By Alin Constantin
Whether in the image of Hitler leading the Beer Hall Putsch, the brown-shirted, jack-booted thug harassing people in the street, or book burnings, Nazism was associated from early on with a civilizational relapse into barbarism. “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my handgun,” an expression often falsely attributed to Joseph Goebbels or Hermann Göring, neatly encapsulates this perception. Scholarship on Nazism—and fascism in general—has challenged this view, showing that Nazi officials were invested in the cultivation of Greco-Roman aesthetics, Wagnerian opera, and cinema, among other pursuits. Following the publication of George L. Mosse’s anthology Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich in 1966, historians have placed such interests within the category of “Nazi culture.”
The concept of “Nazi culture” helps us understand intellectual activity in the Third Reich not as dissonant with its widespread practices of violence, but as directly intertwined with them. Cultural history has become the lens through which much of the literature on Nazism and, even more so, Italian Fascism, is written today. This is a direct legacy of the work of George L. Mosse (1918–1999). A teenage émigré from Nazi Germany, Mosse settled in the U.S. Trained as an early modern historian, he eventually turned to the twentieth century. Mosse pioneered many topics we take for granted today, ranging from the influence of European racial thought on the development of the Holocaust, to the relationship between “abnormal” sexuality and authoritarianism, to the way in which monuments, memorials and public ceremonies constitute and cement national feeling. One of Mosse’s early works, the 1964 The Crisis of German Ideology, approached the evolution of National Socialism through the history of ideas. If historians had until then preoccupied themselves with the diplomatic, military, economic and institutional aspects, Mosse focused on the breeding ground of its ideology. Major studies such as Jeffrey Herf’s Reactionary Modernism (1984), Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Fascist Modernities (2001), and Dagmar Herzog’s Sex after Fascism (2005) further expanded this cultural orientation. As Rabinbach articulates this field’s main finding, “The success of National Socialism, so [Mosse, among other] historians argued, derived not merely from political and economic frustration, German thought, nor even hatred of the Jews, but from a deep cultural, intellectual, ritual, liturgical, and ceremonial repertoire firmly established in Germany during the nineteenth century” (174).
One of the preeminent historians of German-Jewish relations, Anson Rabinbach, trained under Mosse after reading The Crisis of German Ideology. Like his Doktorvater, Rabinbach’s work would show a versatility on display in a new collection of his essays, Staging the Third Reich: Essays in Cultural and Intellectual History (Routledge, 2020), edited and with an introduction by Stefanos Geroulanos and Dagmar Herzog. Split into three sections, the book contains writings on Nazi culture, antifascism, and various German and Jewish intellectuals. Most of the essays previously appeared in print, while a number have been edited or updated. When broaching subjects such as sexuality or abnormality, Mosse steered clear of theory, something which cannot be stated of Rabinbach. Ernst Nolte’s Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (1963) was an important text in postwar historiography insofar as it looked at French, Italian, and German manifestations of fascism together. However, few scholars followed Nolte’s phenomenological approach to fascism on either side of the Atlantic. Alongside Tim Mason and Geoff Eley, Rabinbach looked to Marxism for insights into the development of fascism, and studied the history of labor and the organizations that mediated between workers and the regime to gain insight into why the working classes acceded to fascism. Rabinbach’s analyses from the 1970s of the Beauty of Labor office and Strength through Joy program exemplify this approach. Though they were written when materials on big business and the Nazis were only beginning to come out, these essays show nuance and restraint. While his engagement with Critical Theory and psychoanalysis did not lead to a methodological commitment, he nonetheless remained sympathetic to them as shown in his chapter on Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (1967).
Today Rabinbach sees National Socialist ideology as transcending the dichotomies with which many scholars made sense of it (e.g. modernist vs. traditional, rational vs. mystical). It is not that these dichotomies do not exist, but that Nazism managed to subsume all of them at once and thus appeal to different parts of the population and quell factionalism within the party. Rather than offering an exact program, Rabinbach explores how Nazi culture was perceived “from below” and proposes we understand Nazism as an ethos (Gesinnung) and a form of “cultural synthesis.”
The section on antifascism is valuable for a number of reasons. From the 1980s onward, conservative historians contested the legacy of Communist antifascism, claiming that its connection to Moscow directly implicated it in Stalinist crimes. On the left, a celebration of this legacy has occasionally led to an ahistorical romanticization of the movement. As such, historicization of the phenomenon is all the more necessary. As Rabinbach shows in the case of Germany, communist antifascism was never a monolithic current, and figures like Willi Münzenberg understood the threat of National Socialism more so than his Soviet superiors. The essay on the controversy among historians in the 1980s known as the Historikerstreit, “The Jewish Question in the German Question” (1988), makes for an especially valuable read these days, as it touches upon the merits and limitations of student and activist antifascism in West Germany. In the book’s concluding section, Rabinbach echoes Mosse’s interventions in the Historikerstreit when he accuses Andreas Hillgruber, one of the main German figures in the debate, of having attempted to instill a “myth of Teheran” by reopening the discussion of whether Germany lost its eastern empire unjustly. As Perry Anderson showed in his “On Emplotment: Two Kinds of Ruin” (1992), while far from perfect, Hillgruber’s position was neither mystificatory nor unwarranted. In general, Rabinbach shows little sympathy for German historians, whom he faults for not adequately researching the Holocaust, and in the interview that closes the book he indicates approval of Nicolas Berg’s 2003 book, which stressed the inadequate and sometimes problematic nature of West German historians’ dealings with the Holocaust. Yet if German historical scholarship is as lacking as he makes it out, how did Germany come to have such an appreciation for its responsibility for the Holocaust, to the extent that, as one recent book claims, other nations could do some “learning from the Germans”?
Also dedicated to exploring the role of culture within the Nazi enterprise is Moritz Föllmer’s Culture in the Third Reich (2020), which was recently translated from German. Föllmer is perhaps best known for the article “Was Nazism Collectivistic? Redefining the Individual in Berlin, 1930–1945” (2010) and the later monograph Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society from Weimar to the Wall (2012), works which directly challenged the totalitarian paradigm in the study of Nazi Germany and highlighted continuities with the Weimar Republic. Far from inhibiting the development of individuals at the expense of the collective, Föllmer argued, National Socialism was an alternate form of modernity in which individualism was not incompatible with a commitment to the Volk. His latest book carries many of the same lines of analysis over to the study of the arts, cinema, painting, and book culture during the Nazi period. In chronological order from the Weimar Republic to the immediate postwar period, readers are introduced to several ordinary people who recorded political changes and who reappear throughout the narrative. When it came to culture, Nazism was no more “revolutionary” than it was in regard to individualism: there were deep continuities with Weimar literary and artistic traditions. Though some modernist works were condemned as degenerate, modernism as a whole was not, and many important writers, painters, and composers collaborated with the regime. The most important holdover from pre-1933 was bourgeois neo-classicism, which appealed to the middle-class segment of the German population. Though suspicious of pop culture productions, the bourgeois could approve of such content as long as it adhered to patriotic, pro-marriage, and pro-family ideals. Jewish authors were forbidden early on, and the regime invested heavily in censorship and oversight to protect “Aryan” consumers from “Semitic” cultural products. Yet censorship was laxer in other regards. For example, readers continued to have access to books translated from American and British writers. Though frowned upon, jazz was never banned. The secret of Nazism thus consisted in combining radical and conservative cultural policies without developing a clear aesthetic program: a Nazi official could enjoy the neo-classical sculptures of Arno Breker alongside the expressionist paintings of Emil Nolde.
Many of these points were already made by Rabinbach. Though Föllmer uses some archival sources, the book relies mostly on secondary literature and is best understood as a popular account for lay audiences wanting an up-to-date account of Nazi cultural policies. However, the book is not without its problems. Early on he notes that “those interested in Weimar culture usually focus on Berlin rather than Braunschweig and what was new then and is still fascinating today” (12). While true, there is little in this monograph that challenges this model. We get instead what by now seem like the standard references to Carl Schmitt, Gottfried Benn, and Ernst Jünger. “Inner emigration” is described as a postwar term and therefore rejected. Yet the same issue applies to many of the concepts and terms we apply to the study of the National Socialist period (the Holocaust is probably the main example). Figures like novelist Erich Kästner, who is mentioned by Föllmer, identified as being in inner immigration during the Third Reich. Moreover, as Eric Kurlander has shown in his study of liberals during the Nazi period, figures such as Theodor Heuss, Wilhelm Heile, Siegfried von Kardorff found in publishing the possibility to explore historical and societal issues other than those of the regime. Although studies of advertising, consumption, and travel during the Third Reich have proliferated in recent years, these topics remain unexplored in Föllmer’s book.
Studies of fascism and authoritarianism aimed at a popular audience have understandably proliferated in recent years as events such as the Capitol uprising, the infiltration of QAnon conspiracy theorists in the Republican Party, and the continued success of right-wing populist parties across the world drive interest in historical precedents. Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2021) is one notable study of the way in which masculinity has been employed by anti-democratic leaders including Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, Gaddafi, Mobuto, Erdogan, Putin, and Trump to capture and maintain political power. Essentially a series of interconnected biographical sketches, Ben-Ghiat follows these figures from the moment they come to power, unleash their destructive regimes, and fall out of power, either violently (as in the case of Mussolini) or by way of democratic transition (as in Spain and Chile).
Strongmen are characterized as heads of state “who damage or destroy democracy and use masculinity as a tool of political legitimacy” (p. 4). Though psychoanalytically inflected studies of fascism have been a mainstay since the days of Wilhelm Reich, in Anglo-American academia it is Mosse who pioneered the analysis of gender and sexuality in the development of fascism in books such as Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (1985, new edition 2020) and The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996). Unlike Mosse’s Europe-specific studies, Ben-Ghiat’s cast of characters is international. While attuned to national characteristics, one nonetheless ends up with a rather free-flowing definition of masculine behavior. Though the debate about whether Donald Trump can be characterized as a fascist has run out of steam since he left office, it is likely to still be with us for some time, whether one is for or against the label. It is far easier to fit Trump within the pattern of strongmen Ben-Ghiat lays out than it is with that of the fascists. Nonetheless, even among strongmen the differences outweigh the similarities. It was said by one of Trump’s lawyers that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. As distasteful as this claim was, there was nothing in Trump’s presidency that resembled the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti in Fascist Italy or the extra-legal murders in Pinochet’s Chile. Yet it remains to be seen how our present experience will impact the way in which historians look at fascism in the past. As things stand now, there is still much to learn from the cultural approach championed by Mosse.
Alin Constantin is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of History at Stanford University, where he works on Jewish history and the histories of fascism and communism in East-Central Europe.
Featured Image: Adolf Hitler at the Vienna State Opera, 1937. Courtesy of the Austrian National Library