A week in books: The easy ride given to the cultural nabobs of Nazi Germany

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 31 January 2014 04:56

America's finest cultural critic makes a rare visit to London next week. On Monday, Susan Sontag will deliver the St Jerome lecture on literary translation at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. My devotion to the badger-maned sybil of Manhattan began in earnest with her great indictment of Nazi chic in the essay "Fascinating Fascism". These days, her cool diagnosis of Hitlerism's sinister afterlife as a style option looks more pertinent than ever. Its focus was the seductive output of the Führer's pet film director, Leni Riefenstahl. And when that mistress of mystification had her 100th birthday last month, (so much for longevity as a token of virtue), much of the over-heated coverage proved that we still need to heed Sontag's warnings against an art that "exalts mindlessness" and "glamorises death".

Maybe the genocidal slave-state that Riefenstahl served still fascinates because it did what secular thinkers always want the government to do. The Third Reich took its culture very seriously. It paid minute attention to makers, and to means. It spent lavishly on approved forms; and it treated art as the highest, purest expression of the people. A strongly argued new survey of this grimly engrossing topic concludes that Hitler, unlike all his dictatorial forebears, "alone defined and legitimised his power in cultural terms".

Frederic Spotts says relatively little about Riefenstahl in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (Hutchinson, £25). Indeed, if his book has a flaw, it lies in underplaying the Nazi exploitation of cinema in favour of a close scrutiny of Hitler's lifelong enchantment with Romantic painting, monumental architecture, and orchestral music. Spotts reveals little new, but he delivers an efficient and eloquent synthesis. He takes us through the artistic fantasies of the aesthete-turned-autocrat, from the inept watercolourist's rejection by the Vienna School of Fine Arts to the crazed despot's dreams of reconstructing his home town, Linz, as defeat loomed in 1945. From the design of Autobahns and Volkswagens to Albert Speer's neo-classical monstrosities; from the persecution of "degenerate art" to the promotion of the uneasily complicit Richard Strauss, Spotts depicts a culture in which some genuine artists flattered a state built on terror and murder. To cite one notorious test case: the tormented but gutless Wilhelm Fürtwangler did not, alas, cease to be a musician of genius when he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in front of his greatest fan, the Führer.

Gazing on this gallery of sell-outs and sycophants, I was reminded what an easy ride the cultural nabobs of Nazi Germany enjoyed after the war. After a short intermission, Riefenstahl thrived, and thrives. Released from Spandau, Speer bamboozled friends and foes for many comfy years. As for Hitler's cherished musicians, they scarcely skipped a beat before resuming careers. (Spotts points out that the young Herbert von Karajan went on loyally conducting for the Reich, even though Hitler disliked his style. What a creep.) In sum, many talented figures suffered not at all for the active succour they gave to the vilest regime in history.

Speer, the Führer's beloved master-builder, later picked up some powerful admirers among anti-Modernist architects. Léon Krier, who co-wrote the standard work on Speer in 1986, became adviser to Prince Charles and the master-planner behind the Prince's toy-town development at Poundbury in Dorset. Krier has done more than anyone to rehabilitate the giant plans of Speer. Where built, these constructions depended on slave labour dragged from the camps and killed by overwork. And Krier's, above all, is the architectural vision that our heir to the throne trusts. One day soon, when the dust has settled over Stalin and his apologists, can we have a proper debate about that?

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments