Art is the clearest and most immediate reflection of the spiritual life of a people. It exercises the greatest conscious and unconscious influence on the masses of the people . . . . In its thousandfold manifestations and influences it benefits the nation as whole.
~ Adolph Hitler
Hitler was an aesthete. He would have found much to approve in papal encomia to artists as “custodians of beauty” (Benedict) or “ingenious creators of beauty” (John Paul II).
An ardent patron of the arts, Hitler drew around him men with an aesthetic bent. (Speer was an architect; Goering, an art collector. Alfred Rosenberg had studied architecture; Goebbels had written plays and a novel.) He insisted that artists were as crucial to society as mathematicians and men of science. He kept Germany’s museums, orchestras, theaters and opera companies going until the collapse of the Reich. His generosity to the arts funded music festivals, traveling art exhibitions, grants, tax reductions for artists, even housing and studio space. Drawn to opera as much as to classical Greek art, Hitler considered it a goal of the state to make opera available to every citizen without regard to income. His annual pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival is legendary.
Hitler’s personal conversation turned frequently to cultural matters; he was fond of declaring an impulse to paint scenic views as he came upon them. Eminent historian of Roman antiquities, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (d.1975) served as a tour guide to both Hitler and Mussolini in 1938. He recorded Hitler’s expressed desire to rent a villa outside Rome and devote himself to visiting museums anonymously, unrecognized by anyone. Bandelli wrote:
When he spoke this way he left the impression that he might get up one morning and say,”Enough! I have been fooling myself; I am no longer the Führer.” In the case of Mussolini such a thought was inconceivable . . . . But when Hitler spoke this way, he left the impression of being sincere.
Frederic Spotts’ Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics supports Bandelli’s impression:
Over the years Hitler had the same effect on others, who heard him insist again and again that it would be the happiest day of his life when he could take off his military uniform and devote himself solely to the the arts.
The Führer’s distaste for modernist art was widely shared by the bulk of critics of his day no less than the majority of the public. At the outset, modernist art was universally despised by audiences from St. Petersburg to London and New York. Hitler’s aesthetic tastes were hardly unusual. His genius lay in embracing current concepts that linked biological debasement to cultural decline: Degenerate art was the product of genetically unhealthy artists who should be considered social enemies to be crushed. Hitler viewed modernist artists as “criminals of world culture,” “destroyers of our art.” Their works were crimes, creations of diseased imaginations. Modernist culture was a perverse distortion of nature and truth.
The full breadth and specificity of Hilter’s grasp of architecture is stunning. Spotts is especially valuable in revealing the breathtaking extent of Hitler’s architectural ambition, having planned—together with Albert Speer—the rebuilding of every major German city. His love of architecture affected even military strategy. The beauty of Italian cities and art was granted a factor in military plans; concern for damage was paramount: “Each palazzo in Florence or Rome is worth more than all of Windsor Castle. It would be a crime if the British destroy anything in Florence or Rome. It would not be a shame . . . in the case of Berlin.”
In 1943, he reversed standing strategy by giving orders that Florence should not be defended against the Allied advance. It was “too beautiful” to destroy. Paris, too, warranted protection: “To save the old city of culture, we limited our air attacks to the airfields on the periphery.” Spotts quotes this reflection, recorded in December 1941:
Mankind has a natural drive to discover beauty. How rich the world will be for him who uses his senses. Furthermore, nature has instilled in everyone the desire to share with others everything beautiful that one encounters. The beautiful should reign over humans; the beautiful itself wants to retain its power.
In Spott’s exhaustive scrutiny of Hitler’s aestheticism lies a whispered caution against the exaltation of that elusive phenomenon called beauty gaining ever more currency among contemporary theologians and self-consciously Catholic artists. Aesthetic drive and aesthetic achievement are not the same. And the drive can be put to any human purpose whatever.