Thomas Mann picture

Writing against the Reich

During the 1930s and 1940s, Germany’s Nazi Party worked to change traditional culture to suit their purposes. Such activities were another facet to the growing dictatorship, as the Party regulated and restricted culture for its citizens and artists,* foisting its own cultural agenda on society. Artists were divided on the program—some complied, while others spoke out against the Nazis and their policies, going so far as to flee the country in some cases. From both inside and outside Germany’s borders, they would spend two decades opposing the tyranny of the Reich and its cultural politicking.

Understandably, the more vocal artists felt as though they should confront the Reich’s actions, since those actions challenged and corrupted the traditional sense of true art. After the Nazi Party seized power in 1933, it launched into wholesale cultural pillaging in order to create its own version of “German” culture. The process involved “adopting” historic artists from other countries and illustrating how they were “true Germans” despite their non-German origins. In other words, the Nazis concerned themselves with turning culture into a weapon that could be used to strengthen their own unique identity.

Artists were adopted for their various qualities that “made them German” or for qualities that enabled the Party to discredit foreign influences on them (making it easier to portray them as “German”). Renaissance artists became honorary Germans because of their practicality and fortitude in the face of criticism, characteristics favored by Nazi Germany; such men included Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Dante Alighieri, none of whom were born German. Other philosophers and writers became recipients of Germany’s adoptions due to their alleged anti-Semitism,** a core component of Nazi ideology. Honorary Germans in this category were Martin Luther; William Shakespeare; George Gordon, Lord Byron; and the Brothers Grimm.

Of course, the Reich also placed its living resident artists under stifling restrictions to strengthen its agenda for forming a new, improved German culture. Every artist in Germany was required to join the Party-controlled artistic body, the Reich Chamber of Culture. Any artist who did not do so could neither practice his or her trade nor obtain permission for publication.

Further restrictions targeted writers whom the Nazis deemed to be “degenerate.” They included Jews, modernists, expressionists, and anyone who criticized the Reich. For these individuals, artistic expression became nearly impossible. Yet despite the Party’s efforts to control Germany, the oppressive regulations couldn’t prevent the criticisms from Germans living abroad, and some of the loudest and most scathing denunciations of Nazi ideology came from that group.

Lion Feuchtwanger
Dr. Lion Feuchtwanger pictured in 1933, a few years before he authored his open letter

One such critic was Dr. Lion Feuchtwanger, a Jewish author who went into exile after the Nazis’ seizure of power. In the early 1930s, he wrote a letter to an imaginary German citizen, brazenly declaring, “I, for instance, read your ‘Führer’s’ book and guilelessly remarked that his 140,000 words were 140,000 offenses against the spirit of the German language.” Feuchtwanger’s comments imply he felt that German possessed a set of quintessential characteristics, likely noble ones. It’s a powerful statement because of its context and subtext; obviously, Hitler abused the language, making him dislikable, yet the idea that he opposed the language’s innate strength and nobility makes him despicable.

Germany’s cultural policies didn’t escape Feuchtwanger’s attention, either. In the same letter, he quipped, “I have been told . . . that books are not very popular in the Reich in which you live, and whoever shows interest in them is likely to get into difficulties.” It’s an obvious exaggeration, but it’s clear that he believed that Germans had rejected the books worth reading. To him, they cherished a perverted version of culture and rejected its true version, and they forced their version upon the masses, further corrupting culture by dictating what it should be.

Other criticism came from Thomas Mann, a writer who exiled himself to America and targeted Germany with an anti-Nazi propaganda campaign. In a 1942 radio address broadcasted at Germany, he made a direct attack on the chancellor himself:

“[Hitler’s victory] will be prevented . . . [Hitler] himself will always prevent it, the sorry scoundrel, because of himself, simply because of his nature, because of his impossible and hopelessly deranged disposition, which does not permit him to think, want, or do anything which is not false. . . . Not with Faust’s soul, the soul of humanity, will this stupid Satan go down to hell, but alone.”

Thomas Mann picture
Thomas Mann, German writer and Nobel laureate

Similar to Feuchtwanger, he also criticized the Germans who were responsible for the degradation of classical art and culture under the Reich, declaring that “accounts will also be settled with [National Socialism’s] intellectual trail-blazers and shield-bearers, the journalists and pseudo-philosophers who licked its boots.” It’s a menacing statement for the Reich: German intellectuals had used National Socialism to butcher good culture, but Mann argues that the downfall of their cultural tyranny is assured. By calling them “boot-lickers,” he further assaults their ideology. His assertion is that the Nazi intellectuals were not only perverters of culture (bad enough in an artist’s eyes), but they were merely whimpering puppets of the Nazi agenda, meaning that they weren’t really free-thinkers and, therefore, not intellectual at all.

Although Feuchtwanger and Mann opposed the Reich’s actions from the relative safety of exile, other challengers voiced their concerns from within Germany’s borders. Among them was an orchestral conductor and member of the Party, Wilhelm Furtwängler, eventually the Vice President of the Reich Chamber of Music. Known for his sympathies to Jewish artists, he attempted to intervene on behalf of the oppressed in 1933, writing to Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda:

“The function of art and artists is to bring together, not to separate. In the final analysis, I recognize only one line of division—that between good and bad art. But while the line of division between Jews and non-Jews is being drawn with a relentless, even a doctrinaire, sharpness, even where the political attitude of the person concerned gives no grounds for complaint, the other line of division, extremely important, if not decisive, in the long run—that between good and bad—is being far too much neglected.”

Wilhelm Furtwangler picture
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor and member of the Nazi Party

This represents a challenge of the Party’s entire cultural policy, implying that, if the Reich continued in its “reshaping” of culture, “good” culture was in danger of being lost. While Furtwängler supported the Nazis, his accusation of their petty cultural politics suggests that they were preventing the very thing they hoped to accomplish: by perverting culture for their purposes, they inhibited the growth of a healthy German culture.

There certainly were many sides to the interactions between artists and politicians in Nazi Germany. These men are simply a small representative gathering of the group that opposed the Party and its policies, so it would be unfair either to say that this is a complete look at artists’ attitudes or to say that opposition was widespread. Still, these men recognized the problems with autocratic cultural manipulation and attempted to confront it, creating passionate and evocative arguments. While their efforts yielded little fruit, they still stood against a tyrannical regime, which is worth recognizing.


*For all purposes in this post, “artist” refers to any intellectual, scholar, or practitioner of a technical or aesthetic art, such as professors, writers, painters, musicians, etc.

**The amount and meaning of anti-Semitism in these authors’ works has been debated by others. It’s not the purpose of this post, hence the use of the word “alleged.”

Further Reading

  • David B. Dennis. Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Extracts from the Manual of the Reich Chamber of Culture, 1937. German History in Documents and Images. German Historical Institute.
  • Lion Feuchtwanger. “Thou shalt dwell in houses thou hast not builded.” German History in Documents and Images. German Historical Institute.
  • Jonathan Huener and Francis R. Nicosia, ed. The Arts in Nazi Germany: Continuity, Conformity, Change. Berghahn Books, 2006.
  • Thomas Mann. “German Listeners!” German History in Documents and Images. German Historical Institute.
  • Wilhelm Furtwängler to Joseph Goebbels, letter from April 1933. German History in Documents and Images. German Historical Institute.

The German Historical Institute’s “German History in Documents and Images” has preserved translations of documents from the Nazi era and other eras of German history for interested readers.

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