- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

HITLER AND THE POWER OF AESTHETICS
By Frederic Spotts,
Overlook, $37.50, 456 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE

The first photograph in Frederic Spotts excellent book, "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics," shows Adolf Hitler from his right side. He's seated on a wooden chair, leaning slightly forward, his gloves clutched in his left hand. His attention is focused on a model of his home town of Linz. It's not as Linz really is, but like it will be when it is transformed into the cultural center of Europe, for that is what the Fuhrer plans to do with this provincial Austrian city.
Linz will surpass Vienna, the city Hitler has hated ever since his days there as a failed artist. Along with Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, it will be one of the great cities of the Third Reich. From the intent way he looks at the grand model, you would think Hitler had all the time in the world.
But you'd be wrong. The photograph was taken on Feb. 13, 1945. The days of Hitler's rule are numbered. Yet he still finds time to daydream about the Germany he hoped to create, which was, according to Mr. Spotts, "the greatest culture state since ancient times, or perhaps of all time."
Mr. Spotts, who is the author of a distinguished book on Bayreuth and its festival, argues "the centrality of the arts" in Hitler's life and career. At the age of 12, Hitler announced that he wanted to be an artist, a career choice that earned him the wrath of his father.
As a young man, he tried hard to make a living from his drawings and watercolors. His talent was slim, but his temperament that of the bohemian and artist. Hitler "differed scarcely at all from thousands of young people of artistic bent throughout history," Mr. Spotts concludes.
In Hitler's own writings, art occupied a central position. "Art is the mainstay of a people because it raises them above the petty cares of the moment and shows them that, after all, their individual woes are not of such great importance."
Along with his anti-Semitism, art and culture were to be the pilars of the German State. "I succeeded in making the racial idea the basis of life, and … I made culture the driving force of German greatness," Hitler declared.
As Mr. Spotts shows, Hitler's artistic sensibility permeated all that he did.
The Fuhrer's aesthetic powers, for example, "help to explain his mysterious grip on the German people. What Stalin accomplished through terror, Hitler achieved through seduction," writes Mr. Spotts. Through brilliant use of "symbols, myths, rites, spectacles and personal dramatics, he reached the masses as did no other leader of his time."
Indeed, under Hitler, a whole nation became a stage on which he played the only significant role: "Though he took away democratic government," Mr. Spotts avers, Hitler "gave Germans what they clearly found a more meaningful sense of political participation, transforming them from spectators into participants in National Socialist theatre."
Mr. Spotts traces Hitler's plans for his Reich in each of the arts. Linz, for example, was to be home to a massive gallery that would house the largest and greatest of all art collections paintings, sculptures taken from the homes of wealthy Jews and from the great galleries of France, the Netherlands and other nations conquered by the Germans.
Opera was the Fuhrer's favorite musical form and Munich was to have the world's largest opera house. And everywhere, opera would be cheap. Hitler insisted that tickets be within the budget of average workers and they were.
But that didn't mean workers flocked to hear Verdi and Wagner. They didn't. As Mr. Spotts shows, even Hitler's fellow Nazi Party members did not like opera and when forced to attend would fall fast asleep, a fact that embarassed Hitler.
The masses did appreciate the party rallies, particularly those at Nuremberg. Their power is familiar to anyone who's seen Leni Riefenstahl's film "The Triumph of the Will." Staged so they reached their peak after dark, the rallies obliterated individual will and made all those present into one seething political beast.
Hitler also wanted to control the artistic taste of Germans. Just as he would have nothing to do with a Jewish woman, no matter how beautiful she might be, he said on one occasion, so he would have nothing to do with modernist music.
Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg were declared outlaws, and their works could not be performed.
Hitler liked Wagner but even Wagner had to be rewritten at times. The Christian themes in Parsifal, for example, were changed into Pagan themes by the Nazis. The Austrian 19th-century composer Anton Bruckner was another favorite.
And so was the Hungarian Franz Lehar, whose operetta "The Merry Widow" became one of Hitler's delights the last decade of his life. It was an awkward choice, since Lehar's librettist was Jewish, and therefore (according to Nazi philosophy) a danger to German purity. A special dispensation was made in Lehar's case.
Hitler often said that battles, even great victories, were never remembered for very long and forgotten in a generation of two. Great buildings, however, endured for centuries. His plans for Berlin, his empire's capital city, were immense and he was constantly reworking them.
He found it embarassing that the German capital, which had grown by leaps and bounds in the 19th century and without any design or order, was inferior to Paris and other capital cities. Hitler's Berlin would surpass the grandeur of Rome and last longer.
Hamburg, Munich, Linz, and Berlin would be transformed into enduring grandeur by the year 1950, Hitler predicted. And, as Mr. Spotts shows, he never lost sight of this goal, even when the war was going badly and defeat imminent.
Very few of Hitler's vast building projects were realized. His most lasting contribution were the autobahn and his Volkswagen projects. Both "were the most visible examples of how the dictator combined aesthetics, technology, social engineering and a political vision with a determination to leave a personal mark for the world to see," Mr. Spotts writes.
"Both the highways and the car were ultimately meant to be a material legacy lasting long after his death. Immortality through his monuments was what he ever more ardently sought as time passed."
"Who was he, then?" asks Mr. Spotts at the close of this book. "A homicidal maniac, a gentle artist, a brutal artist, a tyrant, a weak dictator, a would-be Roman emperor, an artist-politician, a supreme actor, a revolutionary, a reactionary?" He was each of these things. "Above all, he was a catastrophe."
Hitler "proved that culture and barbarism can exist side by side and have the same progenitor," Mr. Spotts concludes. He destroyed "whatever he touched without being able to replace it."
What's amazing is how nearly this one man was able to make a vast, cultured nation into a personal plaything to mold and form as he saw fit. Mr. Spotts tells the story very well indeed and the book comes well stocked with pertinent illustrations and reproductions of Hitler's own paintings and drawings.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.


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