Earlier this month, we used Andromeda Romano-Lax‘s rich historical novel THE DETOUR to launch a discussion about our cultural preoccupation with WWII fiction, evidenced by the sheer amount of fiction set in, around, and about Hitler and the Second World War. You can’t deny it, Hitler is our cultural Kevin Bacon. But with only three degrees of separation. Max.
My opinion as to why so much has been and continues to be written about this era is that what happened then still shocks us. I guess it could be argued that we’re getting more and more hardened every day to the atrocities of the world. But The Holocaust remains an example of humanity at its lowest. It is synonymous with evil and the fear and apathy (or both) that often make it possible for evil to accomplish its goals. I think what happened then shook the world as much for what Hitler and his followers did as for the number of lost opportunities for things to go differently.
THE DETOUR is a book about those moments when things could have taken another path. It’s obvious in the title. But what’s so masterful and, let’s face it, refreshing, about this book is that it takes a somewhat closer-to-the-ground view of the chain reactions that make up history. THE DETOUR looks at where those chain reactions start. Instead of looking at how Operation Valkyrie could have succeeded, Romano-Lax examines the small disloyalties, ambivalences, and foibles that plague the minor players. Ostensibly lower stake, but no less rich in terms of humanity and tension. Honestly, I find these stories more relatable. I’m no spy, after all.
Ernst is no spy, either. But he comes with his set of neuroses and scars that make him completely real. He is passionate about succeeding in his chosen (if not paternally sanctioned) career. Passionate about art for its power to distract and transport him away from his past and the imperfections of his present. Art is its own end, for Ernst, which brings him into subtle conflict with the more pragmatic forces of the Fuhrer’s Sonderprojekt.
One of my favorite lines in THE DETOUR is early on when Ernst says:
“When I first started working in our office, there had been several modern art curators among us, but invariably, their tastes became problematic.”
Typical Ernst, this seemingly flippant comment speaks to a very serious shift in the early Third Reich’s attitudes towards Modern Art, which was seen to be inherently flawed by Semitic influence and modernism that inaugurated an era of fascination with other cultures–especially, in the early 20th century, through world exploration. In Andromeda Romano-Lax’s words:
“In 1937, Hitler held his famous Degenerate Art exhibition, sounding the death knell for modern art in Germany. Modern artworks were seized from museum collections across the country, and a portion were displayed in a propagandist exhibit, complete with mocking, hostile, and anti-Semitic slogans, meant to show Germans the depravity of modern art. The works were later auctioned off or destroyed, though a few were nabbed for the private collection of Göring, for example. A very small percentage of the artists displayed were actually Jewish, but the exhibit intended to conflate the notion of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy with a desire to “purify” all German art and culture. Modern artists fled, committed suicide, or disappeared into internal exile. Purges of subversive art continued after the initial exhibit. One reason Hitler favored ancient Greek and Roman art was that he believed it contained no taint of Judaism or modernism, and he was attracted to symbols that bridged successful empires of the past with this own Third Reich.”
Problematic, Ernst? Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back now we clearly see see the agenda, that makes this exhibition an early link in a devastating chain. But Ernst didn’t notice. Not really. Why?
When talking about THE DETOUR and Ernst, we have to turn to art. What role does art play in this struggle to stand strong for “right?” Many people lament the rise of “brainless” reality TV like Jersey Shore and what some perceive as bereft writing like Twilight (and its ubiquitous spawn, the 50 Shades Series), yet these are the most widely consumed (and therefore most lucrative) types of media out there today. The fear is that watching and reading the equivalent of candy will erode our sense of important issues in the world. That we’ll be, in some important, uniquely human way, deadened. That without capital-A-Art, the next generation won’t encounter be challenged to form their sense of right and wrong. And then what chance do we have for future generations to be more able than their forebears to stand up to evil? Again from Andromeda Romano-Lax:
“Art may or may not be effective in stimulating [violent] behavior, but it is effective in promoting a dangerous kind of indifference. We might call it desensitization, or numbing, or simple escapism, giving people a focus so that they don’t pay attention to the horrors around them…Art (including film) can be a strategically cultivated distraction. Hitler himself used it both as weapon and as personal opiate. Even in his final bunker hours, when the war was essentially lost, he was still dreamily studying a model of his planned city of Linz, which was meant to be a cultural mecca and home of his Führermuseum of purchased and looted treasures.”
Though Ernst’s struggle plays out in a tragically historic period, it’s ultimately not really so far from those we face individually and as a larger human race. Atrocities happen every day. The question could easily be “Why?” But I think that question is too often turned towards the perpetrators and not–at least, not until hindsight kicks in, which is too late–towards the people who aren’t the perpetrators. Sometimes that “Why?” is cowardice–people quash their doubts and enable tragedy. But that’s not always the whole story. It isn’t, I don’t think, for Ernst, who just wanted to see his favorite statue. His goal was a personal one, connected to art that had been his hiding place for his entire life. It wasn’t cowardice but distraction that threw Ernst into the chaos of WWII. By the time he looked up, he was already in too deep to go back. And, to his credit, he acted to salvage what could be salvaged. I think that’s the best anyone could hope for themselves.
Some food for thought:
- What does it take to stand up to opposing forces, especially when one is standing alone? Is it possible? What are some examples for and against your claim?
- Was Ernst selfish in his obsession with The Discus Thrower? Did he, in fact, act as an enabler to Hitler’s scheme by not acting earlier on his discomfort with the mission? Or was he truly just under art’s spell?
- Why is The Discus Thrower an example of perfect art, to Hitler? In the end, is there any such thing as perfect art? Can there be?
- A Follow Up: What is the goal of perfection in art, if it does in fact exist? Is there one, or is art for art’s sake capable of attaining perfection? Conversely, is the point of art to express varying measures of fault and perfect?
- How did Hitler’s own personal inadequacies factor into the Nazi art acquisition? Do you believe there’s a cautionary tale to be derived from this period on boundaries when it comes to art and the public sphere? When does it get dangerous?
- The question “how did this happen?” is a common response to the events of this time period. What does the application of this question to the Nazi art acquisition mean to you?