Friday, December 19, 2014

Jonathan Petropoulos's "Artists Under Hitler"

Jonathan Petropoulos is John V. Croul Professor of European History, Claremont McKenna College, and author of several books on culture in the Third Reich. He is former Research Director for Art and Cultural Property, Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States.

Petropoulos applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, and reported the following:
Well, it’s difficult for me to assess the quality of my own work (although not surprisingly, I believe I did a good job, having spent nine years researching and writing this tome), but I think page 99 is representative of the book as a whole. The page falls in the chapter on Paul Hindemith, the modernist composer who tried to find accommodation with the Nazi regime (but failed—as did the other cultural figures taken up in this section).

Page 99 engages many of the themes in the book: the defense of a modernist composer on ideological grounds (in this case by Wilhelm Furtwängler, who called Hindemith “purely Germanic”), the strong popular support expressed for these progressive artists during the Third Reich (audiences applauded for twenty minutes after Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted at the Berlin State Opera, although the reaction came because Furtwängler had defended Hindemith in a prominent German newspaper); and the active engagement of Nazi leaders in the formulation of state cultural policy. One of the great paradoxes of the Third Reich is that the Nazi leaders—the most barbarous and malevolent men in history—devoted so much time to cultural pursuits. They not only collected art, but were very hands-on in making cultural policy.

This page is representative of the book in other ways too. First, it is part of a case study approach. Because I seek to discern the motivations of these modernist cultural icons, it is important to examine the specifics of their lives. Every figure had his or her own reasons for seeking accommodation with the regime. Of course, they are comparable in many ways (hence the organization of the book, with one section on those who sought to find a place in the Reich and failed, and another about those who tried and succeeded). But it’s important to focus in on the specific thoughts and circumstances of these very complicated and accomplished artists.

I think this book is also representative because it shows that many modernist cultural figures continued to be productive during the Third Reich, and that is one of the arguments of my book. There is a myth that all Nazis were anti-modernist and that they prevented the creation of modern art between 1933 and 1945. That’s very far from the truth. Many modern artists not only continued to work, but enjoyed the most productive periods of their career. I’m not saying that it wasn’t difficult, but for many, the dangerous environment imparted a sense of meaning, even urgency, with regards to their work. The trade in modern artworks continued up until 1945—one could buy and sell works by Emil Nolde, Ernst Barlach, Franz Marc, or Käthe Kollwitz. It’s important that we develop a more nuanced understanding of the cultural life of Nazi Germany.
Learn more about Artists Under Hitler at the Yale University Press website.

Writers Read: Jonathan Petropoulos.

--Marshal Zeringue