Art as Wielded by Nazis
Documentary and book explode Hitler's methods of inculcating cultural ideals
DENVER — THE horror of the Holocaust, the decimation of nations, the barbarisms of war - these are the legacy of Hitler's Germany. Hitler seduced and tranquilized a whole society with a propaganda machine of Herculean proportions, glossing over the outrageous realities with the pleasant lies of fascist idealism. And art was his significant tool.
Peter Adams's award-winning documentary, "Art in the Third Reich," which aired on PBS last year, becomes available at local video stores today and will air on cable's Arts & Entertainment channel tonight (check local listings). More important, the film's release is accompanied by Mr. Adams's extraordinary new book of the same title (published by Abrams).
The book is as riveting to read as the documentary is to watch. Mr. Adams has been a journalist and a BBC documentary filmmaker for 27 years, and he brings to these twin projects a journalist's clean, clear style, a questioning attitude, and editorial decisiveness.
"Art in the Third Reich" was his last project for the BBC and certainly one of the most significant of his career, garnering for him the British Academy Award. Though the book and the film both offer advantages the other cannot, they complement and expand each other's content and represent the first comprehensive works on the subject.
Adams begins his story with Nazi book burnings and rallies. Having banned modern art as degenerate, silenced some artists and exalted those who conformed to the ideals of National Socialism, Hitler was ready to set in motion his own vision of culture.
In painting, sculpture, architecture, graphic design, film, theater, dance, and radio, Hitler blitzed the German people with anti-Semitism, lauded so-called Germanic or Nordic virtues, created stereotypes to embody those values, and lulled a troubled populace into a dreamy faith in the state.
"What one has to understand is," Adams said in a telephone interview from his home in London, "art was very central in Germany, because it was the enlightened 19th-century liberal society. And people thought a preoccupation with art makes you a better person. Hitler understood that art is a superb tool to manipulate people's ideas...."
Nature was exalted in Hitler's Germany, shrouded with the sentimental, mystical idealization of an idyllic past. Adams points out that after the industrial revolution, many longed for the simple rural life of the past. The fascist style invented nothing but borrowed from 19th-century romantic landscape or imitated 19th-century genre paintings. Sometimes the paintings were less sophisticated - stiff, ill-proportioned, and awkward, resembling in many ways Soviet realism.
Recurrent themes included the perfect German family (farmers), the happy German worker who neither sweated nor felt exhaustion, and the heroic soldier, unbowed and unbloodied. Women were to recognize their destiny in motherhood, and men, in battle.
The clean, healthy Aryan body was likewise exalted. In painting and sculpture, the nude male and female bodies were idealized and pastoralized, often depicted as gods and goddesses and often blown up to huge proportions. Exercise and dance took on a "messianic fervor," Adams says.
Everywhere in the arts the individual was swallowed up. In the huge firelight parades each became a tiny cog in the wheel of the work. Architecture dwarfed the individual before the power of the state. On every side, the stereotype replaced individuality.
Overt indoctrination in the form of slogans and swastikas cropped up often in Nazi art, but just as often, the propaganda lay more subtly in the heroic attitudes of the characters or even in the title of the piece: Instead of "The Earth" a painting might be called "Hitler's Earth." Blood and soil, the "purity and superiority" of the Aryan race, the nobility of sacrifice for the fatherland were constant themes.
Adams's film and book raise questions about the very nature and function of art. He is aware of how appealing much of the fascist art would be even today (if the titles and swastikas were removed), particularly to an uneducated public, because the simple referential images are pleasant and unchallenging, and because many people hold modern art in contempt.
"One can only look at the art of the Third Reich through the lens of Auschwitz," says Adams. Taken out of the context of the times, many of the works would seem harmless enough, though most are abysmally banal. But considered together in context, the fascist works present an awesome assault on the thought of the populace. The result of such manipulation of conscience itself is indeed Auschwitz.
Born in Germany in 1929, Adams was 16 when the war ended. The son of a wealthy Jewish father and Christian mother, he was spared persecution because he was designated "half Jewish." What he saw as a youngster was the "normal" dailiness of the Nazi regime. He points out sadly that while the horrors were hidden, anyone who wanted to know the truth could have discovered it.
"But [the truth] wasn't presented to you. That's why the art and the film industry and the architecture were so important because they presented a pleasant, false image of civility.... This subtle propaganda eroded the deep morality of society...."
"Art of the Third Reich" is certainly an attractive book. It was meant to be. Adams explains, "The medium was the message. That's exactly what they tried to do - to make it appealing ... seductive. If I'd made a book that disregarded that fact or that tried to make [the art] all look awful, I feel I would have failed - it wouldn't have been truthful...."
But the camera is, he assures me, a terrible liar. It makes the paintings, especially, look better than they really are. "Some of those things you may look at and say, 'My goodness, that is actually quite a nice painting.' But I can assure you, I have found very few good paintings.
"If I have a small merit in doing this book and the film, it is that at least people have a right to know that this is the quality of the art, this is what was expressed, this is what it looked like. By hiding it away, some people will say, 'Ah, maybe it was much better,' or some people will say, 'It has an inherent kind of evil quality,' which of course it hasn't either.
"The art was empty," Adams says. "It expressed a philosophy that was a lie - superior race, heroic nation, or a peaceful existence. It didn't grow on any real ground. A good museum should display them as history with photographs of the period. As documents of a certain point in history, they have a certain validity. But I don't think they have any chance of standing up as pieces of fine art."