Culture, on the other hand, was perceived as very German. In fact, Hitler believed that one of the defining characteristics of the German race was its tremendous creative aptitude. Part of the impetus for the regime’s extensive involvement in the arts and letters came from individuals such as Hitler, Goebbels, and Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946), all of whom had had artistic and cultural aspirations in their youth. But another motivating factor was the conviction shared by many conservative Germans that modernist and “decadent” cultural movements during the Weimar Republic – which ranged from expressionist art to jazz – had contributed to German dissipation and weakness. Culture influenced behavior, they argued, and only a properly regulated Nazi culture that glorified race and martial values could sustain the glorious future of the Third Reich. And since race determined behavior, the Nazis tried to label decadent culture as the work of racial inferiors or degenerates, or as part of the Jewish plot against Germany.
If their ancestry and prior politics were unobjectionable, writers, artists, and cultural producers of all sorts had to decide whether to cooperate with, or even promote, the Nazi takeover of German culture. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) did not wholly support the early censorship of Jewish artists and appealed to Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, urging him to protect high cultural standards. Goebbels parried his criticism. Furtwängler made no further trouble and went on to have a very successful career in Nazi Germany.
Goebbels made a personal appearance at the student-organized book burning of “un-German” literature on May 10, 1933, in Berlin. Louis P. Lochner, then head of the Berlin bureau of the Associated Press, reported on the event in a tone that conveyed the fanaticism and barbarism of the Nazi movement. In September 1933, at Goebbels’ instigation, a law was passed establishing a Reich Chamber of Culture, within which most cultural forms were represented by individual chambers: literature, the press, radio, film, theater, music, and the visual arts. Since the right to engage in professional activity was dependent upon membership in the appropriate chamber, the law gave the government (and Goebbels) the power to exclude from the profession anyone whose politics, ancestry, or artistic style was deemed objectionable. The Manual of the Reich Chamber of Culture (1937) provides some insight into how these professional bodies functioned (38).
(38) For more details, see Alan Steinweis, Art, Ideology, and Economics: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theatre and the Visual Arts (Chapel Hill: North Carolina, 1996).