WCMA hosts symposium on Hitler’s art and politics

Brigitte Hamann, whose book “Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship” provided the inspiration for the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) exhibit “Prelude to a Nightmare,” delivered the keynote address Thursday evening for WCMA’s symposium “Staging the Third Reich: A Symposium on Art as Politics.” In her speech, Hamann gave a vivid description of the political and social environment in fin-de-siecle Vienna that helped shape Adolf Hitler into the foremost monster of the 20th century.

She argued that despite Hitler’s eventual power and the unprecedented reach of his terror, in many ways he was merely copying the ideas and politics he had picked up as a young man in Vienna. “Hitler invented nothing,” said Hamann. Rather, the seeds of the Third Reich were created by Pan-Germanist and anti-Semitic politicians in Vienna more than thirty years before the start of World War II.

Hamann detailed how Hitler came to Vienna with hopes of being accepted to the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts and becoming a society painter, but was twice rejected and spent several years drifting around Vienna, barely making ends meet by painting postcards for the tourist industry. He lived in homeless shelters, men’s hostels and squalid apartments, and would spend his time watching Parliamentary debates, going to Wagner’s operas and slowly becoming exposed to Vienna’s ultra-nationalist subculture.

Ultra-nationalism was a common phenomenon throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire in those days. One of the major ultra-nationalist movements to emerge from this dysfunctional melting pot was the Pan-Germanist movement, which claimed Germanic racial superiority and advocated policies that would ensure the continued purity of the race.

Jews in particular were singled out for proposed persecution by the Pan-Germanists. Hamann suggested this extra bitterness towards the Jews arose from the perception of Jews as not only economically and socially successful but also culturally innovative and modernist, a combination particularly threatening to the calcified and increasingly obsolete Austrian aristocracy, and particularly humiliating to Vienna’s massive number of poor and unemployed, some of whom found comfort in the idea of their supposed racial superiority, whatever their economic and social reality might be.

Thus, anti-Semitism was certainly present in Viennese society at the time, but it was by no means dominant – the Pan-Germanists were merely one political movement among many – and Hitler did not arrive in Vienna with established ultra-nationalist or anti-Semitic convictions. There are many theories as to why he developed his virulent hatred of the Jews, many of which posit a personal vendetta ranging from anger at a Jewish family doctor who was unable to save Hitler’s mother to anger at a Jewish prostitute who might have given Hitler syphilis. Hamann refuted a number of these personal-revenge theories, which she said were simply factually incorrect. Instead, she suggested that Hitler adopted his ideology from the Viennese ultra-nationalists with whom he came into contact in Vienna.

Hitler would spend a lot of time watching the debates in the Austrian Parliament, and he grew increasingly disgusted with what he perceived as its selfish divisiveness and impotence. In contrast, the Pan-Germanists and ultra-nationalists seemed to have plenty of ideas for reforming society and giving people like Hitler a better life. Their ideas were seductive, assuring a young Hitler that despite his failure as a painter and his lack of money or prospects, he was still someone important simply because he was a “real German.” Most appealing of all was the charismatic leader of the anti-Semitic Christian Socialist Party and mayor of Vienna: Dr. Karl Lueger, a man with an extraordinary ability to persuade and energize a crowd.

Hitler greatly admired Lueger’s fiery oratorical prowess, and although at the time Hitler was a thoroughly uncharismatic and extremely shy young man, he began practicing Lueger’s brand of rhetoric. By the time Hitler became involved in German politics in the 1920s, he had acquired Lueger’s talent and rose to prominence on the strength of his public speaking.

Hamann said that almost all the ideology and imagery of the Third Reich could be traced to the Viennese Pan-Germanists – everything from the swastika and the title of “Führer,” to the attempts at a “scientific” justification for racial hierarchies, to the idea of herding “undesirable” ethnic groups into concentration camps where they would be identified by numbers tattooed onto their arms.

Hitler absorbed these ideas, and ten years later he found the perfect environment in which to exploit them – a Germany defeated in war, humiliated and economically crushed by the Treaty of Versailles, rocked by Leftist revolutions and the threat of anarchy. That chaotic and troubled era favored the reemergence of what Hamann described as a “pseudo-religious, cult-like,” ultra-nationalist and racist ideology, and Hitler, drawing on his “apprenticeship” in Vienna, emerged as the leader to sweep that ideology into power.

Hamann thus gives an unusually critical appraisal of fin-de-siècle Vienna, a place normally associated only with the artistic and intellectual innovations of cultural luminaries and modernist pioneers like Mahler, Schiele and Klimt. As part of the larger “Vienna Project” in the Berkshires that has been celebrating the cultural contributions of Vienna, Hamann’s lecture provided an important counterpoint, helping to paint a more complete picture of a city with a complex history. At the same time, her lecture reinforced the point, also made at the WCMA exhibit, that Hitler was a mediocre man in whom the hatreds and fears of an era became distilled and packaged for effective mass consumption.

Hamann was asked at the end of the lecture whether she thought history would have been different had Hitler been admitted to the Fine Art Academy and settled down as the career painter of quaint landscapes and genre scenes he had dreamt of becoming; she replied that she wasn’t sure history would have turned out all that different after all – the ideas that became the basis for Nazism were widely available at the turn of the century, and there were many other dissatisfied and unsuccessful young men aside from Hitler who were looking for a way to feel like someone important.