Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 129-130
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German Encounters with Modernism, 1840-1945
German Encounters with Modernism, 1840-1945. By Peter Paret (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001) 271 pp. $69.95 cloth $24.95 paper
The period of German civilization before the advent of the Third Reich lends itself uniquely to an interdisciplinary methodology. Paret traces the reception of modern art in Germany against the social, political, and racial background that characterized the incubation of Nazism. The introduction [End Page 129] and eight essays offer special insights into the artists of the Berlin Secession, early Expressionism, the place of antisemitism in the rise of art and literary criticism before Adolf Hitler, and the impact of World War I on art. Paret examines the major nineteenth-century German artists—Adolph Menzel, Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, and Max Slevogt—as well as the age that produced them. He also offers a new interpretation of Ernst Barlach and the art that emerged out of his war experience.
Inescapable is the pale of antisemitism that was reflected in the established German society that fought modernism at every point. Anything that suggested even a hint of the avant-garde was quickly identified with "the alien element," which meant the Jews. Liberals like the writer Theodor Fontane could not escape it. Apologists who defended their Jewish fellow artists could not escape it. Racial antisemitism was woven into the fabric of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German intellectual life, at the universities and academies, in the salons and art galleries, and in the newspapers and critical journals. The modernists, it was asserted, differed from "real Germans" and their native traditions and conventions.
Paret's final essay deals with Hans Schweitzer, a Nazi cartoonist and poster designer, thereby completing "the curve of cultural degradation" that informs everything in this provocative collection. Like other great expatriate German cultural historians who came to the United States, particularly George Mosse and Peter Gay, Paret is comfortable in all aspects of the intellectual environment of the times. In many ways, these Americanized German academics helped to create the interdisciplinary language on which subsequent generations built.