The Swastika and the Stage: German Theatre and Society, 1933–1945
by Gerwin Strobl
Cambridge University Press, 2007, 356 pages, $55.95
In Berlin, immediately after the National Socialist takeover of power, a new play told of the life and death of Albert Schlageter, a leader of the German resistance to the French occupation of the Ruhr a decade earlier when some 130 protesters were killed. Bertolt Brecht, the Left playwright who had already fled from the Nazis, had made a contemporary diary reference to the French colonial troops which is seldom referred to when his plays are produced in modern theatres: “In the Rhineland the negroes are sucking all the juice from the land. They are impregnating women by the dozen. They do so with impunity, merely laughing at the protests of the local population.”
The new play in the recently Nazified theatre came to a dramatic end with the execution of Schlageter by a French firing squad. At the front of the stage the actor stands, feet wide apart, defiantly facing the line of weapons trained on him. A soldier comes forward and strikes him with a rifle butt. Schlageter falls to his knees. Now the guns are aimed directly into the auditorium. Pinned by dramatic spotlights to the bare stage his impassioned final words are for the audience: “Germany—awake! Turn into a flame, into fire! Burn—beyond imagining!”
The rifles explode and the audience is hit by blinding stage lights. It is they who are the victims of the French. Blackout. Historian Gerwin Strobl describes it as “perhaps the most effective moment in all of Nazi theatre”. The emotionally stunned and politically inspired audience rose spontaneously to sing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”, and the “Horst Wessel-Lied”.
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Almost exactly eighty years later a Sydney play used the same device, this time met by silence, as the play, mislaying its proper ending, wandered on for a bit longer. Possibly the director, Neil Armfield, was influenced by reading about the earlier play: possibly all propagandists think alike.
The German play was Schlageter by Hanns Johst. It was unknown in the English-speaking world until the publication of The Swastika and the Stage by Gerwin Strobl (Cambridge) in 2007. This is the first full-length book in English on Third Reich theatre.
The Australian play was The Secret River by Andrew Bovell—an adaptation of Kate Grenville’s history-guilt novel for women readers. The play text was commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company and staged in 2013. One of the play’s novelties is to have Aboriginal characters speak a language which no one understands. The Aboriginal artistic director of a funded Aboriginal theatre company was outraged and claimed that this “perpetuates the mythology that Aboriginals were in the ‘savage’ basket”.
In the German play the French soldiers held rifles. In the Australian play pantomime colonists massacred defenceless Aborigines by clapping. Each time the killers’ hands collided, the impact released a cloud of powder into the air. Kitsch but effective, it did away with the historic realism of reloading clumsy single-shot weapons before firing again. The play was more downsetting than upsetting. Sydney audiences who saw it came into the auditorium with preconceived ideas of our colonial past and after a bit queued on the stairs to get out while checking they had their car keys, and thinking about something to drink when they got home. No new ideas had been unpacked in this theatre.
The German play, as described by Strobl, was more interesting. The audience were re- experiencing events they had lived through. The play exposed their personal guilt for what they had not done ten years before. At the same time it was offering them the possibility of redemption in the present through their support for the brand new and exciting National Socialist government. They left the theatre eager to assist in the building of a Brave New Reich. “It was this psychological sophistication,” says Strobl, “that made Schlageter so effective in its day—and so contemptible.”
Pages further on in Strobl’s book is an illustration from a 1935 play, German Passion. Dead soldiers from the First World War rise from their graves, their faces heavy with white makeup—ditto The Secret River. Armfield dressed his Aboriginal actors in board shorts and disfigured the faces of the colonists, played by white actors, with heavy slops of zinc cream. I think the Aboriginal women wore some sort of body armour, but am not sure.
The Swastika and the Stage is detailed, comprehensive and often surprising. Even more surprising than coming across unknown facts about Nazi theatre is to find that the opening pre-Swastika chapters of Strobl’s book have a meaningful and relevant application to contemporary Australian theatre.
Before Hitler’s theatre there was Republican or Weimar theatre, which replaced the old monarchical supported theatres in 1918 and lasted until the Nazis came to power in 1933. Conventionally the whole period is seen as an exciting revolution which replaced the traditional theatre with a splendid modernist artistic political adventure which was tragically cut short by the brownshirt government. Strobl is more critical:
The violent expulsion of the avant-garde in the spring of 1933 was experienced by many German conservatives as a liberation. That owed much to deft Nazi stage management. Yet the left, too, had played its part. In more ways than one, the theatre of the republic itself set the stage for the Third Reich.
Strobl cites the conservative poet Börries von Münchhausen, who makes an obvious point which successive Coalition governments since the time when Gough Whitlam purchased the Arts for the ALP have ignored: “A government which does not ally itself, from the outset, with the main exponents in the arts and sciences will always bear the stigma of the usurper.” Usurper is a polite word to describe how every non-ALP government is seen by the intellectual elite—crude lady Twitter warriors would never be so courteous.
The Liberal-National Party Coalition accepts that culture and the arts belong to the Left. In the culture wars our conservative governments are batting for, and paying, the other side. Though it always ends in their own masochistic humiliation, they never consider a cultural policy which would remove the Left stranglehold. Defund the Left agitprop hustlers: liberate the poets, entertainers and storytellers. Restructure arts funding to reward writers and companies who attract audiences, don’t continue paying them to drive us away. Governments control money and an Arts policy asserting the separation of politics and art when funding is concerned could be a place to start the transformation. The Australia Council and the ABC are Left political forces, but they shouldn’t be—and they don’t have to be. In the early days of the new republic in Germany, writes Strobl, the culture war was one-sided because “traditionalists lacked a vision for the future”. This describes the Coalition government, and it shouldn’t.
In a nation which traditionally separated Kultur and politics, the transformation of theatre into Left-only politics was devastating. Strobl points out that the words in Faust, “Fi, ’tis an ugly song, ’tis a political song” were applauded as a protest against the politicising of Weimar theatre. In Strobl’s analysis, by making everything political, as in Australian theatre, the Left made an error: “When the swastika flags appeared on Germany’s theatre buildings the people who had fretted about the intrusion of politics into culture uttered hardly a word of protest: they had become radicalised.” In 1933 the theatres were quickly taken over by the Nazis. If an extremist Left political movement, for that is where the threat to our democracy lies, suddenly arose in Australia and amazingly managed to take over the state the theatres would have nothing to worry about—the new government would need Google search to even learn they exist.
By making everything political, the political is trivialised. Our theatre is a political theatre not even taken seriously by those who make it. A recent play called Kill Climate Deniers, which no one actually saw on its first outing, became a glorious opportunity to mock closed-minded lefties, small theatre opportunism, subsidised theatres and arts funding waste. Already the theatre poster and the title have developed into shorthand for comic idiocy.
As a counter to Weimar’s political theatre Strobl points to director Max Reinhardt who created theatre as “a source of pleasure, a sublime jeu d’ésprit and an end in itself. Jeßner, Piscator, Brecht or Karl Heinz Martin, and the critics who supported them, regarded it as a tool for social change.” As do our contemporary theatre makers and critics. In modern Australia a new Max Reinhardt would have to emigrate, as he did when he left Germany for Austria; there is no place for him here. Reinhardt left Weimar Germany, not Hitler’s Germany—it was only later he had to flee Vienna.
Our contemporary theatre offers technically advanced, politically correct new stagings of old Left plays. Early this year the Sydney Theatre Company presented a new translation of a Brecht play—it includes John Farnham lyrics. For the conventional, conformist Sydney critics who wrote about it, communism never died, the Berlin Wall is still standing and the deplorable Brecht remains a hero:
Time Out: “Fiercely political theatre is frequently just preaching to the converted, but in this case it seems a few of the right people might be in attendance. There’s a decent number of powerful moderate and centre-right people who see STC productions, and they’re exactly who could do with this kind of warning …”
Daily Review: “In an era of alternative facts this cinematically inclined production of Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui will win Brecht new fans with young audiences, encouraging them to see theatre as having an inherently political function. And that is exactly as Brecht would have wanted it.”
Sydney Morning Herald: “We get the leaders we deserve. So when politicians are bent, businessmen [and women?] venal and low-life criminals murderous, the conditions are ripe for the rise of the lowest life of all … Brecht’s epic theatre, which asks audiences to use their heads not their hearts, is deliberately alienating and can be hard to pull off.”
If audiences used their heads they would have read the gloriously malicious and funny portrait of the vile Brecht by Paul Johnson in Intellectuals—and booed the latest Brechtian humbug off the stage. How stupid these people are. We who disagree sit through their political plays, but they have never sat through one holding an opposing point of view to their own because these are never staged and writers who do not hold Left views are blacklisted from the progressive controlled theatres, media, government arts organisations, writers’ festivals, galleries, literary magazines, publishing houses and bookshops. If the Sydney Theatre Company staged a solidly modern conservative play these critics would be campaigning to have it taken off, just as they would if the ABC hired conservative presenters. And though they did their usual shtick of warning conspiratorially of threats from the Right out in the real world, several weeks later when President Macron was at the Opera House, central Paris was literally burning after ferocious attacks by leftist thugs celebrating, in their traditional way, May Day and the fiftieth anniversary of the May 1968 violence. Across the Channel on the same day, British gulag nostalgics marched under a portrait of Stalin. This is Brecht’s real audience.
As Weimar went, so has Australia, and Strobl could be describing the last fifty years of Australian theatre:
We now accept that Weimar did have something to offer: it refreshed a tradition that had become stale. The problem was, it was too uncompromising to carry a substantial proportion of the old audiences with it. Republican theatre made little effort to win the old audiences over, especially while the political situation still favoured it. It never wooed, it rarely even met halfway; all too often it simply ranted or harangued.
In our case what started as something interesting turned into Bell Shakespeare.
From the German past Australian theatre imported the most stupid flaw of all—its disdain for the audience. Where previous studies of Weimar narrated the history by navigating around various theatre controversies, Strobl turns to the audience reactions to what they were being offered and finds that large segments of the theatre-going public were offended and reacted by staying away—“but their resentment festered, and out of it grew a sense of being exiles in their own country”. His words exactly describe contemporary Australia experienced by those of us living under the occupation.
The domineering and exclusionist Left are making a very big mistake. The communist East German culture bureaucrat and poet Johannes R. Becher was later critical of his compatriots during Weimar: “They had misread the political developments; and they had been blind to the emotional needs of their fellow Germans.” Australian theatre, mimicking its closed-minded forebears, has made the same mistake. If tomorrow a national government cut funding to the arts there would be a huge outcry—from those affected. Other Australians would not say anything, because Left culture does not speak for or to us.
“It bears repeating,” writes Strobl, “not all of those who had grown tired of the republic’s politicised theatre were Nazis.” Max Reinhardt and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, both Jewish, protested against what was happening. Hofmannsthal stated that it was “the end of all sophisticated German theatre”.
Not discussed in the pious elegies to Weimar is the disastrous fall in box-office revenues which cannot be blamed on the economic crises Germany experienced. In 1930 at the Prussian State Theatre a critic noted an audience of seven at a Piscator play. “Before the Great War,” writes Strobl, “radical theatre reformers had dreamt of a theatre ‘emancipated’ from its audiences. By the end of the Weimar era, republican theatre had achieved that utopia.” Australian plays are written for culture bureaucrats, not audiences. From the government comes the money: audiences, when they show up, are a nuisance. Strobl writes:
Realist theatre had proceeded from the assumption that directors and audiences saw the world in the same way. It gave the viewers the feeling of participating as equals. Jeßner or Piscator [or insert name of modern Australian director or critic] reduced the audience to an ignorant crowd requiring enlightenment by the director’s anointed hand.
The imposed Weimar dictatorship of modernist theatre deprived audiences of “their sense of reassurance and their former pleasure in theatre going” and they looked elsewhere, sometimes finding it in the meetings, comradeship, pageantry and perhaps uniforms of the Nazis or communists. Australians find pleasure and sometimes community, which they once experienced in theatres, in solitary social media and video games and television or in watching or attending sports or taking part in Anzac Day commemorations—all activities despised by cultural elitists.
Chronologically Weimar theatre came to a clear end—though its influence has been immense. Strobl knows what came next and his book is well worth reading for its account of Swastika theatre. If Weimar modernism had not ended with the Nazi takeover it would have been decimated by Soviet Realism and its certain support for Soviet purges and the Moscow Trials.
The continuation of our own story will be interesting. The present, a descendant of the 1960s cultural tsunami, is in the dressing rooms changing for the next act while a generation of practical theatre-makers and critics are about to leave the stage—some should get a move on and collect their insincere posthumous laurels before their now unfashionably white reputations are cut down by those eager to replace them.
In several recent Quadrant articles I have noted some of the conferences and assemblies of theatre-makers where the voices of the arrogant new generations can be heard—the silences of conservative youth in arts matters is deafening. These activists are cruder and even more depressing, totalitarian, nihilist and witless than the old gang. Openly racist, often mean-spirited and drunk on racial and female supremacist fantasies, they are intent on taking and asserting an influence on our cultural life—which they will do simply by mainstreaming cultural funding moneys and by living longer. The LGBTIQ+ influence, strong as it presently is, is hardly worth mentioning. Those letters are simply shorthand for the coming Alphabet Civil War.
The wannabe players in the new culture are inflamed by social media and attuned to the wishes of their controllers: faceless bureaucratic women with bad ideas who direct the funding dollars. But underneath the sometimes-educated sometimes-dumb blather they do not actually have a vision for the future. While parroting contemporary platitudes they are vulnerable because they are careerists dependent on state funding. Where they should have ideas they have dollar signs. Take away the government money—a culture based on bribery is not worth having—and allow places for individual enterprise and creativity. Do so and something quite new and desirable could emerge.