Explain and evaluate Walter Benjamin’s statement (made in 1936) about the “aestheticization of politics” under German fascism.
Lesson 4: Hitler and the Aestheticization of Politics
When you can accomplish the learning objectives for this lesson, you should begin work on the lesson essay described below. You may use any assigned readings, your notes, and other course-related materials to complete this assignment. Be sure to reread theessay grading criteria on the Grades and Assessments page.
This essay should be about 750 words long, typed double space with one-inch margins on the sides. It is worth 100 points and it should address the following:
Explain and evaluate Walter Benjamin’s statement (made in 1936) about the “aestheticization of politics” under German fascism. What did he refer to and why have critics since then both repeated the statement and called it cryptic at the same time? What, if any, is the relevance of this statement for our own culture today, particular with regard to our use of media technology?
After completing this lesson, you should be able to do the following:
Explain why the German philosopher Walter Benjamin referred to the aestheticization of politics in Nazi Germany.
Summarize various theories that seek to explain Hitler’s appeal (e.g., structuralist, intentionalist, general field, and hidden variant theories).
Distinguish between fact and legend in Hitler’s various biographical accounts.
Evaluate the seminal role of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934).
Was Hitler Great?
The German author and journalist Joachim Fest caused an uproar in 1973, when he introduced his massive 1,200-page biography of Adolf Hitler with the provocative question whether or not one should call Hitler great—the same way historians refer to Alexander the Great or the great Napoleon. After all, he argued, these and other statesmen had caused immense bloodshed, war, and famine. Like Hitler, they were responsible for inconceivable pain and suffering during their time, yet nobody seemed to object to them being remembered as great men. Needless to say, Fest quickly rejected his own idea in the following pages, but he had struck a nerve with historians and the general public alike, highlighting the degree to which Hitler’s crimes stood apart from others in human history. To this very day, many critics still insist on the historical singularity of Nazi crimes that cannot—indeed must not!—be compared with other events before or since. The reason, they argue, is not only the unprecedented extent of World War II and the staggering number of Nazi victims, but also the machine-like effectiveness and precision with which the genocide of the Jews was administered.
There are, of course, numerous theories trying to explain how all of this had become possible, and a number of them focus on the charisma of the führer as the key element. In his book Explaining Hitler (1999), Ron Rosenbaum distinguishes between what he calls “general field theories” and “hidden variant theories.” The first approach concentrates on the general, overall situation in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s. These critics argue that any populist demagogue like Hitler (and not necessarily Hitler himself) would have sufficed to bring about Nazism. In their view, the rise of German fascism was a structural phenomenon overdetermined by a variety of historical factors (modernization, economic crisis, German humiliation after World War I, etc.) that owed nothing to the person Adolf Hitler. Rather, Hitler was merely a symptom of the German situation at the time.
The other theories, by contrast, try to find some hidden variable that would explain why Hitler and none other emerged at the center of the Nazi movement. The psychologist C.G. Jung, for example, argued that Hitler’s power was not political, but magic, in so far as he incarnated people’s dream of a powerful German nation. Jung saw Hitler as a seer, as a kind of mythical medicine man able to mesmerize an entire Volk. Other psychoanalytic studies have focused more on the role of sexuality.
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