The border between German culture and Nazi culture

In November 1942, Anne Frank wrote a fictitious advertising brochure for the rear part of the building in central Amsterdam which housed her and other Jews. Reversing Nazi oppression, it ruled that “all civilized languages” were allowed, “therefore no German”. Yet she was prepared to qualify the ban on the language of her home country, declaring that “no German book can be read except scientific and classical works”. The teenager did not object when her father kindly imposed the Goethe and Schiller plays on her. Not only that, she pinned a magazine photo of Heinz Rühmann, a popular actor who continued to work successfully throughout the Third Reich, on a long faded but perfectly discernible wall to visitors to the house that bears his name. .

Even Anne Frank, who professed her love for the Netherlands while in hiding from her former compatriots, remained somewhat ambiguous about whether or not to abandon German culture altogether. Such ambiguity was all the more characteristic of older European Jews. Many found it hard to believe that a nation known for its love of the arts and humanities could have engaged in unprecedented brutality. In the Warsaw ghetto, some musicians played Beethoven in courtyards or, bypassing the prohibition on Jews playing German music, in concert halls. Others packed their instruments before deportation in the hope that their tormentors would let them play rather than send them to the gas chambers.

Appreciation of German culture belonged to a pre-war world that many Jews continued to hold onto, unlike those who shifted their interests elsewhere or had already done so before 1939. There was a generational dimension. to this cleavage. Anne Frank was less attached to German language and literature than her father. Another teenage journalist, Ana Novac, found a Hungarian woman’s complaints about the appalling conditions at Auschwitz rather strange: “German culture! What a disappointment for someone who spent their vacation in Baden-Baden and read Faust! “

The question of whether or not to distinguish German culture from its Nazi interpretation also engaged non-Jewish Europeans and Americans as they defined their position during World War II. Many artists and intellectuals from countries occupied or allied to the Third Reich preferred German romantic culture to French rationalist culture. For this reason, and because they hoped for a revival of their own national cultures, they first accepted Hitler’s new order. There was also less intellectual motivation for the accommodation. Film buffs viewed German costumed comedies and dramas for their entertainment value at a time when domestic film production was reduced and Hollywood imports banned.

The resistance movements aimed at such accommodation, and with them the whole distinction between German culture and Nazi culture. Therefore, they smeared posters advertising the fantasy film Munich in the streets of Paris and Amsterdam with swastikas. Much like Anne Frank, a Dutch resistance newspaper acknowledged that Germany had produced cultural figures of European rank, but insisted that the country had never lost its “barbaric characteristics”. Once the exploitative nature of the Nazi occupation became painfully evident and the military situation began to change, these arguments gained in persuasion.

In the countries which fought Hitler, the propagandist mobilization was in tension with the respect of music or German thought. In Britain, emigrant scholars exerting significant influence on their disciplines coexisted with radio broadcasts, including machine gun fire accompanied by the melodies of Richard Wagner. In the United States, posters and animated films are largely based on ethnic stereotypes. As one program maker put it, his job was to stir up hatred and therefore make it clear that “a German is a Nazi”. In contrast, the Office of War Propaganda, targeting both national and enemy populations, argued that “Nazi ideology” contradicted “decisive trends and achievements in German culture.”

This uncertainty, while reflecting a widespread ambiguity towards Germany, was mainly caused by the Third Reich itself. Its occupation regime quickly shifted from promoting German culture in conjunction with respect for certain other national cultures to shameless domination by controlling film markets and looting museums. Already before 1939, the Third Reich had presented a somewhat blurred image, mingling far-right influences with nineteenth-century traditions and twentieth-century innovations. Because it was often not known exactly what “Nazi” was in this culture, conservative theater directors and apolitical film actors, provided they were not Jews, could advance their careers or at least get a place.

The legitimate culture of the Third Reich was a large church, which made it both inconsistent and powerful. As a result, Germans could quite easily distance themselves from a caricatured image of Nazism after 1945, enjoying symphonic productions by the same conductors or films with longtime popular actors. But that is precisely why a full understanding of the culture in the Third Reich should include the perspectives of the populations that this regime persecuted, occupied or fought against. Despite all of her own ambiguity, Anne Frank was astutely aware that German cultural domination rested on violence.

Featured Image Credit: by Jake Hills via Unsplash