Review in American Historical Review

DAVID B. DENNIS. Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture.

Michael H. Kater, York University

David B. Dennis has rendered the highly important, if arduous, service of reading through the Nazi Party’s Völkischer Beobachter and controlling its content for articles on culture. The VB, as it was known in everyday jargon, was founded by Adolf Hitler’s mentor, Dietrich Eckart and eventually published by Hitler’s self-styled party philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg, who later relinquished the chief editorship to subordinates. It appeared first in Munich and later also in Berlin. Dennis has summarized and analyzed many articles under such headings as Germanic history, music, the military-front experience, opposition to the Enlightenment, and antisemitism. The critics whose opinions he adduces tend to repeat themselves, and Nazi clichés abound. Hence the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer is described by critic Lore Reinmoeller as “little more than a plagiarist,” and Reinmoeller said about Felix Mendelssohn that until the advent of the Nazis he had been represented in “attractive Jewish propaganda as the rescuer and savior of the whole German tradition” (p. 108). Dennis treats as much what the Nazis were against as what they were for, and in the latter category there is little that strikes today’s reader as original. This book will be a significant addition to the growing body of works on culture under Nazi aegis.

I have a few observations to make which are not meant as a criticism but rather should aid the non-specialist reader in evaluating this source. First, how representative are the opinions expressed by the VB critics? The VBwas read by two groups of Germans: the majority of Nazis, especially when they were card-carrying party members, and those who wanted to appear as Nazis. This was important in many cases where full commitment to Hitler’s movement was withheld, but Nazi spies were always looking for tokens of regime fealty. It may safely be assumed that convinced Nazis agreed with the ideological interpretations of German cultural phenomena proffered by Rosenberg’s scribes and shared the prejudices against anything deemed to be non-German, for instance what Nazis liked to call “American civilization”—they flatly denied Americans had culture. VBcontent therefore represented a good cross-section of official Nazi opinion on things cultural, even if not every opinion was shared, or understood, by all readers. Anything on Richard Wagner, for example, would interest only the most educated or idiosyncratic of Nazis, for in the Nazi Party in general Beethoven was much more popular and accessible.

Even as an indicator of a good cross-section of party opinion, though, theVölkischer Beobachter was only a limited Nazi tool of cultural expression, to say nothing of cultural control. This circumstance was owed to Rosenberg’s weak position in the party and in the Third Reich. Very few people, including Hitler himself, took him seriously, and he had several rivals, a few of whom were much more powerful than he was. With control over it parceled out to several agencies under different party grandees, culture in the Third Reich was not a monolith. Rosenberg himself headed only party offices and did not receive a Reich ministry (such as Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels already possessed in 1933) until 1941, when Hitler made him Minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories, where he could cause few commotions. In 1933 Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels established his Reich Culture Chamber, which to all intents and purposes extended supreme control over most cultural activities in the Reich. But Göring still controlled opera houses in Berlin and Kassel, Reich Education Minister Bernhard Rust oversaw museums and the universities, and the Bayreuth Festival was firmly in the Wagner family’s hands, with Hitler weighing in when necessary. This diversification could lead to conflicts, after which Rosenberg usually was the one who threw in the towel, and frequently contrary opinions could be voiced by creators in the Nazi Reich depending on which patron they adhered to. One important example of this was provided by the progressive composer Carl Orff. When his scenic oratorio Carmina Burana premiered in Frankfurt in summer 1937, Rosenberg’s VB critics condemned it, and for a few days Orff thought that his artistic life in the Third Reich was over. But then he received accolades, in a specialist journal, from a music critic who was on Heinrich Himmler’s SS staff, and his career in the Third Reich took flight. The pluralist structures that today are known to have characterized the Third Reich also determined intellectual patterns and processes, including art criticism—within limits. In the newspaper world alone, Goebbels controlled two papers of his own, Der Angriff, for the common man, and, during the war through editorials, Das Reich, which catered to intellectuals. While some of Rosenberg’s collaborators would have written for Der Angriff, and much in a Rosenberg vein, one would be hard pressed to locate their names on the pages of Das Reich.

Review in Sewanee Review

Matthew Burkhalter. “Honoring, Reinventing, and Creating German Masters.” Sewanee Review 122, no. 2 (2014): xxiv-xxvii.

[The Sewanee Review is a literary journal established in 1892 and the oldest continuously published periodical of its kind in the United States.[1] It incorporates original fiction and poetry, as well as essays, reviews, and literary criticism. It notably published five stories by Flannery O’Connor, the dramatic version of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Cormac McCarthy’s first published work—a selection from his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. Other noted contributors include Hannah ArendtW. H. Auden,Saul BellowWendell BerryBertolt BrechtAlbert CamusJames Dickey, Andre Dubus II, T. S. EliotWilliam FaulknerShelby Foote,Robert Graves, Merrill Joan Gerber, John HainesDonald HallSeamus HeaneyGeorge V. HigginsMadison JonesX. J. Kennedy,Thomas KinsellaC. S. LewisF. O. MatthiessenHoward NemerovJoyce Carol OatesSaint-John PerseKatherine Anne Porter,Ezra PoundWallace StevensPeter TaylorDylan ThomasRichard Tillinghast, and Eudora Welty. -From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]


David B. Dennis has written a compelling study of articles published in the cultural section of the most widely read newspaper in Nazi Germany, the Völkischer Beobachter (Folkish Observer). His source, much of it assessed for the first time in English, runs to 1,600 articles from the VB on literature, painting, music, and philosophy. Dennis, a history professor at Loyola University Chicago, whose previous publications include Beethoven in German Politics, 1870–1989 (1996), approaches the VB’s cultural pages with interdisciplinary élan. He skillfully focuses on the sophistry employed by a single newspaper in reshaping Germans’ understanding of Western cultural history. Its contributors created a pantheon of German masters by selectively showcasing, and editing, particular artists’ careers and works to illuminate, as they saw it, Western culture’s culmination in National Socialism.

Forty-one percent of the cultural section’s authors (the largest part of identified contributors) were academics, most of them musicologists and music historians, together with specialists in literature, history, art history, and philosophy. These authors rarely betrayed their readers with fabricated scholarship. To the contrary criticism revolved around a process of “selection and omission,” “of emphasis and diminution.” It was important, too, that the articles were clearly written (“obvious, proven, and historically substantiated”). Furthermore Dennis points out that the titles of many articles—e.g., “Goethe’s Ideal of the Führer,” “Heinrich Heine as Communist Agitator,” “Richard Wagner’s Fight for the Volkish Idea”—were probably sufficiently communicable to most readers without their needing to read farther. The VB had the virtue of being academically legitimate while being appropriately völkisch. [End Page xxiv]

Thus, under the editorship of Alfred Rosenberg, Nazism’s chief philosopher, the VB’s critical program was not wholly propagandistic. Certainly it was complicit in denigrating democratic and parliamentary values, but its manipulation of the arts also legitimized the Nazi movement culturally and intellectually. By setting German Kultur in opposition to the crude superficial forces of Zivilisation (embodied by the aesthetics of the Weimar Republic), the VB played a critical role in the formulation of the Nazi Weltanschauung: “It is apparent that those who provided these interpretations of Western culture did not conceive them as just ‘reflective’ of Nazi ideology or instrumental tools of Nazi politics, but as core components of Nazi thought.” Dennis adopts an interpretive framework akin to George L. Mosse’s canonical The Nationalization of the Masses (1975) which showed how Nazi culture was forged through repetition (“propagandizing with a hammer”) and invoked and practiced liturgically, making it resistant to rationalization or intellectualism.

Nazi culture as depicted in the VB, like Nazi ideology in general, was fluid and revolved around a canon of masters and their masterworks. Depending on the circumstances, their works and existing information about their lives were magnified or diminished. German masters were funneled into a matrix of racial Germanness, Volkstümlichkeit (folkishness), nationalism, and anti-Semitism. In the first case art was biologized: Mozart’s “blood heritage” (his parents’ mixed regional bloodlines—“heavy” Swabian, “vivacious” Allemannisch, and so on) explained his musical personality—seriousness mixed with rococo playfulness. While “great men of the Nordic west” were ushered into the pantheon, simultaneously they had to remain völkisch, accessible, and rough-hewn. The northern Renaissance painter Albrecht Altdorfer’s “naïve and elementary” art represented the “purest embodiment of Bavarian folk style.” The composer Anton Bruckner, praised for his folksiness as a south German Catholic and a heavy drinker, became a romantic pendant to Altdorfer. Shakespeare was reduced to a Szenenerschütterer (“great scene-shaker”); the political struggles in the germanized bard’s tragedies convey “a chain of apparently aimless crimes and bloody tests of strength” signifying “the fate and struggle of the Volk.” Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles was presented as a scholastic antecedent to the Nuremberg laws, because the saint discouraged Jews’ holding administrative positions in civil or religious society.

Persistent decontextualization and simplification were the engines of such legerdemain. Nietzsche’s rich poetic and aphoristic corpus was reduced to antidemocratic grumbling; his tendency toward aristocratic thinking was squared with the völkisch ethos by differentiating between his distaste for the mob (“social illness”) and his supposed alignment with the Volk (“national health” and a manly “will to power”). Consistency was rarely achieved, especially when modern figures were discussed. Social realism (“dispassionate literalism”) was decried as proto-Leninist in Tolstoy’s oeuvre, yet the entirety of Dickens’s Oliver Twist was reprinted in serialized form. [End Page xxv] (Fagin, like Shakespeare’s Shylock and Wagner’s Mime, was an attractive anti-Semitic stereotype.) While impressionism (“positivist superficiality”) was rejected, the expressionist Edvard Munch was appropriated for his Nordic “sturdiness,” lack of intellectualism, and projection of “spiritual reality and psychic strength.” Conversely Albert Einstein was attacked for the “superficial gloss” of his “card-trick” theory of relativity, which was pilloried as egghead prattle. Theoretical physics fell within the detested boundaries of “l’art pour l’art.”

Procrustean activities such as these continued until hardly any significant European cultural figure had neither been incorporated into (Dante, Dürer, Rembrandt, the older Michelangelo, Montesquieu, Schiller, Fichte, Hölderlin, Schubert, Kierkegaard, Böcklin, Courbet, Sibelius) nor excluded from (Spinoza, Newton, Ibsen, Bizet, Hofmannsthal, Puccini, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Grosz) the pantheon. Richard Wagner stood at its apex with 243 articles devoted to him in the VB; Beethoven, most popular after Wagner, was Nazified in 116 articles. As the alpha and omega of Nazi culture, Wagner became the “ingenious creator of phenomenal works of art,” the “presentiment and the fulfillment of volkish longing, outlook, and confidence.” Notably Der Ring des Nibelungen, his mammoth four-opera cycle, was interpreted as prophesying every major event in modern German history from the outbreak of the First World War to the aesthetics and decadence of Weimar culture to, most important, “the brutal measures required to restore the German Volk.” Wagner, the cultural figure most frequently associated with the führer, became the Volk, Germanness, nationalism, and anti-Semitism incarnate.

Dennis maintains neutrality throughout Inhumanities, addressing the perpetual fitting of creators and their works (some more easily than others) to the Nazi master standard rather than commenting on the accuracy of the VB authors’ conclusions. This may or may not be a weakness, but his work includes more obvious limitations. Dennis restricts his discussion of Nazi culture to a sphere governed by its panjandrum völkisch theorist, Rosenberg, whose editorializing reflects neither Goebbels’s modernist sympathies during the early years of the regime nor Hitler’s fusion of reactionary sensibilities with modern technology. Power brokering within Germany’s cultural infrastructure (among Rosenberg, Goebbels, Bernhard Rust, Robert Ley, Albert Speer, and their peers) is absent from Dennis’s VB history. Even if the newspaper’s editorship remained ideologically constant, it does not fully represent the regime’s cultural apparatus in miniature. A greater weakness of the study is the relative anonymity of the cultural critics involved. Certain personalities receive bald sketches (e.g., Josef Stolzing, an editor of the cultural section and its most frequent contributor during the 1930s; Hans Severus Ziegler, the curator of the Entartete-Musik exhibition; and Richard Biedrzynski, an art and theater historian and a frequent contributor during the 1940s). Occasional contributors such as Baldur von Schirach, overseer of the Hitler Youth and the Reich’s governor of Vienna, [End Page xxvi] are covered only cursorily. The collective rationale among certain scholars to align themselves with cultural homage, reimagining, and creating; their common educational and professional backgrounds; and their postwar careers, while occasionally glimpsed, would have added an especially welcome dimension to Dennis’s scholarship.

These complaints aside, Dennis focuses on a plethora of personalities— artistic, literary, musical, and philosophical—while cogently assessing the VB’s manipulation of their works. He displays clearly the tireless ability of dedicated scholars, völkisch malcontents, and scientific racists to identify Nazism as an artistic and cultural telos of Western development. Of course even a researcher as skilled as David B. Dennis cannot prove that the VB’s readers were convinced by its arguments, but he shows that its cultural authors believed that their created pantheon of German masters not only legitimized the Nazi movement but comprised its intellectual and historical base. The general reader with a passing interest in Nazism or in any of these Nazified German masters will find Dennis’s work fascinating and accessible. Researchers of Nazi culture will benefit from Dennis’s scholarship for years to come. He should be commended for his labor.



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:

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

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.


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.