The fact that Adolf Hitler aspired as a young man to be an artist is sufficiently well known to have passed into the common stock of allusion. (“Hitler—there was a painter,” quips a character in Mel Brooks’s The Producers. “He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon. Two coats!”) Similarly, most culturally literate people know of Hitler’s interest in the music of Richard Wagner. But, with few exceptions, biographers, historians, and commentators have seldom sought to connect these seemingly unrelated phenomena—to consider, that is, the possibility that Hitler’s artistic interests might have been central to his character, or have had a significant effect on his political career.

One such early exception was Thomas Mann, who in his 1938 essay “Brother Hitler” remarked on Hitler’s extraordinary ability as a leader of men: “Like it or not, how can we fail to recognize in this phenomenon a sign of artistry?” Similarly, many of Hitler’s contemporaries—including some who, like Albert Speer, knew him very well—were struck by the fact that he appeared to have the bohemian temperament of an artist, not a politician. But as a rule, there has been something of a reluctance to explore this peculiar aspect of Hitler’s character. To the extent that writers have dealt with it, their accounts have typically been colored by wishful thinking of one kind or another, with some seeking to derogate Hitler’s artistic bent in dismissive, Sunday-painter terms, others to inflate his knowledge of the arts far beyond the plausible, and still others to portray him as a monstrous cipher without an inner life. Ian Kershaw, his most recent biographer, states flatly that “outside politics Hitler’s life was largely a void.”

Now Frederic Spotts, a diplomat turned scholar whose previous books include a history of the Bayreuth festival, has written Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, a wide-ranging and exceptionally penetrating study of Hitler’s relationships with artists and the arts.1 Spotts shows that his involvement was—as far as it went—perfectly serious. Though his own abilities as a painter and architect were limited, they were real, just as his love of music was within its own narrow limits both intense and well-informed. More significantly, Spotts contends that Hitler’s “aesthetic talents,” far from being peripheral to his achievements as a politician, were in fact at the heart of his political self-understanding.

Hitler believed, according to Spotts, that “the ultimate objective of political effort should be artistic achievement.” He meant this in a literal sense: “Once he had won his war and established an Aryan state that was a dominant world power, he intended to devote himself to the creation of cultural monuments that would change the face of Germany and immortalize himself.” But Hitler was no mere builder of temples celebrating the triumph of his iron will. As Spotts goes on to explain:

The Hitler of this book is someone for whom culture was not only the end to which power should aspire but also a means of achieving and keeping it. . . . Using a new style of politics, mediated through symbols, myths, rites, spectacles, and personal dramatics, he reached the masses as did no other leader of his time.

Not only does Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics serve as a useful corrective to earlier Hitler biographies, it also supplies a thoroughly unsettling account of what, for lovers of the arts, is one of the most unsavory features of the Third Reich: the seeming eagerness of so many noted German artists (as well as more than a few of their counterparts in Nazi-occupied countries, especially France) to collaborate with Hitler and his henchmen. What was it about Hitler that appealed to them? Were they simply afraid not to support him? Or were they responding to the siren call of a deeper urge?

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That Hitler saw himself as an artist deflected from his natural path by history is incontestable. In his own words, “I became a politician against my will. If someone else had been found, I would never have gone into politics; I would have become an artist or a philosopher.”

Though he came from an uncultured family, from childhood onward Hitler was obsessed with the world of art. He saw his first opera, Wagner’s Lohengrin, at the age of twelve, in the process acquiring a lifelong obsession with its composer. As a budding visual artist, though he was rejected as a student by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, he was able to eke out a modest living by turning out watercolors for tourists and unsophisticated collectors. As late as 1920, the year he entered politics, he was still describing himself as a “painter” on his application form for the German Workers’ party.

Many of the paintings attributed to Hitler are forgeries, but enough authentic examples of his work have been preserved to allow his talents to be fairly gauged. Nearly all are tight, rigid exercises in photographic realism, technically competent but uninspired. In Spotts’s words:

Through his repeated portraiture of well-known Vienna and Munich buildings he developed the near-professional eye of an architect. But he did not begin to find an interpretive technique of his own and, as far as can be judged, neither embellished nor altered what he copied. As a result he rarely gave his scenes life or feeling. . . . Their most marked failing lay in the figures. Those he inserted looked like mannequins and cast a mood of artificiality, not to say crudity, over the whole work.

Only at the very end of his abortive career as a painter did Hitler show any sign of being able to develop further. The warm, deftly balanced colors and looser handling of Haubordin, the Seminar Church, an unfinished 1916 watercolor reproduced in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, suggest that the stress of wartime may have helped him to overcome his earlier stiffness of execution. No further development, alas, was to take place, for Hitler stopped painting altogether after the war, choosing instead to immerse himself fully in the pursuit of power.

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If Hitler’s artistic gifts were modest, he nonetheless acquired from his hands-on experience an intimate knowledge of the expressive power of art, and it is at least conceivable that, given sufficient encouragement, he might have used that knowledge in innocent ways. He could have become an architectural painter—or, given his passionate interest in Wagner, a stage designer, another discipline in which he briefly dabbled. Instead, he found a way to put his aesthetic bent to more practical and far-reaching use.

As a politician, Hitler had a near-infallible grasp of theatrical technique. In addition to meticulously rehearsing his speeches, he was painstaking about controlling the environments in which he delivered them. Once he came to power, he created unprecedentedly spectacular, large-scale “stage settings” for his performances, frequently designing the key elements himself. “I had spent six years in St. Petersburg before the war in the best days of the old Russian ballet,” one onlooker wrote of a Nazi-party rally in Nuremberg, “but in grandiose beauty I have never seen a ballet to compare with it.” (A latter-day admirer of Hitler’s technique is the rock star David Bowie, who has observed that the German dictator “was no politician, he was a great media artist. . . . He made an entire country a stage show.”)

Hitler did more than use aesthetic techniques for propaganda purposes. For him, the whole point of ruling Germany and conquering Europe was to be able to make them over again in a different image—one in which the fine arts would have pride of place. In Spotts’s unexaggerated summary:

He envisaged the construction of stupendous public edifices, opera houses, theaters, and museums. He gave lavish financial support to artists and artistic institutions, commissioned works of music, painting, sculpture, and architecture. . . . The entire Reich was to be given a new cultural shape. Even small towns were to have at least one art gallery and those without a concert hall or opera house were to have visits from traveling orchestras and opera companies.

All of this cultural activity was to be undertaken not merely for its own sake but in order to save the German soul, which Hitler believed to have been corrupted by modern art. To a degree not sufficiently grasped by historians, Hitler’s ideology was, indeed, a critique of modernism. Such “international” styles of art as Cubism and Futurism, springing as they did from “a Jewish, foreign mentality,” were, he thought, a threat to the emergence of a true German nationalism. As a replacement for this modernist “monstrosity,” Hitler proposed a bastard hybridizing of German romanticism and Greco-Roman neoclassicism.

If “degenerate” art had reduced the Weimar Republic to a state of demoralized anomie, nothing less than a root-and-branch cultural transformation would suffice to undo its effects. Needless to say, this could only be accomplished by brute force—which was one of the main reasons why Hitler held Western democracies in contempt. Shaped by free markets rather than by the single-minded will of an artist-politician, they were fated to sink to the level of the lowest common cultural denominator. As he said in 1938:

The world will come to Germany and convince itself that Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization. When I read of other countries, and particularly of democratic countries, that they are called upon to protect culture, I say, “First build up a little more culture yourselves and then you can protect it.”

Hitler, in short, was a deranged idealist, a painter who sought power over others in order to make his romantic dreams real, then grew ever more bloodthirsty when the human beings who were his flesh-and-blood medium resisted his transforming touch. He was not the first such murderous artist. As Irving Babbitt wrote of the similarly mad idealists who had unleashed their own reign of terror on France:

Robespierre and Saint-Just were ready to eliminate violently whole social strata that seemed to them to be made up of parasites and conspirators, in order that they might adjust this actual France to the Sparta of their dreams; so that the Terror was far more than is commonly realized a bucolic episode. It lends color to the assertion that has been made that the last stage of sentimentalism is homicidal mania.

To read Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics is to reflect not only on power but on the various ways in which artists through the ages have responded to power, and more specifically to the politicians and political ideas of their time.

In Nazi Germany, this response, as Frederic Spotts reminds us, was overwhelmingly positive. The list of distinguished non-Jewish artists who left the country after Hitler came to power is brief to the point of invisibility when placed next to the rogues’ gallery of those who stayed behind, in many cases not merely accepting the inevitability of Nazi rule but actively collaborating with the regime. The composers Carl Orff and Richard Strauss, the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the actor Emil Jannings, the stage designer Caspar Neher—all these and many more were perfectly prepared to make their peace with Nazism.

What drove these men and women? No doubt, in some cases, the motive was the crudest sort of self-interest. For not only did Hitler subsidize the arts, he subsidized individual artists as well, in many cases lavishly. And even those who were not the direct objects of his personal largesse benefited from his open-handed arts policy, which included exemption from military service, as well as from the fact that the emigration and slaughter of prominent Jewish artists left more room at the top of the heap. In addition, many German artists were true Nazi believers; ironically, their number included a few, like the twelve-tone composer Anton Webern and the Expressionist painter Emil Nolde, whose modernist art was anathema to the Nazis. Others, whatever their reservations about specific policies, shared Hitler’s loathing for modernism and endorsed his vision of Germany as the savior of the West.

The relationship of these artists to the Nazi regime remains relevant to this day. Though artists vary widely in their political awareness—from total indifference on the one hand to passionate involvement on the other—many, perhaps most, find it hard to resist the blandishments of politicians who appear to take an informed interest, however specious, in the arts. Shelley’s famous assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” can also be read as a rueful admission that the world deigns at any given moment to acknowledge only a handful of serious artists. The rest are regarded with comparative indifference, especially in market-based democracies where no natural mechanism exists to introduce the “masses” to high art.

Some artists accept their comparatively lowly status, finding sufficient reward in the practice of their calling. But others are enraged by it, particularly those romantics who long to remake the world so as to bring it into closer accord with their private visions. Such artists are irresistibly drawn to men of power, and are sometimes willing to pervert their art in the name of politics. Hitler, both a romantic and an artist manqué, understood this temptation and made the most of it. The historian Paul Johnson understands it as well, and has it in mind when he writes: “Art, no less than politics, carries with it a whiff of sulphur, the stench of the charnel-house.”

It is tempting to try to excuse this as mere foolishness. As Hitler himself once remarked, “Artists are simple-hearted souls. Today they sign this, tomorrow that; they don’t even look to see what it is, so long as it seems to them well-meaning.” But as he knew—better, perhaps, than any other politician of the 20th century—ideas have consequences, and the artist who succumbs to the temptation to dabble in ill-digested political ideas, be he a Nazi, a Communist, or a pacifist, is as morally responsible for their ultimate consequences as any other human being. In the end, beauty excuses nothing, least of all mass murder.

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1 Overlook Press, 456 pp., $37.50.

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