhaps I should have packaged it in smaller articles: a chapter on Goethe reception, and another chapter on Wagner, etc.. But I held out for a comprehensive approach, and my editor — Michael Watson at Cambridge University Press — agreed.

That said, it’s not just a chronological recreation of what the Völkischer Beobachter said from day to day, or even a chronological presentation of Western Civ from the Greeks up to Nazi contemporaries. I integrated a thematic analysis into the survey in order to give readers an analytical basis for interpreting the material. But I did want [readers] to see it all, and experience precisely that repetition — to experience how [the VB writers] hit the same themes over and over, although in different ways and contexts. That was part of the strategy and technique of what Hitler called “the art of propaganda” –fundamental to what he felt was effective: and it did turn out to effective. Germans would hear and read these things over and over — and you can imagine that they might become used to learning that “so-and-so” was a nationalist, that “so-and-so” was a militarist, and that “so-and-so” was an anti-Semite. The reiteration of such sloganeering was at the base of Nazi propagandaand the party’s use of cultural references.

That’s the Nazi Big Lie in practice.

To be sure: a high-cultural version of it, but drawn from the same basic principles. I start many of the chapters with quotations from Mein Kampf – rather than the most recent “historiographical theory” — because I wanted it to be accessible to a general audience. I picked pithy statements from Hitler and Goebbels where they announced their views and what they intended to do with them. They were clear about these things. The material that follows is quite consistent with the main themes that they set out.

Indeed, people won’t be unfamiliar with what they read here, but it adds nuance, showing very specifically how they applied this method in the cultural sphere, and, for instance, precisely how they made Goethe out to be a Germanic patriot/anti-Semite, or how they made Mozart out to be more a Romantic than a Classicist. The book shows the nuance that Hitler’s minions formulated in a cultural-intellectual version of what [Ian] Kershaw has called “working toward the Fuhrer.”

Most of these articles were written by nonentities, along with a few known Nazi leaders and also some leading scholars. Part of the story is that academics were undeniably involved and the recent scholarship on the history of National Socialism correctly points a condemning finger at many literature professors, historians, scientists, psychologists, and so forth, who collaborated in this cultural-historical propaganda effort.

The other part of the story is that many of these articles were produced by nonentities, and that’s actually more interesting because the tricky part of reception history is how to get closer, closer, closer to what the average person on the street thinks, and what is the connection between their lives, politics, and high culture. Many of these lesser known — or anonymous — contributors were probably contracted to write a tribute article on a birth- or death-day — or some other occasion — and in doing so they worked to fit these figures into Nazi ideology, as generally stipulated by the party leadership. It is a two-way process, in this sense, and therefore an interesting example of “reception” historiography.

I don’t know if we’ll ever bridge the gap completely. Carlo Ginzburg may have come as close as you can in The Cheese and the Worms because he found a document by a barely literate individual in the sixteenth-century writing about his world perspective, but it’s rare that you have such ”access” to the average world view.

By going into the newspaper and paying attention to the work by nonentities, [who were] intellectuals, but writing for a popular audience, we get a little bit closer — perhaps not exactly to what average Germans thought, but at least to what they believed they were supposed to think.

How did you choose to look at Völkischer Beobachter – there were probably other Nazi publications? What was Völkischer Beobachter and who read it?

It was the primary daily newspaper of the party, period Subsequently, the Nazis took over other papers, but theVölkischer Beobachter was the main mouthpiece for the party from the earliest days. As early as 1920, Hitler already said he knew how powerful a newspaper was. Essentially, he said that the meetings and rallies weren’t enough: you need a newspaper. He got funding to buy a weekly, but they quickly transformed it to the daily Nazi paper.

Originally, it was a party rag, so you probably mainly have party members reading it. But it competed with all of the other papers. In Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, his main character sells papers and, at one point, he sells the Völkischer Beobachter. He’s representative of a naïve, average guy on the street who read of all of the newspapers that were available, including this one. So, the Völkischer Beobachter was among the surfeit of newspapers that were part of the Weimar political and cultural scene.

But, as the Nazis come to power, it became the newspaper. Party members were required to subscribe and expected to read it. Another was Der Sturmer, but that was not an official Nazi organ. Goebbels started one more, Der Angriff, in Berlin which was not really a full form daily.

The Völkischer Beobachter became a full daily that had news, sports, weather, crossword puzzles — the gamut of what is a daily newspaper, and not just a political rag. Ultimately, of course, you could read other papers that were seized and subsequently Nazified, but the Völkischer Beobachter conveyed the main editorial line for the party, as Jeffrey Herf has articulated in his analysis of the anti-Semitism expressed in its the front-page political stories. It was the main media outlet during the Nazi period.

It’s stunning how the Nazis used the Völkischer Beobachter to twist some of the most humane and tolerant figures of the Western tradition into their ideology.

The value of my analysis of this publication is that it gives the reader an indication of how the Nazis attempted to appropriate every major recognizable figure in the Western tradition, from the Ancients on. They don’t write as much as one might expect about the Classics, but they do discuss Socrates in negative terms and they analyze Alexander the Great as making a mistake in trying to put together a multiracial empire. They don’t like the Roman Empire, which is somewhat surprising. Rather than as a predecessor to their own “Reich,” they see ancient Rome as a decadent precursor to Weimar society.

Things really kick in with the Renaissance and the Reformation. They targeted what they call the German Renaissance, especially on [Albrecht] Durer and [Martin] Luther, as the start of their tradition and generally move forward from there.

In thinking about all this, it is important to remember that there was a Germanic version of Western culture in place that the Nazis tapped into. They were not constructing this historical view afresh. Its formulation began with the Wars the Liberation and the Romantic effort to formulate a German identity in cultural and historical terms, as well as other things, before there was a unified German state.

So you had a Germanic spin on tradition that was operating already in the nineteenth century, and people like Houston Stewart Chamberlain wrote well before Hitler came around that the great Italian Renaissance painters like Michelangelo and Leonardo were probably Nordic, so they could be included in this Germanic cultural sphere.

That was their first main theme. They wanted to demonstrate that these great figures were of Germanic/Nordic/Aryan blood. Then they wanted to show them to have been politically oriented, because of the view that art should be dedicated to the nation. So they looked for signs of patriotism and militarism broadly defined, whether Florentine patriotism on the part of Dante or German patriotism on the part of Luther. In addition, they wanted to show that even though these heroes were intellectual, they were still in touch with the Volk. They couldn’t be presented as too snobbish because that would come too close to the arid, urbane Jewish intellectualism that Völkisch ideology derided.

Then, of course, each of these figures was analyzed for signs of anti-Semitism. Contributors to the paper ferreted out any indication — any letter, conversation, record — that they could find indicating that a person like Goethe or Luther had articulated anti-Semitic values. If it wasn’t expressed in racialist terms—but rather, religious or “mere” cultural terms — the paper would quickly say that these early figures understood the “Jewish Problem,” but they were just too early to understand that it was actually a biological problem.

Of course, that’s the big shift that George Mosse showed to be the difference between earlier forms of anti-Semitism and what becomes Nazi hatred toward Jews. Völkischer Beobachter contributors always wrote, in these cultural-historical articles, that it was a mistake to think anti-Semitism was a religious or a cultural issue but instead had to be understood as a biological issue. So they used this “cultural” material, to a degree, as a conceptual preparative for what would be their eliminationist policies.

That gets to the use of these great figures of tolerance to support arguments that led to the Holocaust as well as the eugenics and the rationale for destruction of the weak and the mentally ill and enemies of the state.

Yes, it pertains to all of this. Houston Stewart Chamberlain was arguing similar things at the end of the nineteenth century and Hitler picked up such ideas. It was nothing new, but the German race [to the Völkisch right and ultimately many Nazis] was the only creative race, so all of the great creators had to be shown to be Germanic or Aryan or Nordic, no matter whether they happened to have existed in ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, or even Enlightenment France; if they were creative, they were German.

On the opposite end, the “others,” mainly the Jews, were identified as the destroyers of culture — at best imitative of their “host” cultures, but usual conspiratorial. They insinuated themselves into German society by very cleverly learning to imitate, and by imitating, they gradually gained control — at least in a financial sense. The big example they used is Heinrich Heine. Because he saw and lashed out sarcastically at so many problems in their germinal stage at the beginning of the nineteenth century, including anti-Semitism and romanticized nationalism and so forth, Heine gave them a lot of ammunition they could use to say “Here is the Jew incarnate. He’s written beautiful poetry but that’s just a phony, imitative step. He’s sarcastic and in the end, he will turn against us and use our own culture as weapon to destroy our tradition.”

So, the paper vilified Heine as the enemy incarnate and implied that all Jews are as wily and clever and duplicitous as Nazis thought he was. And frankly it took the German nation until his bicentennial in 1997 to acknowledge what a great figure he was, when they pulled out the stops for a tremendous tribute to him.

It’s clear, then, that anti-Semitism is present throughout the cultural coverage of the Völkischer Beobachter. Specific material about eugenics and the weeding out of the disabled in general shows up in a couple of places within the Beethoven material, where they debated about his alcoholic father. This may come as a surprise, but that’s one of the diseases the Nazis worried about and there were some arguments that, under their policies, Beethoven’s father would have been a candidate for sterilization or elimination. Therefore, some argued, you wouldn’t have a Beethoven. As a result, contributors to the paper went through all sorts of tortuous argumentation that Beethoven’s father wasn’t actually an alcoholic, or that he wouldn’t have been sterilized since people drink a lot of beer in the Rhineland, so he really wasn’t out of context, etc.

And was there any indication that others had a physical or racial limits like Beethoven’s father?

With Richard Wagner, there were rumors that he may have been the son of his mother’s second husband, who was thought by some to have been Jewish. That’s patently not true, but this was a problem for the Nazis, and they go at it with both barrels saying that it was all part a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the honor of this great German character.

This said, Wagner figures prominently throughout all the cultural coverage of the Völkischer Beobachter. Of course, today there’s an ongoing debate about whether we should or shouldn’t listen to Wagner, and whether we should even respect him as a creator because of his anti-Semitism. My job as a historian of reception isn’t to argue one way or another, but to show very clearly what the Nazis actually said or didn’t say about Wagner.

In previous articles, I’ve written that they did not say that Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger was a Jew, despite the fact that some people interpret his features in Jewish stereotypical terms. But the Völkischer Beobachterdid run a series of articles where they correlate the Ring cycle with everything that happened in Germany from the Wilhelmine period to the First World War. They’re actually quite hard on [Kaiser] Wilhelm II, comparing his mistakes with those supposedly committed by Wotan. And in these articles, it is clear that the Nibelungen are ciphers for the Jews and the Jewish threat. So here, Nazis did say that the opera and its music itself was indicative of Wagner’s agreement with their anti-Semitic views.

The other thing they do with Wagner is very strongly emphasize his political writings. He did write Judaism in Music and published it twice: first anonymously and then under his own name. On the other hand, they leave out his operating as an early socialist and emphasize the aspects of his politics that represent a more Völkisch agenda. In any case, Wagner is everywhere in Völkischer Beobachter cultural coverage. Every major thematic section in the book includes portions showing how they used Wagner and the Bayreuth festivals as symbolic references for their basic claims.

The Nazis go through contortions with almost every major figure in Western history. With Beethoven, they have to ignore his humanism and his opposition to tyranny.

Without a doubt, the Beethoven case is difficult for them. The other one they have to really work on is Goethe. One of the lessons from all of this is a recognition that, in most cases, it’s not a process of fabrication, but usually one of selective biography. They generally take words out of context such as offhand comments about Jews and so on. For instance, Goethe said some things about intermarriage that they latched onto. They would argue that, because of the supposed Jewish conspiracy, these passages had been extricated from the record, and they were doing the world a service by restoring them. Then they said that not only were these passages important, but they were central to what thought. Arguably, the Western tradition did de-emphasize those aspects of these figures. We don’t want to know that Goethe or anyone else had moments of anti-Semitic bile. Ithas been underplayed, but they make it central to the Western cultural tradition — a main theme of its greatest creative figures.

For the record, though, they did not indicate that Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart were anti-Semitic. They couldn’t find anything on them. But, believe me, if they could have found it, they would have used it. Regarding Beethoven in particular, my first book goes into much greater depth about this, showing that every major political group in Germany battled over the rights to Beethoven, from the far left to the far right. For instance, you can say that his initial respect for Napoleon was because Napoleon embodied principles of the Enlightenment and a revolutionary shift toward an elite based on talent. Or, you can say that he liked Napoleon because he was a Fuhrer-type — a leader who provided order and was a great general (leaving out the moment when Beethoven throws down the manuscript of Eroica and complains that Napoleon was a tyrant like all the others).

The Völkischer Beobachter did acknowledge that figures we consider “humanists,” such as Schiller and Beethoven, were initially enamored with the French Revolution, but also that when they saw the real implications of the Revolution, they changed their opinions. That’s not altogether wrong, but if you’re writing from the position of the far right, you just emphasize that part and leave out the rest.

And they use Shakespeare by selectively reading The Merchant of Venice?

That’s a good example of the contributors combing the Western tradition for things they could use. In their view, Shakespeare is the playwright of probably the fullest representation of the Jew as moneylender capable of great cruelty. They also ran through his other plays and found every line in which a character voiced anti-Semitic views. So, for them, Shakespeare is political — in the sense that he wrote the great History Plays — but he’s also anti-Semitic. Similarly, they use Dickens to the extent of reprinting the whole of Oliver Twist. That surely wasn’t because Dickens was condemning social policies in London. It was clearly because of the character Fagin [the Jew].

It was odd to me that the Nazis embraced the Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch yet rejected German Expressionists such as Beckmann, Dix and Grosz as “degenerate.”

The fact is that they are inconsistent in many cases. One has to be used to that hypocrisy and paradox in studying ideologically based material like this — the same is true through the nineteenth-century iterations of bookish thought, as well as in the actual policies of the Nazis.

One the one hand, they condemned social realists outright, but on the other hand they write very positive things about artists whom we might identify as social realists in the German tradition — because they’re writing about the Volk. There’s a tension there. They don’t like Gerhart Hauptmann and they don’t like Heinrich Mann, whom we’d put in the realist category. But they do like people like Theodor Fontane, for example.

As far as the Expressionists, the essence of the issue is that, compared to bona fide Realists whom they don’t like because they’re dealing with the economy from a leftist perspective, or Impressionism, which they considered French and superficial, Expressionists seemed to emphasize the spiritual, soulful, Germanic tradition which is an extension of Romanticism. So they do celebrate people like Arnold Böcklin whom they consider as continuing the inquiry into the German soul in terms that we might call neo-romantic.

However, because of this, Emil Nolde [an Expressionist] was shocked when he was rejected and ostracized by the Nazis. He thought he could work with the Nazis and they would embrace his work because he was painting the German landscape and the German soul. But he was surprised, instead, to be associated with Beckmann and Dix and Grosz who were doing what we call Expressionist painting within the city, revealing what Nazis considered the degeneracy of Weimar in what they called “asphalt culture.”

So, Expressionists could be seen as an extension of the German romantic tradition or just as easily associated with urban, modernist art. [Ernst Ludwig] Kirchner was a bit of both: showing kept women or even prostitutes shopping in Berlin, as well as little nymphets splashing around in water. Then think of Grosz and what he was doing when aligned with the Dadaists and leftist intellectuals. Otto Dix was clearly disaffected coming out of the First World War, and they didn’t like him either. And Beckmann showed the decadent world of the clubs and other aspects of German nightlife. From the Nazi perspective, those artists were degenerate. Nolde was lumped together with them. That inconsistency is part of the record, and if he couldn’t sort it out, I don’t think we can completely either. This material simply specifies how it played out.

We know that Goebbels himself thought the Expressionists were all right and, in fact, their art exists today because he didn’t have it destroyed: he knew the value of it and secretly sold it. Overall, the Völkischer Beobachter record on this issue makes it clear that “Nazi Culture” was not as monolithic as we often make it out to be. There were plenty of inconsistencies and contradictions and outright disagreements as this supposedly stable “world view” was cobbled together from all the elements of Western cultural history.

The First World War looms large in much of the literature the Nazis condemned, except for Ernst Jünger and a few others.

There’s no doubt that the memory of the First World War is central to Nazi self-identification and, indeed, Hitler’s own self-identification. People like George Grosz, Otto Dix and especially Erich Maria Remarque were condemned as shirkers and traitors and their works were opportunities for the Völkischer Beobachter to tap into the despair of German veterans who were never able to reconcile themselves to the fact that they had lost the war. Of course the veterans had sacrificed, and we have to put this in that context. If you’re a veteran and you went through all that, but you’re later told that your friends and comrades died for nothing, it is a difficult pill to swallow. The Nazis showed how powerful it was for them to effectively tap into the romanticization of war and to highlight writers who did that. Ernst Jünger and a few others looked for an ennobling justification for suffering that war brought — claiming that they had overcome the horrors of the storm of steel in Beethovenian romantic style. So the paper did promote him and others who wrote about the war in a similar vein.

That also meant that when they went after artists like Remarque, they took advantage of a very powerful media opportunity. They got a lot of press for leading demonstrations, along with veterans’ groups, against the publication [in 1929] of his [antiwar novel] All Quiet on the Western Front. Then, when the movie came out shortly after, with a German Jewish film producer, Carl Laemmle, the Nazis went nuts –and they got a lot of press for doing so. They went to the theaters and demonstrated and used these stunts to gain attention. Even George Mosse said that when he was a teen, he went to the movie in Berlin, and was there when the Nazis released white rats and mice in the theater. At this time, the Nazis were just starting to gain momentum — they were by no means the dominant party — but they were able to get a lot of attention by disrupting movie openings, so it was perfect for them.

They also went after George Grosz in a blasphemy trial for a drawing of a crucified soldier wearing a gas mask. He was found not guilty but the Nazis went crazy over that cultural “cause” too. In the music world, there was a similar controversy over Ernst Krenek’s modern opera that used jazz idioms and featured a character in blackface who plays a saxophone and interacts with white women. It was called Johnny Strikes Up [the Band], and the Nazis went berserk when it opened. It was a popular show at the time, but the Nazis led demonstrations trying to shut it down. So they definitely used these cultural events as a means of drawing attention to themselves.

That brings things around. Culture is central to what the Nazis were doing — not just in the publicity sense. From the start they perceived themselves not just as a political movement, and not just as an anti-Semitic movement, but as the keeper and protector of the German cultural tradition. The historiography has made it clear that Hitler perceived himself first as an artist, then as a soldier, and only later as a politician. He consistently speaks of his world view and plans in cultural terms and his followers either shared that view, or “worked toward it” by constructing a version of the German past that was the model for what would be the German future under his leadership.

\What was the most surprising aspect of your work on this material?

We think of Nazism as a hateful and incomparably destructive ideology, and obviously we’re justified in doing so. But the most surprising and terrible aspects of my findings are indications that, at least among the true believers, Nazis wrought destruction in the interest of something they perceived as creative. They were invoking the Western cultural past — identified as Germanic — as a means to provide people with an image of Germany that could be revived after a period of crisis. They had lost the war. The economy was in shambles. And the vision of the future that they offered was based on this version of the creative past. Ultimately, they kill in the name of beauty, which is shocking to realize. But, it was generally consistent with the fact that Germans at the beginning of the nineteenth century — who weren’t politically unified, who were spread out over central Europe, and who had to base their sense of unity on something other than physical borders–did so by constructing an identity around culture and language and music, promoting themselves as the land of the poets and composers and thinkers. The Nazis tapped into that construct explicitly and, I’m afraid, effectively.

Is there anything you would like to add or mention in terms of the resonance of your work now?

First, I think people have to recognize the power of the media as ideological tools rather than “objective” sources of information. We are now getting more used to this idea because of the multiplicity of news sources today. On a global scale, it is becoming more and more like Weimar society was in that we have countless channels of opinionated news casting, much like the wide range of newspapers that confronted Germans on the streets of Berlin and Munich. We’re getting accustomed to the idea that a newspaper — or cable broadcasting system, or web site — isn’t just presenting the news. It’s usually presenting an opinionated perspective. Given this, we have to be careful neither to be swayed too much by one or another media outlet, nor to let ourselves succumb to feelings of helpless “confusion.” Both of these responses do nothing but serve the interests of extremists on all sides.

And second, if we look at the experiences of the Nazi era in Germany and simply demonize the perpetrators — as supernatural forces of evil capable of “brainwashing” the masses — then we’ll never really be able to understand how something so horrible could come about. It is by no means a matter of condoning their acts, but it is necessary to try to understand how real people came to form such views. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to really understand what took place then — or how to avoid similar mistakes and horrors.

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Review in Reviews in History (UK)

‘Inhumane propaganda, humanely analysed?

Helen Roche, Review of David B. Dennis’ Inhumanities. Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Forthcoming in Reviews in History.

For the past few years, David B. Dennis has had the unenviable task of steeping himself in the (turgid, yet strangely compelling) prose of the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party’s major propaganda organ, and the Third Reich’s daily paper of choice. The result is a synoptic compendium of National Socialist thought on major cultural and artistic figures, which is both chilling in the delusion it reveals, and startling in its originality. Startling in particular because – as Dennis claims – this key resource for scholars of Nazi thought and propaganda has apparently barely received any scholarly attention to date (p. 4; p. 466, n. 8).

In many ways, this volume offers the reader a veritable treasure-trove of Nazi absurdities – ranging from swastika-shaped crosswords (p. 4) and analysis of Bach’s personality as the product of ‘the “best hereditary powers of a healthy species”’ (p. 25), to attempts to attribute Brahms’s and Wagner’s long-standing personal enmity to “Jewish hatefulness” (pp.270-1), and the characterisation of Heine as a plagiarist, pornographer, necrophiliac, “muckraker”, “thug”, “communist”, “soul of s***”, or even a stinking, poisonous “swamp” (pp. 112-20). Meanwhile, every single (non-Jewish) German artist, composer and intellectual seems to be in constant competition for the coveted title of “the first great völkisch thinker”, in a riotous profusion of contradiction and irrationality (e.g. pp. 142, 177).

However, there is something deeply depressing about the way in which such Nazified ideology and language became so tragically widespread, creeping into every last crevice of intellectual life. ‘Political correctness’ during the Third Reich was so totally at odds with that of our own age, that there is a danger that immersion in such ideas and language can merely feel distasteful (or even deranged). Yet, as Dennis points out, we should guard against ‘the urge to refuse to acknowledge…that “anyone could believe all this” and recognise that the purveyors of Nazism firmly – or, in their word, unshakeably – thought that they were bringing about political revolution, cultural achievement, and spiritual order’ (p. 454). If fanatical National Socialists really took these outpourings seriously, so the argument runs, then in order fully to understand the regime and its excesses, we must do so too.[1]

In general terms, Inhumanities aims to provide an exploration and analysis of the ways in which those journalists and academics who contributed to the Völkischer Beobachter between 1920 and 1945 appropriated figures from Western intellectual and cultural history, in an attempt to legitimise their racial and ideological Weltanschauung with a veneer of Bildung. In his introduction, Dennis asserts that:

Tracing precisely what Völkischer Beobachter writers asserted about their favourite masters and about those they despised makes clear how the party tried to convince readers that Nazism offered not just political renewal but cultural advancement, while at the same time advocating the destruction of Jews along with other perceived opponents. (p. 2)

The work as a whole is divided into five parts, the content of which broadly advances chronologically through the periods of cultural history which the paper appropriated (though there is a certain amount of overlap, particularly between the first section and those which follow). Part I, entitled ‘Foundations of Nazi Cultural History’, is conceived as an explication of the ‘conceptual framework’ promoted by the paper’s contributions on culture (p. 5), stressing in particular the dogma that all high culture had to originate in the völkisch impulse, and that all the greatest figures in the Western cultural tradition were political, patriotic, anti-urban and anti-Semitic. Whenever there was any suspicion that a revered German artist might have the slightest taint of Jewish blood, this had to be explained away with all due haste and vehemence, while famous foreign artists (such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt) concomitantly had to be recast as suitably Germanic, or at least of German descent. Meanwhile, the writings of figures such as Luther, Shakespeare and Goethe were scoured with (un)scrupulous diligence, in search of passages which could be interpreted as fittingly anti-Semitic. Any Jewish artist of note, such as Mendelssohn or Heine, had to be recast as a ‘cynical, opportunistic imitator’, and ultimately a ‘destroyer’ of true German culture (pp. 106-7).

Part II, ‘Blind to the Light’, explores variously the Völkischer Beobachter’s responses to the Classics, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. Perhaps surprisingly, given the generally positive attitude of the leaders of the Nazi regime towards ancient models, and the philhellenist tendencies of many Nazi activists and educators,[2] ancient historical and literary figures apparently suffered relatively short shrift in the cultural pages of the Völkischer Beobachter. Moving forwards in time, contributors displayed remorseless criticism of enlightened and “French” revolutionary thought, preferring to promote Romantic culture, which was seen as fundamentally anticipating National Socialist tastes and values, particularly in those “steely” forms of Romanticism which had emerged in response to the Wars of Liberation (p. 175). Meanwhile, Enlightenment figures of Jewish descent were, predictably, ‘despised as the originators of the modern Jewish-intellectual conspiracy’ (p. 144), while reformers and early nationalists such as Fichte and Herder were heralded as “Prophets of National Socialism” (p. 142).

Part III, ‘Modern Dilemmas’, explores the paper’s hostility towards modernism, and its attitudes towards important post-romantic cultural figures. The Romantic tradition had to be presented as eternally valid, whilst all modernist developments had to be refuted at all costs. Thus:

Völkischer Beobachter contributors rejected the realism of Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hauptmann, and Heinrich Mann as irrelevant relics of the past at best, and as threatening instigators of revolution at worst. Simultaneously, in the works of Dickens, Raabe, Storm, and Freytag they applauded a realism that remained “full of warm love for the soul of the Volk,” while conveying warnings and reminders about the Jewish threat. (p. 229)

To this end, the paper even reprinted Dickens’ Oliver Twist in serial form between March and August 1923, almost certainly because of the way in which Fagin the Jew was characterised within its pages (p. 226).

Finally, parts IV and V (respectively entitled ‘“Holy” War and Weimar “Crisis”’ and ‘Nazi “Solutions”’) bring us up-to-date with the 20th-century present. Part IV chronicles the paper’s responses to Great War novels, jazz, and other aspects of literature, art and music in the Weimar Republic (see further below). The paper’s authors attempted to insinuate that great figures of the cultural past would most assuredly have joined them in condemning the new Republic’s modernist excesses (p. 308), and tended ‘to treat the leading artists of the inter-war era as fixated on distortion, intent on undermining order and security, and overly inspired by shadowy race-based influences’ (p. 346). The paper was confident that, ‘while the reputation of a ‘“true German like Händel” would live on for another 200 years, it was doubtful that anyone would ever hear or say anything about Schoenberg in the year 2128’ (p. 356). The chapters in Part V, meanwhile, chart the course of what Dennis terms the Third Reich’s ‘stillborn renaissance’ (p. 384), a much-bruited “renaissance of humanity” which was supposed to enable Germans not only truly to appreciate the cultural achievements of the past, but also to bring forth new great artists as creators of the burgeoning National Socialist tradition (Arno Breker or Josef Thorak being seen as cases in point). Needless to say, none of the ideologically-influenced work of this cadre of Nazi artists, authors and composers has stood the test of time, except as an obscure monument to the utter folly and inadequacy of the Nazi ‘renaissance’.

This is undoubtedly a work of great scope and originality, and the further comments below should not in any way be seen as detracting from this. Nevertheless, it is only fair to warn prospective readers that the volume as a whole does suffer from some serious methodological flaws, two of which are only briefly touched upon at the book’s very end, and one of which is never resolved adequately at all.

Firstly, one might ask whether the (for the most part) relentless synchronicity of Dennis’ approach does in fact leave some salient questions unanswered.[3] If so, then one cannot avoid taking issue with the work’s monolithic, undifferentiated picture of the National Socialist Weltanschauungsbild, which (apart from a few exceptions, as mentioned below) extends from the early 1920s all the way through to 1945, without any distinction being made between interpretations from different periods. For instance – and this is a particularly clear, but by no means the only, example – in his discussion of attitudes to Mozart on pp. 157-8, Dennis flits from 1941 to 1923, to 1934, to 1929, back to 1934, on to 1942, and back to 1929, all in the space of three paragraphs.[4] It seems hard to believe that, between the early Kampfzeit and the war years, the propagandistic use of Mozart had existed in a kind of vacuum, with no stimulus whatsoever from current events. However, even if this is the case, then it needs to be proved definitively, rather than simply skimming from decade to decade, picking out the juiciest propagandistic examples for rhetorical effect (cf. p. 531, n.4). Did the reception of all these figures really remain unchanged over the 25 years of the paper’s existence, both pre- and post-Gleichschaltung?

For instance, it would be fascinating to know whether attitudes to Heine changed significantly in the run-up to the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws; were there more articles on Heine and other Jewish figures, with a more hostile bent, during this period? Did propaganda tropes generally tend to vacillate in accordance with changes in National Socialist governmental policy? Even if the answer to all these questions is ‘no’, that in itself would still be a very interesting and important point to make.

Four of the nineteen chapters, however, work far better: those in Part IV (“Holy” War and Weimar “Crisis”), and the final chapter, ‘Kultur at War’. These are the sections in which Dennis’ analysis bears some connection both to an overarching historical narrative, and also to current affairs; articles are seen as responses to specific events, rather than simply being lumped together in an achronic vacuum. Thus, his discussion of the Völkischer Beobachter’s coverage of Ernst Jünger’s Storms of Steel and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (including the scandal which arose over the Hollywood film adaptation) in Chapter 13 (‘Heralds of the Front Experience’), is far more effective because of the way in which the articles he analyses are clearly rooted in – and a response to – particular historico-cultural incidents which were crucial in defining and constructing post-WWI mentalités. Similarly, the selection of material in Chapter 15 (Weimar Culture Wars 2: Combating “Degeneracy”), which charts attitudes to ‘asphalt literati’ such as Heinrich and Thomas Mann, “so-called” scientists (Einstein), the blasphemous art of George Grosz, and Ernst Krenek’s “nigger-jazz-opera”, Jonny spielt auf, works very well, because it is generally time-limited to the later Weimar Republic, clearly charting changing cultural attitudes to the figures under discussion throughout the period. Finally, in Chapter 18, Dennis does successfully fulfil his promise on p. 403 – to ‘show how the thematic trajectory of the Völkischer Beobachter’s cultural section closely followed the war experience from the first stages of the war, through the Stalingrad debacle, to the final days of the regime.’[5] The clarity with which the reader can perceive the vicissitudes of WWII providing the catalyst for the articles which Dennis discusses is extremely effective, and works far better – both structurally and stylistically – than much of the rest of his narrative. One is even left wondering whether these chapters are the sole surviving remnants of a previous incarnation of the work, in which cultural developments in the paper were all considered in the context of real ‘historical’ time. Indeed, this might well have been a more effective way of structuring the volume as a whole.

The two other major points which should be mentioned here both have their root in the fact that most of the methodological discussion – which is of paramount importance for a fair evaluation of the analysis which Dennis presents – can only be found in the work’s final, concluding chapter. It almost seems as if much of the material which had originally been intended for the introduction has been moved wholesale to the end of the book, in order not to put off potential non-academic readers. If the exclusion of this material from the introduction – and its concomitant relegation to the conclusion – has been motivated by CUP’s wish to market the book in a more ‘popular’ fashion, however, it is an unmitigated failure, since it denies any reader the means to judge the material with which they are to be presented throughout the book fairly and realistically.[6]

Firstly, the paper is generally presented as a single, unified voice, with little attention given to different contributors’ status or background. This gives the impression that the Völkischer Beobachter was a many-headed (or many-penned) Hydra, with all contributors toeing exactly the same party line; the fact that different authors might actually disagree with each other is very seldom raised (for a rare example, see p. 149). While Dennis mentions briefly on pp. 8-9 that the contributors included editors, staff members and freelancers, he does not mention here the fact that we do not know who many of these were (cf. p. 459). Therefore, as I continued to read, I became progressively more and more irritated by the fact that, for every instance where a named contributor’s background was given, there were several more instances where the words were either attributed solely to the paper, or a contributor’s name was given without any explanation or context (e.g. pp. 152-4, 252-3 – who were the mysterious Heinz Henckel and Ernst Nickell?). Only on p. 459 (which is not directly cited in the introduction) did I discover the cause:

Of the articles cited in the text, 50 percent were written by one or another of 159 authors whom I have managed to track down. The other half were written either by anonymous authors (32 percent) or by authors whom I have not been able to place (18 percent)…

Better late than never, perhaps – but the initial reading would have been far more profitable if such a caveat had been explicitly stated in the introduction.[7]

Secondly, and more importantly, we come to the way in which the material from the articles themselves is presented. Dennis tends overwhelmingly to quote tiny snippets of the articles in question, so that we very rarely see their rhetoric and style at work in context; rather, their manifest absurdities are piled up on each other artificially. This is a stylistic problem as well as a methodological one, since the constant punctuation of the flow of the sentences with an interminable series of double quotes is disruptive to the eye. Just to take an example at random (on Edvard Munch’s supposedly “Nordic” artistic spirit):

While the “highest aspiration of Latins” was applying aesthetic theory, Germans demanded “intellectual and spiritual content as an essential component of art.” In this sense, [Thilo] Schoder felt, Munch’s realism was “typically” Nordic-Germanic: “sturdy, without intellectual refinement, without theoretical background, without aesthetic doctrine.” He wanted people to “feel the sacred in” his works “so strongly that they would remove their hats, like in church.” (p. 246)

I would argue that, by “snippetising” as much as he does, Dennis risks the very thing he hopes to avoid – texts being constantly perceived “in inverted commas” – too bizarre for anyone to have ever taken seriously. This experience is somewhat akin to that of being offered a series of canapés, but never a square meal; one is also often left wondering whether the text really meant what it is being ‘made to say’ in context. This difficulty is even further compounded if the reader has the good fortune to find, hidden away in a footnote half-way through the conclusion, an absolutely crucial piece of information concerning Dennis’ criteria for selecting his material:

Regarding the mass of articles that I processed, I should point out that I have focused my efforts on those sections which did place a Nazi “spin” on the cultural-historical subject at hand, according to the main ideological concepts outlined above. To be sure, not every article in the Völkischer Beobachter involved such interpretations and not every column of each cited article was as exploitative as the passages I have discussed. (p. 531, n. 4)

This, of all explanations, should have been brought to the fore from the very beginning. For, suddenly, we realise that the excerpts with which we have been presented for the past 400-and-something pages are not necessarily representative at all, but have been carefully mined for their ideological extremism.[8] We might even go so far as to wonder whether Dennis himself has become akin to the ‘plundering soldier’ of his initial Nietzschean epigraph (which he presumably sees as applying to the paper’s contributors rather than to himself): ‘The worst readers are those who act like plundering soldiers: they take a few things they can use, dirty and tangle up the rest…’ (p. vii). Quoting more, longer, extracts (even if these had to be drawn from fewer articles), and allowing readers some space to draw their own conclusions, would have made the book a much more satisfying read, and would ultimately have made its arguments far more compelling.

Finally, the work’s self-proclaimed mission to elucidate the cultural politics of the Völkischer Beobachter for as wide an audience as possible (p. 5) would ultimately be far more convincing if the volume a) contained a bibliography of any kind, and b) notified its readers of how access to the paper might actually be obtained, whether on microfilm, or in physical form. Incidentally, the further reading detailed in the endnotes often seems rather arbitrary, and there is a real dearth of secondary citations outside quite a narrow range. Thus, to take one example, classic works on the Nazi reception of figures such as Goethe and Schiller, including the relevant sections of Karl Robert Mandelkow’s Goethe in Deutschland: Rezeptionsgeschichte eines Klassikers (Munich 1989), and Nicholas Martin’s 2006 article on ‘Images of Schiller in National Socialist Germany’ (in N. Martin, ed., Schiller: National Poet – Poet of Nations, Amsterdam, pp. 275-99) are not mentioned in the endnotes at all. Additionally, while lesser-known paintings and artworks are generally supplied with adequate historical context, and are often themselves reproduced in the text (the rich variety of illustrations is one of the book’s most attractive features), lesser-known composers and intellectual figures are sometimes given disappointingly little introduction. For example, even the present author (a sometime musician, raised in a family of musicologists) had not the slightest idea who the composer Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) was, and a straw poll among musician colleagues revealed the same result. No background on the composer is given, except the fact that he resisted modernistic innovation in music; instead, we are immediately launched into the Völkischer Beobachter’s coverage of his work (pp. 279-82) – here is a classic example of a place where a discursive footnote with references to some further reading, even if only the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, would be invaluable. It is also never made clear whether Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina – to which the paper apparently ‘devoted most space’ – concerns the composer or the place (it is actually a celebration of the composer, but the discussion on pp. 280-1 never reveals enough information for one to be sure). It also seems unlikely that many less musically-minded readers would have heard of less obscure musical figures such as Franz Schreker or Max Reger (who suffers from a similar dearth of background information – cf. pp. 277-9). One might even wonder whether the volume was originally intended for a more specifically musicological audience, with the subsequent inclusion of a much wider range of artists and intellectuals representing a later development in the book’s overall conception (cf. p. 469, n. 23).

Nevertheless, despite these deficiencies, this is ultimately a work which demands serious attention. Whatever else, Inhumanities is an important, interesting, and thought-provoking book, which is valuable in particular for its dissection and exemplification not just of Nazi propaganda, but of the National Socialist Weltanschauung. Not only should this volume be extremely useful to scholars of the Third Reich, but one can only hope that it will inspire many scholars to come,[9] provoking a spate of further exploration into the murky, yet strangely fascinating, depths of National Socialist journalism.

[1] Though the author’s claims to this effect in the work’s concluding paragraph, where he suggests that these cultural attitudes may have concretely contributed to ‘the transformation of some ordinary Germans into murderers’ (p. 463), are perhaps somewhat overstated.

[2] For more on this, see e.g. H.B.E. Roche, Sparta’s German Children: The ideal of ancient Sparta in the Royal Prussian Cadet Corps, 1818-1920, and in National Socialist elite-schools (the Napolas), 1933-1945, Swansea 2013, pp. 16, 22-5, 188-245; also H.B.E. Roche, ‘“Anti-Enlightenment”: National Socialist educators’ troubled relationship with humanism and the philhellenist tradition’, Publications of the English Goethe Society, 82.3, 2013, forthcoming.

[3] Dennis terms this approach a ‘chronological tapestry’ (p.5).

[4] Even the ease with which these dates could be ascertained was severely compromised by the infuriating fact that the footnotes only give the date of an article the very first time that it is cited – so that, by the end of the book, one is forced to search the notes to all the previous chapters in order to contextualise almost any given article (the publisher’s house-style is presumably at fault here). It took me about ten minutes to track down one particular date-reference in this section, and others I simply gave up on. At the very least, in the glaring absence of a comprehensive bibliography (and it should be noted that promising a complete list of articles on the Loyola University website at some future date [cf. p. 531, n. 4] is no real substitute for this*), it would have been immensely helpful to the reader if the dates of the articles had been repeated the first time that they appeared in each chapter. *N.B. At the time of writing (July 2013), I could find no such bibliography on the university’s website, neither on the home page, (which is given as the reference), on the author’s information pages, or by typing “Inhumanities” or “Inhumanities bibliography” into the website’s search engine.

[5] Though N.B. that some of the articles (such as one on Schopenhauer by Alfred Bäumler, published on 22 February 1938, and cited on p. 411) are not all from the war period as such, but simply contain ‘bellicose…propaganda’ (p. 410).

[6] Moreover, to open the volume with an explication of the work’s starkly propagandistic cover image (currently situated on pp. 452-5) would have been an extraordinarily powerful way to begin – and one far stronger than the depiction of Rosenberg’s speech at the 100th anniversary of Beethoven’s death, more than six whole years before the Machtergreifung – a choice which merely reinforces the impression that the volume was originally conceived as an exploration of the Völkischer Beobachter’s exploitation of ‘German masters’ of music alone.

[7] It is also possible that some of the ‘unplaceable’ contributors might merely have been members of the usual staff using a variety of pseudonyms, in order to lend the paper the impression of drawing on a more diverse pool of talent than it actually possessed.

[8] This also makes a nonsense of the author’s claim, on p. 8, that the work intends ‘to provide a synthesis of thematic analysis and chronological coverage that highlights concepts that transcended individual arts and artists in the ideological symbolism of the party, while approximating the flow that the newspaper’s readers would have experienced through its cultural coverage’ (my emphasis). If only the most ideological passages have been selected for analysis in the first place, then surely this does not approximate the real coverage at all – rather, all shades of grey have been abruptly banished.

[9] For instance, it would be fascinating to explore some of this material within a comparative study of propaganda from other regimes. Is the type of propaganda found in the Völkischer Beobachter qualitatively different from that of, say, Pravda in the USSR? Perhaps, in such a context, wider parallels could be drawn, and deeper ideas about the power of cultural propaganda mined, which do not merely conform to prevalent notions of Nazi exceptionalism.

Bibliographical Database of Völkischer Beobachter Articles on Culture

This database is “under construction.”  It is housed as a “Library” in a Public Group of This will allow you to easily search the listings by tags, especially the names of major creative figures covered in the articles.  For now, this will provide you with the author, title, and date on which the article appeared in the newspaper. You will then need to order a copy via ILL.  I am working to scan all of the articles I collected, and then will add links to those pdfs.

Radio Interview about Inhumanities on Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg

wgn_radio_logoListen to a conversation about the book which occurred on Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg,  Radio 720 WGN, on Wednesday, December 19, 10 pm to midnight.  This was the last interview that Milt Rosenberg did on this show which had run for 39 years! It was an honor to be included on this important American media institution. 


Review of Inhumanities in Maclean’s (Canada)

Maclean’  Review: Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture by Brian Bethune on Friday, December 14, 2012 10:00am

Most people are aware of what the Nazis hated: modern Western culture in general, especially ideals of religious and racial equality, and Jews, seen as the bacillus most responsible for spreading those toxic concepts, in particular. Less well understood is what the Hitlerites admired. The Nazis, or at least the true believers among them, did not see themselves as the murderous nihilists they were, but as defenders of “true”—meaning mystically transmitted by race and blood—Western art and culture. They didn’t just have their cultural enemies—Sigmund Freud, say, who combined Jewish ancestry with repulsive ideas—but their cultural heroes, too, most notably Hitler’s idol, anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner.

Dennis, a historian at Loyola University in Chicago, examined two decades of cultural war as waged by Nazi theorists in their party’s official newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. A lot of what he found, were it the product of basement-dwelling Internet cranks rather than men about to unleash a tide of unparalleled barbarism, would be comic.

Take the case of Beethoven, whom—to Hitler’s disgust—the vast majority of Germans revered far more than Wagner. He was German, all right, but his father was a severe alcoholic and, according to Nazi social policy, should have been sterilized long before he begat Ludwig. Not to worry, Nazi Beethoven devotees, wrote Bonn professor Ludwig Schiedermair. If Johann van Beethoven “gladly drank wine and punch and once in a while offered girls little kisses in jest,” it was only because he was from the alcohol-loving Rhineland, where they understood that sort of zesty living. Foreigners, annoyingly enough, had to be admitted to the pantheon if enough Germans admired them. It helped, of course, if there was any record of anti-Semitic remarks on an outsider’s part: The Merchant of Venice, far more thanHamlet, brought Shakespeare into the fold.

In the end, though, what Dennis found was not comic at all: a long and depressingly successful campaign to convince Germans the Third Reich was the purification of Western civilization, not its antithesis.

Review of Inhumanities in Toronto Globe and Mail

Review of Inhumanities in Toronto Globe and Mail 

 Hitler-era critics said Goya’s paintings of the 1808 Spanish uprising glorified the struggle against invaders.


Interpreting art through a Nazi lens


The Globe and Mail
Published Last updated 
Nazism styled itself as a movement of the future, but was also deeply interested in forging a usable past. In the pages of the party’s Volkischer Beobachter (VB), the main daily newspaper during Hitler’s regime, Nazi arts critics and journalists schooled the masses in the Reich’s view of its own cultural prehistory. In the arts, the party favoured “Volkish” directness over refinement, and gut-level Romanticism over the supposedly more cerebral arts of the Enlightenment. But an artist’s actual work and ideas were no impediment, if his presence was required in the Reich’s pantheon. American historian David B. Dennis analyzed every issue of the VB’s 25 years of Nazi journalism, and distilled the results into his new book, Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture (Cambridge UP). Here are five examples of the contortions VB writers performed to make sure their artists’ club had all the right members.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler said that “all human culture” was produced by Aryans. To fit non-German titans such as Michelangelo into this statement, the Italian painter and sculptor had to be repatriated to a vague spiritual territory called the “Nordic West.” His actual ethnic background was no help, so the VB looked at his works and described them with what Dennis calls “the language of power, competition, and overcoming – particularly overcoming the rational Hellenic tradition by imposing his strong passions.” In a word, says Dennis, Michelangelo was a Renaissance Ubermensch, whose later works turned away from classical models toward what the VB called a more “expressionistic esthetic.” Contemporary German expressionists such as Emil Nolde, meanwhile, were being denounced as decadent.

Mozart had to be in the Nazi pantheon, but not as a cosmopolitan Classical composer who was born in Austria and wrote Italian operas. VB writers searched his Swabian and Bavarian bloodlines and claimed to find ethnic roots for his “decidedly German style.” They declared him a German patriot and “heroic-demonic fighter” who was determined to replace the alien Rococo style of his day with a Romantic, “genuinely German opera.” Mozart’s debt to Italian tradition was discharged by saying he somehow “violently broke from Italian influence” while writing The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. His letters from Paris were selectively mined to prove that he despised the French and their arts, and his apparently frivolous Cosi fan tutte was blamed on his Jewish librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. The VB celebrated The Magic Flute as “the first truly German opera,” and especially adored the Volkish tunes and character of Papageno. The opera’s Masonic symbolism were again blamed on the librettist.

For the Nazis, says Dennis, Heinrich Heine was “the most irritating figure in German cultural history.” Most cultured Germans saw his poetry as central to the Romantic tradition, and his verses were set to music by A-list composers such as Schubert, Schumann and Hugo Wolf. But Heine was also a Jew, so he had to be thrown out of the canon somehow. The VB obliged by abusing him as a phony, a cynic and a plagiarist. They said he stole his best ideas from Byron, had himself baptised only to help his career, and concealed a Jewish sneer behind every beautiful poetic surface. The fact that he knew Karl Marx in Paris and predicted revolution was a bonus: the VB branded him a “communist agitator” and a “French-Jewish spy.”

Gustav Mahler, the last great Germanic symphonist, had to be denounced by the VB because he was born a Jew. Its case against him was typical: He was a decadent imitator who “appropriated the means and techniques” of real German music without the German spirit necessary to make those things meaningful. All his work was thus a caricature of the real thing. The VB also explored Mahler’s psyche, diagnosing him as “fundamentally neurotic,” dominated by a selfish ego and suffering from an incurable case of “psychopathia musikalis.” One wonders what Freud, whose books were burned by the Nazis, would have said of their efforts at posthumous psychoanalysis.

In November 1944, with the Nazi empire shrinking and battle raging inside Germany, the VB pointed to an unexpected source for a “level-headed perspective on the experience of war.” Francisco Goya’s paintings of scenes from the 1808 Spanish uprising against Napoleon were offered as inspiring images of passionate armed struggle against foreign invaders. Never mind that Goya was court painter to both indigenous and Bonapartist regimes in Spain, and made his retrospective paintings of the 1808 revolt mainly to prove his loyalty to the restored Spanish crown. His Disasters of War series, said the VB, showed what horrors that would result if “Bolshevism and its accomplices” won in Europe. To forestall any idea that Goya was disgusted by slaughter – the usual reading of his Disasters series – the VB insisted that “war was the father of all things for Goya.” Within six months, war had proven to be the end of all things for the Nazis.

Amazon Customer Review of Inhumanities

amazon5.0 out of 5 stars The twisted mind of the Nazis November 30, 2012

If you are looking for one book which analyses and sums up the various ways in which the Nazis have manipulated and distorted the truth about the many forms of arts in order to harness this into their wish to inculcate the masses with nonsense, you have definitely found it.
At the center of this opus stand the infamous Nazi newspaper” Volkischer Beobachter”, hich served as a major propaganda tool of the Nazis. Professor Dennis has invested a colossal effort in examining every page of the newspaper from 1920 to 1945 and has also gathered 1600 articles which dealt with literature, philosophy, painting, sculpture, architecture and music. These topics were used as tools in the Nazi interpretation, or, one may say, cultural intepretation and correlation with the party’s doctrines with the Western tradition of humanities or Kultur.In a way, this book is about Nazi progaganda, but it is more than that; it is a very broad analysis of how the Nazis have used the many facets of humanities in order to totally alter and adapt the original meaning of the various artistic modes so that they fit into the Nazi mind and ideology. The readers of the newspaper were given ample samples which demonstrated and meant to convince them that the German culture was the best and the most noble one, unsurpassed by any other nation’s cultural achievements. Thus readers could make sense of their world and the ongoing events surrounding them.
The book is divided into five parts and each is about another aspect. Part One is a chronological survey of the Wetern tradition a la Volkischer Beobachter. Part Two, called” Blind to the Light” is about how the Nazi newspaper addressed the Western rationalist tradition from the ancients to the French Revolution. The highlight was in the romantic peroiod. The onslaught on the enlightnment was in full vigor and the French philosophers were suffering from a “disease”. Ditto for Heine who was only serving the cause of the Jews, albeit his conversion to Christanity.In another part, the newspaper eulogized the volkich thinkers of the nineteenth century, attacking everything which was not German or Aryan. One example was the targeting of the modern styles in music or other arts, which were considered perverted and engaged in absurd modernist styles. This trend went on in the paper’s attacks against Weimar era culture and politics. Here the paper was busy in unleashing a venomous attack on Jews and Judaism showing how the cultural-historical figures were ignored or dishonored by leftist or Jewish controlled authorities of the period. Bertold Brecht, Alfred Doblin and the Mann brothers were among the November criminals and “asphalt literati”. In addition, Schoenberg and Weill were not spared because they represented the rotten modernist ideals and ideas.
The last part covers a few acceptable alternatives to the Weimar decadence. There was a need for a “Nazi Renaissance”. Luther’s legacy, for example, had been ignored and with it his anti-Jewish component because of a “liberal” or” “objective” form of Protestantism and, according to the Nazis, the Jewish Question” of Luther was not considered because of the Weimar criminals. Beethoven was to be associated with the very identity of the Nazi movement; the composer’s Ninth Symphony marked a significant and a “superior Germany, while Schiller’s and Beethoven’s high ideal of humanity was starting to be fulfilled”. Knut Hamsun and Karl May were the idols of literature,while in the field of visual arts Hans Thoma and Arno Breker’s works were to embody the Nazi heroic thinking. Women creators were ignored, because Hitler made it clear that the women were to be engaged in three domains: KKK(Kinder, Kuche, Kirche).
The Nazi formulation of a Western tradition of inhumanity toward national, political and cultural enemies contributed to the transformation of some ordinary Germans into murderers.Professor Dennis’ stunning and original book, which contains many new photos and figures, reveals how the Nazis distorted and twisted the products of the Western artists so that they fit into their Nazi ideology. This book is a must for anyone who wants to know how a totalitarian regime falsifies completely the truth. More than highly recommended!NB: I also have to praise the publisher for the quality of paper this book has been printed on.

Praise for Inhumanities by Jeffrey Herf


Slavney-durer_black“Dennis’s distinctive contribution is to reveal in great detail how the Nazis understood and misunderstood, used and misused, selectively read and then appropriated bits and pieces of the Western tradition. Inhumanities again reminds us that the Nazi regime attacked what we understand to be the core values of the Western tradition. Yet they often did so in the name of defending Western civilization as its intellectuals, scholars, journalists and propagandists understood it. The book is an important advance in the scholarship about Nazi culture. Dennis’ tone is restrained yet the impact is powerful.” -Jeffrey Herf, author of Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust