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How the Nazis Made Art Fascist

A new book looks at how the Axis powers shaped the art world to their own ends.

Keystone/Getty Imagges

Cary Grant was there. So was the distinguished silent film star Mary Pickford. Tyrone Power, handsome swashbuckler of stage and screen, showed up with his new wife, the glamorous French actress Annabella. As they did every summer, the world’s rich and famous had descended upon Venice to toss back flutes of prosecco at the Biennale and step out at the Film Festival. In August 1939, however, the guest of honor was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist and the cultural czar of the Third Reich. Goebbels made a dramatic entrance by gondola, gliding down the Grand Canal as swastika flags rippled from bridges and windowsills. Italian newsreels show the propaganda minister sunning himself aboard a sailboat and leading a nighttime rally in the Piazza San Marco. Within weeks of Goebbels’ Venetian tour, German tanks thundered into Poland. Europe was once again at war.

Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany formalized their military alliance in May 1939. Yet both powers recognized that hegemony in Europe and the Mediterranean required the projection of cultural influence as much as the force of arms. And so they set about remaking European civilization in their own image. During the 1930s, Berlin and Rome built a right-wing network of international organizations for film, music, literature, and academic scholarship. These bodies lent prestige to the Nazi–fascist project while laying the groundwork for a new idea of Europe itself: not liberal and cosmopolitan but racially pure and authoritarian—a sharp rebuke to the mixed, messy democratic modernity of France, Britain, and the United States. The Venice Film Festival was the finest jewel in the Nazi–fascist cultural crown, founded by Mussolini’s regime in 1932 as an aesthetic counterweight to Hollywood commercialism.

Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $40

This is the story narrated with great erudition and grace by Benjamin Martin in his new book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture. The insidious spread of what Martin calls “the soft power of Nazi and fascist imperialism” is a staggering tale of geopolitical and intellectual ambition. It is all the more astonishing for having been overlooked for so long. Drawing upon libraries and archives in five different countries, Martin’s work is a dazzling transnational history of ideas and institutions as well as a major contribution to our understanding of fascism and the Third Reich: Martin reveals how cultural initiatives unlock the political imagination of the interwar radical right. It was in concert halls and boardrooms and along red carpets that sinister ideologues like Goebbels most fully revealed their plans to remake European civilization and overturn the global order.

The book also lands with more shuddering force than its author could have anticipated. More than any moment since the 1930s, we suddenly face the prospect of a world system principally shaped by the extreme right. With the European Union in peril, Russia extending its reach, and authoritarian nationalists seducing the disaffected, Martin’s study of “totalitarian internationalism” turns out to be precisely the sort of history we need at this particular moment: a deft and disquieting account of how easily the noblest of liberal principles may be hollowed out and swiftly renovated for darker purpose.

On November 1, 1937, Hermann Goering opened an exhibition of Italian art in Berlin—one of many events organized by the Nazis to bolster their vision of European culture. Goering, who liked to style himself a patron of the arts when he wasn’t commanding the German air force, explained to the gathered dignitaries that fascist Italy and the Third Reich both “considered cultural questions to be as important as political and economic questions.” Five years later, Goebbels told film industry professionals in Berlin that European hegemony would be impossible “if we do not also make ourselves supreme in the cultural field.” These men were not merely telling their listeners what they wanted to hear. Within months of assuming power in 1933, the Third Reich began establishing new intergovernmental bodies for European arts and culture that would draw resources and leadership from Nazi Berlin: the Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers, the Union of National Writers, and the International Film Chamber. Italian fascists supported these efforts while founding cultural institutions of their own. These new organizations granted both powers a kind of “capillary reach” across Europe, Martin contends, helping Rome and Berlin “to penetrate other nations’ cultural markets, influence their cultural policies, and steer their citizens’ attitudes and values to a new moral vision.” A new aesthetics would usher in a new political order.

Nazi–fascist leaders believed that good art was defined most of all by its racial integrity, its reflection of a single national tradition. This meant, for instance, the classical strains of Beethoven or the folk-inspired music of Hungarian composer Béla Bártok, rather than the syncopated, jazzy compositions of Maurice Ravel or the atonal modernism of Arnold Schoenberg. Hitler believed that the very notion of international art was “vacuous and idiotic,” praising instead “the underlying racial determination of style.” Goebbels explained that great artists were always “in the end children of their nations.” Literary giants like “Goethe and Wagner, Shakespeare and Byron, Molière and Corneille,” he suggested, had only “become global cultural property because, in the end and in the deepest sense they were the best German, Englishmen, and Frenchmen.”

German and Italian officials believed that modern states had the sacred duty to defend national art against the degenerative force of global cosmopolitanism. This made the Axis not merely a military alliance—it was also the founding charter of a dynamic civilization. Concerts, film festivals, student exchanges, and academic conferences allowed Rome and Berlin to grandly argue that they offered, in Martin’s vivid formulation, “a renewal of Europe’s soul.” Against vulgar American consumerism, laissez-faire capitalism, liberal democracy, and the threat of revolutionary Bolshevism, Nazi–fascist leaders offered an alternative framework for European society: spiritual rather than materialistic, organic and traditional rather than abstract and cosmopolitan, overseen by strong and racially pure states. Promoting these racist and anti-Semitic ideas, institutions like the Permanent Council and the Venice Film Festival also modeled a new style of global cooperation: a “totalitarian international” in which ethnic and racial differences were not transcended but rather proclaimed, celebrated, and deepened.

Schemes like these make one’s skin crawl. But the Nazi–fascist way of thinking about European culture found wide appeal, and it’s worth understanding why. Martin argues that artists and industry professionals began looking to Berlin and Rome for new solutions to genuine economic problems. They hoped that the authoritarian right would strengthen copyright protections in a global age, improve the collection of royalties, and aggressively develop a common European market. After all, Europe was beleaguered by a profound sense of spiritual and cultural crisis. New technologies had transformed the nature of work and the structure of politics, women enjoyed greater economic and sexual independence than ever before, and the continent was in thrall to American goods and the alluring spirit of mass consumption. Bedrock bourgeois values appeared to be under siege on every front—an impression worsened by a string of devastating economic crises that had erased middle-class savings and eroded livelihoods. Liberal democracy, once the bearer of great promise and possibility, seemed sluggish and spent by the mid-1930s. As much of what they recognized melted into air, Europeans hungered for stability and reassurance. “For a brief but important period in the 1930s and 1940s,” Martin explains, “locating the centers of European culture in Hitler’s Berlin and Mussolini’s Rome was more appealing to a good number of European elites than having them in Paris or London, New York or Moscow.”

Music was especially welcoming terrain for the Nazi-fascist civilizational project. The Third Reich attracted support from across the continent by promising to champion national musical traditions that had been snobbishly overlooked by elites in New York, Paris, and London. Classical repertory loomed large. Modern works—breezily rejected by one Nazi critic as “unmusic”—were only acceptable if they exemplified the composer’s national spirit. The Permanent Council, founded under Nazi auspices in 1934, was comprised of delegates from a wide range of European countries including Great Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, and Iceland. The legendary German composer Richard Strauss, who personally loathed jazz and other frivolous modern musical inventions, directed the group’s campaign against cosmopolitanism. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, held up as a sterling example of national musical achievement, was named one of the Council’s vice presidents.

Italy, meanwhile, began hauling the international film industry into the Nazi–fascist orbit. It was Mussolini, after all, who had called cinema “the strongest weapon” of any political movement. In 1928, he convinced the League of Nations that it ought to establish an International Institute for Educational Cinematography in Rome. And after its birth in 1932, the Venice Film Festival earned praise from directors and critics with its implicit argument that cinema was not a commodity but rather high art. The Third Reich signaled its own plans in April 1935, inviting several thousand delegates to Berlin for a massive European film conference. The Nazis welcomed their guests with the formal trimmings of interwar diplomacy: dinners and flags and receptions; working sessions at the legislature and the opera house; tours of nearby film studios and the Reich Film Archive; and a formal ball presided over by a tuxedo-clad Goebbels. The event culminated with the creation of the Nazi-led International Film Chamber, a new venture formally announced several months later in Venice—during the Film Festival. Moviegoers then fêted the foreign premiere of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, an exemplar of Nazi ideology and a masterpiece of modern propaganda.

Curiously absent from Martin’s story, however, are the visual arts: Did Nazi-fascist officials seek to organize the future of painting, sculpture, and photography as forcefully as they did music and film? Perhaps the quiet study of paintings in museum galleries seemed less obviously useful to Axis elites than musical concerts or film. Yet this was also a cultural field about which the Third Reich expressed some of its strongest and most surprising preferences. From Italian Futurism to German Expressionism, many avant-garde artists bristled at bourgeois culture and sought to express something more dangerous and vital. At first blush, modern painting seemed especially well-suited for the Axis dream of European culture. But Hitler loathed these works, and in 1937, the Nazi regime denounced modern art by displaying canvases by Paul Klee, Georg Grosz, Pablo Picasso, and others as part of the infamous—and distressingly popular—Exhibition of Degenerate Art in Munich.

Nazi–fascist cultural diplomacy ambitiously sought to redefine the idea of Europe itself, an ambition lost on very few. One fascist writer argued that the Axis represented “the spine of the renewed Europe, the ray of light towards its spiritual reinvigoration, the bulwark for the defense of its culture.” While some observers praised this agenda, others vocally resisted. Exiled to Los Angeles, Thomas Mann declared in a 1942 radio address that “Hitler-Europe is a macabre farce… the most heinous perversion and violation of a great idea.” Nazism, he continued, was “really about to spoil for us even the idea of ‘Europe.’” After the war, Jean-Paul Sartre reflected that the word “Europe” now evoked “the sound of the boots of Nazi Germany.”

Historians have generally assumed that Nazi officials did not think all that much, or all that deeply, about what European civilization meant and how its future might unfold. Martin’s impressive study will force historians to reconsider. Hitler himself was not so explicit, Martin concedes, but his top lieutenants were consumed by the dream of ruling and reordering an entire continent. Itineraries of concert tours, minutes of conferences, snapshots taken of Nazis along the Grand Canal—these sources, creatively assembled by Martin, make it difficult to ignore the fact that Nazi Europeanism was a remarkably vigorous idea and a real civilizational project.

This is also why Martin’s work is so rattling. Over the past decade, the idea of Europe has been questioned by voters and markets, tried by geopolitical adversaries, tested by humanitarian crisis. Confident debates about expansion have been traded for darker discussions about the very possibility of a free, united, and democratic continent. The idea of Europe, in other words, has lost its postwar aura of rational necessity. The history of Nazi–fascist cultural diplomacy warns us that there is nothing inevitable about European unity under liberal-­democratic auspices. As Martin sharply concludes, “the political values inherent in our cultural systems … are not dictated by history, but are a matter of choice that lies with us.” Europe has always been a grand idea. But it is more flexible than we realize. We must deliberately invest it with the meaning we wish for it to have. If we don’t, others will.

Martin’s fine study of cultural diplomacy reminds us that ideas are mercenary creatures, always available to serve new masters. In the 1930s and 1940s, the extreme right borrowed the prestige of artistic genius and the internationalist spirit to smash the idea of a free, tolerant Europe. The example is a chilling one. And as authoritarian nativists reach once again for the reins of the international system, we will need to remember, perhaps desperately, that the trappings of civilization are not the thing itself.