Max Nordau’s pre-Fascist Discourse of ‘Degenerate’ Art and the Authority of Scientific Language

by Charlotte Armstrong

The notion of ‘degeneracy’ in music has often been associated with Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party’s attempts to galvanise public hatred of music deemed ‘un-German’ at the Degenerate Art Exhibit in 1938. However, in an interview for the documentary Forbidden Sounds: Composers in Exile, Hans Ulrich Engelmann said:

‘It is not Hitler’s or Goebbels’ fault that after 1945 the appreciation of contemporary music did not increase much […] the word ‘degenerate’ is still used by the older generation, especially in Germany. But I must emphasize, we don’t get much further if we believe that it is purely a legacy of the Nazis. The Nazis simply picked up on it.’[1]

Indeed, whilst the classification of certain art as ‘degenerate’ is almost exclusively associated with the Third Reich, discourses of degeneration in fact emerged within mid-19th century scientific contexts, and were translated into artistic critique as early as the 1890s. Such discourses  condemned artists and artworks deemed to pose a threat to ‘healthy’ aspects of society, due in part to the contamination of the artist by negative aspects of modernity.

Perhaps the most influential of these works was written by the physician Max Nordau in 1892. Degeneration, or ‘Entartung’, ­drew its conclusions on degeneracy in the arts from the

max_nordau
Max Nordau. Source: Wikicommons

bio-medical foundations of degeneration theory, and utilised the language of science and medicine to associate certain artworks with the idea of ‘sickness’.

As a physician, Nordau believed that it was his duty to undertake the ‘long and sorrowful wandering through the hospital’ of European culture, and to diagnose the ‘severe mental epidemic’ of the contemporary arts.[2] Suggesting that ‘we now stand in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria’, he lamented that civilised society was growing ‘fatigued and exhausted, and this fatigue and exhaustion showed themselves in the first generation, under the form of acquired hysteria; in the second, as hereditary hysteria’.[3]

For those who theorised artistic degeneration, the legitimacy of medical expertise enabled them to make claims about society that were crafted from medical language. By adopting the biological language of disease, Nordau was able to harness the authority of science in his attempt to prove that the cultural avant-garde was an atavistic and regressive influence on the masses.

During the nineteenth century, doctors were regarded as forward-thinking men of reason and science, and were characterised by their specialised knowledge and commitment to serving others. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept a scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians became accustomed to methodically describing diseases, thus developing an esoteric medical language which was utilised and shared amongst other doctors to classify and treat disease. The development of complex medical language began to elude patients, thus placing the doctor in a position of power

entartete_musik_poster
Poster for the ‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibition, Dusseldorf, 1938. Source: Wikicommons (Reproduced under the Fair Use Rational for the purposes of critical commentary)

and trust.

Foucault has considered the doctors’ associated power of ‘governance’ over their patients.[4] The innate authority of doctors helps to explain Nordau’s use of medical terminology: his reliance upon the works of notable exponents of socio-biological degeneration theory highlights his attempts to measure subjective, artistic value by using an objective, scientific paradigm. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

Degeneration warns against the infectiousness of degenerate art and literature, but for the author, music is perhaps the most noxious of all. The distinct approach to artistic criticism conceived by Nordau in his Entartung became increasingly adopted in music criticism following the publication of the work.

In 1912, the Austrian composer and conductor Felix Weingartner suggested that ‘in general terms something is wrong and somewhere things are rotten in the development of music today […] music must become healthy again’.[5]

The notion of degeneracy had begun to appear in German music criticism from the closing years of the 19th century, and continued to be a prevalent theme in the years leading up to

richardwagner
Richard Wagner. Source: Wikicommons

the Second World War. The fact that musical ‘sickness’ became an increasingly popular concept around this time was due – at least in part – to the influence of works that engaged with the concepts of decadent and degenerate art.

Alongside the growing prevalence of ideas about the dangers of ‘diseased’ music, the insidious nature of Nordau’s rhetoric is evidenced in the adoption of the notion of degenerate art by the Nazis.

The Nazi Party would not acknowledge Nordau, perhaps because of his Jewish heritage and his role as a Zionist activist, or even conceivably because of his derision of Wagner and Nietzsche. Nonetheless, the value they awarded to German artworks that celebrated the ‘blood and soil’ ideology echoed Nordau’s derision of late 19th-century decadent culture. It certainly seems likely that, as Richard Taruskin wittily imagines, ‘many copies of Dr Nordau’s Entartung must have fed Dr Goebbels’s bonfires even as the book’s theses were being oh-so-selectively appropriated to fuel the latter’s propaganda mill’.[6]

Charlotte Armstrong is a PhD student in the Department of Music at the University of York. Her research takes place at the intersection between opera studies, disability studies, and the history of science and medicine. In her thesis she considers early-twentieth-century discourses of disability, disease, and degeneration, and their relationship to the presence of a ‘degenerate condition’ in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, with a particular focus on the representation of physical disability in these operas. You can find her on Twitter: @CharlotteArms

References

[1] Verbotene KLÄNGE: Komponisten im Exil, directed by Norbert Bunge and Christina Fischer-Defoy (Vienna: Winklerfilm, 2004), DVD.

[2] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (London: William Heinemann, 1895), 537-538.

[3] Nordau, Degeneration, 40.

[4] See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 159-198 and Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2003), 8-9.

[5] Felix Weingartner, “Zurück zu Mozart?” in Akkorde: Gesammelte Aufsatze (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, 1912), 108-112, quoted in Leon Botstein, “Nineteenth-Century Mozart: The Fin-De-Siècle Mozart Revival” in On Mozart, ed. James M. Morris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 204.

[6] Richard Taruskin, ‘The Golden Age of Kitsch’ in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, ed. Richard Taruskin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 243.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: via Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under fair use rationale

Image 3: Franz Hanfstaengl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Party Politics and the Seeds of Revolutionary Dictatorship: The Case of Krasnoiarsk in 1917

by Alistair Dickins

In a revolution full of paradoxes, the question of how Russia went from a multiparty system to a nascent Bolshevik dictatorship between February and October 1917 remains one of the most vexing. In the West, Cold War historians tended to contrast Russia under the liberal Provisional Government (the ‘freest country in the world’) with the emerging ‘totalitarian’ order which followed, the origins of which they located in Leninist ideology. More recently, social historians have challenged the notion that parties could effectively determine political outcomes, highlighting the difficulties parties faced in mobilising popular support and their lack of ideological cohesion.

Yet the story of party politics in revolutionary Russia has another dimension as well. Political parties were not simply ideological machines or tools for mass mobilisation. They also operated within an institutional ensemble which structured the way formal politics would be practiced day-to-day. In this way, parties’ ability to dominate and control politics rested as much on shaping the practices within authority structures as it did on the struggle to establish ideological hegemony or mobilise the masses. And it may be here, as much as any other aspect of revolutionary politics, that the seeds of an exclusionary party dictatorship can be found.

Local case studies provide a useful insight into this process by revealing in detail how parties could structure political practices to their own advantage. The emergence of party control over the Krasnoiarsk Soviet provides one such example. Situated at the intersection of the trans-Siberian railway with the river Enisei, Krasnoiarsk ranked as a medium-to-large city by 1917, with around 90,000 inhabitants. Party politics was relatively absent before revolution, limited to small underground circles of dedicated activists who sought to avoid the watchful eye of Tsarist authorities.

Following the overthrow of Tsarism in March 1917, however, numerous formal party organisations emerged. The largest of these were the Marxist Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (RSDWP), neo-populist Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (PSR), and liberal Kadets. The RSDWP, whose leaders were predominantly Bolsheviks, sat furthest to the left of all major local party groupings in spring 1917, adopting a hostile attitude towards Russia’s liberal-dominated Provisional Government without yet calling for the latter’s immediate overthrow.

The neo-populist Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (PSR), meanwhile, was somewhat more conciliatory, pledging to support the ‘moderate’ socialist position of support for the Provisional Government ‘insofar as’ it implemented popular demands, although a minority within the party adopted more radical left-wing positions. Both main socialist parties, however, adopted a hostile approach to the Kadets, whom they attacked as ‘bourgeois’.

Continue reading “Party Politics and the Seeds of Revolutionary Dictatorship: The Case of Krasnoiarsk in 1917”

The Language of Authoritarian Internationalism

by David Brydan

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a rapid increase in international cooperation between scientists, experts, intellectuals, activists and other groups. These developments were prompted both by improvements to travel and communication technologies, and by the belief that international cooperation was required to deal with the political and technical challenges posed by an increasingly interconnected world.

The language of ‘internationalism’ quickly became associated with liberal idealists, or with the emerging socialist and communist movements, envisaging either a world united by free trade and political liberty, or by working class solidarity. International cooperation, however, was not confined to liberals and socialists.

Many experts involved in international technical cooperation belonged to the authoritarian right. Radical nationalists and fascist movements aped their political opponents by promoting international cooperation between authoritarian movements and states. Mussolini’s Italy aimed to forge an international fascist movement under the umbrella of the CAUR (Comitati d’Azione per l’Universalita di Roma). Nazi Germany later took up a similar initiative, attempting to unite Axis and Axis-aligned states during the Second World War within the Anti-Comintern Pact and the ‘New Europe’.[1]

These efforts, however, faced a common problem: how to talk about international cooperation without adopting the language of liberal or socialist internationalism, particularly without recourse to the familiar internationalist language of peace, freedom, tolerance and equality?

During my own research into the international activities of doctors and medical scientists in Franco’s Spain, I found almost no cases of Francoist experts using the terms ‘internationalism’ or ‘internationalist’. This was due to the unacceptable political connotations of such terms, despite the fact that many of those experts worked with organisations such as the League of Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the WHO.

How, then, did Francoists talk about international cooperation? For Spain, during the early years of the Second World War, the ‘international’ primarily meant Nazi Germany and its allies within the ‘New Europe’.

Francoist scientists, intellectuals and politicians were involved in a wide range of events, networks and organisations convened by Nazi Germany, in fields ranging from health and youth politics, to literature and folk dancing. Many of these initiatives were labelled as ‘international’, such as the International Women’s Meeting held in 1942.[2] Other initiatives, perhaps more accurately, were described as ‘European’, as with the European Writers’ Union formed in the same year.[3] This reflected Nazi efforts to promote the war as a defence of a shared ‘European civilization’ against the threat of Bolshevism.

picture1
Leaders of the Wartime International Association Against Tuberculosis

Like their liberal counterparts, fascist internationalists justified the need for international cooperation on practical grounds. Speaking at the first meeting of the International Association Against Tuberculosis in 1941, Reich Health Minister Leonardo Conti argued that, because the increasing levels of cross-border movement caused by the war were helping to spread the disease, it ‘also has to be countered with international measures.’[4]

Though he admitted that ‘international cooperation is not easy’, he argued that the countries in attendance formed a ‘bloc with a unified destiny’ forged by their experience of the war.[5] His arguments were reflected in many of the other international events held under the auspices of the ‘New Europe’, whose participants were keen to distinguish themselves from pre-war ‘Anglo-American’ forms of internationalism.

Instead of the ineffective pre-war international cooperation which had undermined national sovereignty and national identity, they saw themselves as the founders of a new, more dynamic and modern form of cooperation between nationally-conscious individuals and groups, more aligned to the political realities of the ‘totalitarian’ era.[6]

picture2
El Instituto de Cultura Hispánica

This vision had lost much of its credibility long before the final Nazi defeat in 1945. After the war, Franco’s Spain was excluded from the newly-constructed UN system, and Francoists therefore had to search for new international networks and patterns of international cooperation. Many turned their attention towards Latin America, hoping to position Spain at the head of an informal community of nations bound by ties of Hispanidad, or what was often referred to as ‘Hispano-American brotherhood’. As with the ‘New Europe’, this vision rejected the theoretical universalism of liberal and socialist internationalism.

The outlook, ideology and discourse of the Franco regime rested heavily on its claim to represent Spain’s imperial past and lost ‘Golden Age’. The idea of Hispanidad thus represented an attempt to build modern structures of international cooperation rooted in a hierarchical imperial mythology. This model of neo-imperial internationalism, however, depended on vastly overoptimistic assumptions about the willingness of Latin American states to align themselves with Franco’s Spain.

It was Spain’s Catholic intellectuals and politicians who were most willing to engage with the post-war international system emerging around the UN. Some went so far as to participate in debates about post-war internationalism and human rights with their counterparts abroad, although they did not do so uncritically. The majority, however, saw liberal internationalism as both a pale imitation and a corruption of Catholic ‘universalism’.

As the Basque intellectual Carlos Santamaría argued, it was the world’s Catholics who were

picture3
Carlos Santamaría

‘best prepared for international collaboration’, and it was their duty not just to participate in the work of secular international organisations, but to unite within Catholic international bodies to provide a counterpoint to the materialism which dominated the modern world.[7]

Spanish Catholics thus built strong ties with international Catholic organisations and networks during Spain’s period of post-war diplomatic isolation, but struggled to reconcile the authoritarian clericalism of the Franco regime with the post-war Christian Democracy which came to dominate western Europe.

Yet even among Catholics there remained a sense that international cooperation was not a desirable goal in itself, but a necessary response to scientific developments and international ideological threats. The Chilean nurse, Veronica de la Fuente, told a gathering of Spanish Catholic nurses in 1950:

‘Evil is uniting to build its forces and to triumph. We live in the century of ‘Popular Fronts’, of Syndicates, Cooperativism, Leagues, Federations, etc. … In the face of this global spectacle, what do Christians do?… Beneath the standard of the faith and the flag of the ecclesiastical hierarchy we must unite in societies, groups, brotherhoods or whatever we wish to call them; but to band together, never alone nor dispersed, because that way we lose both time and strength.’[8]

It was this sense of global threat which underpinned the internationalism of mid-twentieth century nationalists, both in Spain and abroad. Cooperation between fascists and the authoritarian right was necessary precisely to counter the threat posed by the internationalism of their ideological enemies. Theirs was thus an ‘anti-’ internationalism: anti-communist, anti-liberal, and anti-cosmopolitan. The contradictions, tensions and linguistic contortions which surrounded such efforts reflected a fundamental ambivalence about the idea of international cooperation in and of itself.

David Brydan is a researcher at Birkbeck and a member of the Reluctant Internationalists project. He recently completed a PhD on the history of international health in Franco’s Spain. Find him on twitter at @davidbrydan.

References

[1] Arnd Bauerkämper, ‘Interwar Fascism in Europe and Beyond: Toward a Transnational Radical Right’, in Martin Durham and Margaret Power (eds.), New Perspectives on the Transnational Right (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 39-66.

[2] Elizabeth Harvey, ‘International Networks and Cross-Border Cooperation: National Socialist Women and the Vision of a ‘New Order’in Europe’, Politics, Religion & Ideology, 13 (2012), 141-58.

[3] Benjamin George Martin, ‘”European Literature” in the Nazi New Order: The Cultural Politics of the European Writer’s Union, 1942-3’, Journal of Contemporary History, 48 (2013), 486-508.

[4] ‘La fondazione dell’Associazione Internazionale contro la Tubercolosi’, Lotta Contro La Tubercuolosi , anno XIII, 3 (1942), 240-241.

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Brydan, ‘Axis Internationalism: Spanish Health Experts and the Nazi ‘New Europe’, 1939-1945′, Contemporary European History, 25 (2016), 291-311.

[7] Carlos Santamaría, ‘Notas para un dialogo’, Documentos: Conversaciones Católicas Internacionales, vol. 3 (1949), 90.

[8] Cuarta Asamblea de la Hermandad de Enfermeras y Asistencia Medico-Social “Salus Infirmorum” (Madrid: Publicaciones “Al Servicio de España y del Niño Español”, 1950), 29-30.

Full Image Attributions

Image 1: ‘La fondazione dell’Associazione Internazionale contro la Tubercolosi’, Lotta Contro La Tubercuolosi , anno XIII, 3 (1942), 238.

Image 2: El Instituto de Cultura Hispánica: Al Servicio de Iberoamerica (Madrid: Instituto de Cultura Hispanica, 1953)

Image 3: Archives of the Asociación Católica de Propagandistas