Modern Intellectual History

Review Essays

THE AMBIVALENCE OF MODERNISM FROM THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC TO NATIONAL SOCIALISM AND RED VIENNA

SIEGFRIED MATTLa1

a1 Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for History and Society, Vienna

Peter Jelavich: Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2006)

Edward Timms: Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist: The Post-war Crisis and the Rise of the Swastika (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005)

Focusing on the spectacular propaganda exhibitions “Degenerate Art” and “Degenerate Music,” critical studies of Nazism's art policy long considered the regime's public attack on modernism and the turn to pseudo-classicism as decisive proof of Nazism's reactionary character. Studies such as Die Kunst im Dritten Reich (1974), which inspired broader research on the topic in the early 1970s, subscribed to a modern conception of aesthetics in which art expresses complex systems of ideas in progress. Artistic style, from this perspective, corresponded to political tendencies and reflected the traditional divide between conservatism and progressivism. But those boundaries have become blurred in the wake of more recent research, which has demonstrated the involvement of modernist artists in Nazi art (e.g. members of the Bauhaus involved in National Socialist architecture or avant-garde filmmakers such as Walter Ruttmann in National Socialist propaganda films) and, conversely, the continual performance of popular jazz music in the Third Reich (e.g. in radio programmes). Seen against such instances of modernist collaboration and its own occasional mimicry of modernism, National Socialism acquires a more ambivalent profile, characterized by the ongoing conflict between reactionary factions and those who favoured modernization for various reasons.