Wednesday 19 August 2009
Out of the Ashes
In May 1933, under the guidance of Goebbels, Nazi students consigned ‘degenerate books to the flames. What came after; what was left of German literature? What is usually left after a bonfire? Why, ashes.
Speaking at the burning of the books Goebbels announced that "The soul of the German people can express itself again. The flames not only illuminate the end of the old era, they also light up the new." The 'old era' consisted of some 2,500 writers, many of international renown. To fill the gap Goebbels delegated control of literature to Department VIII of his own Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. The Department quickly set up a set of standards, to which all aspiring writers were obliged to conform. Work had to be produced in any one of four categories: Fronterlebnis, stressing the camaraderie of war; Weltanschauung, reflecting the Nazis world view; Heimatroman, stressing the national mystique of the German localities; Rassenkunde, reflecting Nazi views on race.
I am sure it will come as no surprise for you to learn that those who operated within this straight-jacket were distinguished by their mediocrity; people like Werner Bumelburg, who wrote mawkishly sentimental novels about comradeship in the Great War; Rudolf Binding and Bōrries von Münchausen, who wrote tiresome pseudo-Medieval epics.
The few writers who stood out against this apotheosis of the second-rate included Hans Grimm and Gottfried Benn, who though initially supportive of National Socialism, later turned hostile. Others like Ernst Jünger, though a hero of the German right, had always maintained a sense of personal distance. Goebbels' phoenix was nothing more than a turkey.