For Hitler, the painter-architect, aesthetics was a concrete term. It was the 'embellishment of life', the evocation of a make-believe world that ultimately had to satisfy millions. Politics as total art, or art as total politics. For the Nazis the boundaries were fluid. The economic depression after the war had been lost aided them in their plan. Large segments of the German population fell prey to seduction by the politician-actors of national socialism. But they were not passive victims. The German people were screaming for a make-believe world. Many 'leftist' intellectuals had expected a turnaround in the direction of socialism. Only a few, such as Bloch, Benjamin and Kracauer, cautioned against this illusion. Benjamin writes in the epilogue to his famous essay on the work of art, All efforts around the aestheticization of politics culminate in one point. And this one point is total war. (...) Under fascism the alienation of the masses reaches the point at which they experience their own destruction as the highest form of aesthetic pleasure.
But Benjamin's words were lost in the spectacle conducted by the Nazis, and first resurfaced decades later. In the meantime, the masses streamed with eyes open in the direction of the extreme right. Inside the German middle class there existed a great aversion to Americanization and Bolshevism. Berlin's rich nightlife was a thorn in its side. Expressionism, avant-garde and jazz were a curse. Threatened in their daily existence, people sought the security of the people and the homeland. More because, in Reichel's eyes, the Germans were lacking in imagination. And still are. Reichel quotes a member of the Green faction in the Bundestag, who calls for a green culture consciousness in which through a common education process distance is taken from the aesthetic ideals of national socialism and from the fascination for evil. A book like Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal could not have been written in this country; the 'people's healthy common sense' made sure of that. Here misery was forgotten and people sought the schöne schein - the beautiful sham. La Paloma ohè, einmal muß es vorbei sein!
These distorted years provide the basis for Reichel's book on the beautiful sham of national socialism. Next to Auschwitz, according to the author, it is 'bourgeois normality' which opens the chasm to the horror. A chasm which has been covered for too long by one-sided attention to terror. Reichel affirms that national socialism is the result as well as the expression of a deep crisis in the modern. It is the product of bourgeois society and at the same time an organized mass protest against that same society. It possesses traditional and modern characteristics, bourgeois and anti-bourgeois. This dual face of Nazism is the central theme of the book and is described by Reichel as reactionary modernity: Nazi culture fluctuated back and forth between common traditionalism and technological modernity. And on the way to the sacred goal, total war, all means were permitted. Thus, alliance was sought in the beginning with the labour movement and the red of the flags was blood red. But over the years, with an eye to other partners and applicants, the red turned less and less deep.
Reichel shows that the Nazis were successful far beyond the outbreak of the war in their creation of a make-believe world. They were true masters in the use of the new mass media which paid its respects to them through the 1920s. Photography, film and radio were professionally employed to seduce the audience. The quality of the films from Goebbels' studios can still be admired regularly on the German tv channels ARD and ZDF, and previously on 'anti-fascist' DDR television. Celluloid prints and actor Heinz Rühmann seem to have been elevated above good and evil. Only the films of someone like Ms. Riefenstahl evoke doubts. Probably because they are so pointedly linked with the mass spectacles of the Nazis. Reichel elaborately dwells on this cultural expression too, as he does on the striking premiere of the skylight in 1934. 130 antiaircraft searchlights were erected around the Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg which shone their beams 6 to 8 kilometers into the air. Speer says that this was the only space design that outlived its time. During the party convention a demonstration was planned for the middle management, which was less impressive in its physical attitude and discipline than the SA and SS. They carried their extra pounds in prominent bellies; straight lines could not be expected of them. Thus Speer proposed to let them march in the dark and disappear from the view of the skylight. This may have been the most spectacular demonstration of deceptive perfection. Staging was a magic word for the Nazis.
Reichel's study is a treasure trove of information and details. It reminds me of an exhibition I visited in 1987 in West Berlin, entitled The Staging of Power: Aesthetic Fascination During Fascism. Delayed by forty-two years, a picture was given of the appeal of fascism. A dangerous initiative in Germany. Three rooms were filled with the expressions of Nazi culture. And not a trace of fascination emerged from the whole thing, no chills, no enthusiasm, nothing.
Naturally the arrangement was thorough and extensive. German. Every aspect from the Nazis' magic box was exposed. The blood-and-soil paintings, the people's literature, architecture, sculpture, sports and leisure time, the media, the films and the celebrity performances. Only in a speech by Goebbels on the occasion of the book-burnings did something of the horror come out. The dual face of fascism was speaking. The brutal violence and the staged make-believe world. In the dark, magically lit by torches, the old culture was consigned to the flames. The Nazis were that, naturally, too: pyromaniacs of the first division. That was all. As Reichel's book too gets bogged down in collecting all the facts. Without extra value. This is probably enough in the new Germany where people have still been unable to part with the burden of the past. But I also remember another exhibition in Berlin that year which focused extensively on the household implements of the Nazi era: teacups with Hitler, matchboxes with the SS, soap packages with swastikas, stamps for the Winterhilfe. The display cases gave me chills. This was seduction, kitsch, power and violence rolled up into a thimble with the force of an atom bomb.
translation LAURA MARTZ