`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)

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