Sunday, January 29, 2023


In Rienzi or Lohengrin or Tannhäuser, Hitler, the rejected Academy candidate sitting over his water colors in the reading room of the home for men, recognized magnified aspects of his own confrontation with the world. Both Wagner and Hitler, moreover, possessed a furious will to power, a basically despotic tendency. All of Richard Wagner's art has never been able to conceal to what extent its underlying urge was the boundless need to dominate. From this impulse sprang the taste for massive effects, for pomposity, for overwhelming hugeness. Wagner's first major composition after Rienzi was a choral work for 1,200 male voices and an orchestra of one hundred. This blatant reliance on mass effects, employed to cover up basic weaknesses, this medley of pagan, ritual and music-hall elements anticipated the era of mass hyp. nosis. The style of public ceremonies in the Third Reich is inconceivable without this operatic tradition, without the essentially demagogical art of Richard Wagner.

Another point in common was a kind of cunning knowledge of the popular mind along with a remarkable insensitivity to banality. This combination resulted in an air of plebeian pretentiousness in which again they were remarkably similar. Gottfried Keller once called the composer a "barber and charlatan"; similarly, a contemporary observer described Hitler, with the acuteness born of hatred, as having "the aura of a head-waiter"; another spoke of him as a speechmaking sex murderer. The element of vulgarity and unsavoriness that phrases of this sort tried to catch was present in both Hitler and Wagner. They were masters of the art of brilliant fraudulence, of inspired swindling. And just as Richard Wagner could call himself a revolutionary yet pride himself on his friendship with a king ("Wagner, the government bandleader," Karl Marx said scornfully), so Hitler, in his vague dreams of mounting the social ladder, reconciled his hatred of society with his opportunistic instincts. Wagner dismissed the patent contradictions in his views by declaring that art was the goal of life and that the artist made the ultimate decisions. It was the artist who would intervene to save the situation wherever "the statesman despairs, the politician gives up, the socialist vexes himself with fruitless systems, and even the philosopher can only interpret but cannot prophesy." His doctrine then was that of the aesthetician who would subordinate life entirely to the dictates of the artist. The state was to be raised to the heights of a work of art; politics would be renewed and perfected by the spirit inherent in art. Elements of this program are clearly visible in the theatricalization of public life in the Third Reich, the regime's passion for histrionics, the staginess of its practical politics—a staginess that often appeared to be the sole end of the politics.


Since the German word Bildungsbürger, let alone Bildungsbürgertum, is probably untranslatable, Martin Chalmers wisely leaves it in the original and explains the meaning in a footnote. Briefly, a Bildungsbürger was a member of the pre-war bourgeois German elite whose status was marked less by birth than by a solid classical education. Some of the proudest Bildungsbürger were Jews. If sportsmanship, good manners, and fine tailoring were the vaunted signs of the English gentleman, the minimum requirement for a Bildungsbürger was a sound knowledge of Latin and Greek, the classics of European literature, and of course German classical music. The gentleman was shaped by the English public (meaning private) school, the German bourgeois by the Gymnasium.

All of which is to say that Joachim Fest, the acclaimed biographer of Hitler and Albert Speer, cultural editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from 1973 to 1993, and conservative scourge of the postwar German left, was a paragon of Bildungsbürgertum. His politics were not of the far right; there was no hint of revanchism. Fest was a liberal in the classical European sense, a believer in free-market economics with the habitus of a cultivated banker and a taste for Mozart operas and Italian Renaissance art.

His childhood education during the Third Reich is the subject of Fest’s extraordinary memoir, written in a polished style full of irony and wit, not all of which survives in translation. It is also a trifle self-regarding. Ich Nicht, the German title, conveys this a little more clearly than Not I. Perhaps it should have been Not Me, as it is in the British edition. The point made is that Fest was not one of the vulgar mob that cheered for Hitler. Fest’s nemesis, Günter Grass, whose memoir Peeling the Onion appeared in the same year (2006), may have volunteered for the Waffen SS—“not I.”

Fest points out early in his book that the values of the educated German bourgeoisie were already old-fashioned before the war and discredited after 1945. Leftists who saw fascism as the logical culmination of bourgeois capitalism partly blamed this upper-middle class for the rise of Hitler. Fest responded that “this accusation merely reflects the resentment of spoiled children intent on being morally superior to their parents.” He meant the student rebels of 1968 and their literary mentors, such as Grass. Fest didn’t think much of them, nor they of him.

In fact, the rise of Hitler’s Reich was also the end of Bildungsbürgertum. But the left-wing criticism of that class started much earlier. A prime example was Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat, better known in its cinematic version, The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, the film that made Marlene Dietrich’s name. The downfall of Professor Raat, ruined by his liaison with a nightclub dancer, is a satire that sticks the knife into the moral pretentions of a typical bourgeois pedagogue. The novel was written in 1905, in the Empire of Wilhelm II, when the prestige of a classical German education was at its height. A devastating world war, a chaotic and weak republic, and the ensuing Nazi catastrophe left the world of Professor Raat in ashes. 

Joachim Fest’s father, Johannes, the hero of his son’s memoir, was in many respects the perfect example of a Bildungsbürger. He taught at a good school in Berlin. He took pride in his complete works of Goethe, Shakespeare, Heine, and Lessing. A bronze bust of Dante stood in his study. From a solid Prussian family of minor officials, Johannes Fest was also a devout Catholic, whose idea of decent Prussian values included a lack of sentimentality and a sense of irony, which may not be everyone’s idea of Prussianness, but to the old man was “the entry ticket to humanity.”

And yet, as Fest points out, his father’s various qualities did not always fit together easily. For example, he could never forgive Thomas Mann, whose literary talent he acknowledged, for writing Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918). Mann’s notion of the Bildungsbürger was that he should stay away from politics, which was a sordid business, unworthy of a civilized humanist. Kultur is what mattered, not politics. Most members of his class would have agreed. Johannes Fest did not. Mann’s prejudice, he maintained, had done more to alienate the bourgeoisie from the Weimar Republic than Hitler. 


Yet it is here if anywhere that a valid criterion may be found for distinguishing the elite from the mob in the pretotalitarian atmosphere. What the mob wanted, and what Goebbels expressed with great precision, was access to history even at the price of destruction. Goebbels' sincere conviction that "the greatest happiness that a contemporary can experience today" is either to be a genius or to serve one,[57] was typical of the mob but neither of the masses nor the sympathizing elite. The latter, on the contrary, took anonymity seriously to the point of seriously denying the existence of genius; all the art theories of the twenties tried desperately to prove that the excellent is the product of skill, craftsmanship, logic, and the realization of the potentialities of the material.[58] The mob, and not the elite, was charmed by the "radiant power of fame" (Stefan Zweig) and accepted enthusiastically the genius idolatry of the late bourgeois world. In this the mob of the twentieth century followed faithfully the pattern of earlier parvenus who also had discovered the fact that bourgeois society would rather open its doors to the fascinating "abnormal," the genius, the homosexual, or the Jew, than to simple merit. The elite's contempt for the genius and its yearning for anonymity was still witness of a spirit which neither the masses nor the mob were in a position to understand, and which, in the words of Robespierre, strove to assert the grandeur of man against the pettiness of the great.

in re: "The fascism debate" 

Goebbels' sincere conviction that "the greatest happiness that a contemporary can experience today" is either to be a genius or to serve one,...

The world is just a barrel-organ which the Lord God turns Himself.
We all have to dance to the tune which is already on the drum.

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