Modern history



The chill winds of antisemitism, anti-liberalism and anti-Marxism, combined with a degree of stuffy moral disapproval of ‘decadence’, also howled through other areas of German culture in the first six months of 1933. The film industry proved relatively easy to control because, unlike the cabaret or club scene, it consisted of a small number of large businesses, inevitably perhaps in view of the substantial cost of making and distributing a movie. As in other sectors, those who saw which way the wind was blowing soon began to bend to its pressure without being told explicitly what to do. As early as March 1933 the giant UFA studios, owned by Alfred Hugenberg, still a member of Hitler’s cabinet at this time, began a comprehensive policy of dismissing Jewish staff and cutting contacts with Jewish actors. The Nazis soon co-ordinated the German Cinema Owners’ Association. Unionized film workers were Nazified, and on 14 July Goebbels established the Reich Film Chamber to oversee the entire movie industry. Through these institutions leading Nazis, and particularly Goebbels, an enthusiastic connoisseur of the movies himself, were able to regulate the employment of actors, directors, cameramen and backroom staff. Jews were gradually removed from every branch of the industry despite the fact that it was not covered by the Law of 7 April. Actors and directors whose politics were unacceptable to the regime were frozen out.31

Under the new conditions of censorship and control, a minority of people in the motion picture industry preferred to seek their fortune in the freer atmosphere of Hollywood. Those who found it included the director Fritz Lang, who had scored a series of successes with films such as M: Murderer Amongst Us, Metropolis and The Nibelungen, an epic that remained favourite viewing for Hitler. Lang’s film The Testament of Dr Mabuse, an indirect satire on the Nazis, was banned shortly before its scheduled premiere in the spring of 1933. He was followed into exile by Billy Wilder, whose popular romantic films had so far betrayed few hints of the boldness he was to show in his Hollywood films such as Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend. Both men created some of Hollywood’s most successful movies in the following decades. Other movie directors migrated to Paris, including the Czech-born G. W. Pabst, director of the classic Weimar film Pandora’s Box and a cinema version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’sThreepenny Opera, and Max Ophüls, born in 1902 in Germany as Max Oppenheimer. Some German directors and film stars, however, had been lured by the pulling power of Hollywood well before the Nazis came to power. The departure of Marlene Dietrich in 1930, for instance, had more to do with money than with politics. One of the few who left as a direct result of the coming of the Third Reich was the Hungarian-born Peter Lorre, who had played the shifty, compulsive child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M; Nazi propaganda later attempted to suggest that the murderer was Jewish, an insinuation entirely absent from Lang’s film.32 But while these emigrés attracted deserved attention, the great majority of the people employed in Germany’s thriving film industry stayed. Of the 75 film stars listed in the magazine Film Week in 1932 as the most popular in Germany (on the basis of fan-mail received), only 13 emigrated, though these included three of the top five - Lilian Harvey and Kaethe von Nagy, both of whom left in 1939, and Gitta Alpar, who left in 1933. Lower down the list, Brigitte Helm left in 1936, and Conrad Veidt in 1934. Apart from Alpar, only one other star, Elisabeth Bergner, who was Jewish, left in 1933; 35 out of the 75 were still working in German films in 1944-5.33

Cinema had become increasingly popular in the course of the late 1920s and early 1930s, above all with the advent of the talkies. But in an age before television, the most popular, and fastest-growing modern means of mass communication was the radio. Unlike the film industry, the radio network was publicly owned, with a 51 per cent stake belonging to the nationwide Reich Radio Company and the other 49 per cent to nine regional stations. Control was exercised by two Reich radio commissioners, one in the Ministry of Posts and Communications and the other in the Interior Ministry, together with a series of regional commissioners. Goebbels was very conscious of the power of radio. During the election campaign of February-March 1933, he had succeeded in blocking all attempts by parties other than the Nazis and the Nationalists to get party-political broadcasts transmitted. Soon, he had secured the replacement of the two existing Reich radio commissioners by his own appointments, and obtained a decree from Hitler on 30 June 1933 vesting control of all broadcasting in the hands of the Propaganda Ministry.

Goebbels immediately enforced a massive purge of broadcasting institutions, with 270 sackings at all levels in the first six months of 1933. This represented 13 per cent of all employees. Jews, liberals, Social Democrats and others not wanted by the new regime were all dismissed, a process made easier by the fact that many of them were on short-term contracts. Radio managers and reporters identified with the previous liberal broadcasting regime, including the founder of German radio, Hans Bredow, were arrested on corruption charges, taken to Oranienburg concentration camp, and condemned in a massive show trial held, after months of preparation, in 1934-5. The majority, however, were willing to carry on under the new regime. Continuity was ensured by the presence of men like Hans Fritsche, a former director of Hugenberg’s radio news department in the 1920s and head of the German Wireless Service, who was in charge of news broadcasts under the new regime. Like many others, Fritsche took steps to secure his position by joining the Party, in his case on 1 May 1933. By this time most radio stations had been effectively co-ordinated, and were broadcasting increasing quantities of Nazi propaganda. On 30 March one Social Democratic broadcaster, Jochen Klepper, whose wife was Jewish, was already complaining that ‘what is left of the station is almost like a Nazi barracks: uniforms, uniforms of the Party formations’. Just over two months later he too was dismissed.34


Radio, Goebbels declared in a speech of 25 March 1933, was ‘the most modern and the most important instrument of mass influence that exists anywhere’. In the long term, he said, radio would even replace newspapers. But in the meantime, newspapers remained of central importance for the dissemination of news and opinion. They presented an obstacle to the Nazi policy of co-ordination and control more formidable by far than that posed by the film and radio industries. Germany had more daily newspapers than Britain, France and Italy combined, and many more magazines and periodicals of every conceivable type. There were independent papers and periodicals at national, regional and local level, representing the whole range of political views from far left to far right. The Nazi Party’s attempt to build a successful press empire of its own had not met with much success. Political papers were in decline in the late Weimar Republic and the printed word seemed to take second place to the spoken in winning adherents to the Nazi cause.35

In this situation, Goebbels had no option but to move gradually. It was easy enough to close down the official Communist and Social Democratic press, as repeated bannings in the early months of 1933 were followed by total closure once the parties had been swept from the scene. But the rest had to be tackled on a variety of fronts. Direct force and police measures were one way of bringing the press to heel. Conservative dailies such as the Munich Latest News (Münchner Neueste Nachrichten) were as liable to periodic bannings as centrist and liberal publications. The Catholic Franconian Press (Fränkische Presse), an organ of the Bavarian People’s Party, was forced to carry a front-page declaration on 27 March 1933 apologizing for having printed lies about Hitler and the Nazis for years. Such pressure easily convinced the major press organizations that they would have to adjust to the new climate. On 30 April 1933 the Reich Association of the German Press, the journalists’ union, coordinated itself, as did so many other similar bodies. It elected Goebbels’s colleague Otto Dietrich as its chairman and promised that future membership would be compulsory for all journalists and at the same time only open to the racially and politically reliable.36 On 28 June 1933 the German Newspaper Publishers’ Association followed suit by appointing the Nazi Party publisher Max Amann as its chairman and voting Nazis onto its council instead of members who had now become politically undesirable.37 By this time the press had already been cowed into submission. Non-Nazi journalists could only make their views known by subtle hints and allusions; readers could only glean their meaning by reading between the lines. Goebbels turned the regular open government press conferences that had been held under the Weimar Republic into secret meetings where the Propaganda Ministry passed on detailed instructions to selected journalists on items in the news, sometimes actually supplying articles to be printed verbatim or used as the basis for reports. ‘You are to know not only what is happening,’ Goebbels told the newspapermen attending his first official press conference on 15 March 1933, ‘but also the government’s view of it and how you can convey that to the people most effectively.’38 That they were not to convey any other view did not need to be said.

In the meantime, the Nazis were busily arresting Communist and pacifist journalists as fast as they could. The arrests had begun in the early hours of 28 February 1933. One of the first to be taken into custody was Carl von Ossietzky, editor of The World Stage, a high-profile intellectual organ of generally left-wing, pacifist journalism. Ossietzky had earned notoriety not only as a biting critic of the Nazis before 1933 but also for publishing an expose of a secret and illegal programme of rearmament in the aircraft industry, an act for which he had been put in prison at the end of a sensational trial in May 1932. A massive campaign by writers outside Germany failed to secure his release after his rearrest in 1933. Imprisoned in a makeshift penal camp run by the brownshirts at Sonnenburg, the frail Ossietzky was forced to undertake hard manual labour, including digging what the guards told him was his own grave. Born in Hamburg in 1889, he was not Jewish or Polish or Russian, despite his name, but German in the full sense of the term as employed by the Nazis. Disregarding these facts, the stormtroopers accompanied their regular beatings and kickings of their prisoner with cries of ‘Jewish pig’ and ‘Polish pig’. Never physically strong, Ossietzky only narrowly survived a heart attack on 12 April 1933. Released prisoners who talked discreetly to his friends described him as a broken man after this point.39

Ossietzky fared only marginally better than another radical writer of the 1920s, the anarchist poet and playwright Erich Mühsam, whose involvement in Munich’s ‘regime of the Coffee House Anarchists’ in 1919 had already earned him a period in gaol under the Weimar Republic. Arrested after the Reichstag fire, Mühsam was a particular object of hatred for the brownshirts because he was not only a radical writer but also a revolutionary and a Jew. Subjected to endless humiliations and brutalities, he was beaten to a pulp by SS guards in the Oranienburg concentration camp when he refused to sing the Horst Wessel Song, and was soon afterwards found hanged in the camp latrine.40 His former colleague in the short-lived revolutionary government in Munich, the anarchist and pacifist Ernst Toller (another Jewish writer) had also been in prison for his part in the Revolution. A series of realistic plays attacking the injustices and inequities of German society in the 1920s kept him in the public eye, including a satire on Hitler performed under the ironic title of Wotan Unbound. At the end of February 1933 Toller happened to be in Switzerland, and the mass arrests that followed the Reichstag fire persuaded him not to return to Germany. He undertook lengthy lecture tours denouncing the Nazi regime, but the hardships of exile made it impossible for him to continue his life as a writer, and he committed suicide in New York in 1939, driven to despair by the imminent prospect of a new world war.41

There were some who were better able to adapt to the literary world outside Germany, most notably the Communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, who left Germany for Switzerland, then Denmark, in 1933, before finding work eventually in Hollywood. One of the most successful exiles was the novelist Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, who despite his name and the heavy hints of the Nazis was not French but German (they also alleged he was Jewish, and had reversed the order of the letters in his original name, Remark, which they claimed, without any evidence to back up their assertion, had been Kramer). He continued to write in exile, and made a good enough living from the sale of film rights to a number of his works to acquire the image of a wealthy playboy in Hollywood and elsewhere in the later 1930s, enjoying much-publicized liaisons with a string of Hollywood actresses.42 More famous still was the novelist Thomas Mann, whose novels Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, along with novellas such as Death in Venice, had established him as one of the world’s literary giants and won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. Mann had become one of the principal literary supporters of Weimar democracy, and toured Germany and the world ceaselessly lecturing on the need to sustain it. He was under no direct threat of violence or imprisonment from the Nazis, but from February 1933 onwards he remained in Switzerland, despite overtures from the regime for his return. ‘I cannot imagine life in Germany as it is today,’ he wrote in June 1933, and a few months later, after he had been ousted amid a flurry of hostile rhetoric from the Prussian Academy of Arts along with other democratic authors such as the poet and novelist Ricarda Huch, he made his commitment even firmer, telling a friend: ‘As far as I personally am concerned, the accusation that I left Germany does not apply. I was expelled. Abused, pilloried and pillaged by the foreign conquerors of my country, for I am an older and better German than they are.’43

Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich, author of biting satires on the mores of the German bourgeoisie such as Man of Straw and The Blue Angel, was dealt with more harshly by the regime, which he had offended by his open criticism of the Nazis in numerous speeches and essays. In 1933 he was deprived of his post as President of the literary section of the Prussian Academy of Arts and went to live in France. There he was joined in August 1933 by the novelist Alfred Döblin, who had been a leading exponent of literary modernism in novels such as Berlin Alexanderplatz, set in the low-life and criminal world of the German capital in the postwar years. A Jew and a former Social Democrat, he was effectively proscribed by the Nazis. The same fate overcame another well-known novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger, also Jewish, whose novels Success and The Oppenheims, published in 1930 and 1933 respectively, were sharply critical of conservative and antisemitic currents in German society and politics; Feuchtwanger was visiting California when he learned that his works had been suppressed, and he did not return to Germany. The novelist Arnold Zweig fled to Czechoslovakia in 1933 and thence to Palestine; he, too, had been proscribed by the regime as a Jew, and was unable to get his works published in Germany any longer.44

Under the circumstances of rapidly growing Nazi censorship and control, few writers were able to continue producing work of any quality in Germany after 1933. Even conservative writers distanced themselves from the regime in one way or another. The poet Stefan George, who had gathered round himself a circle of acolytes devoted to the revival of a ‘secret Germany’ that would sweep aside the materialism of Weimar, offered his ‘spiritual collaboration’ to the ‘new national movement’ in 1933, but refused to join any Nazified literary or cultural organizations; several of his disciples were Jews. George died in December 1933, but another prominent radical-conservative writer, Ernst Jünger, who had been close to the Nazis in the 1920s, lived on, indeed, until the very end of the twentieth century, when he was over 100. Jünger, much admired by Hitler for his glorification of the soldier’s life in Storm of Steel, his novel of the First World War, found that the terrorism of the Third Reich was not at all to his liking, and retreated into what many subsequently called ‘inner emigration’. Like others who took this course, he wrote novels without a clear contemporary setting—a good number of writers favoured the Middle Ages - and even if these sometimes cautiously expressed some criticism of terror or dictatorship in a general sense, they were still published, distributed and reviewed so long as they did not attack the regime in an explicit way.45

Prominent figures, like the previously unpolitical Expressionist writer Gottfried Benn, who became enthusiastic champions of the new regime, were relatively rare. By the end of 1933 there was scarcely a writer of any talent or reputation left in Germany. The playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1912, was one exception, perhaps. But he was over 70 when Hitler became Chancellor, and well past the peak of his creative powers, when he had been famous for his moving dramas of poverty and exploitation. He continued to write, and tried to show outward conformity by giving the Nazi salute and joining in the singing of the Horst Wessel Song. But he did not become a National Socialist, and his naturalistic plays were frequently attacked by the Nazis for their supposedly negative attitudes. A Hungarian writer who met Hauptmann in Rapallo in 1938 was treated by him to a long catalogue of complaints about Hitler. Hauptmann said bitterly that Hitler had ruined Germany and would soon ruin the world. Why, then, had he not left the country, the Hungarian asked. ‘Because I am a coward, do you understand?’, Hauptmann shouted angrily, ‘I’m a coward, do you understand? I’m a coward.’46


The loss of so many prominent writers of one kind and another was accompanied by a similar exodus among artists and painters. There was also a parallel here to the wave of persecution that swept the German musical world at the same time. In the art world, however, it was fuelled in addition by the strong personal antipathy shown towards modernism by Hitler, who considered himself an artist at heart. He had declared in My Struggle that modernist art was the product of Jewish subversives and ‘the morbid excrescences of insane and degenerate men’. His views were shared by Alfred Rosenberg, who took a resolutely traditionalist view of the nature and function of painting and sculpture. While German music in the 1920s was no longer the dominant force it had been in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries German painting, liberated by Expressionism, abstraction and other modernist movements, had undergone a remarkable renaissance in the first three decades of the twentieth century, outstripping even literature as the most prominent and internationally successful of all the arts. This was what the Nazis, with Alfred Rosenberg in the vanguard, now undertook to destroy, following the precept of Point 25 of the Nazi Party Programme of 1920, which stated: ‘we demand the legal prosecution of all tendencies in art and literature of a kind likely to disintegrate our life as a nation.’47

Controversy had long raged over the work of painters such as George Grosz, Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix and many others. Conservatives as well as Nazis detested their paintings. A major furore had been caused by Grosz’s use of religious motifs for the purposes of political caricature, which had already led to Grosz undergoing two (unsuccessful) prosecutions for blasphemy before the Nazis came to power.48 In July, Alfred Rosenberg excoriated the paintings of Emil Nolde as ‘negroid, blasphemous and crude’ and the Magdeburg war memorial of Ernst Barlach as an insult to the memory of the dead, whom the artist portrayed, according to Rosenberg, as ‘half-idiotic’. Otto Dix’s uncompromising representations of the horrors of the trenches in the First World War came in for equally sharp criticism from super-patriotic Nazis. Anything that was not obviously, slavishly representational was liable to arouse hostile comment. Art, according to the Nazis, had to spring, like everything else, from the soul of the people, so ‘every healthy SA-man’ was as capable of reaching a just conclusion on its value as any art critic was.49 Not only German, but also foreign artists came in for strongly worded attacks. German galleries and museums had purchased many paintings by French Impressionists and post-Impressionists over the years, and nationalists considered that the money would have been better spent on furthering German art, particularly given the behaviour of the French in the Rhineland and the Ruhr during the Weimar Republic.50

Some figures, like Grosz, a member of the Communist Party, saw the writing on the wall even before 30 January 1933 and left the country.51 The policies of the Nazi state government in Thuringia since 1930 had carried a clear warning of what was to come. It had removed works of painters like Klee, Nolde and Oskar Kokoschka from the state museum in Weimar and ordered the destruction of frescoes by Oskar Schlemmer in the stairwell of the Bauhaus in Dessau, shortly before the Bauhaus itself was closed. All this should have made it clear that Nazi activists were likely to mount a serious assault on artistic modernism. But room for manoeuvre seemed to be supplied by the fact that Expressionism was well regarded by some within the Party, including the Nazi Students’ Union in Berlin, which actually mounted an exhibition of German art in July 1933 that included work by Barlach, Macke, Franz Marc, Nolde, Christian Rohlfs and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. The local Party bosses forced the exhibition’s closure after three days. Hitler especially detested Nolde’s work, which Goebbels, whose taste was more catholic, rather admired; when the Nazi leader inspected the Propaganda Minister’s new house in Berlin in the summer of 1933, he was horrified to see ‘impossible’ pictures by Nolde hanging on the walls and ordered them to be removed immediately. Nolde was expelled from the Prussian Academy of Arts, to his considerable chagrin, since he had been a member of the Nazi Party virtually since its foundation in 1920. In the course of 1933, local and regional Party bosses sacked twenty-seven art gallery and museum curators, replacing them with Party loyalists who immediately had modernist works removed from exhibition and even in some cases exhibited separately as ‘Images of Cultural Bolshevism’ in a ‘Chamber of Art Horrors’.52 Other directors and their staff bent with the prevailing wind, joined the Nazi Party, or went along with its policies.53

As in other spheres of cultural life, the purging of Jewish artists, whether modernist or traditional, rapidly gathered pace in the spring of 1933. The ‘co-ordination’ of the Prussian Academy of Arts began with the enforced resignation of the 86-year-old Max Liebermann, Germany’s leading Impressionist painter and a past President of the Academy, from his membership as well as his position as Honorary President. Liebermann declared that he had always believed that art had nothing to do with politics, a view for which he was roundly condemned in the Nazi press. Asked how he felt at such an advanced age, the artist replied: ‘One can’t gobble as much up as one would like to puke.’ When he died two years later, only three non-Jewish artists attended the funeral of a once nationally fêted painter. One of them, Käthe Kollwitz, celebrated for her drastic but not overtly political portrayals of poverty, had been forced to resign from the Prussian Academy; the sculptor Ernst Barlach resigned in protest against her expulsion and that of other artists, but stayed in Germany, even though his work was banned, like that of Schmidt-Rottluff.54

Paul Klee, a favourite target of Nazi cultural polemics for his supposedly ‘negroid’ art, was sacked from his professorship in Düsseldorf and left almost immediately for his home country of Switzerland. But other non-Jewish modernist artists decided to see how things would turn out, hoping that Hitler and Rosenberg’s anti-modernism would be defeated by more sympathetic figures in the regime, such as Goebbels. Max Beckmann, previously based in Frankfurt, actually moved to Berlin in 1933 in the hope of being able to influence policy to his advantage. Like many of these other artists he was internationally famous, but unlike Grosz or Dix he never produced directly political work, and unlike Kandinsky or Klee he never even tended towards abstraction. Nevertheless, Beckmann’s paintings were taken off the walls at the Berlin National Gallery and the artist was dismissed from his teaching post in Frankfurt on 15 April 1933. Sympathetic dealers managed to ensure that he could continue to make a living privately while he waited to see what his eventual fate would be. In contrast, Kirchner agreed to resign from the Academy, but pointed out that he was not Jewish and had never been politically active. Not only Oskar Schlemmer but even the Russian inventor of abstract painting, Wassily Kandinsky, who had been resident in Germany for decades, also thought the assault on modernist art would not last very long and decided to sit it out in Germany.55

The Prussian purge was accompanied by similar purges in other parts of Germany. Otto Dix was expelled from the Dresden Academy but continued to work in private even though his paintings were being removed from galleries and museums. The architect Mies van der Rohe refused to resign his membership of the Academy and was expelled. Mies van der Rohe had briefly tried to re-create the Bauhaus in a disused factory in Berlin before it was raided by the police and closed down in April 1933. He protested in vain that it was an entirely unpolitical institution. The founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, complained that as a war veteran and patriot he had aimed only to re-create a true, living German culture of architecture and design. It was not intended to be political, still less a statement of opposition to the Nazis. But art was anything but unpolitical in Germany at this time, for the radical modernist movements of the Weimar years, from Dadaism to the Bauhaus itself, had propagated the view that art was a means of transforming the world; the Nazis were only adapting this cultural-political imperative to their own purposes. Besides, pinning one’s hopes on Joseph Goebbels was always a risky enterprise. The expectation of these artists that he would in time vindicate them would eventually be dashed in the most spectacular manner possible.56


It has been estimated that around 2,000 people active in the arts emigrated from Germany after 1933.57 They included many of the most brilliant, internationally famous artists and writers of their day. Their situation was not made any easier by Goebbels’s subsequent decision to deprive them of their German citizenship. For many such exiles, statelessness could mean considerable hardship, difficulty in moving from one country to another, problems in finding work. Without papers, officialdom often refused to recognize their existence. The regime published a series of lists of those whose German citizenship, passports and papers were officially withdrawn, beginning on 23 August 1933 with writers such as Lion Feuchtwanger, Heinrich Mann, Ernst Toller and Kurt Tucholsky; three further lists were issued shortly afterwards, including most of the other prominent emigrés. Thomas Mann was not only deprived of his citizenship but also stripped of the honorary degree he had been awarded by Bonn University; his open letter of protest to the Rector quickly gained cult status among the emigrés.58 The damage done to German cultural life was enormous. Scarcely a writer of international stature remained, hardly an artist or painter. A whole galaxy of leading conductors and musicians had been forced to leave, and some of Germany’s most talented film directors had gone. Some flourished in exile, others did not; all knew that the difficulties culture and the arts faced under the Third Reich were going to be greater than anything most of them encountered abroad.

What was in store for those art and culture lovers who remained in Germany from 1933 was graphically demonstrated by a new play, dedicated to Hitler at his own request, and premiered in the State Theatre in Berlin on 20 April 1933, Hitler’s birthday. Present in the audience were Hitler and other leading Nazis, including Goebbels. On the stage, the principal roles were played by Veit Harlan, soon to become one of the mainstays of German cinema in the Third Reich, by the popular actor Albert Bassermann, who had taken on his part only after a personal request from Goebbels that he felt unable to refuse, and by Emmy Sonnemann, a young actress in whom Hermann Goring had more than a passing interest, since he took her as his second wife not long afterwards. At the end of the patriotic drama, there was no applause; instead, the whole audience rose in unison and sang the Horst Wessel Song. Only then did the clapping begin, with the entire cast repeatedly giving the Nazi salute, with the exception of Bassermann, who crossed his arms over his chest and bowed in the traditional theatrical fashion; married to the Jewish actress Else Schiff, and scion of a famous family of liberal politicians, he was ill at ease with the new regime, and emigrated with his wife to the United States the following year. The play was Schlageter, and it dramatized the story of the nationalist uprising against the French in the Lower Rhine in the early 1920s. The writer was Hanns Johst, a war veteran who had made his name as an Expressionist dramatist. Johst had gravitated towards the Nazi Party in the late 1920s. His Expressionist method was given a new twist in the final scene, when the firing squad was directed to shoot at the bound figure of Schlageter from the back of the stage, the flashes of its guns passing through his heart right into the auditorium, inviting the audience to identify with his incorporation of the Nazi themes of blood and sacrifice and to become victims of French oppression with him.59

But the play quickly became famous for a reason that had nothing to do with the Nazi glitz and razzmatazz of its premiere. Thanks to all the publicity it gained, it was widely felt to symbolize the Nazi attitude to culture. People noted, either from going to see the play or from reading about it in the press, that one of the main characters, Friedrich Thiemann, played by Veit Harlan, rejected all intellectual and cultural ideas and concepts, arguing in a number of scenes with the student Schlageter that they should be replaced by blood, race and sacrifice for the good of the nation. In the course of one such argument, Thiemann declared: ‘When I hear “culture”, I release the safety catch of my Browning!’60 To many cultured Germans, this seemed to sum up the Nazis’ attitude to the arts, and the phrase quickly went the rounds, becoming wholly detached from its original context. It was soon attributed to various leading Nazis, but above all to Hermann Goring, and simplified in the process to the catchier, wholly apocryphal, but oft-repeated statement: ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun!’61

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!