August 2003

Michael Farrelly

nonfiction

Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics by Frederic Spotts

A friend of mine and I have an ongoing discussion about the rise of Nazism. This isnít too untoward since we share common interests in history as well as political viewpoints that stand in stark opposition to even the minutest aspects of socialism. The discussion pertains in large part as to why exactly the German people, not as a whole but by en large, supported the Nazis? There are as many permutations of that question as there are casualties of the Second World War. National Socialism as cultural expression, ingrained German anti-Semitism dating to the era of Martin Luther, a lack of understanding as to the true goals of the Third Reich are all possible explanations. These are all unsatisfying though. How do you convince people to totally dehumanize their fellow man? According to Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics by Federic Spotts, the answer may be as simple as superior marketing.

If you take a step back from the Naziís unbearable atrocities for a moment and consider simply the aesthetic qualities of this genocidal empire one cannot help but stand in sickened awe. You need look no further than the massive public architecture of Albert Speer, or the massive bonfires and searchlights of the Nuremberg rallies. Even the all black and leather stylings of the SS uniforms cry out to a dark and violent place in the human heart. The power of the iconography is overwhelming. Now imagine that this iconography is offered as a solution to the war-ravaged, and war-debt ravaged, populace of a beleaguered nation. Imagine that a little failed painter from Austria, whose stage presence is so polished that it shames actors of the day, stands at the head of this glittering dark world. Eve knew the apple was forbidden, but still took a big old bite out it and passed it on to her mate.

Spotts offers a deep and artistic analysis of Hitlerís visions, both realized and imagined. From his early years as a mediocre artist, included in the book are some of Hitlerís paintings which are wholly uninspiring landscapes produced in the vibrant dawn of "modern art," to his turn to the political arena. Itís here that Spotts really stretches the idea of an aesthetic in art to encompass the dramatic display put on by Hitler when he addressed the public. Itís a stretch, yes, but one that pays off. Hitlerís mastery of the public address was always the cornerstone of his popularity and ability to lead. Itís odd to think, in this modern era of the sound bite and the spin doctor, of a world leader speaking completely off the cuff for hours on end on a myriad of subjects. The topics may have been sudden choices, but there was a sly calculation to every gesture and motion Hitler would give. In a very real sense Hitler was a performance artist.

Spotts also examines the architecture of the Reich. Hitler and his Lieutenants were predicting a thousand year empire worthy of comparison to Rome. Hitler oversaw the construction of massive super-highways, enormous public structures and memorials to various Germanic (or as it was horribly mislabeled, ďAryanĒ) accomplishments. The culmination of this was the plan for Berlin that would have erected, in the dark alternate history where Germany won the war, a massive arch of triumph dwarfing the one in Paris by several orders of magnitude, a dome which would have been nearly 100 stories high and complex of residences for the Fuhrer so massive they could have easily been a city unto themselves.

Spotts is not sympathetic towards his subject--what sane mind could be?--but he does write with a sense of dread awe at the massive undertakings of the Nazi era. Hitler redefined the political speaker, helped create the science of propaganda and showed the unparalleled might of public spectacle in swaying the minds and heart of the populace. While sickening in their application, they are artistic endeavors all the same.

After the events of 9/11 several artists claimed that the attacks were in fact aesthetic events that carried with them an artistic merit. This definition of art is not simply the application of mental process into a sensually appealing medium, but in fact any human endeavor beyond the borders of the functional. While the Nazis and the terrorists of 9/11 were ruthlessly efficient in their actions, there was a sense of damned artistic endeavor to their actions. They were attempting to communicate to the ages, speak beyond their mortal time and affect the world in visceral ways. Whether this means that every human endeavor can contain artistic aspects, or if it is proof that evil can contaminate even the most noble of human pursuits is truly a question for the ages.

Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics by Frederic Spotts
Overlook Press
ISBN: 1585673455
420 Pages