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.

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