Germany’s Regimented Culture

Dorothy Thompson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/March 22, 1936

There is no genuine faith in National Socialist circles, apparently, that the German spirit if left alone will give artistic form to National Socialist doctrine. No sooner has “the impulse been given for the reawakening and restoration of artistic vitality,” to quote Hitler, than the impulse itself is put into uniform and carefully regimented and controlled, lest it should desert the new track. The Zeitgeist is simply not functioning as the Nazis think it should, and so an immense apparatus is set up to push, coerce, lure, cajole and bribe it into the correct paths.This apparatus is in the hands of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Chief of the Federal Bureau of Propaganda and Enlightenment, and dictator of German culture. The movement, which rests its case on its claim to issue from the wellspring of the folk soul, apparently believes that the effort of revolution has exhausted the waters. Dr. Goebbels is to prime the pump and shut away the people from other wells.

The work of establishment is undertaken with all the precision, thoroughness and careful organization of the Prussian army. Instead of creating a new culture, one is to be organized. Who may and who may not write, model, compose, play, sing, act, produce, paint, is defined in a set of decrees having the full force of law and carrying penalties for their violation. What shall be written, sculptured, built, composed, played, acted and painted is controlled by an army of bureaucrats and spies. Dr. Goebbels’ bureau is a cultural inquisition, its word is final, its force unchallenged.

The control of every conceivable branch of German culture is complete. It begins, not by censoring what actually appears, but by determining who shall be the creators and transmitters of culture. No publication, no concert platform, no publishing house, no theater, no gallery is open to any writer, artist or musician who has not first of all run the gantlet of the Propaganda Ministry. One may not exhibit a picture, or present a play, or perform on the piano, or write in the papers and magazines, unless one is a member of the established “chamber.” One cannot get into the chamber if one is suspected of being a heretic. And the very first test is a blood test—one must be able to prove a blood stream uncontaminated by non-Aryan admixture.

Now the first result of this, of course, is that a man’s degree of mendacity decides whether he lives or dies, produces or starves. In the main, the newspapers and periodicals today are still written by the same men who wrote them prior to March, 1933. In the main, the same artists are painting pictures, composing music, playing violins.

A vast insincerity, then, lies over the whole of German culture. A shame-faced compromise, an agonized inner cleavage rends the German artist. Day by day, he is forced to ask himself: “Shall I compromise or shall I perish?” This, rather than the enforced emigration of those artists who could not or would not compromise, is the greatest tragedy of German culture.

For those who have gone abroad, there has been no drastic break with the continuity of the stream of German thought. They are exiled and cut off; yet all of them have survived, in their intellectual and spiritual lives, the terrific earthquake of the National Socialist experience. None is quite the same today as he was yesterday. But none has been forced to deny his own past, and none has been forced to compromise his own spiritual future.

It is even possible that this new diaspora may be the savior of German culture; indeed, may keep alive the very spirit which aborted in the revolution. In Switzerland and Holland, in France and in England, in America, Austria and Czechoslovakia, Germans are playing and composing German music, writing German poetry and novels, adding to the structure of German science, not unmoved by the National Socialist revolution, not unchanged in their sense of values because of it, but free of its shackles.

Of course, the flight abroad of German artists, writers and scientists has been prodigious. The roster of their names reads like pages torn from a German Who’s Who. Most of them, to be sure, are not classed as Germans in the Third Reich, because they have non-Aryan blood in their veins. But they have German science, German tradition, German history and a German experience in their hearts and heads.

The withdrawal of these naturally leaves an immense gap in German cultural life. But more important than their personal absence is the cultural atmosphere which has settled upon the land. A peace pervades it, like the peace of death.

The pre-revolutionary years were years of intense, almost feverish, cerebral activity. The most divergent viewpoints and experiences found form and expression. The struggle to create a new social order was paralleled in the struggle for new artistic forms. It was a period of conflict, and this was reflected for better or worse in art.

Now the conflict is stilled; indeed, say the Nazis, permanently settled. The “alien and disruptive” spirits have departed. The coarse night clubs, the extravagant theaters which subjected content to effect are closed. Germany, they assert, has returned to her essential spirit, and found for it a fitting habitation. Now the soul is at peace; now true art can emerge, in what Rosenberg calls “the smooth monumental style of the National Socialist way of life.”

But it does not emerge! The artists are assembled, each in his proper compartment, each properly certified as to ancestry and breeding, competency and ideology, each folding from the proper authority his license to create. No Jewish taint corrupts them; no breath of non-German internationalism, of bourgeois secularity, of Catholic obscurantism perverts them.

The green-uniformed hordes of the Work Army are ordered: “Dig! Plant! Build!” And they dig, plant and build. The brown-uniformed hordes of the Storm Troopers are ordered: “March! Present arms! Collect the winter-aid fund!” And they march, present arms and collect. And in the same manner, the state says to the artists, so perfectly organized, so immaculately regimented: “Create!”

But when God, in the form of Dr. Goebbels, says: “Let there be light!” there is no light.

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