Michael H. Kater on After the Nazis

Michael H. Kater

The acclaimed historian of 20th century Germany discusses his new book on culture in the FRG post-war.
Michael H. Kater
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Michael H. Kater, congratulations on After the Nazis. You’ve written about how important democracy was for culture to thrive in Germany. Were there any cultural achievements under the Nazis?

In the Third Reich, cultural achievements in line with a democratic value system were not made.  Instead, the Nazis created the Culture Chamber, a controlling body to which all “Aryan” culture creators had to adhere.  It dictated guidelines and acted as a censor board.  Jews were of course excluded, and if artists or musicians were deemed insubordinate, they were ostracized or, worse, detained.  The first happened to sculptor Ernst Barlach, and the latter to playwright Günther Weisenborn.

In the wake of the Second World War, many cities had suffered destruction on a large scale, and so what form did cultural activity take, given the German people would need to rebuild their lives as their first priority?

Because collectively the German people felt sorry for themselves, having endured bombings and the loss of menfolk at the fronts, artists and writers tended to concentrate on works depicting German suffering.  Such works implied the denial of German guilt.  For example, Karl Hofer created a painting, The Blind Ones (1948), showing four German men and women being helplessly delivered into the unknown.  In his early novellas, Heinrich Böll empathized with young soldiers, such as he himself had been, as war victims, in danger of being blown up by Polish partisans.

As you write in your introduction, prior to this book there are very few histories of culture during the period in which you write. How has that impacted the way you’ve written the book?

Most importantly, it meant that rather than relying on secondary sources, I had to work with primary materials.  Ideally, those are found in archives as never-before-seen documents, but for the period reaching back only to 1945, few public archives are open to users.  Therefore, next to the relatively few documents I was able to examine, most of my sources derived from newspaper and journal articles and memoirs, and some biographies.  One other consequence of missing secondary sources was that I was deprived of the opportunity to take a position vis-à-vis a pre-established view, arguing a new thesis. But that, of course, means that writers coming after me will have to discuss my thesis…

Many authors had fought for the Nazis in various guises (Gunter Grass in 2006 revealed he was in the Waffen SS, Walser & Boll fought in the Wehrmacht). How much of a hindrance to critics was their war service when after the war they were writing in a liberal tradition as part of Gruppe 47?

War service as such was no hindrance, because conscription since 1935 had meant that virtually every man after age 18 had to serve.  When the Gruppe 47 first met in 1947, almost every male there (and there were no women) had been at the fronts.  What came to be considered a problem was prior membership in Nazi organizations.  Some of this was excusable because you could have been drafted.  But even then, you could have served with enthusiasm, as did novelist Martin Walser in the Hitler Youth.  But if you joined an organization like the SS, you did so voluntarily, as did Günter Grass.  In that case, after 1945, you had some explaining to do.  Because Grass became very successful as an author early on, he could afford to delay his explanation until 2006, because then, after the Nobel Prize ceremonies, he was unassailable.  While Grass outed himself, the liberal rhetoric professor and author Walter Jens was discovered to have voluntary joined the Nazi Party as a student in 1943.  There were other, liberal and seemingly non-impeachable mavens of culture, like him (Walter Höllerer, Peter Wapnewski, Siegfried Lenz, to name only a few): They all maintained they had been co-opted without their knowledge, which was an outright lie.

Former Nazi party officials served in senior positions in post-war West Germany. This was a major motivating factor for the left wing terrorist organisation Baader-Meinhof/Red Army Faction, but how did their presence in government impact the cultural community?

These former Nazis in government (and in leading positions of society, such as former SS leader Hanns Martin Schleyer with Mercedes Inc.) were a problem till well into the early 1980s.  There was little artists, men and women of letters and musicians could do about it, save for allegorizing this situation creatively.  This was, obviously, easier to do for playwrights and novelists than for musicians.  But even among them, few attempts are known, because lawsuits had to be feared.  One that was successful occurred quite late: Rolf Hochhuth’s characterization of Baden-Württemberg’s premier Hans Filbinger as a former Nazi judge in his 1979 play Juristen (Jurists).  Yet this drama was not widely staged.

If our readers were to take one novel, play or piece of art that best encapsulates the period, what would you suggest?

I would divide “the period” into two parts: one which was characterized by recuperation and rebuilding, lasting perhaps to the mid-sixties, followed by one of self-satisfaction and self-preservation.  The first was vividly portrayed by Walser in his novel Halbzeit (Halftime, 1960), which pointed up difficulties in arriving (again) at leading positions in society.  In this process, Nazi veterans played a significant part, who either superficially adapted to or hampered the democratic process.  The novel also satirized the rising materialistic complacency.  Into a society sated with material wealth and growing international prestige burst the rebelling students of the late 1960s (not dramatized much in literature) and their extension, the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group of the 1970s.  Living as a West German citizen in fear of the latter is aptly described in Böll’s Fürsorgliche Belagerung (The Safety Net, 1979).

Did we see attempts from the Stasi or other agencies to infiltrate the cultural scene and sow dissent?

Conservatives were infiltrating the culture establishment somewhat successfully by the 1980s.  There were no Stasi spies in that establishment, or this would have been discovered after 1990.  Such spies infiltrated the government, most notably Willy Brandt’s cabinet, where Günter Guillaume became the chancellor’s personal assistant.  (In this capacity, among other duties, he was responsible for procuring women for Brandt – Guillaume’s discovery and those chronic affairs caused Brandt’s downfall in 1974.)  East German creators of culture who fled the GDR to be accepted by the West always felt uneasy in West Germany, before 1990.  The most prominent one, Uwe Johnson, spent little time there before he permanently settled in the UK.

What’s been the legacy of the 1945-90 cultural achievements in a unified Germany?

Musicians and painters, writers and actors contributed critically to the establishment of democratic government in West Germany and were yeast in an increasingly pluralistic society. They helped in defeating vestiges of the Third Reich (in culture former Nazi bards never had a chance), until 1980 put reactionary conservatives at bay and fostered international ties with like-minded colleagues.  Some of these artists became world leaders through innovation and originality. Journalist Rudolf Augstein’s weekly news magazine Der Spiegel developed a format which was unrivalled anywhere. The painter Joseph Beuys created sculptures and happenings that took him to the new art capital of the world, New York.  His achievements were later emulated by his students Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer.  New German Film makers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, their fame undiminished till today, were the toast of London and Paris.  Karlheinz Stockhausen became the number one composer of electronic music. While it lasted, with setbacks and interruptions until reunification, this was a success story unheard of in other countries around the world during that course in time.

This book makes up a trilogy (after Weimar: From Enlightenment to the Present and Culture in Nazi Germany) – will we see a fourth covering unification? One thinks of impressive films such as Downfall, The Live of Others & The Wave – and I’m sure I’ve missed plenty out.

I am currently reading up on German developments since reunification in 1990: political background, society, economic ups and downs, xenophobia, and their interdependence with culture.

Michael H. Kater is distinguished research professor emeritus of history at York University, Toronto and the author of After the Nazis:The Story of Culture in West Germany, published by Yale University Press.