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Photography in the Third Reich

 | 
Christopher Webster

Foreword

Eric Kurlander

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Ansgar Hillach, Jerold Wikoff and Ulf Zimmerman, ‘The Aesthetic of Politics: Walter Benjamin’s (...)

1Most scholars will recall Walter Benjamin’s observation that fascism is defined by the ‘aestheticization of politics’. What fewer remember is that Benjamin first floated this argument in a Weimar-era book review. The review dealt with a collection of essays titled War and Warrior, which were edited by the well-known nationalist writer, Ernst Jünger. ‘The inner connection which lies at the basis of the essays collected in this volume’, Jünger explained, ‘is that of German nationalism’, a nationalism ‘that has lost its connection to both the idealism of our grandfathers and the rationalism of our fathers’ and sought ‘that substance, that layer of an absolute reality of which ideas as well as rational deductions are mere expressions’. ‘This stance is thus also a symbolic one’, Jünger continued, ‘insofar as it comprehends every act, every thought and every feeling as the symbol of a unified and unchangeable being which cannot escape its own inherent laws’. No wonder that Benjamin titled his review of Jünger’s collection, ‘Theories of German Fascism’.1 For Jünger had articulated well, already three years before Hitler’s rise to power, the relationship between art, myth, and politics in radical nationalist thinking. It was a relationship that sought to escape the realm of empiricism by symbolically uniting the racial and the metaphysical in order to reveal that ‘layer of absolute reality’ that ‘rational deductions’ could never suffice to express.

  • 2 See Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters. A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (New Haven: Yale U (...)

2The essays in this volume work to uncover this ‘layer of absolute reality’ in the realm of National Socialist photography, namely ‘the stylised representation of the body as constituent parts of theVolksgemeinschaft’. More specifically, these essays trace the Third Reich’s creation of a ‘visual myth of the “master race”’ through the use of physiognomy — the science of judging character through facial features and other ‘racial’ characteristics. Although its theoretical premises were not explicitly supernatural, physiognomy belongs epistemologically to other ‘border’ or ‘fringe’ sciences (Grenzwissenschaften) popular in interwar Germany and Austria. These faith-based, supernaturally-inspired sciences included astrology, radiesthesia (‘pendulum dowsing’), characterology, graphology, cosmobiology, and biodynamic agriculture — together constituting an important element of what I call the ‘Nazi supernatural imaginary’.2 Combined with racialist (völkisch) esotericism, neo-paganism, and Germanic folklore, the border sciences helped the Third Reich square the circle between claims that National Socialism was a scientifically sound doctrine based on ‘applied biology’, in the words of Hitler’s Deputy Rudolf Hess, and the blood-and-soil mysticism that undergirded National Socialist perceptions of race and space, culture and aesthetics. National Socialist attitudes toward photography, informed as they were by so-called pseudo-scientific doctrines such as physiognomy, might therefore be placed in the context of a broader supernatural imaginary that informed many aspects of German culture in the interwar period.

  • 3 See Alan Steinweis, Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany. The Reich Chambers of Music, Thea (...)

3The authors in this volume recognize that the National Socialist preoccupation with a faith-based, quasi-religious conception of blood and soil was not the only element determining the aesthetic character and cultural trajectory of photography in the Third Reich. As Alan Steinweis, Michael Kater, Pamela Potter, and others have shown in respect to music, theatre, and the visual arts, one cannot ignore the continuities between Weimar and National Socialist-era aesthetic traditions.3 Most of the contributors to this volume recognize such continuities in the realm of photography as well — between the ostensibly völkisch, romantic, racially organicist photography of the Third Reich and the highly modern, experimental culture of the Weimar Republic.

  • 4 Corinna Treitel, A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern (Baltimore: (...)

4 At the same time, one must acknowledge the mystical and irrational trends in Weimar culture itself before 1933. ‘Occult beliefs and practices permeated the aesthetic culture of modernism, ’ writes Corinna Treitel, one of the foremost experts on German esotericism. Numerous Weimar artists and intellectuals, Treitel reminds us, ‘drew on occult ideas and experiences to fuel their creative processes.’ Among these Weimar-era artists there was a shared expectation that the ‘new art speak to the soul’ by drawing ‘heavily on fin-de-siècle German Theosophy and its deeply psychological understanding of a spiritual reality that lay beyond the reach of the five senses’.4

  • 5 Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), pp. 8–9, 95–97.
  • 6 Thomas Koebner, ‘Murnau — On Film History as Intellectual History, ’ in Dietrich Scheunemann, ed., (...)
  • 7 See Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler a Psychological History of the German Film (Princet (...)

5While such aesthetic trends were not inherently fascist, they nonetheless influenced and encouraged modes of artistic experimentation that had little to do with Weimar-era progressivism, what the film historian Lotte Eisner referred to as the ‘Mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves’, culminating ‘in the apocalyptic doctrine of Expressionism […] a weird pleasure […] in evoking horror […] a predilection for the imagery of darkness’.5 Similarly, the Weimar social theorist Siegfried Kracauer has cited Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, as well as his later films featuring the criminal mastermind Dr Mabuse, as representative of Germany’s ‘collective soul’ wavering between ‘tyranny and chaos’.6 In his Theses Against Occultism, Kracauer’s Frankfurt School colleague, Theodor Adorno, insisted that the interwar renaissance in occultism — which he dismissively regarded as ‘the metaphysics of dunces’ — contributed to the rise of National Socialism through its ‘irrational rationalization of what advanced industrial society cannot itself rationalize’ and ‘the ideological mystification of actual social conditions’.7

  • 8 See Wolfram Pyta, Hitler. The Artist as Politician and Military Commander (New Haven: Yale Universi (...)

6 If esotericism might have abetted some of the more anti-democratic tendencies within Weimar culture, however, we should be careful about equating fascist aesthetics with traditionalism or anti-modernism. National Socialist ideology and the fascist aesthetic that developed alongside it, was a dynamic and contradictory amalgam of high modernism and neo-classicism, of industrial rationality and agrarian romanticism, biological materialism, and racial mysticism. To be sure, Goebbels and his acolytes were always willing to make concessions to the market and the needs of propaganda. If the reality of National Socialist artistic policy was complex and contentious, the attempt to create a new fascist aesthetic was nonetheless authentic. As Wolfram Pyta argues in a recent book, Hitler. The Artist as Politician and Military Commander, the National Socialist Führer viewed himself as an artist staging an elaborate Wagnerian drama in which he and other party leaders were Norse heroes fighting a (meta) physical battle against the Jewish-Bolshevik Nibelungen. In this political and cultural struggle, the aesthetics of race and the body, as exemplified by physiognomy, was an essential element.8

  • 9 See, for example, Claudia Gabriel Philipp, Deutsche Volkstrachten, Kunst und Kulturgeschichte: der (...)

7Such aesthetic norms went well beyond preoccupations with representing socioeconomic reality, as articulated in the Weimar-era photography of Helmar Lerski or August Sander. Already before 1933 völkisch-oriented photographers such as Erna Lendvai-Dircksen and Erich Retzlaff favoured a more romantic idealism, anticipating the Third Reich by producing images that reified physiognomic characteristics and highlighted the putative racial superiority of heroic peasants vis-à-vis the subhuman other.9 Though still reflecting the aesthetic sophistication of Weimar modernity and the pragmatism of the ‘New Objectivity’ (Neue Sachlichkeit), these photographers were, like their colleagues in the fields of characterology or graphology, mimicking and in some respects employing highly modern techniques. Far from rendering the world ‘wie es eigentlich war’ ‘ (what it was actually like)’, they were in fact working to create a new (faith-based) reality through photography, drawing on the supernatural imaginary wherever possible. Thus, while Third-Reich-era photography appropriated elements of high modernism and scientific progress in technical terms, racial physiognomy reinforced a vision of racial utopia, a völkisch ideal disconnected from any real-world understanding of science or society.

8The perennial debate regarding the visual arts in the Third Reich, after all, is twofold. The first question has to do with the accuracy of Benjamin’s assessment above: were the National Socialists successful in aestheticizing politics in service of their racial and spatial goals; or did they resign themselves to eliminating only the most prominent examples of avant-garde (‘degenerate’) art, allowing, sometimes even exploiting, modern art — not to mention apolitical entertainment — in order to maintain popularity? The second and related question has to do with artistic coercion versus consent. To what degree did the regime manage culture through top-down repression? Or was culture determined by bottom-up efforts of artists and writers to ‘work toward the Führer’, in the words of Ian Kershaw, voluntarily producing art that appeared to satisfy the National Socialist-era market, Hitler, or both?

  • 10 See, for example, Paul Ortwin Rave’s Kunstdiktatur im Dritten Reich (Hamburg: Mann, 1949); Hellmut (...)
  • 11 See again Steinweis, Art (1996); Kater, Culture in Nazi Germany (2019); Potter, Art of Suppression (...)

9Early ‘intentionalist’ accounts of National Socialist culture tended to focus on Hitler and Goebbels’ preoccupation with coordinating and politicizing art (aestheticizing politics) from the top down. Many of the same scholars suggested that the National Socialists were cultural philistines, traditionalists who couldn’t recognize quality art or understand modernist aesthetics.10 Beginning in the 1980s and 90s, more ‘functionalist’ accounts have emphasized the porous nature and artistic eclecticism that defined National Socialist cultural policy, characterized by competing agendas and often producing improvised and inconsistent outcomes. Instead of a National Socialist ideological consensus imposed from above, we see a remarkable willingness on the part of leading artists and intellectuals to ‘coordinate’ themselves, whether for economic or ideological reasons, in order to remain viable.11

  • 12 For a useful synthesis of this newer approach, see Kater, Culture in Nazi Germany (2019).

10The essays in this volume provide a newer perspective that moves beyond both of these schools.12 First and foremost, this collection indicates that the National Socialists were anything but cultural hacks. They could appreciate modernist aesthetics, and innovative artists could appreciate National Socialism as well. In this sense, the National Socialists were open to new, even avant-garde ideas — provided they served the purposes of the regime (or pleased its leaders). Indeed, in looking at the role of the state, individual party leaders, and National Socialist propaganda before and after the outbreak of the Second World War; in surveying photographic representations of peasants and workers; and in analyzing aesthetic norms such as Heimat and beauty, the essays in this volume uncover a greater ideological coherence and cultural symbiosis between the regime and the arts than one is accustomed to finding in classic functionalist accounts. Yet this ideological consensus is both more voluntarist and diverse than most traditional (‘intentionalist’) interpretations of National Socialist culture would allow. Whether due to market forces or ideology, many photographers were eager to work towards the Führer in order to remain financially and culturally viable in the Third Reich.

  • 13 David Crew, ‘Photography and the Cinema, ’ in Robert Gellately, ed., Oxford Illustrated History of (...)

11The National Socialists, in turn, embraced many photographers’ experiments in modern technology and communication. This modernity in technique appeared, in particular, in the pages of the era’s popular photographic periodicals, such as the Deutsche Illustrierte and Volk und Rasse, which ranged in content from beautiful ‘Nordic’ women on skis to physiognomic profiles of putatively ‘degenerate’ Dachau inmates.13 Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, and the above-mentioned Erich Retzlaff produced parallel images of the National Socialist elite, promoting an ideal of physiognomic ‘nobility’. Similar attempts were made by Retzlaff and others to portray the German peasant as an ideal of Aryan physiognomy, the archetypal representative of blood-and-soil ideology. National-Socialist-era photographers also glorified labour, though in ways that emphasized technology as well as race, creating images not dissimilar from those idealizing industrialization in America or the Soviet Union. Photos of the German Heimat were, in contrast, especially romanticized and racialized, drawing on the mythical imagination of Germany’s past and future. Nowhere were the aesthetics of physiognomy more clearly on display — or more explicitly politicized — than in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, which played on racialist tropes as consciously and as successfully as any contemporary work of National Socialist propaganda.

12What held all this together — the regime’s intentions and the artists’ aspirations — was the ‘Nazi supernatural imaginary’, infused by völkisch imagery and the aesthetics of physiognomy. This pseudo-scientific thinking allowed faith-based, blood-and-soil mysticism and ‘applied biology’ to co-exist, bringing the Third Reich’s racial and spatial fantasies into more concrete reality. Though technically sophisticated and modernist in aesthetic sensibility, National-Socialist-era photography consequently drew on the ‘parascience’ of physiognomy to facilitate a project of racial resettlement and even mass murder. At least in the realm of photography, as the essays in this volume suggest, Benjamin’s pronouncement still rings true.

Notes

1 See Ansgar Hillach, Jerold Wikoff and Ulf Zimmerman, ‘The Aesthetic of Politics: Walter Benjamin’s Theories of German Fascism’, New German Critique 17 (1979), 99–119.

2 See Eric Kurlander, Hitler’s Monsters. A Supernatural History of the Third Reich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

3 See Alan Steinweis, Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany. The Reich Chambers of Music, Theatre, and the Visual Arts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Michael Kater, Culture in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019); Pamela Potter, Art of Suppression: Confronting the Nazi Past in Histories of the Visual and Performing Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

4 Corinna Treitel, A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), pp. 109–10.

5 Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), pp. 8–9, 95–97.

6 Thomas Koebner, ‘Murnau — On Film History as Intellectual History, ’ in Dietrich Scheunemann, ed., Expressionist Film: New Perspectives (Rochester: Camden House, 2003), pp. 111–23. There are those who see the völkisch, supernatural, and irrational elements intrinsic to Weimar film as less all-encompassing. See, for example, Ofer Ashkenazi, A Walk into the Night: Reason and Subjectivity in the Films of the Weimar Republic (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2010); Ofer Ashkenazi, Weimar Film and Modern Jewish Identity (New York and London: Palgrave, 2012).

7 See Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler a Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019); Cary J. Nederman and James Wray, ‘Popular Occultism and Critical Social Theory: Exploring Some Themes in Adorno’s Critique of Astrology and the Occult’, Sociology of Religion 42: 4 (1981), 325–32. Also see, Adorno, Stars Come Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994).

8 See Wolfram Pyta, Hitler. The Artist as Politician and Military Commander (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015); Frederick Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (New York: Overlook, 2004).

9 See, for example, Claudia Gabriel Philipp, Deutsche Volkstrachten, Kunst und Kulturgeschichte: der Fotograf Hans Retzlaff (Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 1987); Thomas Friedrich and Falk Blask, eds, Menschenbild und Volksgesicht: Positionen zur Porträt fotografie im Nationalsozialismus (Münster: LIT, 2006).

10 See, for example, Paul Ortwin Rave’s Kunstdiktatur im Dritten Reich (Hamburg: Mann, 1949); Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, Art under a Dictatorship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954); Franz Roh, ‘Entartete’ Kunst: Kunstbarbarei im Dritten Reich (Hannover: Fackelträger, 1962); David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969); David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); Henry Grosshans, Hitler and the Artists (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983).

11 See again Steinweis, Art (1996); Kater, Culture in Nazi Germany (2019); Potter, Art of Suppression (2016); Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2004). For an earlier example anticipating this argument, see Hildegard Brenner, Die Kunstpolitik des Nationalsozialismus (Berlin: Rowohlt, 1963).

12 For a useful synthesis of this newer approach, see Kater, Culture in Nazi Germany (2019).

13 David Crew, ‘Photography and the Cinema, ’ in Robert Gellately, ed., Oxford Illustrated History of Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

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