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The Nationalization of the Masses : Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany, from the Napoleonic Wars Through the Thrird Reich

The Nationalization of the Masses : Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany, from the Napoleonic Wars Through the Thrird Reich - George L. Mosse George Mosse (pronounced Máh-zee) is perhaps responsible for the modern revolution in fascist studies, that began with the launching of the Journal of Contemporary History in 1980 (Mosse published a volume of memoirs a few years ago: http://tinyurl.com/2fgbuz8).

This is one of his earlier books, and it is seminal. Mosse often seems to speak ex cathedra, and so modern scholars may not always realize the deep learning and deep sensibility that his books contain; and it is also true that -- though he published in English - his prose still reeks of German, both in the sentence structure and in the paragraph structure -- so reading Mosse sometimes requires a bit of work. That said, the effort will repay itself in multiples.

Fascism, Mosse says, cannot be understood in terms of dogma, as it does not have a coherent doctrine , but is instead more of an 'attitude'. A large part of this 'attitude' derives from the feelings engendered by rapid industrialization that all of the totalizing patterns and relations of our traditional, pre-industrial relations have been disrupted, and by the urgent desire to reintegrate oneself into the organic whole, the integral whole (from which we have been wrenched). Fascism is thus in this respect a revolt against modernity -- that is, against fragmentation, atomization, urbanism, cosmopolitanism (and its representatives…).

Since fascism, however, does not (or cannot) look to doctrine to accomplish this reintegration, it looks to action, which involves it in the politics of action, in drama, ritual, and liturgy -- whose tools include symbolism and myth. Thus, the Nazi 'kultur' operation was not simply a crass propagandistic vehicle for the cynical manipulation of the bourgeoisie-- but is a method, not unlike Christian liturgy (many of whose tokens it actually adopts; see below), for reintegrating (at an emotional and affectual level) the alienated individual.

Hence arises what Mosse calls "the aesthetics of politics" and "its objectification in art and architecture…. [a:] force which linked symbols, myths, and the feeling of the masses" back into a reintegrating and satisfying whole. It was serious business, in other words, much of it was stage-managed by Albert Speer. (The material for Italy -- which started with D'Annunzio -- can be found in the writings of Emilio Gentile)

Chapter three deals with the development, starting with Winckelmann, of the aesthetic cult in Germany. The chapter is subtle, and I will not attempt to summarize it in full. Mosse describes the 'inwardness' that was fostered by German Pietism, and which formed the subsoil in which many of the subsequent developments were rooted. Beauty came to be seen (in the works of men like Schiller and F.T. Vischer), as a metaphysical absolute which, when concretized in the surrounding world, could penetrate with its rays deep into men's souls…, and thus ennoble them, lift them upwards towards a higher ideal, and reconcile them (in the drabness of their daily bourgeois existence) to the painful realities of mortal life (Modern society, with its urbanism and fragmentation, obviously rendered Beauty's work impossible.) Thus the task of the Neo-classical revival in art and architecture was, in part, a religious one.

Early on, however, these ideals were put in the service of celebrating German national unity -- that is, they were secularized -- a movement driven primarily through monumental architecture and its attendant festivals… Here are two examples that show quite clearly, I think, what Mosse is talking about.

"A.F. Kraus, a contemporary of Gilly, submitted a design for a monument to Frederick the Great which further extended the cultic nature of such monuments. Kraus placed a bust o Frederick the Great upon an altar under which the king was supposed to be buried. Every year the Prussian army was to gather round this altar in order to pay tribute to Frederick's memory. The tomb was surrounded by a wood in which monuments to patriotic Prussians were to be placed. A 'pilgram's road' (to use his own phrase) led from the City of Berlin to the altar. This design presented a conscious substitution of the worship of the Prussian nation for the traditional worship of Christianity." (51).

An even clear instance of this use of monuments to create a "sacred space" for the sanctification of the nation -- a secularized religion - is found in Mosse's account of the Walhala (1830-1842), a Greek temple of monumental proportions constructed as a sacred monument to German unity by Ludwig I of Bavaria:


Planned to celebrate the triumph of over Napoleon, and named after the sacred heroes of German legend (the field of Odin/Wotan), the south frieze presented the German states gathered around a victorious 'Germania', the north frieze showed Arminius (Hermann) defeating the Roman Legions at Teutoburger Forest. Inside the halls were filled with busts of famous and patriotic Germans:


The next few chapters (4-7) are tedious and, if the reader knows something about the topic, they can be skimmed. They cover the details of 19th cen nationalizing festivals, organizational groups (choirs, youth-groups, sharpshooters, and even workers groups), etc.

But Chapter 8 -- on Hitler's tastes -- are a tour de force and a brilliant display of why Mosse is so important a scholar of fascism. Again, the chapter is subtle, and I will not attempt to summarize it in full.

Just as 19th cen German monumental architecture was a strange mixture of the neo-classical and the monumental -- both Gothic and Romantic --, so Hitler's own tastes were a mixture of the neo-classical imbibed in his youth in Vienna -- the art of 1870-1890, which he never outgrew -- and the racist theosophy of the Thule group from which he learned his mystical anti-semitism. In this context, Mosse analyzes and makes some stunning observations not only on Nazi architecture, but even more on Hitler's use of speech and spectacle in what Mosse has called the "New Politics" -- which was a politics of style, rather than of context (i.e., of doctrine, of axioms, of theorems -- as with socialism). This nuanced examination of the fascist style, over fascist thought, is what distinguishes the school of Mosse.

This explains, moreover, why fascism was able to cut across class-boundaries. (As an aside, fascist corporatism, as is well known, is a form of social organization that mobilizes the masses by sector, rather than by class; hence, cross-class trade unions, etc. etc.). Faced with the alienation produced by the jagged and shattering effects of modernization and rapid industrialization, the decay of old, traditional values and social relations of family and town -- people from EVERY class felt the same longings for "getting back" to a safe and happy womb, for a reintegration, for wholeness, into an integral union higher than that of the atomized individual (which atomization was celebrating by modernists and by the avant-garde) -- to return to those kitschy ideals of rural Germanic cherubic life -- something we see clearly in play in the movement of the Christian Right in America. This reintegration, however, cannot be brought about at an intellectual level -- especially in the masses, who are not intellectual -- but has to be created at an emotional and affectual level -- through actions, dramas, liturgies, spectacles, symbols, myths, and the like -- controlled, of course, by the over-riding vision of the Party.

This is a somewhat difficult book to read, as I've mentioned -- but is of great importance.