The Weimar Republic represented the pinnacle of European modernism in art, music and literature. Like many students of German history, I had always assumed that the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 brought the modernist movement in Germany to an abrupt end, and the artists were forced to flee the country or retreat into an "inner emigration" and practice their art in secret. But the history of modernism in the Third Reich is much more complex,as I learned in the fascinating book by Jonathan Petropoulos - Artists under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany.
Drawing on on his extensive research, Petropoulos convincingly shows that from 1933 to the 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) Exhibition in Munich there was tension within the Nazi Party and within the artistic community itself between the modernists and the advocates of the bombastic völkisch art we have come to associate with the Third Reich. A number of senior Nazi officials - such a Josef Goebbels - were enthusiastic collectors of modernist paintings- some of which were plundered from private Jewish collections or Jewish -owned galleries. And the artists and writers themselves saw modernism as completely compatible with the dynamism of a revitalized Germany under Nazi rule. After all, the modernist movement in Italy - Futurism - had played an integral role in ushering in the first fascist state in Europe. Expressionism was simply a specifically "Nordic" form of modernism, reflecting a Germanic sensibility. In the end, the völkisch faction would prevail, but that didn't prevent a number of modernist artists and writers from seeking an accommodation with the regime. Some were rebuffed and forced into exile or lost their ability to make a living with their art. But others experienced amazing success and became celebrities of the Third Reich.
Petropoulos neatly divides his book into two sections. The first is a series of chapters profiling several key figures - Gottfried Benn, Walter Gropius, Emil Nolde, Paul Hindemith, Ernst Barlach - who tried but failed to find support and approval for their work from the Nazi regime. Their reasons for seeking accommodation were very different. Gropius simply wanted to work and thought that his buildings would benefit a resurgent Germany. Benn was initially attracted to the brutality, dynamism and irrationality of Nazi ideology. Nolde was a wannabe Nazi (he was in fact a registered member of the Danish National Socialist Party). Barlach was already an old man when the Nazis came to power and simply wanted to be left alone so he could keep making art. Both Benn and Nolde exhibited deplorable behavior: Benn forced the resignation of writers he didn't like from the Prussian Academy and in a radio address mocked Klaus Mann and other exiled writers - many of whom had fled Germany for their lives; Nolde - a virulent anti-Semite - falsely denounced a rival artist as a Jew. But despite their professed allegiance to the new German state and their impeccable Aryan bloodline, these artists were all rejected by the Nazis, perhaps because of their association with the hated Weimar Republic. Nolde was psychologically crushed when his work was featured in the Entartete Kunst exhibit.
The second section of the book profiles artists who succeeded in finding acceptance in the Third Reich. This group includes Richard Strauss, Gustaf Gründgens, Leni Riefenstahl, Arno Breker, Albert Speer. All achieved spectacular success during the Third Reich. With the possible exception of Richard Strauss, whose support of the Nazis was rather tepid, these artists were happy to put their talents to use on behalf of an murderous regime (Petropolous includes a disturbing photograph of Leni Riefenstahl witnessing the execution of Jewish "partisans" in Poland). Particularly instructive is the portrait of Arno Breker. An immensely talented sculptor, Breker spent his formative years in Paris, where he was strongly influenced by the work of Auguste Rodin and fell under the spell of modernists such as Pablo Picasso. In Rome he met Goebbels, who, recognizing a young talent, encouraged him to return to Germany and work for the glory of the Reich. Breker produced a number of monumental sculptures for the the Nazi state which became iconic symbols of National Socialism. Petropoulos points out that nothing during this period was strictly white or black: the ambitious opportunist Breker occupied a gray area. Breker never completely abandoned his modernist roots. He apparently intervened at the highest level to prevent Picasso from being sent to a concentration camp.
Of course it impossible to cover all the writers and artists who remained in Germany during the Third Reich. I would have liked for Petropoulos to have included a chapter on Ernst Jünger, the mercurial modernist who despised Hitler but who nevertheless got caught up in the Nazi adventure. Also, a mention of Wolfgang Koeppen - to my mind the greatest postwar modernist novelist - would have been welcome. For the most part, Petropoulos avoids a discussion of the "Inner Emigration" phenomenon. Still, Artists under Hitler provides a much-needed corrective on our understanding of the continuity of German modernism during the Third Reich.