Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 175-178
[Access article in PDF]
Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics
Morton P. Levitt
Frederick Spotts' surprising thesis is encapsulated in his title: "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics," not, as we might expect of his subject, the Aesthetics of Power. True, he does discuss early on (in a chapter entitled "The Artful Leader") the stagecraft with which the Nazis attracted Depression-era Germans to their mass marches and assemblies. But his central concerns involve aesthetics for their own sake, both as a demonstration of the dictator's unlimited power and as its justification. We might say much the same about Saddam Hussein, of course, but Hitler as Spotts presents him had goals and employed means which even the most caustic observer can recognize as aesthetic. He may have been delusional, about art as about so much else, but about art at least he was neither hypocritical nor obviously insane (even if the results of his policies may in themselves appear mad). The documentary record as Spotts presents it, including many primary sources of letters and journals and a large body of often telling illustrations, is very clear on Hitler's seriousness, even dedication, to art as he understood it. Spotts's consistent theme that Hitler saw himself, at least that he claimed repeatedly over the years of his dictatorship that he saw himself principally as an artist, should convince the most skeptical of readers. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics is filled with such surprises and ironies.
This is not to say that Hitler's taste was good; it was conventional, old fashioned, utterly unoriginal. It was also consistent in painting, in music, especially in architecture, in all of which fields he regarded himself as an expert and to all of which he devoted inordinate resources of time, energy, and money, even when affairs of state would seem to indicate that he should neglect aesthetics for the moment and concentrate on power. Instead, as his empire crumbled around him, Hitler turned increasingly to his art projects, not only for solace, it seems, but as if they were the true purpose of his empire. To be sure, he similarly regarded himself as a military expert, but the occasional mad genius which may have characterized his career as a military strategist was absent entirely from his aesthetic obsessions. As pedestrian as these may have been in quality, however, in sheer volume (in the amount of money spent, objects purchased, and artists supported) they may well have made Hitler the greatest art patron in history. He had once maintained he could imagine nothing finer than to be a cultural philanthropist. (p. 257). [End Page 175]
There are other, equally stunning surprises here as well. This Hitler is often opposed to using art for propagandistic purposes: our obvious expectations aside, he was not directly involved in the infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibition merely a passive figure in its origin and development and not the evil genius behind it (p. 163); and it was Wagner's music that he loved and not the mythmaking. As Spotts puts it, "It has sometimes been assumed that Hitler was attracted to Wagner's works because of the plots, with their classic conflict between the outsider and a rigid social order, their lonely heroes and dark villains, their Nordic myths and Germanic legends. However, there is no record of any comment on how he interpreted the works or whether he saw in them any ideological message much less whether he envisaged himself as Lohengrin, Siegmund, Siegfried, Wotan or any other Wagnerian character. It was the music that moved him" (p. 236).
His financial and moral support for the Bayreuth Wagner Festival was so complete, often against the wishes of Nazi Party officials, as to make it "the only cultural institution in the Third Reich independent of Nazi control" (p. 258). A mediocre painter himself, as several photographs of his work make clear, Hitler saw himself as an artist...