By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“Was cultural life in Nazi Germany as undimensional and controlled as we have been thought to believe,” asks the sub-head of a review by Oded Heilbronner in Haaretz on December 2. “Artists succeeded in going about their work in spite of the dictates from above.”
Every once in a while you read something so offensive that you have to go back and read it again. The piece by Heilbronner reviewing a book called The Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts by Pamela Potter is one such piece.
In the typical disingenuous way that “critical thinking” is used an excuse and ploy for revisionism the article claims that previously the Nazi period suffered under “heterogeneity” of our understanding. But now we have nuance. “The weak Guehrer, the angry young people who refused to toe the line, the inconsistent policy towards homosexuals and lesbians.” The historic monopoly and “monolithic approach” that those who viewed the Nazis as particular brutal and totalitarian has lost out to nuance.
The review claims that “artists and professionals continued to play jazz, design Modernist buildings and paint landscapes and figures,” under the Nazis. “It would be misleading to say that cultural life in Nazi Germany was simply business as usual. Thousands of Germans were persecuted due to their ethnic origin and political beliefs.”
Read that again.
Thousands? How about millions. On the 27th of February, 1933 more than 1,500 Communists were arrested in Germany. The first concentration camps were set up soon after in Oranienburg, Esterwegen, near Hamburg; Dachau, and Lichtenburg, in Saxony. . According to Frank McDonough’s book Opposition and Resistance in Nazi Germany, published by Cambridge University Press, “from 1933-1939, 150,000 Communists were detained n Nazi concentration camps and a further 30,000 executed.” Just the numbers of political prisoners therefore was not merely “thousands.” Jews made up the bulk of victims of the Nazis. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum “the Germans and their collaborators killed between 160,000 and 180,000 German Jews in the Holocaust, including most of those Jews deported out of Germany.” Thousands? No. Hundreds of thousands, in fact it was millions who were persecuted for their ethnic original and political beliefs in Germany.
Heilbronner claims that “the process of Nazification of the nation’s culture was never completed. Some experts say that it was never implemented with any seriousness.” No seriousness? How about the book burnings? On May 10, 1933 books were burned throughout Germany. Thousands of books were burned. Erich Kästner, an eyewitness recalled, “I stood in front of the university, wedged between students in SA uniforms, in the prime of their lives, and saw our books flying into the quivering flames.” But this wasn’t “serious,” apparently?
The review claims that “how it is that so many observers have been fooled, and continue to be fooled, by Nazi propaganda, believing that the culture of the era was a seamless enterprise, all uniform and all-threatening.” So wait, the reason we believe that the Nazis were good at destroying culture is because we have come to be “fooled” by Nazi propaganda? So what are those photos of burning books? What about the numerous accounts? What about the 200,000 Germans murdered by the Nazi regime? Fooled? The disappearance of German Jews between 1933 and 1945, was that merely “propaganda”? The Nazis weren’t “all threatening”? No uniforms? What about the ones worn by the SS?
“Evidence of the relatively comfortable conditions that existed in Nazi Germany for certain artists and institutions is for the most part stifled.” So not only is it part of Nazi propaganda to believe the regime burned books with seriousness, but actually “dissent” is being “stifled.” In fact it was comfortable to live under the Nazis? Oh, for “certain” artists. Meaning non-Jews? That’s like going to a farm and seeing the animals lined up for slaughter and seeing a bull that isn’t being slaughtered and saying “farm life is comfortable for certain animals.”
The review then treads into theories with anti-semitic overtones. “Starting in the 1940s, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer played a major role in laying the problematic foundation for this understanding of Nazi art. Potter charges that the fact that they were Jews with communist or Marxist leanings, who wished to demonstrate their commitment to democracy and to coercively expunge the memory of their own Marxist past in the Weimar Republic,” was responsible for our image of Nazism. They “romantisized” the “world of yesteryear” and this “significantly contributed to their ability to avoid critical discussion of the motives for their stridently negative attitudes on cultural life under the Nazis.”
You need to read that again.
The argument is that it is actually “the fact that they were Jews” that caused writers to have “motives for their stridently negative attitudes on cultural life under the Nazis.”
Read it again.
Jews are blamed for having a “negative” view of the Nazis. If not for these writers, apparently we could understand that cultural life was “comfortable.” What the?!
The Nazis murdered 6 million people, invaded all of Europe, destroyed whole cities, openly boasted of their Nazi views, and yet we are being told that we have been misled because writers are “stifling” our knowledge of Nazism.
But wait, it isn’t only that critics were “Marxists” but also that “the blossoming of modernism in the West also contributed toward deepening the image of Nazi art as archaic, Volkist and racist.” But it was racist. The Nazis were racist. They proudly boasted of their racism in films such as Jew Suss and The Eternal Jew. 20 million Germans saw these anti-semitic propaganda films. Joseph Goebbels said “it proves that film can affect and inflame the feelings in keeping with our own views.” Already by this time the Nazis had carried out Kristallnacht, when 30,000 Jews were arrested and 1,000 synagogues attacked. But we are supposed to debate whether the Nazi art scene was “racist”? Instead of it being racist we are supposed to pretend that it’s merely an “image” we have of the Nazis as racist, in fact they were fine?
The real agenda is clear. The reviewer notes that Potter wants us to “reexaimation of the East German dictatorship, as compared with the Nazi one,” part of the overall trend here that blames “Marxists” for a negative view of Nazism. As if the real problem is that the Nazis were no worse than the East German regime? Even the reviewer, after a litany of offensive statements, notes “there is no way to know if the trend toward leniency and the relative freedom in the visual and performing arts cultural life also existed in the realms of literature and academia. Potter also tends to suppress the cruel persecution of Jewish artists and men of letters.” In 1933 more than 1,200 Jews were expelled from academic positions by the Nazis. A Yad Vashem paper notes, “their ruthless campaign, which lasted almost two years, finally achieved its goal: almost every Jewish professor who was legally still allowed to teach had resigned from his position by 1935.” Was it merely “cruel” persecution? How about mass murder of them?
But we are supposed to reserve judgement on whether or not “relative freedom” persisted in academia? When all Jews are expelled from their positions and hundreds of thousands killed, isn’t that a form of denying freedom to people?
The Heilbronner review was offensive enough, minimizing the extent of Nazi crimes and the suppression of freedom in Germany. But the reality of Potter’s book is even worse. She writes that in 1933 “initially, also, there was no specific exclusion of Jews and other political, social or ethnic “undesirables,” only those no demonstrating “reliability and aptitude.” She claims Kristallnacht was merely a way of “consolidating power,” including “the introduction of the Nuremberg laws which severely reduced the rights of Jews.” She writes that “the exclusion of certain people (Jews, communists and others), may have been carried out with shocking thoroughness.” Just “may”? How about “was.”
Pamela Potter previously c0-authored a 2002 book on “Music and German National Identity.” A recent bio of her notes she is a “Professor of German and Music at University of WisconsinMadison and director of The Center for German and European Studies.” Her research interests explore “twentieth-century Germany, Jewish music, and the impact of German emigration on American musical life.” What is “Jewish music.” In a 2008 article in ‘Jewish Musical Modernism Old and New,‘ Potter wrote that “in the arts and especially music, a significant component of Germany’s rise to cultural prominence came from the contribution of Jews.” She claims that “Jews and Germans are similar not only in their respective reputations as musical peoples, but also in the difficulties they face confronting their identity through music.” Then she goes into some ethnic discussion about whether German music comprises music produced in Germany or just that by “German composers.” How can one conclude Jews are a “musical people” so easily?
The central claim in her latest book is “Potter maintains that although the persecution of Jewish artists and other ‘enemies of the state’ was a high priority for the Third Reich, removing them from German cultural life did not eradicate their artistic legacies,” which again seems to ignore that they were not merely persecuted, but murdered and exterminated. The Holocaust isn’t just “tragic,” as she writes in one essay.
Dr.Oded Heilbronner, the reviewer, is a Senior Lecturer in cultural studies at the Shenkar College of Design and a research fellow for History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He authored a study in 2015 on “popular liberalism to national socialism popular culture” examining the 1860s to 1920s.
But this review of Potters book is extraordinary for the way it downplays the Holocaust and the way it openly pretends that there is a debate about narratives over the nature of the Nazi regime. It’s focus on Jews as painting a negative picture of Germany as opposed to the reality that the Nazi regime was negative, was racist, was murdering people goes beyond being problematic. The claim that only “thousands” were persecuted for “ethnic” reasons is whitewashing. Thousands of people in America are persecuted for ethnic reasons. Nazi German murdered millions.
The way in which this topic was termed one of debate and the victims of Nazism were said to be “stifling” this discussion is a unique form of revisionism. It shows that under the guise of academics and “critical” discussion the same kinds of racially-tinged discussions and whitewashing of racism into intellectual discussion that may occur on the so-called alt-right in America can occur but hide behind academic debate. A “monolithic” view of Nazism. Yes, when people are being gassed, books are burned, houses of worship torched and official racism is on screen for millions, this is not a question of a “monolithic” image, this is the real image.