WCMA hosts symposium on Hitler’s art and politics

“Staging the Third Reich: A Symposium on Art as Politics,” the second event of the three-day symposium hosted by the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), featured a series of presentations on less-studied aspects of Hitler’s life. Friday’s list of experts included Manuela Hoelterhoff, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the upcoming book, “Hitler’s Summer Seasons,” Jonathan Petropoulos, the John Croul Chair in European History at Claremont McKenna College and James E. Young, chairman of the department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Thomas Kohut, professor of history and Dean of the Faculty, gave introductory remarks, wherein he related an anecdote about Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s second-in-command. In 1945, Allied troops surrounded Berlin on all sides. In order to boost morale, Goebbels told his men that if they held fast, in 100 years, they would have a movie made about them called “The Twilight of the Gods” that would depict their heroic struggle. For Goebbels, and for all of the Nazi party, life had become a screenplay. They had come to see history as an opportunity to create grand works of art.

For the Nazis, and for Hitler in particular, art became not only a symbol, but also an instrument for political redemption. This connection that Hitler saw between art and politics is the theme of WCMA’s ongoing exposition, which closes Oct. 27, and was the theme of the panel discussion on Thursday.

Hoelterhoff spoke first about Hitler’s obsession with opera, particularly with the works of Richard Wagner. Wagner’s most colossal artistic achievement was undoubtedly Der Ring des Nibelungen, a cycle of three operas and a prelude opera that detail the fall of the gods and the story of the archetypal German hero, Siegfried. There was no opera house in the world at the time that could fully realize Wagner’s vision for these operas, so Hitler built his own opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, which still presents extensive summer seasons of Wagner’s works today.

Hoelterhoff emphasized that for Hitler, although this passion for the arts seems like a redeeming quality, he went too far in trying to apply the grandiose and pro-German ideas of Wagner’s operas to his vision of the world. He had a highly stylized view of war, and an unconditional refusal to see the destruction of German cities, or of his own soldiers. On the other hand, he took pleasure in witnessing the destruction of foreign cities, particularly by fire, which is one of the more important recurring symbols in the Ring cycle.

Following Hoelterhoff was Jonathan Petropoulos, who, in addition to his academic credentials, has also been an important figure in the recovery of Nazi-owned artwork in Germany and of their restoration to their original owners. His presentation focused on Hitler and his relationship with visual art. Petropoulos began with the interesting fact that Hitler had a wonderful memory for major ships and opera librettos alike, reinforcing the theme of Hitler’s marriage of politics to art.

Hitler himself was an artist in Vienna from 1907 through the end of World War I. Petropoulos described him as an artist of the modern age, using art to glorify and demonstrate his beliefs. Hitler also disputed the traditional art history narrative, as he thought that it slighted German accomplishments. In his designs for a National German art museum, Hitler allowed the Italians to remain at the forefront of the art movement during the Renaissance, but following that period, Hitler emphasized the works of German artists to the point where, according to Hitler’s revisionist history, Nordic achievements were the only accomplishments of influence or note.

Petropoulos went on to describe the massive scale of Hitler’s art-plundering operation. During his regime, he approved the purchases of more than 5,000 paintings. To put this in perspective, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., has 3,200 artworks in its entire collection.

By Petropoulos’s calculations, Hitler invested more in art than any other single collector in history. He concluded by saying that art occupied a central part of Hitler’s worldview: Hitler could not view art formalistically, or in a strictly aesthetic sense; for him, art was firmly linked with politics.

The final presentation was given by James Young, who spoke on the choreography of Nazi power and the Aesthetics of Redemption. He opened by saying that it has been much more fashionable to study the aesthetic reactions of the victims of Nazism, but that the “Nazis not only possessed a highly refined aesthetic, but practiced it on all levels of politics.”

The artistic accomplishments of the Nazis were not just an ornamental byproduct of their political views. He showed the first three minutes of the monumental Nazi film by Leni Reifenstahl, entitled “The Triumph of the Will,” in which Hitler is shown as a redemptive figure descending from the heavens in his airplane to the rally at Nuremburg. This is one of the most famous examples of Nazi propaganda, and while the modern day observer has difficulty swallowing the message of the film, one cannot dispute its beauty and the grand scale on which the propagandists worked.

Young went on to state that Hitler believed that the deaths of the Germans in World War I could be redeemed by the extermination of the Jews, shedding light on some of the motivations of the Holocaust.

Saturday evening, the symposium concluded in Goodrich with “Eva Braun and Me,” a reading by German author Peter Roos from his new book “Loving Hitler: A Novel of a Sickness.” The book describes the imagined life of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, had she not committed suicide with her lover in his bunker in 1945. The portrait that he gave of Braun was one of a truly tortured existence, trying to reconcile her love for the Fuhrer with her desire to undo the destruction that he caused.

Roos, as Braun, detailed throughout the talk the loneliness that Hitler felt, and highlighted the loneliness that Braun might have felt throughout her life. He described her loneliness poetically, saying that Braun’s life was “locked in seven footnotes,” and that “people prefer someone who gassed six million Jews to someone who loved someone who gassed six million Jews.”