December 21, 2002

The Fascistification of Culture

Ros Davidson reporting from Los Angeles for The Sunday Herald of Scotland says that new tougher U.S. visa rules keep artists out. (See Commondreams.)

This new, oppressive Bush-style policy is bad for the already-crippled economy, but what is worse is the impoverishment of spirit that results from the suppression of art. But it's perfectly in character with the government of the Texas Mussolini.

According to Davidson, "Scores of international performers have had to cancel appearances since America tightened its visa rules and security checks this summer. Performers and presenters in the US are losing money. The recording industry will be hampered, say critics of the policy. Labels prefer to issue CDs when a group is touring. And Americans are being deprived of cultural communication at a time when it is more crucial than ever before."

In order to remind ourselves why it is not a long shot to compare the Bush administration with the Nazis, let's look at a passage from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. It is titled "The Nazification of Culture."

On the evening of May 10, 1933, some four and a half months after Hitler became Chancellor, there occurred in Berlin a scene which had not been witnessed in the Western world since the late Middle Ages. At about midnight a torchlight parade of thousands of students ended at a square on Unter den Linden opposite the University of Berlin. Torches were put to a huge pile of books that had been gathered there, and as the flames enveloped them more books were thrown on the fire until some twenty thousand had been consumed. Similar scenes took place in several other cities. The book burning had begun.

Books burned "under the approving eye of Dr. Goebbels," Shirer said, included works by Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Erich Maria Remarque, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, H.G. Wells, Havelock Ellis, Sigmund Freud, Andre Gide, Emile Zola and Marcel Proust. In the words of a proclamation read at the ceremony, any book was burned "which acts subversively on our future or strikes at the root of German thought, the German home and the driving forces of our people."

A Reich Chamber of Culture was set up to "determine the lines of progress mental and spiritual." According to Shirer: "No one who lived in Germany in the Thirties and who cared about such matters can ever forget the sickening decline of the cultural standards of a people who had had such high ones for so long a time. This was inevitable of course, the moment the Nazi leaders decided that the arts, literature, the press, radio and the films must serve exclusively the propaganda purposes of the new regime and its outlandish philosophy..."

"To Hitler, who considered himself a genuine artist despite his early failures as one in Vienna, all modern art was degenerate and senseless," Shirer said. One of his first acts after coming to power was to "cleanse" Germany of "decadent" art. Over 6,500 paintings were taken from German museums, including works by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne and Picasso, as well as by Germans such as Grosz and Kokoschka.

Every morning the editors of the newspapers gathered at the Propaganda Ministry to be told by Goebbels or an aide "what news to print and suppress, how to write the news and headline it... what editorials were desired for the day," Shirer said.

"With all newspapers in Germany being told what to publish and how to write the news and editorials, it was inevitable that a deadly conformity would come over the nation's press," Shirer writes. "Even a people so regimented and so given to accepting authority became bored by the daily newspapers. Circulation declined even for the leading Nazi daily newspapers... and the total circulation of all journals fell off steeply as one paper after another went under or was taken over by Nazi publishers."

The power of incessant propaganda cannot be overestimated. Shirer says:

I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had a daily access to foreign newspapers ... and foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one's inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsification and distortions made a certain impression on one's mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime's calculated and incessant propaganda. Often [in conversation] I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for the truth, said they were. This took place soon after Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Skipping ahead a few years, by 1939 the regime had consolidated its power and the Nazi conquest of Europe took off in earnest with a Blitzkrieg that put most of the continent under Nazi control within a matter of weeks. The Nazis then looked to take over England. If the invasion had succeeded, the Nazis had grim plans for the island. Under a directive of the chief of the army, "All able bodied men between the ages of 17 and 45 will ... be interned and dispatched to the Continent."

Orders were in place for what Shirer calls "the systematic plunder of the island." Part of the initial preparation for the process was for the Gestapo to round up 2,300 prominent people in England, including Churchill and the cabinet and well-known politicians of all parties. Leading editors, reporters and publishers were on the list as well as H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, J.B. Priestly, C.P. Snow, Noel Coward, Rebecca West, and emigres such as Paderewski and Freud.

Yes, we are not there yet, but the similarities are too great to be taken lightly. One of the most chilling features of the history of Nazi Germany is the description by those who were there of a moment when the process had gathered too much momentum and could no longer be stopped. Let's make sure it doesn't reach that point here. If it hasn't already.

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