The artistic underpinnings of Nazi terror
The puzzle of Hitler and the Holocaust continues to twist in and out of the popular consciousness like a particularly hardy virus, most recently in the alleged new archival evidence (in the new book Hitler’s Secret: The Double Life of a Dictator by respected German historian Lothar Machtan) that Hitler was gay. This idea has its attraction as perhaps one component of what happened, with Hitler’s pathological genocide of outsiders and marginalized groups possibly the most extreme expression in history of the deep self-loathing that often accompanies life in the closet.
Peter Cohen did not have this material available for his 1989 documentary The Architecture of Doom, and it’s hard to say whether he would have used it if he had. But Cohen plays a larger and more subtle hand. In this brilliantly written and visualized documentary, he uses rare historical footage to show how Hitler and his cronies used art to create an “ideology of beauty” that both demonizes an enemy and galvanized the professional classes, along with many rank-and-file Germans, into either actively participating in or tacitly approving of the destruction of millions.
Hitler was an accomplished artist but also – and crucially, says Cohen – a failed one, rejected from art school, which embittered him and set him on a drastically different path. Further investigation reveals an astonishing prevalence of failed artists, novelists, poets, etc., including Joseph Goebbels, in the middle and upper echelons of the party. Hitler understood that in order to win a populace to a cause, there must be a powerful underlying ideology. The usual explanations of Hitler’s rise due to economic privation tell only part of the story; the rest of it can be found in his complex creation of an art-based mythology formed to convince Germans that their country was a direct descendant of imperial Greece and Rome and should thus have monumental, heroic, “wholesome” art to reflect this. A stumbling block to recapturing these glories of the past, according to the Nazi view, were “degenerate groups” – the mentally ill, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals – polluting German bloodlines either through alleged massive procreation (the mentally ill) or “impure” art (Jews).
The film dazzlingly shows just how much of the ideology Hitler created derived from, and later depended on, art. He was a longtime connoisseur, making vast numbers of art purchases, at Nazi-organized art shows; and seizures, from occupied territories. One of his obsessions, shown in all its excess in the film, was the “clean” art of massive white stone Aryan musculature; wildly oversized statuary; ridiculously large domed buildings (one capable of holding 180,000 people); and kitsch-heroic and pastoral paintings that showed an idealized Germany that awaited them after conquering the world. This avalanche of art and architecture, most of it commissioned personally by Hitler, was meant to crowd out the “un-art” and “un-culture” of “Bolshevik Jews” (the two were invariably coupled in Hitler’s undiscriminating mind) supposedly wreaking havoc on the noble German.
Contrasting this proposed future world of Aryan bliss were cubist and expressionist images of faces and bodies by Picasso, Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, and others, likened to the deformed faces and bodies of mentally ill institutionalized citizens in a chilling Nazi-era slide show. Using such threatening if simple-minded paradigms helped immeasurably in demonizing Jewish (and modern) artists and thus Jews. More “hygienic” art showing “normal,” robust Germans at work and in repose could counter what Hitler and his minions reduced to a kind of noxious bacteria burrowing into the German body: the Jew. Many ambitious doctors joined this effort, with the least ethical, those willing to put the stamp of approval on this idea, elevated to the top ranks. (Nearly half of German doctors were Party members.)
Hitler had other artistic fixations that would serve him in his quest. One was, of course, Wagner, whose work could bring him to tears, and, according to Cohen, offered a “fantastic illusion of flight from reality” that der Feuhrer found both irresistible and inspiring. He was also fueled by a German pulp writer of “cowboys and Indians” novels aimed at boys, which he had cherished as a boy but continued to read into adulthood. The film points out that these novels were written by a man who had never been to America, and links Hitler to him as also a man who had no experience of cultures outside his purview.
Germany’s future in the Nazi plan – Hitler’s plan, really – also depended on cinema. Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries are the best-known films in the Nazi propaganda arsenal, but The Architecture of Doom quotes extensively from two others made in 1937 and 1938. These are the notorious The Eternal Jew, which used footage of impoverished Polish Jews to show the kind of “corrupt” lifestyle that awaited Germans who dared to dissent; and an equally disturbing documentary about the threat of vermin – read: Jews – and the need to control such “pests” through virulent poisons. The film documents the fruit of the Nazi effort to transform human beings into vermin that must be purged as an act of self-defense.
Hitler’s dream of a “clean and beautiful” Germany devoid of such “vermin” soon collapsed both personally, as he became increasingly insane, and militarily, as Germany began losing ground in its two-front war. The most successful Nazi art shown in the film comes from sketches and paintings sent back from the Russian front, showing scenes of Nazi defeat and despair. But defeat merely spurred Hitler on; in Cohen’s eloquent phrase, he “saw doom as art’s highest expression,” and to the world’s lasting detriment became ever more frenzied in his attempt to create the horrifying “high art” of genocide.