To cover all of these topics in just 340 pages is a remarkable feat. The footnotes and bibliography stand as testimony to the vast amount of research which supports each page; Kater skilfully allows the reader to compare developments in the various different fields. In the chapter considering culture during wartime for example, the narrative skips from film to news media, from music to theatre to literature, to art and then to architecture, providing an intriguing insight into the regime’s increasingly frantic attempts to mobilize culture in the support of military gains.
Readers may quibble about this or that, but Michael Kater has written a valuable overview of this subject. He ranges widely, summarising a mass of research as well as distilling his own pioneering work on classical music and jazz in Nazi Germany. He writes with sympathy and insight about those who emigrated, and is mostly non-judgemental about the prominent individuals who stayed – although anger gets the better of him when it comes to the ‘make-believe resister’ Ernst Jünger. He deserves our gratitude not least for working his way through so much bad, often repulsive Nazi culture – books that we don’t want to read, works of art that we don’t want to see – and offering thoughtful commentary on it. This will become a standard work of reference on culture in the Third Reich.
Kater in his richly researched, fluently written book, sets out to recast the story of Hitler’s Germany. Some of the material will be familiar; there has been plenty of work on the stage management of the regime, on its use of radio and cinema, the dubious role played by Leni Riefenstahl and the artistic currents that emerged in the desperate aftermath of the First World War. However, this book seeks to do more than provide a chronicle; it sketches the contours of the relationship between culture and tyranny. The way, for example, that propaganda is used to shape national identity; the techniques used to exclude the “other”.
Kater’s book makes angry, authoritative reading for anyone interested in the Nazi era. Just as only a relative handful of Germans were willing to resist Hitler as late as July 1944, so only a small proportion of artists defied Nazism, even by choosing exile. The author’s peroration expresses a seminal point, relevant in the 21st century to Russia, China, Iran and a depressing number of other societies: “Whether or not culture is even possible in a dictatorship remains a ripe question. If the aesthetic, formal and ethical power of culture thrives on contradiction to prevailing social and political norms...then it will arguably always fail under tyranny.”