The Art of Vigilance

Because a culture of protest matters

At a recent climate-­action protest, in Toronto, I was most struck by the loudest refrain: Why aren’t you / Out here too? My instinct was to counter: Because protesting is a privilege! Not everyone can afford to leave work and take to the streets! I’ve been a part of protests with dubious communications strategies before, and my go‑to tactic has been to walk without speaking, assenting to the goal if not the method. But the more I thought about this particular call to action, the more its gravity began to pull me in: Yes. Where are you? Why isn’t everyone protesting? Especially those who work at Queen’s Park or in the Financial District, places of privilege and influence?

Then a navy-­suited man around my age, mid-­thirties, came into view. Protected by his burnished brown suitcase and matching oxfords, he walked against the resolute current of children, parents, grandparents, against individuals young, old, and in between, all exercising their civic duty and bearing witness to our shared path. The man spoke into his phone and described the scene, with plenty of commentary, to his interlocutor: “These people are so naive.”

A protest’s success is measured by its numbers. It’s one of those few occasions when we can witness quantitative value tip into qualitative change. The point is to create a culture of disruption and dissent — before it’s too late. Or, as Michael H. Kater, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, writes toward the end of Culture in Nazi Germany, “In a pluralistic, democratic society culture at the extremes is often the most powerful expression of its time, either as assent to existing circumstances or as protest.” Walking down Bay Street, I started to consider Kater’s point. As I did, Why aren’t you / Out here too took on added urgency. I began to sing it alongside my fellow marchers. If we show courage, I thought, maybe others will too, and the truly naive — those in denial — will be confronted with their own laziness, nihilism, fear of inadequacy, anxiety, or whatever it is that motivates them to disparage those of us demanding action.

The failure to adequately challenge a regime’s cruelty — or its indolence, in our case — is a phenomenon that recurs throughout Kater’s new book, which considers the changing landscape of German culture from the Weimar Republic to May 1945. As the Sonderweg (special path) theory would have it, a distinctly German, almost preordained series of events led to the Holocaust. But Kater values historic specificity without succumbing to the worn-out myth. In doing so, he shows time and again that this is a history that didn’t have to happen. Consider the physicist Lise Meitner, who in 1945 wrote to her colleague Otto Hahn, “Certainly, to assuage your conscience, here and there you helped some person in need of assistance but you allowed the murder of millions of innocent people, and no protest was ever heard.” Such a charge, Kater notes, “could have applied equally to every writer and musician, every painter and actor, every journalist and filmmaker, who, after January 1933, opted to stay in Nazi Germany.”

The country of Goethe, Bach, and Kant, of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), he reminds us, was not immune to misappropriation of its own culture. In this respect, Culture in Nazi Germany is not controversial: it does not challenge our understanding of the National Socialist zeitgeist. Throughout most of the chapters, Kater presents a familiar story of confused aesthetic standards, of Nazi obsessions with “degenerate art,” and of internal conflicts over the use of media, like radio and film. He also considers the deployment of propagandistic journalism, images, and literature, boosted by the infamous Schriftleitergesetz (Editors’ Law), which imposed censorship on all writing.

Kater has gathered most of his material from a variety of secondary sources, though conversations and archives occasionally give fresh energy to the history. While the book is admirable from a scholarly perspective, what stands out the most is how Kater shows the ways “culture” suffered under the Nazis — and through the artists who failed to resist.

Until 1933, the culture of Germany — and Austria, which gets short shrift in Kater’s book — was substantially shaped by Jewish, Communist, and homosexual artists, actors, writers, musicians, and filmmakers. Imagine a German literary history without Kafka or Heine or Schnitzler — those authors of Jewish origin whose writings sparked controversy and debate and still resonate today. Consider Schnitzler’s 1912 play, Professor Bernhardi, which Berlin’s Schaubühne staged again this year. The parallels between the anti-Semitism of the early twentieth century and the racist rhetoric and tactics of today are painfully apparent.

Try listening to classical music without Mahler, Schoenberg, or the entire Second Viennese School. Jewish and queer musicians played these scores. Or try to think of film and theatre without Fritz Lang, the so-­called Master of Darkness, or Max Reinhardt, co-­creator of the Salzburg Festival — still one of the most important classical music festivals in the world. Philosophy or psychology without Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Marx, and Freud would be equally unrecognizable. The list goes on and on.

But what happens when you reject your own? This is the focus of Kater’s first chapter, “Deconstructing Modernism,” a somewhat misleading title for those familiar with the theory of deconstruction. A more trenchant and accurate word, perhaps, would be “destroying” or “dismantling.” It’s a harrowing survey of the shambles of what was once a vibrant cultural landscape.

The eradication and suppression of all that does not fit into the model of Nazi culture invites a two-­pronged question: What do we understand by the term “culture,” and what does “Nazi culture” look like? Kater does not offer a guiding theory of culture, and without a working definition, it becomes difficult to substantiate his claims that an object is good or bad. Nonetheless, he admirably animates the period, showing how those who resisted were killed or went into exile, and how others attempted to kowtow to ideology. As the war progressed, the future of Nazism became more questionable: the propaganda became light entertainment. If there was no bread, at least there were circuses.

Kater tells the stories of multiple artists and authors, including Arthur Schnitzler, whom he places in a somewhat confused historical context, in a list of authors “from the Naturalist school, whose works were now officially shunned (constituting almost one-half of the Weimar repertoire).” It is true that Schnitzler’s plays were shown in Weimar Germany, and that his works shared with naturalism an interest in social and political issues. But, other than this, Schnitzler had little to do with either the Weimar Republic or naturalism.

Schnitzler was, in fact, a member of the literary group Jung Wien (Young Vienna), which defined itself in opposition to naturalism. Moreover, Schnitzler’s work was shunned primarily because he was Jewish, and because he criticized anti-­Semitism early on. Overall, Kater sidesteps the contributions and fates of the Jung Wien modernists. But regardless of literary movement, Austrian and German authors, composers, and artists were subjected to Nazi review.

However much the Nazis destroyed, they also misappropriated. One of the sources of Nazi propaganda and culture was Germany’s own literary and philosophical history. The case of Nietzsche’s works is famous, but reputations of other authors, especially of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, suffered as well.

In passing, Kater identifies Schiller and Hölderlin as appropriated Romantics. This is a loose definition of Romanticism, however. Schiller was not a part of the movement and was, in fact, ridiculed by prominent Romantics like August Wilhelm Schlegel. Nor did Hölderlin’s writings easily fit the Romantic mould. What might unite these two writers with the Romantics is a shared sense of nostalgia, along with an interest in philosophical and political freedom. The fact that the Nazis used their works is actually fascinating: even the pre‑war Nazi cultural engine was stuttering and had to be bolstered by the tried-and-true plays of the past. “Schiller,” Kater writes, “remained at the top of the playlists, followed by Shakespeare and then Goethe, whose cosmopolitanism tended to clash with the chauvinism of leading Nazis.”

It is especially discomfiting to read about ­artists’ motives during the Nazi period, because they resonate so strongly with what is happening today: if one overlooks the horrible state of things (whether politically or environmentally) for the sake of individual well-­being, one deprives others (and, on a deeper level, oneself) of the right to life. In the 1930s and ’40s, the organist Hugo Distler, “hoping for a renewal of Protestant church music, . . . allied himself with National Socialism.” But changing musical taste seems a poor gain in retrospect. Equally, assuming the terror will simply blow over (as the composer Richard Strauss did) does not justify inaction as that terror takes hold.

Culture in Nazi Germany shows just how stubbornly naive we are as a species. And eight decades later, we still haven’t learned that vigilance and action are essential — precisely when dealing with narcissistic, self-­serving, or nihilistic leaders, political or otherwise. Such people are dangerous, and we make them more so by underestimating the gravity of their power.

We all have a duty to challenge such regimes. And in a regime that recognizes the danger and potential of culture, artists have a responsibility to push back. Kater does not suggest artists, filmmakers, and journalists elected Hitler to power, but he shows how they might have done more to frustrate that transition. Of course, those who did protest were killed. Others who were not opportunists or Nazis themselves were terrified, outnumbered.

And what about those who just lay low? For Kater, the popular narrative of inner immigration — a kind of passive resistance — rings false. Artists who claimed such resistance tended to be “cynically trying to ensure the best of two opposing worlds for themselves.” If Hitler won, could they profit? If the Allies triumphed, could they show they had opposed the Nazis all along? Archival evidence undoes many of the post-war euphemistic narratives of people like the artist Emil Nolde and the poet Gottfried Benn, whom we still think of as having little to do with Nazism. Nolde’s paintings and Benn’s poetry were famously rejected by the Nazis — but both men were true believers whose biographies later erased traces of their ideology. Carl Orff, known for his one-hit wonder Carmina Burana, claimed to be a resister from within, having ostensibly worked with Kurt Huber to found the White Rose resistance group. But Huber, along with Sophie and Hans Scholl and the other conspirators, were all murdered. Why wasn’t Orff?

Kater’s discontent with the Nazi-era cultural machine extends to post-war artists, and he is surprisingly dismissive of “cultish Gruppe 47 members,” who he says ignored the recent past. But some of the most prominent members of the group, including Ingeborg Bachmann, Uwe Johnson (whose novel Jahrestage was translated into the award-winning Anniversaries last year), and Paul Celan, especially, dealt explicitly with Nazism. In fact, literature was one of the few realms where the recent past was addressed — in sharp contrast to schools, journalism, film, or television. One of the most famous poems following the war, Celan’s 1948 “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), is probably the clearest example. Bachmann’s frequently quoted anti-war poem “Alle Tage” (“Every Day”) is another.

Kater’s work is strongest where it uncovers the suppressed histories of primary sources and archival material. There is a subtlety and sensitivity of scholarship here, which Kater presents with contemporary urgency. While the book is about the past, it prompts us to ask what the archival evidence of tomorrow will reveal of our actions today. Will it show that we heard the subtle but persistent call to wake up and promote a culture that matters — at the extremes and on the streets? Will it show that you and I were out there too?