The Arts and Nazi Germany

Among the many lessons about the sustainability of a democratic polity that can be drawn from the establishment and subsequent collapse of the Weimar Republic (1919-1932) and rapid consolidation and eventual demise of the Nazi Third Reich (1933-1945) is the importance of a favorable public sphere.

The cultural attitudes, interpretive capacities, and behavioral habits of citizens in the public sphere have a profound impact on the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Arguably, democracy needs its citizens to act on a radically inclusionary democratic ethics and see the world around them through an open-ended aesthetics. The Nazi Third Reich disseminated a quite different and exclusionary Weltanschauung (worldview). First and foremost, Hitler and the other Nazi elite figures (many of whom were failed or thwarted artists themselves) saw themselves as political artists engaging in a social transformation that would not only restore the racial honor of Germany (then Greater Germany, and later Europe in toto) but make it beautiful! Their shared inspiration was the artistic work and prose theorizing of the 19th Opera composer, Richard Wagner. Animated by a vision of the purposes of art for politics, or rather of politics for art, they embarked upon the critical renewal of the arts, including architecture, fine art (especially paintings and sculpture), film, literary arts (such as poetry), music and theater, as well as the innovative use of newsprint and radio. They drew broad cultural distinctions between Great Art and Degenerate Art (condemning most of European and Weimar modernism), and sought to eradicate (and destroy) the latter as a precursor to the elimination of the demographic groups (at the center of which was ‘the Jew’) believed to be the sources of corrupting pluralistic and humanistic culture. How did the Nazis apparently so persuasively condemn democracy while understanding themselves to be ethical agents, lovers of life, and patrons of the arts? And ultimately, what can we learn about the optimal possibilities and necessary thresholds of democratic culture: about the sort of ethics and aesthetics citizens should possess if democracy in America (and elsewhere) today is to have a future?

I would welcome student collaboration on any aspect(s) of this larger project. The student(s) would be engaged in two forms of inter-related research-informed work – assisting me with my larger written project (a book manuscript), and engaging in their own project involving the Nazi-Art-Democracy nexus which would likely be a written paper too though it could also be a creative work with a written rationale or explication. Some facility in German would help with research but is not necessary at all. I also do not require that you have much in the way of prior historical knowledge on the Weimar or Nazi periods, just a compelling interest. If you don’t have some working familiarity with the periods, though, I am also assuming that you are bringing some other scholarly or methodological preparation that you intend to further develop and utilize. In other words, I would hope we could learn from one another during the process of collaboration.

Willamette University

Liberal Arts Research Collaborative

900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.

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