What did culture mean for the German people between 1933 and 1945?
Moritz Föllmer's new book asks important questions about how the Nazis were able to strengthen their cultural position
This article was produced in association with Oxford University Press
Moritz Föllmer turns the spotlight on the Third Reich’s successful cultural appeal in his ground-breaking new study Culture in the Third Reich, investigating what “culture” meant for people in the years between 1933 and 1945: for convinced National Socialists at one end of the spectrum, via the legions of the apparently “unpolitical,” right through to anti-fascist activists, Jewish people, and other victims of the regime at the other end of the spectrum. Relating the everyday experience of people living under Nazism, he is able to give us a privileged insight into the question of why so many Germans enthusiastically embraced the regime and identified so closely with it.
Here, he answers questions on his new book.
Your new book is called Culture in the Third Reich; to what extent did appeals to popular and high culture strengthen the position of Nazis as they rose to power?
High culture, especially music and theatre, was central to Germany’s self-understanding as a nation. At the same time, the Weimar period had seen a vibrant popular culture of films, magazines, and best-selling books. After coming to power, the Nazis managed to exploit both: they subsidised concert halls and theatres as well as film productions and basic radio sets. They took control where it mattered to them without stifling all cultural trends, some of which continued largely unaltered. Those cultural practitioners who were Jewish or left-wing experienced exclusion and persecution, but those who were neither now faced less competition. Moreover, audiences mostly did not view the changes as an impoverishment. On the contrary, many Germans found the vision of a culture that was nationalist rather than cosmopolitan and dynamically modern without breaking with the past highly appealing.
Why do you believe so many Germans enthusiastically embraced the Nazi regime?
The Nazi regime offered two basic messages: one of reassuring ordinariness, of peace, quiet, and harmony; and one of exciting extraordinariness, of great deeds on an individual and collective level. Many Germans were longing for an ordinary life, others for an extraordinary existence, while a third group desired some combination of both. Images and stories served to convey these prospects, to depict any shortcomings as temporary and downplay any serious risks. Germans could not, for the most part, afford a car, but they were still able to gain a visual impression of driving on motorways through hilly landscapes. They enjoyed rather modest opportunities for consumption but benefitted from subsidised concert tickets. And they could choose between trivial film comedies and demanding symphonies, both of which were cast as German achievements. There was an imaginary dimension to life in the Third Reich for which culture was crucial.
What was it about this topic that made you decide to write a book about it?
The original German edition of my book was commissioned as part of a new multi-volume history of the Third Reich. I was rather surprised when the series editor called me one afternoon, as I had previously done little work on either the high or the popular culture of the period. I was, however, very much aware of the topic’s fundamental significance for understanding the world of the Nazis as well as that of their followers, opponents, and victims. This is why I relished the opportunity to think through different aspects of culture inside and outside Germany, to watch some films and read a fair amount of diaries, correspondences, and literary works. Also, it was an exciting challenge to synthesise a rich body of scholarship in a way that would be accessible to student and non-academic audiences.
What do you find striking about Germany’s cultural position during the period from an international perspective?
The officially-approved culture of the Third Reich, much of which was not easily identifiable as Nazi, by and large enjoyed a favourable international reception. Once Germany occupied large parts of the continent, many educated Western, Northern, and South-Eastern Europeans were inclined to accept its predominance. A fair number of intellectuals, writers, and artists made no secret of preferring German culture to its chief competitor in the international arena, French culture. Some even harboured ideological sympathies for the Nazis. But soon, the military foundations of the Third Reich’s European empire proved fragile. At the same time, the occupiers became more openly dismissive and exploitative of other cultures, most unashamedly through the systematic looting of art collections. Across Europe and all the way to Moscow and Hollywood, culture was increasingly defined against German culture, with an understandable refusal to distinguish it from Nazi culture any longer. This the domestic followers of the Third Reich had brought on themselves.
Can you identify any parallels between these issues and those found within the current political landscape around the world?
The Third Reich with its murderous imperialism was discredited after 1945. Yet, the notion of culture as a kind of national substance, which needs shielding and cleansing from foreign influences, has never gone away and currently enjoys renewed popularity. A substantial minority of Europeans demarcate this idea of culture as national substance from the putative threat of Jews and refugees. Claiming an identity as Germans, Italians, or Hungarians, they are also establishing ever closer cross-border connections. While much of this reminds me of Nazism, and more broadly of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, there fortunately remains a crucial difference: At the moment, no country endeavours to combine cultural prestige with racist exclusion and imperialist ambition the way Hitler’s Germany did.
Moritz Föllmer is Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Amsterdam, and the author of a number of books and articles on identity and culture in 20th-century Germany. His most recent title is Culture in the Third Reich (Oxford University Press, 2020), which turns the spotlight on the Third Reich’s successful cultural appeal as they rose to power and investigates what ‘culture’ meant for German people in the years between 1933 and 1945.
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