"INHUMANITIES: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture," by David B. Dennis, Cambridge University Press, $35, 553 pages (nf)
Historically, Germans have always prided themselves on their unique cultural achievements. Germany is the nation of writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, of composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, and painters like Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald.
Given the German devotion to the arts, it is understandable that the Nazi regime attempted to place these revered cultural icons in line with Nazi philosophy, using their achievements to represent a racist, intolerant worldview that placed German culture above all others. David B. Dennis' new book “Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture” wonderfully illustrates how Hitler's followers accomplished this.
Dennis examines in detail the Völkischer Beobachter (Folkish Observer), one of the Nazis' main newspapers and a source of cultural criticism and historical interpretation. Edited by Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's chief ideologue, the various articles in the Völkischer Beobachter portrayed Germany's great artists as being intensely patriotic and politicized, as though the artists anticipated the era of Hitler with their work.
One example of this was the battle to portray composer George Frideric Handel as passionately German, though he spent most of his productive years in England and even became a British citizen. The Nazis consistently spelled his name Händel, though the great composer did not use the umlaut after leaving Germany. The Nazis struggled to explain the composer's preference for England over Germany by stating that he attempted to spread German culture abroad, acting in effect as a cultural ambassador.
Nazis also attempted to portray cultural icons as anti-Semitic. Goethe's life and works were scrupulously examined for evidence that he disliked Jews. His interest in Old Testament themes, as illustrated by his greatest work “Faust,” was dismissed as mere literary interest rather than for its “dogmatic content.”
Though English, William Shakespeare too was frequently used to illustrate the supposed superiority of northern Europeans with close racial ties to Germany. The English playwright was praised for his portrayal of the Jewish character Shylock as a villain and usurer in “The Merchant of Venice.”
This is a dense academic work, and as such occasionally makes for some dry reading. Still, the book's theme is consistently fascinating and offers an innovative and unique look at a troubled time. Students of art history or the Nazi period will particularly be impressed, as will those with an interest in learning how the state and media can mold public opinion through an Orwellian manipulation of the past.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org