Imagine a state where the government works hard not only to build crucial infrastructure projects but to elevate the tastes of the people through lavish funding of the arts and protects them from contemporary kitsch. A country where every larger town would have an opera and which would invest in making its citizens healthy and joyful through various initiatives. A country led by a ruler well versed in Arts, with a strong sense of taste who supports artists to make this highly cultured nation of his design thrive.
Frederic Spotts, an American cultural historian and former diplomat, illustrates how such an appealing project can indeed be a nightmare in his excellent 2003 book “Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics”.
In the book he dispels of the popular myth that reading and appreciating the arts makes one less likely to be a genocidal manic by showing how Hitler not only spent his youth pursuing his artistic interests and education, but actively used that knowledge to gain and wield power, policing a cadre of equally sophisticated intellectuals to create the most brutal regime known to man.
While Hitler’s love of classical art and German romantic music is indeed well known, I was entertained by the vignettes about his great love of the city of Rome and attempts to swindle much less sophisticated Mussolini and gain invaluable art pieces. Another interesting detail is that for all of his German nationalism and racism, Hitler comes across as highly contemptuous of his compatriots (and, later, subjects).
He mocked Himmler’s Ahnenerbe, a shady pseudo-scientific group made famous in Indiana Jones movies, for trying to acquire ancient artefacts and prove the historic supremacy of the Arayan race, by engaging in archaeological projects throughout the world.
Of their attempts to glorify the Germanic past (and their obsession with runes and whatever Gemanic they found) he said, according to Speer:
“Why do we call the whole world’s attention to the fact that we have no past? It isn’t enough that the Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were still living in mud huts; now Himmler is starting to dig up these villages of mud huts and goes into raptures over every potsherd and stone axe he finds. All we prove by that is that we were still throwing stone hatchets and crouching around open fires when Greece and Rome had already reached the highest stage of culture. We really should do our best to keep quiet about this past. Instead Himmler makes a great fuss about it all. The present-day Romans must be having a laugh at these discoveries.”
Even more callous are his quips about the destruction from Soviet and Allied aerial raids. He initially saw as conducive to his attempts to wholly remake “Fuehrer cities” Berlin, Hamburg, Munich,Nuremberg and Linz (his beloved hometown), especially as foreign bombs would have been an easier way to forcibly remove the masses of people from their homes.
Throughout the book, Spotts portrays Hitler as somebody who saw himself as primarily as an artist-architect, a demiurge, whose main way of relating to people(s) was through whether they helped or hindered his “vision”. The book details his various relationships with artists and architects, which he used as sort of contractors to make his creations real.
Spotts portrays Speer as more of a refiner and implementer of Hitler’s ideas rather than as an own creative mind (as Speer wrote about himself in his memoirs), however he was only one of the many who allowed themselves to be (more than willingly) used in creating Hitler’s world, which he started sketching out in his notebooks as a poor artist in Vienna.
There are hilarious vignettes about Hitler as micromanaging boss from hell, who calls opera directors to challenge them about programmes and dictates what galleries should display. Especially amusing was his disdain of Vienna and attempts to punish the hated city of his youth, by ordering around its mayor who he saw as too uppity.
While the book focuses on Hitler, there are also glimpses of petty rivalries between his artist-collaborators, which are too familiar to anyone who ever had contact with people in “creative industries”.
Still he most captivating in the book is Spotts’ success in showing that in all of his endeavors Hitler’s love of grand ideas and designs made him powerful bit also completely insensitive to the reality of destruction he caused.
In several episodes, it is clear that this lack of basic humanism is not incompatible with performatively caring and trying to impress. Indeed Hitler made great efforts to elicit genuine emotion, whether by practicing theatrics or instituting various welfare projects, but ultimately he saw everybody, his Germans and closest circle included – as just tiny pieces of his greater model, to be manipulated and moved as he saw fit. While the popular approach is to portray Hitler as an insane barbarian, the true problem with is system was not the lack of sophistication or understanding, but this deep belief in fungibility of human societies and beings, which were just seen as clay to be played with. Even as the bombs were falling on Berlin, Hitler played with his model of Linz and drew plans in his sketchbook. Even after most of his plans got destroyed, much of his spirit, the belief in the possibility of states and demiurges perfectly designing human lives is still with us, equally appealing and destructive.