Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2009)

From the 2009 edition Introduction by the author Frederic Spotts:

* You can discuss Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot with calm reason. But it is almost impossible to talk about Hitler rationally. When, in 2000, Time magazine was considering whom to designate its “Man of the Century,” the rum or that Hitler was a candidate caused a minor uproar. That Hitler had more of an impact on the century than anyone else few historians would deny. But historical fact had to give way to irrational emotion, and so Time timidly
selected Einstein. There was an irony in this. Einstein himself once belittled his work by pointing out that his theories had always existed in nature and were just waiting to be propounded by one physicist or another. But a Beethoven, he said, was a unique phenomenon.

Hitler was also unique; he made history, history did not make him. His singularity as someone who rose almost literally from the gutter to become master of Europe is recognized. What is not accepted is that there is anything more to be said of him. When CBS television announced plans for a film on Hitler’s early life, a prominent Jewish leader protested. “We know who he is, we know what he did, what are we going to learn?” That Hitler might after all be found to be human, with normal, decent traits is indeed terrifying. If he is a bit like us, then we may be a bit like him, validating Thomas Mann’s assertion that “perhaps there is a little Hitler in us.”

…Even Stormfront White Nationalist Comm unity found the book “a riveting and highly original work” in showing that Hitler’s interest in the arts was as intense as his racism. Writers in Christian publications highlighted the moral contradictions inherent in Hitler’s aesthetics, and one of the most thoughtful discussions of the book appeared in Christianity Today.

A writer for The Independent praised Hitler as one of the best books of 2002. A freelance critic listed it as his 51st favorite book— but considering that Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities was number 56 and Orwell’s 1984 was number 59, this turned out to be high praise. A writer for the national Jewish student magazine was so impressed by one of Hitler’s watercolors reproduced in the book that he conducted an experiment to compare other reactions to his own. “I showed the painting to Yeshiva University students standing on Amsterdam Avenue at 185th Street in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighbourhood. They praised the sunnyness of the piece, the happy mood, and the ‘pretty colours.’ I then showed them the by-line: Adolf Hitler. Dispositions changed from pleasure to shock, horror, and embarrassment.”

* There he sits, deep in thought, studying a grand model of his home town of Linz. The model shows the city as it will look after being transformed into the culture centre of Europe. It had been delivered the day before and lighting arrangements were installed to enable him to envisage how the buildings would appear at various times of the day as well as by moonlight. The date is 13 February 1945. The place is the bunker under the Reich chancellery in Berlin. The Russians are at the Oder, a hundred miles away; the British and Americans are near the Rhine some 300 miles to the west. Yet Hitler spends hours absorbed in his model. He worries that the bell tower in the centre of town may be too tall; it must not eclipse the spire of the cathedral at Ulm further up the Danube since that would hurt the pride of the people living there. But it must be high enough to catch the first beams of the sun in the morning and the last in the evening. ‘In the tower I want a carillon to play — not every day but on special days — a theme from Bruckner’s Fourth, the Romantic Symphony, ’ he tells his architect. During the weeks and months to follow, the model will continue to offer him solace, even as his Reich – and it was his Reich — collapses around him.

* Although Hider enjoyed looking at movies, he had no interest in the film as an art form and left it to Joseph Goebbels to exploit cinema for propaganda purposes. Relatively fond of the theatre though he was, he paid little attention to it after becoming chancellor. Although in his youth he loved adventure stories — not just Karl May’s Wild West fantasies, as is often thought, but also such works as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and especially Don Quixote — serious literature held no interest for him.

* The origin of this aesthetic bent of mind is a mystery. It was certainly neither genetic nor environmental. The family was uncultured. His father, Alois, was a rough customs official; his mother, Klara, an uneducated hausfrau. His sole brush with culture occurred in the form of singing and piano lessons, and participation in the local church choir, all of it very brief.

* Biographic orthodoxy has it that Hitler now, even more than earlier in his life, was nothing more than a feckless wastrel who led ‘a parasitical existence’, ‘a drone’s life’. But in fact he differed scarcely at all from thousands of young people of artistic bent throughout history. Such aspiring artists spend years in a tormented struggle trying to realize themselves. Those who achieve success are praised for their perseverance, those who fail are considered lazy drifters. Hitler’s problem — in a way his tragedy — was that he confused aesthetic drive with aesthetic talent.

* Hitler was not saying that he did not want war or Lebensraum in the East or to make Germany the dominant power of Europe. What he was saying was that after he had achieved his military and political ambitions, he would devote himself to what really interested him and what he considered of ultimate importance. This was to create a German culture state where the arts were supreme and where he could construct his buildings, hold art shows, stage operas, encourage artists and promote the music, painting and sculpture he loved.

* Unlike Lenin, who never set foot in an art gallery, or Stalin, whose art collection was pictures torn out of an illustrated magazine, or Mussolini, who despised the arts, he held a deep and genuine interest in music, painting, sculpture and architecture. He regarded politics not art as a means to an end, the end of which was art. Hence the paradox of a man who wanted to be an artist but lacked the talent, who hated politics but was a political genius.

* Hitler was heir to the Central European Romantic tradition. Typically, Romantics worshipped the artist and his achievement as the embodiment of the highest social aspirations of an age. At the same time they were lost in admiration for, as Isaiah Berlin said with Napoleon in mind, ‘the sinister artist whose materials are men – the destroyer of old societies and the creator of new ones — no matter at what human cost: the superhuman leader who tortures and destroys in order to build on new foundations . . . .’ Hitler was a Romantic in both senses.

* Hider too ingested but never fully digested bits of literature, art, history, music, theatre, politics, philosophy and most everything between. And what spilled out in his conversations was an ill-digested jumble of fact, pseudo-fact and non-fact. Yet in the course of his cultural musings he also showed real sense and came to grips with some of the central issues concerning the relationship between culture and the state, the artist and society, art and politics. Out of this plethora of words emerged a set of ideas that amounts to a philosophy of culture. Race was the keystone, and it established an indivisible link between his cultural and political views.

* In the cultural sphere the dispute had been openly joined in 1893 when Max Nordau, a pioneer Zionist, published his widely read book, Degeneration, which applied the concept of biological degeneration to cultural decline. According to this, societies were living organisms, subject to the ordinary human process of birth, development, decay and death. By the same token, degenerate painting was the product of biologically degenerate painters, who suffered from, among other ailments, brain debilitation and optical disease. Impressionists, for example, were victims of disorders of the nervous system and the retina. Such degenerates were enemies of society, ‘anti-social vermin’ who must be ‘mercilessly crush[ed]’. Nordau proposed that they should be tried as criminals or committed to insane asylums. Picking up on such ideas, the popular writer Julius Langbehn maintained that the arts reflected a society’s health; changes of style and fashions in art were not only anti-artistic but antisocial.

* The man responsible for more death and destruction than anyone else in modern times wished to forge a state whose cultural achievements would rival those of the greatest civilizations of the past. And inside that paradox lay another. The warlord who built up the greatest land army since Napoleon regretted having to spend money on weapons that could have been devoted to the arts.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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