From Culture Wars to the Culture of Wars

Erasure, negation, writing-over and destruction of cultures precede acts of erasure of people. Cultural desecration is merely a pretext: the text of extermination follows, assuredly, inevitably.

In a passage about cultural decline that would be truly moving if its authorship is redacted, the author says:

As soon, however … one lets pass before one’s eyes the development of our cultural life in the past twenty-five years, one will be shocked at seeing how far we already are on the way to this backward development. Everywhere we meet germs that represent the beginning of excrescences by which our culture is bound to perish sooner or later. Also, we are able to recognise in them the symptoms of decay of a slowly rotting world. Woe to the nations which are no longer able to master this disease.

The demise of a culture can only be elegiacally described, as the passage clearly demonstrates. So far so good.

But when the strangely moustachioed Adolf penned these lines in Mein Kampf, he initiated a culture war whose eventual consequences would be terrifying.

Towards ‘national culture’

The Reich Chamber of Culture issued its first decree on November 1, 1933. This Chamber, part of a large setup created by expanding the Reich Chamber of Film, was born on September 22, 1933 and was headed by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (note the merging of two distinct domains in the very title).

The first Decree outlined the function of the Chamber of Culture:

It is the responsibility of the Reich Chamber of Culture to promote German culture responsibly for the people and the Reich through collaboration among the members of all the areas of creative activity under the leadership of the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, to regulate the economic and social concerns of the cultural professions …

Joseph Goebbels. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1968-101-20A / Heinrich Hoffmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0

But this decree cannot be read on its own merit, such as it is. When the Jewish Cultural League (previously the Cultural Association of German Jews) sought permission to first, become such an association, and second, to undertake cultural training and activities, they were accorded permission with this proviso:

The main reasons for this [permission], apart from intentions connected with foreign policy, is the easier supervision and the concentration of the intellectual-artistic Jews in an organisation where Jews will “make art” only for Jews …

The existence of this Jewish organization will depend on its observance of various conditions. One of these conditions is that the gatherings of the Association will not be advertised publicly… in future publicly exhibited posters or announcements in shops would no longer be tolerated …

One notes that even before ghettos and camps for humans, the Nazis were confining Jewish artwork to ghettos and camps: there was to be no visibility, no publicity. The ghetto exists so that the rest of German ‘national culture’ can progress on the path of purity and nation-building, and can be ‘natural’ and eternal.

As early as 1928, the National Socialist Party created an organisation, the Combat League for German Culture, making the martial merge with the cultural in the very title so that there is no doubt that a culture war is about to begin.

The League derided Jewish art and modernism as ‘degenerate’ – a favoured word in Nazi culture-speak – and set about its principal project of ‘defend[ing] the value of the German essence’ in the ‘midst of present-day cultural decadence’ and constantly underscoring the ‘connections between race, art, and science’.

While the League did its job, in addition to Goebbels, the Nazis appointed Alfred Rosenberg to carry on the culture wars. Rosenberg made statements such as

There arises from the idea of a cultural community the duty to nurture culture. Biologically as well as spiritually understood, this means that we have the duty above all to promote organic growth, to promote that which is inwardly strong and necessary to life, that which serves the values of Germans and their beauty ideal. 

At the same time, the community must keep as far away as possible any growth which is sick or inwardly foreign, and which does not act in the best interests of Germandom but in the interest of undermining the German being …

All culture was to be volkish then, directed at the people and drawn from their common – and pure – ancestry. In the words of Joseph Goebbels, ‘culture is the higher expression of the creative power of a nation’. The Nazis, no shirkers at coining phrases, came up with the term ‘art cultivation’ to describe this campaign for national culture. Alfred Rosenberg, perpetually in conflict with Goebbels, records in his diaries that

Now he [Goebbels] too has accepted the term Kunstpflege [art cultivation], coined by us. This is good, in principle. But 25% of the people in his Reichskultursenat [Reich Culture Senate] have nothing at all to do with us and, as “carriers of our ideology”, are even an embarrassment for genuine “art cultivation”.

Alfred Rosenberg. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0168 / Heinrich Hoffmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Hence, it seemed natural, given the emphasis, that people like William Frick, Minister of the Interior for Thuringia, a free state within Germany annexed by the Nazis, declared war on ‘smut and dirt in literature, Negro and jazz culture, abortion epidemic and degenerate art, corruption and the foes of National Socialism’, aligning culture with disease, race and ideology.

Frick’s comment was a forerunner of the next stage of the culture war at a time when numerous Germans, especially the youth, were thronging American movies, and films like Joan Crawford-Clark Gable’s Dancing Lady were hugely popular, as Michael Kater has argued in his essay on the ‘Impact of American Popular Culture on German Youth’.

Concomitant with the showcasing of ‘pure’ German culture was the concerted attempt to categorise all other forms of culture as deplorable and dangerous. Exhibitions devoted to ‘Degenerate Art’ and ‘Degenerate Music’ were hosted, which not only targeted Jewish art but were sharply critical of American modernism as well, as Stephanie Barron has demonstrated in Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany

Over 2 million visitors thronged the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition during its four-month run. It starred works by Max Beckmann (670 of his works were declared ‘degenerate’), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and others, even as works by Henri Matisse and others were removed from German museums. 

‘Degenerate Music’ depicted jazz as ‘nigger music’. The poster announcing the event showed a black performer in the form of a chimp dressed in a suit but wearing the Jewish Star of David. The poster assigned racial attributes – the blacks as monkeys – and equated the blacks with the Jews, where both races were supposedly ‘degenerate’.

The signs were clear and a whole generation of artists fled Germany, as Stephanie Barron has documented elsewhere in her Exiles and Emigrés.

But mediating between the culture wars and the culture of wars was propaganda of a different kind.

Joseph Goebbels inspecting “degenerate art”. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H02648 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Filming ‘National Culture’

Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (1934), ‘produced by the order of the Fuhrer’ as the credits tell us, was designed to make Hitler the centrepiece of German life, culture and future. This oft-cited film presented German ‘national culture’ in certain ways that became over time the most recognizable symbols of state propaganda.

First, it highlighted the wrongs inflicted on Germany, and the ‘fact’ of its resurgence under Hitler. It does so from the opening moments which give us dates scrolling across the screen:

Twenty years after the outbreak of the World War.
Sixteen years after the start of German suffering.
Nineteen months after the start of Germany’s rebirth.

It begins by dating Germany’s suffering and humiliation to the conclusion of World War I. It also dates Germany’s ‘rebirth’ to January 1933, the month Hitler becomes Chancellor.

German history, as it were, begins anew with Hitler. One notes the complete erasure of Otto von Bismarck, known as the unifier of German peoples, and the insinuation that no German history, except one of suffering and humiliation, before Hitler.

The film’s opening sequence is shot from the air, and lingers over clouds. Then the clouds part and the plane carrying Hitler comes down to land, as though the clouds over Germany are finally dispelled by Hitler: like heroes in mythology and all superheroes, he descends from a height.

Hitler’s plane is greeted with salutations in Triumph of the Will. Photo: Screenshot from YouTube/Totalitarian Cinematography.

Second, martial music runs through the film, making it clear that the new Germany is a military power. Shots of precisely organized and massive army formations, marches and gatherings abound – indeed the screen time seems equally divided between Hitler and the German army. 

Third, it centres Hitler. He is the frontispiece, the emblem and the living icon in Riefenstahl’s film. It builds the iconicity around Hitler’s famous oratory, his flamboyant rhetoric of ‘purity’, German pride, German work culture and German people. 

The film pans across eager faces hanging on his every word, and it is transparently visible that the cult of the Supreme Leader is being built, cheer by cheer, shout by shout. Women and children wave, their eyes shining at the sight of Hitler, the youth – from which would arise the Hitler Youth organisation – stand enamoured. 

The personality cult of the uniformed Hitler waving, taking the salute, greeting people is amplified when Rudolf Hess declares 

You [Hitler] are Germany. When you act, the nation acts.

And later:

The Party is Hitler, but Hitler is Germany, as Germany is Hitler.

The nation and its people are embodied in the leader: nothing exists outside of the leader. Commentators on the film have noted that his body appears luminous and a halo appears on some occasions around his head, thereby giving him an aura and signifying a quasi-divine entity.

Fourth, there is considerable emphasis on community. We are shown soldiers at play, at work, at their communal baths. They work at building a new Germany, together and in solidarity. This is volk propaganda at its best. 

Shifting the demographics slightly, there is an extended representation of the workers. Hitler lectures them on their importance to Germany. The workers pledge allegiance and then they march off with their spades and mattocks. 

What is interesting is they march like soldiers, thus fulfilling Hitler’s exhortation that the worker is a soldier for Germany. They become part of the slogan resonating through the gathering: ‘One people, one Fuhrer, one Reich, one Germany’.

Finally, Hitler exhorts the people on the basis of a shared, if mythical, identity: ‘we carry the best blood, and we know this’. And adds: ‘It is not enough to say I believe, one must say, I will fight’. We could juxtapose the two, with the benefit of hindsight, to say that Hitler was exhorting the Germans to fight for their pure blood.

A Nazi-era poster describing racial identification laws. It includes lists of “allowed” and “forbidden” marriages based on ideas of racial purity. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial film ensured that the nation was identified with the leader, who was beyond error or flaws (later disproved by even his loyalists after the Stalingrad debacle). Highlighting the purity of culture in his speech and with the film highlighting him, Hitler becomes the epitome of all that is good and pure about Germany.

Thus, the culture wars begin to be operationalised in the cult of the leader, the leader’s exhortations, the emphasis on martialism, and the fight, literally intended, for the pure soul of Germany. It is a call to war.

The scene, one could say, is set.

From culture wars to the culture of war

Culture wars are wars fought by other means but directed at the same purpose, initially vague, as in the case of Jewish art and artists in Nazi Germany, but becoming clearer over time (1933-1939). When Nazi Germany started policing culture, it set up cultural borders: our culture/their culture, pure culture/impure culture. Jewish culture became classified as ‘degenerate’, and from here the next step flowed smoothly. 

The denial, erasure and eventual extermination of specific cultural forms of those deemed anti-national, alien and foreigner, is a preliminary to the denial, erasure and extermination of the people who produce such degenerate cultural forms and thus sully Germany. Expel the art, expel the artist and exterminate the people from whom such artists emerge. This translates as: reclaim ‘our’, pure culture by erasing ‘theirs’.

Jewish culture, whether contemporary or in the form of legacies of German history – this could be the architecture of predecessor societies/cultures, even festivals and music – had to be cleansed and this must be accompanied by a permanent solution so that no Jewish artist was around to produce more ‘degenerate art’. 

It is salutary to note that Alfred Rosenberg’s diaries, published in a series titled Documenting Life and Destruction: Holocaust Sources in Context by Rowman & Littlefield in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, carries the title The Rosenberg Diaries and the Onset of the Holocaust. 

The title gestures at the link between the ideologue who produced a hatred directed at Jewish culture and the grim real politik of ‘the final solution’. That is, after Jewish arts were expelled, in the systematic extermination outlined by Rosenberg and Goebbels, the next steps extend to the Jews-as-people:

a)   the expulsion of the Jews from every sphere of life of the German people,
b)   the expulsion of the Jews from the living space of the German people.

What was required was that

Jews must be removed from the territory of the General Government as quickly as possible, since it is especially here that the Jew as an epidemic carrier represents an extreme danger and on the other hand he is causing permanent chaos in the economic structure of the country through continued black market dealings. Moreover, of the approximately 2 ½ million Jews concerned, the majority is unfit for work.

Capturing within one paragraph the threat of the Jew within – he poses economic, medical and cultural threats – the above passages come from what is arguably be the most significant document of any progrom in human history: the Wansee Protocol produced on January 20, 1942 putting forth the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’.

Every time a political organization such as the National Socialist Party speaks of cultural purity and revival, it has been at the cost of another culture labelled derisively and derogatorily as ‘alien’ and ‘degenerate’. 

School curricula were perverted to deny Jewish culture. Even the culture of biomedicine would metamorphose, in this context of cultural purification, into the notorious euthanasia program, Aktion T4 for the old, the sick and the mentally ill – perhaps the single most concerted effort at violating the Hippocratic oath – as Robert Jay Lifton has demonstrated in his The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide.

Nazi-era eugenics propaganda. Part of the poster reads: “60 000 RM is what this person suffering from hereditary illness costs the community in his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too.” Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The pressure to sustain such notions of purity demand wars, extermination camps and campaigns but, as Germany under the Nazis discovered, the pressure cannot be sustained.

Culture cannot be policed and bullied endlessly, it has ways of surviving. Cultural practices such as photography survived even the horror of the camps, as we know, with the four photographs of the operations of the gas chambers at Auschwitz (the only four photographs that depict the actual process of exterminations in the camps) and the Nazis’ own photographs of the mass killings, serving as the testimony to wrong-doing.

The most frightening and yet ironic symbol of the Nazi policing and pursuit of ‘pure’ culture through the erasure of all other cultures was created, so to speak, in the confines of the Buchenwald camp. The account of this abuse of German culture must come from Nikolas Waschmann’s 900-page tome, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camp:

[Heinrich] Himmler and [Theodor] Eicke had already hoped in 1936 to set up a large new KL [KL is Konzentrationslager, German for ‘concentration camp’] in Thuringia … Following personal inspections in May 1937, they finally approved a suitable site, a large forested area on the northern slopes of the small but steep Ettersberg … 

The new camp was provisionally named after the mountain, but when this met with local opposition because of the association with Weimar’s most famous citizen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), Himmler opted instead for Buchenwald (“beech forest”), a pastoral term that would come to stand for institutionalised inhumanity. 

The connection with Goethe, however, could not be severed. A large oak tree, under which he had supposedly met with his muse, stood right on the new camp grounds; because it was protected, the SS had to build around it. Prisoners came to see the presence of Goethe’s oak in the midst of Buchenwald as a desecration of the memory of Germany’s greatest writer, symbolic of the wider destruction of culture under National Socialism.

Thus did ‘Germany’s greatest writer’ come to preside over, by transferred symbolism and associated myth, the most perverted cultural expression of his country. Erasure, negation, writing-over and destruction of cultures precede acts of erasure of people. 

Cultural desecration is merely a pretext: the text of extermination follows, assuredly, inevitably.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.