- The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany: Books in the Media Dictatorship by Jan-Pieter Barbian
New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury (Literary Studies/History), 2013. Pp. 455. $34.99 U.S.
An examination of Nazi propaganda inevitably evokes strong associations with visual images and the exploitation of new media to convey the National Socialist ideology. Films designed either to elevate the Aryans or to denigrate their enemies, “entartete Kunst” exhibitions, new architectural plans for Germania, sculptures by Arno Breker and the news reel all contributed to the [End Page 134] creation of a cohesive image of Aryan supremacy as well as a mythology for the Germans, while underscoring the subversiveness of those deemed racially, sexually, or politically inferior. Even the famous book burnings, a means to eliminate degenerate literary influences, possessed a distinctly visual component, focused on the theatricality and drama of the fiery purges. Indeed, the events themselves were highly choreographed and systematically dispersed to a larger audience through film and media.
While the notion of the book burnings as spectacle further highlights the visual nature of Nazi propaganda, Jan-Pieter Barbian refocuses his attention on the books themselves and suggests that the role of the written word demands further examination. Barbian acknowledges the seductive power of new media as a tool to convey the National Socialist ideology and, as an extension of this, turns his attention to the often marginalized position of literature and its significance to the Nazi regime as it tried to shape the values and consciousness of the German people. Barbian has already contributed significantly to the discourse around the cultural and political history of the Third Reich. His collection of essays Die vollendete Ohnmacht (2008) explores authors, publishers, and booksellers during the Nazi era and the degree to which they bear guilt for their willingness to cooperate with and contribute to the Nazi state. He has also written extensively on film and politics in the Weimar Republic.
In The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany, Barbian goes into meticulous detail, consulting numerous archives, periodicals from 1933 to1945, diaries, letters, and memoirs in an attempt to reconstruct the perspective, experience, and goals of both the perpetrators as well as the ruled. In an extremely well-structured and detailed account, Barbian outlines the steps the Nazis took to both suppress and shape the literary output of the time. As Barbian explains, the German literary industry was a vast and well-established market that the Nazis sought to exploit and manipulate. This required the elimination of the then current systems and the creation of new administrative structures that would promote National Socialist principles. Taking control over such a broad and complex industry required not only intimidation and repression tactics on the part of the government, but also a fair amount of buy-in and cooperation from publishers, libraries, book retailers, authors’ associations, individual citizens, and the authors themselves. Barbian is critical of the complicity of these various groups, which remained silent or cooperated with the Nazi state.
Barbian provides an extensive examination of the multiple levels of bureaucracy (for example: Reich Education Ministry, German Labor Front, PPK, Gestapo) that served to both censor and develop the book industry into a tool that would not only promote National Socialist values and enhance the German culture, but that would also provide appropriate distraction to a war [End Page 135] weary society and would boost the morale of the soldiers on the front. He underscores the deep significance of books and the publishing industry and the way in which the Nazi control of these elements permeated all levels of society and affected the lives and livelihoods of writers, publishers, retailers, students, and professors doing research, as well as average citizens who were encouraged to buy and give books as gifts. Barbian points out that despite the intricate measures taken by the government and the many ministries created to control the literary output, the government struggled to create a truly unified regulatory system on such a vast scale. Despite the Nazis’ reputation for efficiency, Barbian...