- Germanification, Cultural Mission, HolocaustTheatre in Łódź during World War II
During World War II, the “war in the East,” or the Weltanschauungskrieg (“war of ideologies”), as the Nazis termed it, was intended to go beyond previous military conflicts.1 Apart from military and economic objectives, this war was about Lebensraum, about acquiring new territories for the “Germanic master race,” about the brutal and lasting reshaping of Eastern Europe. As part of this reshaping, “the Nazis conducted a cultural campaign in which theatre…was a major component.” This campaign was intended to illustrate serious commitment to the newly acquired territories and their inhabitants.2
The Warthegau, a Reichgau (a subdivision in an area annexed by Nazi Germany) in central Poland was one such region being incorporated into the Reich. The fact that its German minority was relatively small made it even more important in the eyes of Nazi propagandists to subject the region to a sustained program of “Germanification,” in which theatre played a crucial role.3 The region’s industrial powerhouse, Łódź, was Poland’s third largest city with a population of 680,095, and in September 1939 it became the “most Easterly major city in Adolf Hitler’s Reich.” Here, the Nazis intended to “erect a bulwark of German culture in the East based on the unshakeable belief in the victorious and continuing existence of the Third Reich.”4 A central part of this “bulwark” was the foundation of a lavishly funded municipal theatre for the rising German-speaking minority, an undertaking high on the agenda of the Nazi propaganda machine. More than other art forms, the theatre was called upon to encourage “German character [to] flourish” in the East. District president Friedrich Uebelhoer [End Page 83] charged artistic director Hans Hesse and his staff with the “consolidation and stabilization” of German traditions and the fostering of German culture. Fittingly for this purpose, the opening production by the Theater der Stadt Lodsch (“Lodsch” was the German version of Łódź’s name until the Nazis renamed the city “Litzmannstadt”) was a German classic: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm. On occasion of its premiere on January 13, 1940, Mayor Schiffer claimed that the city, which had been founded by the “industriousness and ability” of German merchants over a hundred years ago, was now (rightfully) returning into German hands, after having suffered from an “inorganic and racially inferior” character due to the “influx of a quarter of a million Jews” and “conscious neglect by the Polish state.”5 The theatre, therefore, was suddenly expected to shoulder a responsibility beyond the immediate need to entertain audiences; it also played a crucial role in changing the character of city and region to exemplify the success of the occupiers’ wider cultural and political mission. In fact, the success of this mission in the Warthegau was in small measure dependent on the triumph of Łódź’s prestigious new German theatre.
In this article I discuss the short history of the German language theatre in Łódź (Lodsch/Litzmannstadt) during World War II and evaluate to what extent the Nazis were able to turn it into a success. I investigate the Nazis’ undertakings in quantitative and qualitative terms by looking at attendance figures, funding, and infrastructure, as well as the attempt to produce the “right” kind of repertoire—uplifting, serious, and völkisch. (The term “völkisch” derives from the German word Volk [people]. It has strong nationalistic, racial, romantic, and folkloric undertones, which, in its emphasising of the “Blood and Soil” idea, combine with an antiurban populism. The völkisch movement was also characterized by anticommunist, anti-immigration, anticapitalist, antiparliamentarian and particularly strong antisemitic undercurrents.) The existing research has largely failed to acknowledge the importance of the arts in the Germanification of large parts of Eastern Europe during the war. Łódź as one of its main urban centers was crucial to this undertaking and thus deserves attention.6
On September 9, 1939, German forces occupied Łódź, eight days after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. Within a few months the whole region was branded Reichsgau Wartheland and incorporated into the “Greater German Empire.” The city was renamed Litzmannstadt in honor...