On the evening of May 10, 1933, some four and a half months after Hitler became Chancellor, there occurred in Berlin a scene which had not been witnessed in the Western world since the late Middle Ages. At about midnight a torchlight parade of thousands of students ended at a square on Unter den Linden opposite the University of Berlin. Torches were put to a huge pile of books that had been gathered there, and as the flames enveloped them more books were thrown on the fire until some twenty thousand had been consumed. Similar scenes took place in several other cities. The book burning had begun.
Many of the books tossed into the flames in Berlin that night by the joyous students under the approving eye of Dr. Goebbels had been written by authors of world reputation. They included, among German writers, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Jakob Wassermann, Arnold and Stefan Zweig, Erich Maria Remarque, Walther Rathenau, Albert Einstein, Alfred Kerr and Hugo Preuss, the last named being the scholar who had drafted the Weimar Constitution. But not only the works of dozens of German writers were burned. A good many foreign authors were also included: Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, Arthur Schnitzler, Freud, Gide, Zola, Proust. In the words of a student proclamation, any book was condemned to the flames “which acts subversively on our future or strikes at the root of German thought, the German home and the driving forces of our people.”
Dr. Goebbels, the new Propaganda Minister, who from now on was to put German culture into a Nazi strait jacket, addressed the students as the burning books turned to ashes. “The soul of the German people can again express itself. These flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they also light up the new.”
The new Nazi era of German culture was illuminated not only by the bonfires of books and the more effective, if less symbolic, measures of proscribing the sale or library circulation of hundreds of volumes and the publishing of many new ones, but by the regimentation of culture on a scale which no modern Western nation had ever experienced. As early as September 22, 1933, the Reich Chamber of Culture had been set up by law under the direction of Dr. Goebbels. Its purpose was defined, in the words of the law, as follows: “In order to pursue a policy of German culture, it is necessary to gather together the creative artists in all spheres into a unified organization under the leadership of the Reich. The Reich must not only determine the lines of progress, mental and spiritual, but also lead and organize the professions.”
Seven subchambers were established to guide and control every sphere of cultural life: the Reich chambers of fine arts, music, the theater, literature, the press, radio and the films. All persons engaged in these fields were obligated to join their respective chambers, whose decisions and directives had the validity of law. Among other powers, the chambers could expel—or refuse to accept—members for “political unreliability,” which meant that those who were even lukewarm about National Socialism could be, and usually were, excluded from practicing their profession or art and thus deprived of a livelihood.
No one who lived in Germany in the Thirties, and who cared about such matters, can ever forget the sickening decline of the cultural standards of a people who had had such high ones for so long a time. This was inevitable, of course, the moment the Nazi leaders decided that the arts, literature, the press, radio and the films must serve exclusively the propaganda purposes of the new regime and its outlandish philosophy. Not a single living German writer of any importance, with the exception of Ernst Juenger and Ernst Wiechert in the earlier years, was published in Germany during the Nazi time. Almost all of them, led by Thomas Mann, emigrated; the few who remained were silent or were silenced. Every manuscript of a book or a play had to be submitted to the Propaganda Ministry before it could be approved for publication or production.
Music fared best, if only because it was the least political of the arts and because the Germans had such a rich store of it from Bach through Beethoven and Mozart to Brahms. But the playing of Mendelssohn was banned because he was a Jew (the works of all Jewish composers wereverboten) as was the music of Germany’s leading modern composer, Paul Hindemith. Jews were quickly weeded out of the great symphony orchestras and the opera. Unlike the writers, most of the great figures of the German music world chose to remain in Nazi Germany and indeed lent their names and their talent to the New Order. Wilhelm Furtwaengler, one of the finest conductors of the century, remained. He was out of favor for a year in 1934 because of his defense of Hindemith, but returned to activity for the remaining years of Hitler’s rule. Richard Strauss, perhaps the world’s leading living composer, remained and indeed for a time became president of the Reich Music Chamber, lending his great name to Goebbels’ prostituting of culture. Walter Gieseking, the eminent pianist, spent much of his time making tours in foreign countries which were organized or approved by the Propaganda Minister to promote German “culture” abroad. But because the musicians did not emigrate and because of Germany’s great treasure of classical music, one could hear during the days of the Third Reich symphony music and opera performed magnificently. In this the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera were pre-eminent. The excellent music fare did much to make people forget the degradation of the other arts and of so much of life under the Nazis.
The theater, it must be said, retained much of its excellence as long as it stuck to classical plays. Max Reinhardt, of course, was gone, along with all other Jewish producers, directors and actors. The Nazi playwrights were so ludicrously bad that the public stayed away from their offerings, which invariably had short runs. The president of the Reich Theater Chamber was one Hans Johst, an unsuccessful playwright who once had publicly boasted that whenever someone mentioned the word “culture” to him he wanted to reach for his revolver. But even Johst and Goebbels, who determined what was played on the stage and who played and directed it, were unable to prevent the German theater from giving commendable and often moving performances of Goethe, Schiller and Shakespeare.
Strangely enough, some of Shaw’s plays were permitted to be performed in Nazi Germany—perhaps because he poked fun at Englishmen and lampooned democracy and perhaps too because his wit and left-wing political views escaped the Nazi mind.
Strangest of all was the case of Germany’s great playwright, Gerhart Hauptmann. Because he had been an ardent Socialist his plays had been banned from the imperial theaters during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s time. During the Republic he had been the most popular playwright in Germany, and indeed he retained that position in the Third Reich. His plays continued to be produced. I shall never forget the scene at the close of the first night of his last play, The Daughter of the Cathedral, when Hauptmann, a venerable figure with his flowing white hair tumbling down over his black cape, strode out of the theater arm in arm with Dr. Goebbels and Johst. He, like so many other eminent Germans, had made his peace with Hitler, and Goebbels, a shrewd man, had made much effective propaganda out of it, tirelessly reminding the German people and the outside world that Germany’s greatest living playwright, a former Socialist and the champion of the common man, had not only remained in the Third Reich but had continued to write and have his plays produced.
How sincere or opportunistic or merely changeable this aging playwright was may be gathered from what happened after the war. The American authorities, believing that Hauptmann had served the Nazis too well, banned his plays from the theaters in their sector in West Berlin. Whereupon the Russians invited him to Berlin, welcomed him as a hero and staged a gala cycle of his plays in East Berlin. And on October 6, 1945, Hauptmann sent a message to the Communist-dominated “Kulturbund for the Democratic Revival of Germany” wishing it well and expressing the hope that it would succeed in bringing about a “spiritual rebirth” of the German people.
The Germany which had given the world a Duerer and a Cranach had not been pre-eminent in the fine arts in modern times, though German expressionism in painting and the Munich Bauhaus architecture were interesting and original movements and German artists had participated in all the twentieth-century evolutions and eruptions represented by impressionism, cubism and Dadaism.
To Hitler, who considered himself a genuine artist despite his early failures as one in Vienna, all modern art was degenerate and senseless. In Mein Kampf he had delivered a long tirade on the subject, and one of his first acts after coming to power was to “cleanse” Germany of its “decadent” art and to attempt to substitute a new “Germanic” art. Some 6,500 modern paintings—not only the works of Germans such as Kokoschka and Grosz but those of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and many others—were removed from German museums.
What was to replace them was shown in the summer of 1937 when Hitler formally opened the “House of German Art” in Munich in a drab, pseudoclassic building which he had helped design and which he described as “unparalleled and inimitable” in its architecture. In this first exhibition of Nazi art were crammed some nine hundred works, selected from fifteen thousand submitted, of the worst junk this writer has ever seen in any country. Hitler himself made the final selection and, according to some of the party comrades who were with him at the time, had become so incensed at some of the paintings accepted by the Nazi jury presided over by Adolf Ziegler, a mediocre painter who was president of the Reich Chamber of Art,* that he had not only ordered them thrown out but had kicked holes with his jack boot through several of them. “I was always determined,” he said in a long speech inaugurating the exhibition, “if fate ever gave us power, not to discuss these matters [of artistic judgment] but to make decisions.” And he had made them.
In his speech—it was delivered on July 18, 1937—he laid down the Nazi line for “German art”:
Works of art that cannot be understood but need a swollen set of instructions to prove their right to exist and find their way to neurotics who are receptive to such stupid or insolent nonsense will no longer openly reach the German nation. Let no one have illusions! National Socialism has set out to purge the German Reich and our people of all those influences threatening its existence and character … With the opening of this exhibition has come the end of artistic lunacy and with it the artistic pollution of our people …
And yet some Germans at least, especially in the art center of Germany which Munich was, preferred to be artistically polluted. In another part of the city in a ramshackle gallery that had to be reached through a narrow stairway was an exhibition of “degenerate art” which Dr. Goebbels had organized to show the people what Hitler was rescuing them from. It contained a splendid selection of modern paintings—Kokoschka, Chagall and expressionist and impressionist works. The day I visited it, after panting through the sprawling House of German Art, it was crammed, with a long line forming down the creaking stairs and out into the street. In fact, the crowds besieging it became so great that Dr. Goebbels, incensed and embarrassed, soon closed it.