“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.” This philistine wisecrack is often attributed to Air Marshal Hermann Goering, or some other Nazi notable. Benjamin Martin sets us straight on its source: the 1933 play Schlageter by the Nazi Party member Hanns Johst, in which a character says: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I release the catch on my Browning.”
Martin’s illuminating book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture shows how badly astray this famous quip leads us: cultural concerns were in fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally associate their violent and aggressive regimes with “soft power.” But the two dictators were would-be intellectuals—Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how the Nazi and Fascist empires were constructed.
German power and success gave the Nazi case particular salience. The special meaning of Kultur in Germans’ evaluation of themselves is an important part of the story. According to a famous essay by Norbert Elias, the meaning of Kultur for Germans is hardly comprehensible without reference to a particular historical development.* Kultur, he explains (along with Bildung, or education), denoted in pre-unification Germany those qualities that the intellectuals and professionals of the small, isolated German middle class claimed for themselves in response to the disdain of the minor German nobles who employed them: intellectual achievement, of course, but also simple virtues like authenticity, honesty, and sincerity.
German courtiers, by contrast, according to the possessors of Kultur, had acquired “civilization” from their French tutors: manners, social polish, the cultivation of appearances. As the German middle class asserted itself in the nineteenth century, the particular virtues of Kultur became an important ingredient in national self-definition. The inferior values of “civilization” were no longer attributed to an erstwhile French-educated German nobility, but to the French themselves and to the West in general.
By 1914, the contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation had taken on a more aggressively nationalist tone. During World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of Western Europe. Martin’s book shows how vigorously the Nazis applied this traditional construct. Hitler invested considerable money and time in the 1930s, and even after World War II began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn them into instruments of German power. These projects had some initial success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power they were designed to reinforce.
In a parallel and even less enduring effort, Mussolini’s Fascist regime tried to establish the primacy…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.