Art and Culture in Nazi Germany and New Deal America : Contrasting Values/1933-34
September 9, 2012
My current reading includes Richard J. Evans’ The Third Reich in Power (2005), an account of peacetime Nazi rule 1933-39 emphasizing economic and cultural events. This work is the second volume in Evan’s magisterial The Third Reich Trilogy (2003 -2008), a work as one reviewer asserts, “a masterpiece of historical scholarship”. The Prologue sets the stage for explanation of the rapid establishment of the totalitarian regime in 1933 known as the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in January 1933 led to the Nazi seizure of power and the dictatorship of one-party totalitarian control. Political opponents and parties were suppressed and Hitler was granted authority to suspend civil liberties and circumvent Reichstag rule by decree. What captured my attention was the assault that Natzified not only all institutions but “the whole of associational life”. Nazis were trying to achieve ” a cultural revolution, in which alien cultural differences – notably the Jews but also modernistic culture more generally – were eliminated and the German spirit reborn.” Jews were targeted in that they had, it was averred, been instrumental along with socialists and communists in undermining Germany during the First World War. This, it was asserted, caused the “revolution that created the Weimar Republic”. This was the motivation for beatings, violence , and boycotts of Jewish shops and business that led to emigration of 37, ooo members of the Jewish community by 1933 year’s end. Jews were purged not for reasons of religion but rather based upon racial criteria. That purge directly effected “science, culture, and the arts”. Jewish orchestra conductors, for example, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperor were dismissed. Leaders in the film and radio industries were purged. left wing liberal writers such as Bertold Brecht and Thomas Mann were stopped from publishing. Many intellectuals left Germany. Hitler reserved his “particular enmity” against modern artists. He himself had his art rejected by the Vienna Art Academy in 1914 viewing his art as “talentless”. Abstract and Expressionist artists had gained reputation under the Weimar Republic. Hitler considered their art as “ugly and meaningless daubs”. Nazi anti-intelectualism led as well to the dismissal of numerous left-wing or Jewish professors including Albert Einstein and twenty past and future Nobel prize winners who left the country. In the summer of 1933 Hitler called for a period of restraint to consolidate the Nazi political and cultural revolution. Evans concludes his Prologue to The Third Reich in Power: “This book begins at that moment, the moment when the destruction of the remnants of the Weimar Republic had been completed and the Third Reich was finally in power.”
Having read the evening prior Evan’s Preamble account of Nazi rejection of modernism in art and anti-intellctualism in culture, we visited exhibits at the Minnesota Historical Society. One exhibit, ” 1934: A New Deal for Artists”, displays 56 paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. In context with the harsh reality of economic depression the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), December 1933 to June 1934, was supervised by the Treasury Department and paid by the Civil Works Administration. This was the first program to employ artists in The Great Depression. Federal officials considered artists as essential “to sustain America’s spirit”. During its one year existence it employed 3, 700 artists who produced 15,000 works of Art. Competent painters as representatives of their profession were seen as workers deserving government support. They were encouraged to embellish public buildings and to depict “the American Scene”. Their subjects ranged “from portraits to cityscapes and images of city life to landscapes and depictions of rural life”. Artists in the employ of PWAP, in dramatic contrast with German artists under Nazi cultural restrictive and repressive demands, were to interpret their ideas freely. PWAP artworks were displayed in public buildings capturing the “realities and ideals of Depression-era America . . . reminding the public of quintessential American values such as hard work, community and optimism.”
My pre-teen years during the thirties in Milwaukee my family witnessed and experienced the results of Nazi anti-Semitism. Our neighbor across the street was Jewish. He befriended his German Jewish relatives who had emigrated from Nazi oppression. A frequent sight we observed his male relative with a violin case under his arm on his way to play with the Milwaukee Orchestra. The New Deal Federal Music Project ( 1935-1939) employed musicians, conductors, and composers during the Great Depression. The WPA Music Program (1939-1943) continued supporting music programs sponsoring music festivals and supporting 34 new orchestras. My father, a teacher at Concordia College in Milwaukee, was pursuing a graduate degree in classical languages (Greek and Latin) at Marquette University. His advisor was German Jewish and a scholar of the Classics. I recall having them as guests at our home. My father was the beneficiary of Nazi purging of liberal and Jewish academicians.
The dramatic contrast comparing Nazi and New Deal cultural values, authoritarianism/dictatorship vs. openness/ freedom, would find initial resolution on the battlefields of World War II in Europe.