Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics
New York: The Overlook Press, 2003
Leaders throughout history have frequently deployed the arts as a means by which to display their power. Hitler is unusual, however, in that art was central to his political vision. He was intensely interested in the arts (painting, sculpture, music, and architecture) and dreamed of forging a state whose artistic and cultural achievements would rival those of ancient Greece and Rome. All told, he was the greatest art patron of the twentieth century.
Most biographers have passed over this topic. Ian Kershaw has declared that Hitler was a “non-person” whose life was a “void” outside of politics. Hugh Trevor-Roper has dismissed Hitler’s artistic taste as “trivial, half-baked, and disgusting.” Hitler is generally derided as nothing more than a mediocre watercolorist.
Frederic Spotts’s Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics is the only major study of Hitler’s engagement with the arts. Spotts marshals a large body of evidence proving the importance of art and architecture both to Hitler himself and to National Socialism at large. He is remarkably even-handed, considering his subject. The book is also liberally illustrated with photographs and copies of Hitler’s sketches.
Hitler’s artistic obsession began in his early adolescence. At the age of 12, he decided that he wanted to be a great painter. He spent his days drawing and painting and could think of little else. It was around this time that he attended his first play, Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, and his first opera, Lohengrin. The latter made a deep impression on him. “I was captivated at once,” he later wrote. “My youthful enthusiasm for the Master of Bayreuth knew no bounds. Again and again I was drawn to his works” (224).
Hitler applied twice to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and was rejected both times. (The reason provided upon his first attempt: “few heads.”) At 19, he arranged a meeting to discuss his career prospects with the famed set designer Alfred Roller but got cold feet and never showed up. As the story goes, he became a drifter, earning income from his sketches of sites around Vienna. During this time, he read voraciously on the subjects of history, philosophy, art, and architecture. He recounted of these years: “I had but one pleasure: my books” (6).
Hitler never became the great painter he dreamed of becoming, but his artistic aspirations influenced his approach to politics and became intertwined with his political ambitions. Spotts writes: “The artist creates his own world out of nothing. Hitler took the existing world and tried to turn it into his own. His dream was to create a culture-state in which Germans were to listen to music he liked, attend operas he loved, see paintings and sculptures he collected and admire the buildings he constructed” (401).
One of Hitler’s first acts as Chancellor was to construct the House of German Art (Haus der Deutschen Kunst), a museum for contemporary German art. The opening date of the inaugural exhibit was celebrated with a festival (Tag der Deutschen Kunst) dedicated to “2000 Years of German Culture.” It featured more than 6000 marchers, 26 floats, and 500 animals. The exhibit and festival became an annual tradition. Footage from the 1939 festival survives today.
Events such as the opening of exhibitions, the laying down of cornerstones and dedication of buildings, etc. were frequently commemorated with parades and festivals. Hitler conceived of these state-sponsored spectacles as works of art. They were akin to grand operatic productions, replete with flags, banners, bands and singers, salvoes, flyovers, etc.
The infamous Degenerate Art exhibit opened shortly following the opening of the exhibit at the House of German Art. The exhibit was the idea of Goebbels but was endorsed by Hitler, who detested Modernist art. Hitler remarked on the irony that wealthy Jewish dealers who profited from conning their customers into paying exorbitant prices for mediocre Modernist art often adorned their own homes with great works by Old Masters.
Another early initiative was the establishment of the Reich Chamber of Culture. The purpose of this organization was to create a union of German artists, promote German art, and to purge the artistic sphere of Jews, Communists, liberals, etc. The Chamber’s inaugural ceremony, held on November 15, 1933, was attended by many prominent artists and featured performances of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture (conducted by Furtwängler); Schubert, Wolf, and Strauss lieder; Strauss’s Festival Prelude (conducted by Strauss himself); and the “Wach auf!” chorus from Die Meistersinger. Goebbels gave a speech in which he declared that the Third Reich would promote “German art and culture in all areas” (78).
Artists occupied a high position in the Third Reich. Hitler was liberal in his granting of commissions, awards, pensions, stipends, scholarships, honorary professorships, and other privileges. “No patron was ever so generous to artists as he,” Goebbels remarked (80). As an example of his generosity, Spotts notes that Hitler personally financed the renovation of the residence and studio of a minor Austrian painter whose works he liked. In a similar instance, he paid for the renovation of the Munich Künstlerhaus and the accommodations of young painters living there. He also exempted artists from military service. A rarefied group of 21 exceptional artists were excused from all wartime obligations.
A number of skilled painters emerged (Ludwig Dettmann, Werner Peiner, Adolf Ziegler), but Hitler’s hope that a painter of genius would arise from these efforts was ultimately left unfulfilled. Hitler regretted this and bemoaned the fact that few of the paintings exhibited at the House of German Art were exceptional. But this was a source of only temporary discouragement: “This nation has works of such enduring value in those spheres of art where we lack great master spirits today that for the time being we can be content with what we already possess in such spheres” (179).
The Third Reich may have failed to produce any painters of genius, but it produced two sculptors of the first rank in Arno Breker and Josef Thorak. Other skilled sculptors included Fritz Klimsch, Josef Wackerle, and Kurt Schmid-Ehmen. Sculpture became the main attraction at the House of German Art.
The most ambitious of Hitler’s initiatives on behalf of the arts was his plan to build a grand museum that would house what he considered the greatest art in the world. This was to be located in Linz (his hometown), which Hitler hoped would become a center of art and culture to rival cities like Vienna and Budapest.
Hitler had begun contemplating this as early as the mid-1920s. His 1925 sketchbook contains a meticulously drawn design (reproduced in this book) for a proposed “National Gallery” in Berlin. The gallery would be divided into two sections of 28 and 30 rooms each. On the side of the floorplan, he listed a number of painters and specified where their paintings would be displayed. He even added an arrow indicating a path for visitors to follow.
Hitler’s plan for the interior of the Linz museum was envisioned with a similar level of exactitude. A secretary recounts that Hitler often expounded on his vision for the museum and discussed matters such as the space allocated to each painting, the decor of the galleries (which would be representative of the time and place in which the paintings therein were created), and even the lighting.
Hitler initially planned to exhibit only nineteenth-century German artists (such as Franz von Stuck, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, Hans Makart, Franz von Lenbach, Eduard Grützner, Carl Spitzweg). But after his state trip to Italy in 1938, he decided that the museum ought to house great works of Renaissance art as well. His tour of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence later inspired him to tell the German ambassador in Italy: “Florence is too beautiful a city to destroy. Do what you can to protect it: you have my permission and assistance” (118). (Hitler demonstrated a similar concern for his enemies as well: “To save the old city of culture, we limited our air attacks on Paris to the airfields on the periphery. . . . It would really have bothered me to attack a city like Laon with its cathedral . . . .” (118). The Allies, of course, were not nearly as thoughtful or merciful.)
The museum was to be the central part of Hitler’s larger project to transform Linz into a city of culture. Located at the core of Linz would be a complex consisting of a library with over 250,000 volumes, an opera house and operetta house, a cinema, a concert hall, and a theatre. Hitler later envisioned more structures for Linz: a bridge, a hotel, a weapons museum, a planetarium, a technical university, a railway station, etc. The cover of this book depicts him contemplating a model of the city. He was obsessed with the model and spent many hours silently contemplating it.
Hitler’s devotion to the visual arts was matched by his love for music, particularly opera. Apart from a few lapses in judgment (he loved Franz Lehár and did not like Brahms), Hitler had good taste. In addition to Wagner and Bruckner, he also liked Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Schumann, Beethoven, and Chopin. He attended hundreds of opera performances over the course of his life, and his knowledge of opera was said to be remarkable. His favorite Wagner operas were Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger (which he is said to have known by heart), and Lohengrin. His favorite opera scene was the finale of Götterdämmerung, which he considered “the summit of all opera” (235).
Hitler also sketched stage sets for Wagner’s operas. With Benno von Arent, he designed several productions that he himself commissioned and financed out of his own pocket. The most grand of these was their production of Die Meistersinger, which was staged annually at Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies starting from 1935.
Hitler became closely involved with the Bayreuth Circle. He met Winifred Wagner in 1923, and the two became close friends. He often visited the Wagner home in Bayreuth and spent time with the Wagner children. Hitler granted the festival both artistic independence (making Bayreuth one of the few cultural institutions that operated outside the purview of the state) and financial assistance.
Most members of Hitler’s inner circle were actually hostile to Wagner and Bayreuth. Hitler did not think highly of their musical tastes. He once complained to a secretary, “When I go to a gala, I have to keep my eye on all the people who accompany me to make sure they do not go to sleep” (89).
Spotts insists that Hitler’s obsession with Wagner’s operas was apolitical in nature and that Hitler was drawn to them on account of their music alone and not their plots. It is refreshing that he shuns the typical hysteria surrounding Wagner. But as a Wagner scholar himself, Spotts has an interest in downplaying the extent to which Hitler saw Wagner as an ideological precursor and drew political inspiration from his operas. The famous anecdote of Hitler being inspired by Rienzi as a young man, which Spotts believes is accurate, would appear to contradict his argument. As Hitler recounted to Speer in 1938, “Listening to this blessed music as a young man in the opera at Linz, I had the vision that I too must some day succeed in uniting the German empire and making it great once more” (227).
It is true, though, that Hitler was impatient with party officials whose music taste was dictated solely by ideology. When he learned that some of them had banned operas such as Carmen, Tosca, and Lohengrin (and had tried to ban The Magic Flute), he was outraged and declared that this arose “from a primitive ideological vigilance that is insupportable” (275).
Bruckner was another favorite of Hitler’s, though Goebbels observed that it was only in 1942 (five years after he was photographed beside the bust of Bruckner at Regensburg) that he began to appreciate his works. As a tribute to Bruckner, Hitler financed a center for Bruckner studies at St. Florian (where Bruckner worked as an organist), repaired the “Bruckner Organ,” and expanded the library wing at the St. Florian Monastery. His plans for Linz also included the construction of a monument in Bruckner’s honor.
Hitler’s passion for opera also manifested in an obsession with opera house architecture. The earliest record of this interest dates back to when he entered a competition for the design of a new opera house in Linz at the age of 18. Hitler read several books on the subject and was said to have been familiar with the design of every major opera house in the world. A room in his bunker was filled with books on opera house architecture. “The bombing of an opera house pained him more than the destruction of whole residential quarters,” according to Speer (286).
One quarter of the drawings in Hitler’s sketchbook were of opera houses that he planned to build. These would be located in smaller towns as well as large cities. Hitler thereby hoped to make opera more accessible to the public: “Opera belongs to the people and must therefore be available to the people” (283). In a similar vein, Hitler organized concerts in factories during wartime; the book includes a photo of Furtwängler conducting a lunchtime concert at a Berlin armaments factory in 1943.
Hitler’s sketchbook also included detailed plans for museums, theatres, public buildings and stage designs. It is easy to see why professional architects were impressed by Hitler’s skill. Speer remarked that Hitler had the mind of an architect, with a near-photographic memory, an eye for detail, and a keen ability to envision floorplans as three-dimensional concepts.
Indeed, Hitler’s sketches were the basis for most of Speer’s projects. Spotts argues that Speer’s role was more minor than is generally assumed. He quotes Fritz Wiedemann’s observation that “Speer himself was not much more than an assistant who carried out Hitler’s ideas” (342). Speer’s planned German Arch of Triumph, for example, was almost a copy of Hitler’s design for a triumphal arch.
Hitler’s remark upon handing Speer his sketches for the triumphal arch is perhaps the most concise statement on the overlap between his artistic interests and his political ambitions: “I made these drawings ten years ago. I’ve always saved them because I never doubted that some day I would build these two edifices” (318). His political vision was effectively an extension of what he envisioned in his architectural sketches.
Spotts also suggests that Hitler came up with the idea for Speer’s Cathedral of Light. This was a simple yet powerful visual effect that consisted of 130 flak searchlights aimed skyward, creating magnificent pillars of light that encircled audience members at the Nuremberg rallies. The famous torchlight processions were also Hitler’s idea.
Spotts writes that, contrary to some accounts, Speer had no hand in the plan for Linz, which was Hitler’s imagining. Similarly, the Linz museum, though designed by Roderich Fick, was strongly influenced by Hitler’s own sketches, and the House of German Art, though designed by Paul Ludwig Troost, was “more Hitler than Troost” (344).
Hitler’s designs were mainly inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The most notable example is the Volkshalle, which was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. This gargantuan granite dome was to be the pride of Germania. Its interior would boast a coffered ceiling resting atop marble pillars, as in the Pantheon, with three concentric tiers of seats reminiscent of the Colosseum (which also inspired the Congress Hall in Nuremberg). The building would be connected by a Roman-style cryptoporticus to Hitler’s palace.
Spotts does not mention it, but another homage to classical architecture was the Zeppelin tribune in Nuremberg, which was modeled after the Pergamon Altar.
Hitler was not entirely averse to Modernism when it came to architecture. He also admired skyscrapers and the technological prowess they represented, though he stated that such structures “must be sensibly integrated” into the surrounding environment (320).
Spotts cites the Autobahn as an example of how Hitler combined technology with aesthetics and ideology. Hitler envisioned the Autobahn as a tribute to both the adventurous spirit of the Aryan race and the beauty of the German countryside. The aesthetic component was important, and detours were made to offer more scenic views even if it incurred additional construction costs. Great pains were taken during construction to avoid inflicting damage upon the environment. Hitler gave much thought to the question of reconciling technology with nature. Bridges, “a key element in the autobahn myth,” were designed to be both monumental and streamlined, modern and organic. The resulting structures are triumphs of modern architecture.
The only shortcoming of this book is that its focus on Hitler limits it to those creative domains that most interested him (painting, music, and architecture). The book is a biography of Hitler refracted through his artistic interests rather than a general survey of art in the Third Reich. Film is barely mentioned at all, despite that it flourished during the Third Reich and was highly effective as an artistic medium through which National Socialist ideals/aesthetics were transmitted. Actors were listed on the Gottbegnadeten-Liste alongside composers, architects, etc. But this is a topic for another book.
One facet of Hitler’s personality that is accentuated in this book is his obsession with detail and his willingness to go to any lengths to realize his vision. The best example of this the manner in which he approached his oratory. He wrote his own speeches and often rewrote them several times. Each gesture and each turn of phrase were painstakingly crafted and rehearsed. Nothing was left to chance. Hitler’s artistic bent also made him sensitive to minor considerations such as lighting and acoustics. This degree of meticulousness extended to the planning of party rallies, parades, etc.
Another is his far-sightedness. Hitler knew that his plans would have required decades of labor and that many of them would not have been fully realized until long after his death. He was thinking centuries ahead. He was concerned not with achieving temporary security, but with creating a civilization that would last thousands of years. In this he failed, but the post-war triumph of ugliness makes his vision all the more appealing. his vision provides a blueprint with which others can succeed.
This book can be recommended both as a highly objective and detailed account of Hitler’s artistic interests and as a study in how art can shape politics and influence the course of history. Read it for a glimpse of what can be achieved in the future.