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Degenerate Art

Why write a play about Nazis? And how? Toby Schmitz ponders the complex, troubling relationship between fascism and art.

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Degenerate Art: Daring to Look

Date: 23 Sep 2018

Why write a play about Nazis? 

The question is immediate and valid. The answer, just as knee-jerk and important: So that Nazis don’t happen again.

Somewhere in-between lies a harder idea. How does one write about Nazis?

But back to the why.

Boiled down, because I fear we all have a 10 per cent Nazi in us. Not the one that is actively evil, but the one that mightn’t do anything when uniforms come for the immigrant family next door at midnight.

I want to be the one person that stands in front of the tank, but I suspect I’m not. And that’s worth examining. Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor, forged the bracing revelation, reeking of truth, that monsters are very rare. It’s the normal people we must watch out for.

Degenerate Art is a play about many things. Being asked what a play is about is definitively galling. ‘It’s about to make me very rich,’ said Stoppard of his most famous play. However, I was raised to believe that when writing about this field sober explanation is a given. At its centre, my play is about how humans allow fascism to rise, time and time again. It is also about art.

Culture was a big wheel in National Socialist thought. I have long collected a file of stories about the Nazi relationship with art, knowing that somewhere in the facts lay a story that might lift the lid on these perpetrators and show us something human, and therefore important – if only as a warning, and at best also as a riveting nightmare.

You may know that Reinhard Heydrich, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, was a talented violinist, but did you know SS chief Heinrich Himmler was an Ibsen fan? Or that Joseph Goebbels made a Titanic movie, complete with jewel-thief-romance sub-plot, or that Adolf Hitler spent the war chasing the Mona Lisa?

And what exactly were Picasso and Beckett doing in occupied Paris? Certainly, understandably, not standing in front of tanks.

For decades after the war serious historians refrained from trying to understand who Hitler was in any depth. He was an anomaly, a nobody in the right place, perhaps insane, and academia rightfully prioritised turning to investigate how he happened.

Some came close to guessing at his motives but shied away from final analysis, because, well, for years that wasn’t seen as history’s job. The facts of exactly what happened in WWII became extremely important in the long aftermath, and anything that smacked of the unprovable, the subjective, was discouraged.

I had E.H. Carr’s What is History? and Ian Kershaw’s obsessively balanced biographies (it could have been this, but it also could have been that) well rubbed in to me at university. Truth was verifiable fact. When it came, for example, to Hitler’s inner life, it was either skipped or summarised as unknowable.

In the early 90s there was a fringe shift in studying Nazi leaders. Gitta Sereney’s humanist tome Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth remains a cornerstone text in looking at Speer – Hitler’s architect – as a person, with feelings and contradictions. This is now a full-fledged movement in history circles.

The 2004 movie Downfall provoked much necessary hand-wringing in Germany, as it showed a snapshot of the Nazi leaders in their final days as fallible, complex humans. The exhaustive inspection of the film’s motives ultimately produced a new wave of acceptance.

Not only is it important to try to see these people as humans, but it is our long-overdue obligation. It’s easier to pass them off as ‘not us’. Hitler’s inner life is now opening up.

Eva Braun: Life With Hitler (2010) by Heike B. Görtemaker, is the first properly researched biography of Eva Braun, Hitler’s girlfriend, partner, and eleventh hour wife. (‘I want to be a beautiful corpse. I will take poison.’) It has all the hallmarks of a considered study of their relationship, and breaks new ground.

In his summary of the book, Richard J. Evans – who, for those taking notes, is the gateway historian between the establishment and the more emotional new wave – writes:

‘Most biographers of Hitler have written him off as a man without a real human character, a kind of black hole at the centre of Nazism … Eva Braun: Life With Hitler shows that this is too simple a view to take; and for that reason it is deeply troubling to read. For if a man like Hitler was capable of ordinary human love for another person, then what power does love possess?’

I once wrangled an audience with Anthony Beevor at the Sydney Writer’s Festival.

Beevor is an acknowledged reason military history has leaped in accessibility: his books are low on footnotes, high on gossipy revelation, with a tremendous readiness to include social history – noticeably that of women and children – in the mix.

I was directing my play Capture The Flag, which was ‘about’ four children in a drain in Berlin as the Third Reich ended above them. I had found the courage to explore the period on stage because the children were the definition of innocent. I wanted to tease open a warning in the fashion of Lord of the Flies. Yet I was tortured about turning this field into anything … entertaining.

I asked Beevor over a hurried salad, ‘Do you worry about making this topic readable?’.

‘No,’ he said.

‘Because it needs to be read?’

‘I suppose so.’

We know how World War II ends. So any story set during that period has an inbuilt dramatic irony.

The plot can be almost anything and remain plausible – not much doesn’t happen in war – but in some way, by inclusion or omission, the story will be about the Holocaust. Because at the centre of that war, unavoidable and almost unthinkable, is Auschwitz. (My university history professor would argue that so is Hiroshima.)

Thinking about it is extremely important. W.G. Sebald said of the Holocaust, ‘No serious person should think about anything else’. Finding a new way to do so, let alone in theatre, remains a vital challenge. An utterance from my professor that stuck: ’If you can’t find a new way to talk about the Holocaust you must keep studying.’

Personal stories, with the war as backdrop, are fine for illustrating individual, symbolic choices humans made in that moral darkness, but are often best left to film and prose to move the frame beyond the kitchen sink.

WWII stories told from the bottom up, from the perspective of an individual soldier for instance, often leave the larger picture, the heavy lifting of ‘How did the whole world let this horror happen?’ to the mind’s eye. These stories regularly use a quality of Boy’s Own Adventure to offset the horrible things the audience knows is going on in the wings.

Alternatively, naturalistic war plays about the larger picture are almost universally staid, broad, and by necessity generalised. Often verbatim. Historical non-fiction is best left to the historian.

Expressionism in theatre has had a better time dealing with Nazism, in absurd parable (Arturo Ui), or, for example, the smashed open forms of Beckett’s post-war canon, that deal with the unimaginable by reimagining the world of theatre.

Even something as plausible, and long, as David Edgar’s naturalistic Albert Speer (National Theatre, 2000) – based on Sereney’s book – which asks the heavy questions by focusing on Speer’s relationship with Hitler, by the end finds Speer in Hell, talking to ghosts.

While current events, such as the return of far-right nationalism on the general end, and the discovery of the Gurlitt Nazi art horde on the specific (a ripping yarn, well worth a Google for any lover of history or art), have kept me aware that this story has legs, there are other developments that make a tale like this possible now.

Advances in what we know about this period have been exponential in the last decades, and this includes the umbrella subject of how art was treated in the Third Reich. The histories of the people who looted and profited from art, of the people who tried to resist in the name of art, and of those who tried to untangle it all afterwards are coming to light.

Then there is the relatively recent movement attempting to repay the victims of looted art, a task that has met solid resistance from the opaque, lawless world of art dealers and galleries, and which has reached geo-political levels.

Further still, art historians are allowing themselves, or are being allowed, to theorise afresh the motives and aesthetics of Nazi art, an inevitable progression in an admittedly arid field.

I recently heard one of my favourite historians convincingly argue that the Nazis didn’t oppress Germans (as opposed to those they occupied) as much as they seduced them. Art played a low and highbrow part in this. Whatever you might deem art, the Nazis had an opinion about it. Nazi art is often referred to as kitsch. This is too easy, it’s a dry hold-all word. It’s also the word Hitler used to describe the Impressionists.

It is fearsome to realise that no democracy or regime since the National Socialists have had art so central to their mandate. If an entire nation can practise horror with culture as their guide, what can a country do that hasn’t even got an arts policy? A dramatic, important question.

Finally I was encouraged by an idea that is gaining some currency – one that has never been fashionable in history or historiography – and that is of Hitler as an angry, jealous artist.

Could that have been the problem?

Well, no, not that alone. But that idea, the rejected artist, roiling with a personal need to leave a mark, among all that violent modern art, and indeed the violent conditions between the wars, has logic.

The emergence of this idea, a personal motive for the madness, was a reasoning I’d always been taught to coolly avoid when thinking about World War II. It suddenly struck me as obvious – if not solely responsible – and revealing, not just about the infuriatingly contradictory Hitler, but about ourselves. There is a swing back to the individual in history, the latest Stalin biography runs at three volumes. This is advantageous to drama.

To dramatise a new conversation about this period I used the chronology of the first 50 years of the last century to peg the structure, yet still I didn’t understand why it was a play. I needed one more reason to drop into the lives of these infamous (wicked; abominable) men, humans though they were.

Then I realised, while in a gallery, that the play had to attempt to be a piece of art itself. Beauty needed to be employed, because that’s what they did. So then, this is the story of some of the Nazi top brass and their relationships to art, written largely in verse. What it’s really about, of course, is the Holocaust and how we let it happen. And how we are always in danger of letting it happen.

But it is still a story. The writer of the latest Winston Churchill biopic said: ‘There is a fine line between artistic license and artistic licentiousness.’ It’s a line I have been well aware of when dealing with these subjects, for as long as I can remember.

Growing up, my favourite Australian plays were set in other countries. Louis Nowra, Stephen Sewell and Michael Gow wrote narratives through the lens of an overseas story. In conservative times, which we are provably in, the term Australian stories can tend to mean something literal.

I had the luck to do a playwright workshop with Edward Albee a few years ago and the topic of what makes an Australian story was tabled. Outback characters? A Sydney living-room?

‘Nonsense,’ said Albee. ‘You’re Australian, you wrote it, it’s an Australian story. The damn thing could be set in space …’ I was elated. Half the Shakespearean canon, of course, is set in countries he’d never visited, yet speak directly to Elizabethan current affairs.

Putting minorities in detention camps is the norm again. As is the careless employment of incendiary language straight from the Nazi handbook. Racism has returned to the lives of many, from Moscow to Calais, Washington to Canberra, from London to Melbourne.

Nazism didn’t end in tragedy, it created tragedies. Fascism is a tragedy factory. And when politics fails to curtail it, as it has and will again, the art must be employed to expose it. Urgently. Or it will become part of it. Art does that, it’s happy with any bedfellow.

Hitler’s latest, lauded biographer Volker Ullrich has recently dared to venture that Hitler was something close to my heart, an actor.

In fact, Hitler once declared himself the best actor in Europe. Well, this is something I have an obligation to talk about.

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