Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics
Frederic Spotts

“Who was he, then? A homicidal maniac, a gentle artist, a brutal artist, a tyrant, a weak dictator, a would-be Roman emperor, an artist-politician, a supreme actor, a revolutionary, a reactionary? He was each of them. Above all, he was a catastrophe. But that, as Thomas Mann said, is no reason not to find him interesting, as a character and as an event.”

There are people who are distressed by the continued fascination that Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich hold for countless people throughout the world. Indeed, in an interesting twist of the collective guilt mania that grips many in academe, to have an abiding interest in these subjects is tantamount to an admission that one is a neo-Nazi, and that but for societal and cultural restraints, one would be giving expression wantonly to one’s anti-Semitic and sociopathic impulses.

The fact is that Hitler and the Third Reich compel interest for a myriad reasons having nothing to do with a desire to wear jackboots and a black uniform, and thus attired to give vent to a general desire to commit mayhem upon the persons of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other “undesirables”.

In the case of Adolf Hitler, Frederic Spots’ Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics provides us with a provocative study of the Fuehrer as artist, thereby giving us a compelling perspective on why the Austrian dictator remains a captivating subject. Spotts grips the reader’s attention from the very start, introducing his topic with a photograph (one that I had never seen before) of Hitler literally on the edge of his seat, staring intently from near ground level at a very large architect’s model of Linz, the Fuehrer’s adopted home town, “as it will look after being transformed into the culture centre of Europe.”

The photograph, Spotts tells us, was taken on February 13, 1945, in the bowels of the Fuehrerbunker, beneath the Reich chancellery in Berlin. Even in extremis, Hitler fretted over the details of the city plans, apparently oblivious to the fact that they would never be brought to reality.

Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics is a study of Adolf Hitler that focuses upon “his aesthetic nature”. Spotts recounts the story of Albert Speer’s secretary, who testified later that shortly after the beginning of the Second World War, she had overheard Hitler state that “We must end this war quickly. We don’t want war; we want to build.”

It is Spott’s thesis that this statement of Hitler’s was not a falsehood, but a half-truth. “He [Hitler] wanted both war and art. Once he had won his war and established an Aryan state that was a dominant world power, he intended to devote himself to the creation of cultural monuments that would change the face of Germany and immortalize him. Destruction was to be the way to construction.”

For Adolf Hitler, as with countless other art aficionados, classical art and architecture represented the bar against which all other art and architecture must be measured. In the dictator’s view, the high period of classical Greek civilization was more beautiful than anything manifested in the modern world, and the reign of Caesar Augustus the zenith of western civilization.

Hitler’s passion for the classical period was manifested in early 1941when Benito Mussolini called upon his Axis partner to aid the Italian army in the Balkans following its embarrassing failure to subdue the Albanians. The commitment of German troops to this fight involved combat against the Greek army, a fact that nearly made the Fuehrer despondent, and he confided to Joseph Goebbels that Germany would not be in such a position but for Britain’s military intervention.

The appearance of Adolf Hitler on the German political scene in the 1920’s was a classic case—perhaps the classic case—of the hour producing the man. As Spotts points out quite elegantly, much of Hitler’s appeal lay in the promise he offered to produce order, security and protection from modernity, and when he spoke on this subject, he did so not only from his own heart, but to the hearts of many others, both within and without Germany.

On the particular subject of artistic expression, Hitler saw himself as the savior of western civilization itself, and as Fuehrer and first artist in the land, he urged other artists to inspire the public by making their work more accessible. The difficulty was that the art which Hitler wanted to be readily available to the public was the art that he liked. In the modern world, neither the public nor the artists themselves could be relied upon to share the Fuehrer’s artistic tastes. It is probably no coincidence that the first of Hitler’s artistic talents treated by Spotts is that of public speaking.

The author characterizes the dictator’s speeches as “the most potent expression of [Hitler’s] artistic talents and the key to his rise to power.” As with every aspect of his political career, Hitler left absolutely nothing to chance with respect to his public speaking engagements. He carefully orchestrated every aspect of his delivery—facial expression, posture, gestures—practicing them by the hour until he was satisfied about their potential for positive impact on his audience.

The most important of his speaking talents, however, was his evidently innate ability to sense the emotional mood of his audience, to connect with that mood, and to mesmerize his audience through that connection. Hitler was his own speechwriter and choreographer, and his goal was always to create an emotional impact, rather than deal with concrete issues.

Once Hitler attained power, and at least until the coming of war in the fall of 1939, he was so concerned with anything and everything with a public profile that it was difficult for insiders to know whether the Fuehrer’s involvement defined a particular thing as work or pleasure, official or personal, pastime or governing.

Cultural matters interested Hitler most, and in order to control those matters he inaugurated a Reich Culture Chamber in November 1933. Membership was obligatory for every artist in the Reich, but in fact the overwhelming majority of artists and other professionals in the field, such as critics, writers and academics, wanted to be associated with the new political order, for obvious reasons.

It was not a bad thing to be an artist in the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler was never happier than when he was in the company of artists; as one of his hangers-on remembered, it was only during such interludes that his “inapproachability was destroyed.” It is often said that Hitler did not like to smile, at least in part because he felt embarrassed in some way about the appearance of his teeth.

And indeed it is difficult to find a photograph of the dictator smiling, yet the Spotts book has at least two such images, in one of which Hitler is positively beaming. In each of those images the Fuehrer is in a social situation with a number of fellow artists. Hitler subsidized individual artists and art institutions with funds from the fortune he had amassed since becoming Reich Chancellor. The Fuehrer appropriated for himself alone the legal right to confer such things as titles, honors, and honorary professorships, all of which he freely bestowed on favored painters, actors and musicians.

The dictator was even capable of laying aside his rabid anti-Semitism when it came to artists; in addition to other Jewish artists, Hitler protected high-profile Jews, such as Gustav Mahler and Max Reinhardt. He also forgave criminal conduct engaged in by artists, including even political crimes like homosexuality.

And perhaps most remarkably, artists were the only persons whom Adolf Hitler exempted from military service. According to the evidence sifted by Spotts, Hitler’s minions maintained a list of at least 20,000 artists who were off-limits for both conscription and volunteering for service, with more individuals being continuously added. Hitler would not acquiesce in calls from Goebbels and Speer to dispense with his protection of artists even after the disaster at Stalingrad and the subsequent commitment to harness the entire German population and economy for “total war”.

Finally, there was the curious case of Adolf Hitler and “modern art”. Hitler considered any and all artistic movements whose beginnings occurred after 1910 to be “modern art”. According to Spotts, Hitler despised modern art because it was “thought-provoking, unconventional, uncomfortable, shocking, abstract, pessimistic, distorted, cynical, enigmatic, disorderly, freakish.” And for a man whose towering fits of rage are the stuff of legend, the most spectacular exhibitions of anger were provoked by “modern art”.

In 1937, the Fuehrer was the master of ceremonies at the public opening of the House of German Art, one of the very first cultural projects commissioned by him after his accession to power. Hitler delivered the keynote address, and both its tenor and his manner of delivery left his audience in no doubt as to the depth of his dislike for modern art. Raul Rave, the then-acting director of the Berlin National Gallery, was present for Hitler’s address. He observed that “his manner of speaking became… agitated, to a degree that had never been heard even in a political tirade….he foamed with rage as though out of his mind, his mouth slavering, so that even his entourage stared at him in horror.”

Ironically, however, the dictator was very slow to move against the object of his wrath. In 1933, he sacked the director of the Kronprinzen-Palais, a branch of the National Gallery, and ordered all modern art to be removed from display—but preserved where the public could not see them, rather than destroyed. Nevertheless, the museum continued to discretely exhibit modernist work, and to pursue the acquisition of further such works. Hitler even visited the display a year later, and though he winced at their appearance, he said and did nothing about them. And in 1935, he visited Dresden and toured a local exhibit entitled “Images of Decadence in Art”. According to Spotts, “he found the show such an exemplary display of Modernist horrors that he ordered it to tour the country.” Two years later, Hitler finally ordered the removal of all modernist works from museums in Germany.

Frederick Spotts’ Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics is a tour de force in both conception and execution. My recollection is that Hitler considered himself to be, above all other things, an artist. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics makes clear that the Fuehrer never made a more accurate statement in his life. For me, however, the Spotts book raises an issue which is not actually articulated by its author, but which is nevertheless inherently present in such a study. How is it that a man like Hitler succeeds? For slice it however you like, but the fact is that Adolf Hitler was a dilettante, not merely with respect to matters of art, but with regard to everything—everything, that is, except the will to power and a conviction that certain people and things must be eradicated without trace.

How is it that such a man, bereft of any meaningful talent or education, could rise to such a position of power. The answer is not, as some would no doubt assert, that Germans are genetically “programmed” to seek out and subject themselves to political and social domination by such a one as Adolf Hitler. And the question is relevant not simply to politicians, but to business people, professionals, and others as well. I confess that the question bewilders me.

(Reviewed by Tom Nutter)

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