Sunday 31 May 2009

William Shakespeare, Playwright of the Third Reich

Did you know that Shakespeare was favoured by the Nazis? Well, he was, performed even when Schiller, one of the greatest German poets and playwrights was not. Consider some of the following.

In 1934 the French government banned, in permanence, performances of Coriolanus because of its perceived negative qualities. In the international protests that followed came one from Germany, from none other than Joseph Goebbels.

Although productions of Shakespeare's plays in Germany itself were subject to 'streamlining', he continued to be favoured as a great classical dramatist, especially so as almost every new German play since the late 1890s onwards was the work of left-wingers, of Jews or of 'degenerates' of one kind or another. Politically acceptable writers had simply been unable to fill the gap, or had only been able to do so with the worst kinds of agitprop. In 1935 Goebbels was to say "We can build autobhans, revive the economy, create a new army, but we...cannot manufacture new dramatists."

With Schiller suspect for his radicalism, Lessing for his humanism and even the great Goethe for his lack of patriotism, the 'Aryan' Shakespeare it had to be. Of Hamlet one critic wrote "If the courtier Laertes is drawn to Paris and the humanist Horatio seems more Roman than Danish, it is surely no accident that Hamlet's alma mater should be Wittenberg." A leading magazine declared that the crime which deprived Hamlet of his inheritance was a foreshadow of the Treaty of Versailles, and that the conduct of Gertrude was reminiscent of the spineless Weimar politicians!

Weeks after Hitler took power in 1933 an official party publication appeared entitled Shakespeare-a Germanic Writer, a counter to those who wanted to ban all foreign influences. At the Propaganda Ministry, Rainer Schlosser, given charge of German theatre by Goebbels, mused that Shakespeare was more German than English.

After the outbreak of the war the performance of Shakespeare was banned, though it was quickly lifted by Hitler in person, a favour extended to no other. Not only did the regime expropriate the Bard but it also expropriated Elizabethan England itself; a young, vigorous nation, much like the Third Reich itself, quite unlike the decadent British Empire of the present day. And why did Germany not produce its own Shakespeare? Why, the answer to that was easy: England, unlike Germany, had been free of Jews for three hundred years prior to his birth!

Clearly there were some exceptions to the official approval of Shakespeare, and the great patriotic plays, most notably Henry V were shelfed. But interestingly the reception of the The Merchant of Venice was at best lukewarm (Marlowe's The Jew of Malta was suggested as a possible alternative) because it was too ambigious and not nearly anti-semitic enough for Nazi taste. So Hamlet it was, along with Macbeth and Richard III.

Mention of that particular play allows me to finish on a note of humour; for you see the leading Nazis were not beyond scoring points against each other. In 1937 the Prussian State Theatre, under the control of Herman Göring, put on a performance of Richard. To the visible astonishment of the audience the King was depicted in Fascist style uniform with a club foot! As he shambled about the stage, malevolent, poisonous, murderous, it was all too clear to all who this was meant to be. Göring beamed!

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