`Sire, grant us freedom of thought'

`Art has become very spontaneous and sincere under the supervision of National Socialism'

In Nazi Germany, the safest form of protest was to tell a joke. FKM Hillenbrand's new book documents the survival of humour under Hitler Hitler, once extolled as the "greatest artist", regarded himself as the final court of appeal in all artistic matters. In that capacity he inaugurated the "Haus der deutschen Kunst" ("House of German Art") in Munich in 1937; he "expressly forbade any painter to use colours different from those perceived in nature by the normal eye".

Hitler's past as a failed art student, whose attempts with the brush remained restricted to some sketches and to the painting of postcards, moved a German emigre to comment: "A postcard-painter hardly gleans the scope of art, nor what it means."

Some wit once suggested that a suitable inscription for the main entrance of the "House of German Art" might be "Paintbrush, awake!" because it ought to please the Fuhrer's artistic sensibility, and at the same time remind him of the Nazi battle-cry, "Germany, awake!"

Professor Adolf Ziegler, one of Hitler's proteges, was made Prasident der Reichskammer der Bildenden Kunste ("Reich Chamber of Fine Art"). He contributed to the "House of German Art" his own over-life-size nudes, painted with every anatomical detail, though rather lifeless. The models were said to have been former fashion models, and the paintings were much to Hitler's taste, earning Ziegler the titles "Reich Chastity Guardian" and "Reich Master of Pubic Hair".

When in 1938 Francois-Poncet, the French Ambassador, took some friends to this exhibition, he is said to have pointed at the four huge nudes (symbols of the four elements) and remarked, "These, gentlemen, are the five senses," whereupon one of his guestshad said, "But these are only four of them here." "Quite so," replied Francois-Poncet, "Taste is missing!" ... If one agrees with the view that "Nazism was the tainted progeny of German Romanticism" one can appreciate both the importance of music and its manifold uses in Nazi Germany - for marching, radio announcements, wartime Sondermeldungen [special victory announcements by radio] and all the way down to orchestras in the extermination camps. Martial music in particular became a large part of the daily musical fare in the Third Reich. It was constantly transmitted by loudspeaker radio and was thus inescapable. This was already the case during the years preceding the war, and people got heartily sick of it. "At long last, a good old German military march again!" would be one sarcastic comment.

Nazi symbolism even extended to dance as an art form, as it explained in this pseudo-mystic definition: "In the dance we relive the great primeval laws of nature. The male partner's thrust and blow tends towards the soldierly ... the female's instinctive

vibration of a circular character is connected with the swastika, the rune of life, with its circular motion."

It is understandable that adepts of this transcendental Nazi revelation in the dance considered modern dance forms - like swing - as unacceptable "Negroid excrescences"; hence the saxophone was "purged" and the use of percussion instruments was much reduced.

As for the theatre, the economic depression in the early 1930s had already led to hardships for actors and the advent of the Third Reich exacerbated these to an even greater extent than was the case with other art forms. After 1933 about half the leadingactors and actresses, and most directors, emigrated. On the other hand, the classics (including Shakespeare in translation) were still represented and well produced in the Third Reich. This was a field where opposition to the regime could still make itself heard with impunity. Thus the famous line spoken by the Marquis de Posa to the King in Schiller's Don Carlos, "Sire, grant us freedom of thought", often produced such applause that several theatres had to switch the house lights to full strength to inhibit such hostile reaction to the regime... Cabaret survived longer than other art forms in providing a platform from which vocal opposition to the regime could reach an eager public. Its several forms varied from subtle innuendoes, addressed to a sophisticated audience in the capital, to more dow n-to-earth and often crude jokes to listeners in a Bavarian beer-cellar-cum-stage. The compere who best represented this type of cabaret was the vociferous Weiss-Ferdl in the Platzl at Munich, while in Berlin the compere Werner Finck delivered his anti-Nazi sallies somewhat more subtly from the Katakombe in the capital. From his self-appointed stage Weiss-Ferdl tackled in his uniquely direct way a wide range of aspects of life in the Third Reich. He frequently poked fun at the personalities of Nazi Germany, for which he was often imprisoned in the nearby concentration camp at Dachau. After one such spell in the camp he referred to Dachau when he next appeared on the stage: "Good evening! I'm sorry I'm so late. I've just come back from a little excursion to - Dachau! Well, you ought to see that place! Barbed-wire fence, electrified, machine-guns; another barbed-wire fence, more machine-guns - but I can tell you, I managed t o get in all the same!"

However, realizing that the Gestapo had their eyes on him and that his freedom was probably only of short duration, Weiss-Ferdl gave notice in advance: "Ladies and gentlemen, until yesterday this stage was closed, but tonight it's open again. However, ifI were to be too open tonight, this stage might be closed down again tomorrow!"

One evening he appeared, in high spirits: "Can you imagine, my friend Adolf has given me his picture, and he has even signed it! Now I've got a problem - shall I hang him, or shall I put him against a wall?"

Karl Valentin, another witty Munich compere, satirized the absence of freedom of speech in Nazi Germany as early as 1934. His partner, Lisl Karlstadt, asked him on stage what he had to say about the Party Rally in Nuremberg, the Stormtroopers, and so on.

"You know," he replied. "I'm saying nothing at all. I just hope that at least will be allowed"... The satirist Werner Finck ... became widely known as a compere of the cabaret Katakombe in Berlin. His audience consisted chiefly of intellectuals, many of whompresumably had had first-hand experience of anti-Semitic outrages by the SA. When Finck made some anti-Nazi gags onstage someone shouted at him, "Lousy Yid!" to which Finck replied, "I only happen to look intelligent."

On one occasion Finck came on stage giving the Hitler salute. The audience responded with loud laughter, whereupon the compere coolly enquired, "Why are you laughing? That's how much snow has fallen since midday!"

Taken from `Underground Humour in Nazi Germany 1933-1945' by FKM Hillenbrand, published by Routledge (hardback £45)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living