Theater in Germany During the Dark Days of the Third Reich

The poisonous lunacy of pre-war Germany's racial policies affected every aspect of German culture, not least of all the theater.

To fully understand the changes that German theater underwent during World War II, one must first examine the uniquely German quality of Bildung, which permeated and influenced every aspect of German culture since the sixteenth century. At first referring to a concept in which people might access the innate qualities of God thought to be imbued in every Christian’s soul, the term evolved beyond religion to include more “enlightened” human characteristics. Ironically, it was a Jew, Moses Mendelssohn, who in the seventeenth century published a well-received paper, comparing Bildung to Enlightenment itself.

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By the end of eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried von Herder had expanded the meaning of Bildung beyond the sense of individual development to incorporate a sense of national identity and common destiny. By this time German theater had become distinctive through its developing focus on nurturing Bildung within its audiences. The theater provided a unifying voice at a time when Germany faced political, economical and social challenges. Building upon a tradition of realism, German theater “acted out” the concept of Bildung, illustrating clearly how nationalistic Germans should behave.

Yet by World War I, another cultural movement had grown. Expressionism stressed an individualistic, entirely subjective perspective on life. Expressionistic plays, later known as “Epic theater,” often dramatized a struggle against authority, using radical, new methods to convey radical, new ideas. Unorthodox speech, sometimes rhapsodic, sometimes clipped and stark, telegraphed a sense of the a play’s meaning. Staging and acting techniques were devised, intended to inform audiences about modern day injustices and inequality. In the brief period between World War I and II, Epic theater played counterpart to the more socially-acceptable nationalistic theater. Although not extremely popular at the time, the plays would provide fodder for the Nazi regime.

Expressionism’s emphasis on the personal was anathema to the rising nationalism. While Herder’s vision had been for social unity established through a classless society, German militarism was seizing upon the growing nationalism to empower the rise of the Third Reich. Leading figures of the Nazi movement were beginning to call for censorship and changes in repertoire. Grand-scaled productions began to appear, such as Hann Johst’s “Schlageter,” a play about the occupation of the Ruhr during World War I, which reawakened militaristic ambitions, and “Thingspiele,” which promoted the notion of a national “rebirth.” When these productions proved too costly to maintain, Goebbels used regulations to impede the development of “ecstatic theater amateurism” and discouraged plays set in modern day. theater staff were frequently replaced. New stages were built for specifically themed venues such as “factory plays” or “solemnity plays.”

Hitler himself argued that expressionistic art were “sickly aberrations of the insane and depraved.” Many historians view his rage against modern art as reflecting his own artistic tendencies, which were towards romantic realism, and were generally dismissed by contemporary critics and galleries. Hitler demanded that the arts be purged, including the theater, which he compared to side shows in depravity. In “Volk and Race,” Hitler blamed the Jews for a declining culture. In a sense, he saw all Jews as “actors,” since he viewed Jews as people playing roles within a “host” country. Therefore, he reasoned, the theater was particularly prone to a Jewish cultural assault.

The Third Reich worked hard to remove from history all the contributions of Jews to German theater. Considering that up to a fourth of the Propaganda Ministry’s budget went into efforts by the National Socialist regime to promote and maintain Hitler’s ideas of theater, it was a dismal failure. Propaganda plays were too pedantic to enjoy long-term success. Productions costs plagued the party. Some theater owners began to produce plays with foreign talent which tarnished the reputation of National Socialist theater professionals. As the regime began to founder, more liberal and apolitical plays increased, continuing to grow in popularity as the war ended, as a reminder of the brutality and censorship of the Nazi regime.

Strange occurences in theatres

Copyright 2010 Gottfried Goldmann