Petropoulos (History/Claremont McKenna Coll.; Royals and the Reich: The Princes von Hessen in Nazi Germany, 2006, etc.) questions the prevalent assumption that Nazis denigrated modernism and quashed evidence of avant-garde movements in the arts.
Examining the careers of selected visual artists, composers, architects, a poet, an actor and, of course, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the author argues that the cultural milieu of Nazi Germany was complex and often contradictory. Although publicly deriding modernism as degenerate, many high-ranking Nazis collected modernist works, bought from French dealers or plundered from confiscated collections. Austrian art historian Kajetan Mülhmann, “arguably the most prolific art plunderer in history,” mounted many modernist exhibitions. Focusing on modernists themselves, Petropoulos questions their motives in seeking accommodation with the Nazi regime. He concludes that some, despite their artistic proclivities, were Nazi sympathizers; some misunderstood or underestimated Nazi goals; others were so egotistical that “they thought their work to be indispensable to their field”; some were simply opportunists; and some believed “that the intellectual goals of modernism and fascism were compatible.” Petropoulos cites five modernists whose efforts at accommodation failed: Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and composer Paul Hindemith, who left Germany during the war, expressionist poet Gottfried Benn, sculptor Ernst Barlach and visual artist Emil Nolde, who remained but whose careers were compromised. Among the five, Nolde was a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite; but Barlach, who “identified with the downtrodden and marginalized,” was not. Modernists who flourished were composer Richard Strauss, actor Gustaf Grundgens, sculptor Arno Breker, architect Albert Speer, and Riefenstahl, who tried mightily to revise or conceal her past after the war. She claimed that she had been “a sworn enemy of Goebbels,” committed only to her art and apolitical. These 10 artists, Petropoulos claims, were exemplary of many other modernists.
A persuasive, nuanced and surprising picture of German culture under the Nazis.