DAWN Books & Authors, September 12, 2004
Using Art for Politics
Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics
By Frederic Spotts
Available with Paramount Books, 152/O, Block 2, PECH Society, Karachi-75400 Tel: 021-4310030.
Also available with Liberty Books (Pvt) Ltd, 3 Rafiq Plaza, M.R. Kayani Road, Saddar, Karachi Tel: 021-5683026
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.libertybooks.com,
Most of us must have seen that two-volume definitive biography of Hitler by Ian Kershaw on the shelves of local bookstalls, and many must have studied it. It is a splendid book but it fails to mention one important aspect of the Fuhrer. That missing piece is substantially covered in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics by Frederic Spotts. Being the recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for another book ten years ago, Spotts now offers us a fundamental reassessment of the artistic life in the Third Reich. As such Frederic Spotts’ book challenges the notion upheld by many biographers and expressed most poignantly by Kershaw himself, that “outside politics Hitler’s life was largely a void”.
This study of the aesthetic aims of the Nazi regime focuses on two basic aspects. Firstly, how Hitler used the power of aesthetics to influence the masses. For instance, his mammoth political rallies were almost always carried out at night with stunning stage effects and uplifting music while the Fuhrer’s own performance was always well-rehearsed and calculated to have the desired impact. Secondly, the book also carries out an in-depth analysis of the kind of art and aesthetics the Nazi regime desired to cultivate among its followers. Here we find the disturbing story of how certain trends in arts were wiped out while some others were cultivated. The reader also gets a detailed account of painting, music and architecture under the Third Reich.
On both counts the book is particularly disturbing for a Pakistani readership. Of course the American author couldn’t have drawn these parallels but they are right there for us to work out as we read along. There are similarities between Hitler’s use of aesthetics and some of the notions upheld in our own recent history, especially under the more ideological regimes. We might not have had our versions of the naked virile male that was a prominent National Socialist (i.e. Nazi) image but the meticulous elimination of femininity from the visual consciousness of the people is a well-known syndrome in our own society.
However, the issue of visual representation of gender goes deeper than a directly proportional impact on the viewers’ sexual ethics. “Leaving aside the phallic undertones, the works made plain that the new man was someone willing to fight and die for state and Fuhrer,” says Spotts. Destroying the balance of gender representation in visual and verbal arts in favour of the masculine imagery generates mass hysteria and a lust for blood. The effect is produced regardless of the actual purpose of the perpetrators, and in the case of the Third Reich it provided Hitler with cohorts of blind followers who were willing to kill and die without asking why.
The 21 chapters of the book are subdivided into eight sections. Hitler’s artistic ambitions are traced to his youth — he wanted to be a painter — and his failure in achieving those ambitions is documented (he was refused admission by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, whereby he made his living by making inexpensive copies of famous paintings for several years). But unlike other biographers who stop there, Spotts goes on to show how the ambition lived on till the end, although sufficiently mutated: when Hitler came to power, he eliminated the non-Aryan (especially Jewish) traits from the German art scene but was at the same time uncompromising in his stand that artistic activity shouldn’t stop even in the time of distress. (One bizarre anecdote is that the volunteers of the youth wing of the Nazi party were conveyed the signal of Berlin’s imminent fall by means of a particular piece being played in the main philharmonic hall, and upon hearing it they came out to offer cyanide pills to any Germans who would prefer death before dishonour.)
Hitler is discussed here both in terms of “the artist as politician” and “the politician as artist” and here the lesson learnt from his life is very interesting. His greatest victories were achieved through “his own intuitive leaps of imagination over the rational objections of his generals”, argues the author. Also, “his ability to gauge the feeling of the common soldier and to inspire him” was unquestioned and it also rested on his ability to take risks, to rush in where angels would fear to tread. These factors contributed to his victories to a great extent in the beginning. Spotts conclusion is that, “It is possible to see in these victories the triumph of impulse over experience, will over reason, creativity over orthodoxy — and metaphorically the triumph of the failed painter over the artistic pedants of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.”
If this is so, then it is a sad comment on what is popularly known as charisma — in most cases, in the East and the West, charisma consists not so much of display of reason as of impulse, and our own recent history is not without examples to illustrate this point.
As an art dictator he was opposed to Modernism and the chaos represented in it. He preferred grandeur, stability and grace — the opposite of what his armies left in the fields they took. In this again, Hitler comes very close to the puritanical ideals preached by many ideologues, our own included. The mainstream thinking even in Pakistan has been running along similar lines with an equal oversimplification of things, and that’s why Spotts’ analysis of why Hitler hated Modernism becomes so much more relevant to us.
“For him Modernism was intolerable because it was thought-provoking, unconventional, uncomfortable, shocking, abstract, pessimistic, distorted, cynical, enigmatic, disorderly, freakish,” Spotts concludes. “It is exactly what you do not want if you want for yourself — and for your nation — is an escape into a world of security, conventional beauty, conformity, simplicity, reassurance. He wanted art to provide escape from pain, not confrontation with it.”
Of course, a Romantic can disagree with this conclusion, and in all probability it might be a half-truth. This defence of Modernism doesn’t take into account the fact that all quests for classical beauty, or peace of mind for that matter, through art are not Nazi tendencies. However, the fact that the two are so similar is in itself a very scary idea and merits some reflection, at least as a half-truth.
Overall, the narrative of Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics is fluid and arguments are built up in an interesting manner, making the book one of those that make themselves read by the reader — you open it from anywhere and you find yourself compelled to read on, and read back.
His greatest victories were achieved through “his own intuitive leaps of imagination over the rational objections of his generals”, argues the author.