Jay W. Baird. Hitler's War Poets: Literature and Politics in the Third Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xiii + 284 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-87689-6.
Reviewed by Franz Bokel (Independent Scholar [Ciudad de México])
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
A Second Look at Nazi Poets
Hitler's War Poets sheds light on the interface of politics and literature in the Third Reich through a set of six biographies of authors, best-selling at the time, who embraced National Socialist ideology as the political choice of the day. Jay W. Baird's goal is "to assess why this was done, how it was accomplished, and where possible, to analyze its political and social significance" (p. 256). His answers largely participate in the broader geistesgeschichtliche argument represented by the works of George L. Mosse (The Nationalization of the Masses ), Peter Loewenberg (The Psychohistorical Origins of the Nazi Youth Cohort ), and Jost Hermand (Old Dreams of a New Reich ). Specifically, Baird complements his own earlier works, The Mythical World of Nazi War Propaganda, 1939-1945 (1974) and To Die for Germany (1990), by narrowing his analytical focus to the heroic imagery in the literature of the Third Reich and elaborating on its seductive evocation of mythology and its inherent death wish. Within this narrow focus, Baird reconstructs six author portraits from archival sources, contemporary journalism, personal interviews with the authors or persons related to them, and extensive readings of their oftentimes autobiographical novels. In doing so, he reveals a rather complex set of individuals, whose personal stories, political fortunes, and literary works are well worth a second look.
Robert G. Binding, Josef Magnus Wehner, Hanz Zöberlein, and Edwin Erich Dwinger, for instance, represent a generation of World War I veterans that could not and did not adjust to the political, economic, and cultural upheaval of the Weimar Republic. They drew on their frontline experiences for ethical standards of national recovery (Binding), mystical visions of national reawakening (Wehner), or models for anti-democratic political practice (Zöberlein). While Zöberlein found his way into the SA, Binding and Wehner soon found themselves out of favor with both the younger generation and the more radical (read: uneducated) elements of the Nazi movement, which had little use for their predecessors, for any man of letters. Dwinger hit the book market in 1929, when the National Socialists were not yet a factor in national elections. His best-selling accounts of his experiences as a POW and involuntary participant in the Russian civil war (1917-20) garnered praise across the political spectrum, from Left to Right. Dwinger tilted more openly towards cliché Nazi ideologies as he realized a career in the SS. As an anti-communist voice, Dwinger even managed to eke out a living during the Cold War in West Germany. In retrospect, Baird finds at least Binding and Wehner to have been fundamentally decent people who yielded to a political choice that, while being driven by more sinister motives, seemed from their perspective to accommodate their visions.
The younger generation (its members were born around 1905) is represented in the book by Eberhard Wolfgang Möller and Kurt Eggers. Too young to have had their own frontline experiences, they can be explained by reference to the psychohistorical framework outlined by Loewenberg: growing up fatherless, their perceived need to overcome a sense of worthlessness and even self-hatred set them up for ideological seduction by the mythology of national reawakening the Nazi movement had adopted from the World War I generation of frontline soldiers. Eggers, in particular, became one of the textbook Nazi heroes. Rebelling against bourgeois law and orderliness, he joined a Freikorps as a teenager to emulate Ulrich von Hutten in pursuit of "German liberation"; raised eyebrows as a Lutheran minister delivering "political speeches (rather) than Christian homilies" (p. 227); and volunteered--though father to four sons--for the Russian front in World War II, apparently with the explicit purpose of dying a hero's death, and then upstaged his SS comrades in combat performance. Tellingly, his autobiography, published at age 34, is titled Der Tanz aus der Reihe (1939), which Baird renders as "Dancing to my Own Drummer," and could be rendered more simply as "The Non-Conformist." Role-model Nazis apparently were, like heroes in any other context, the exception rather than the rule.
While Baird's portraits are rich in detail and intellectually engaging, readers may take issue with some aspects of his treatment of the literary works. At times, Baird's technical finesse in recreating biographical narratives adds to their allure but simultaneously obfuscates their analytical value. When Baird extensively summarizes Dwinger's autobiographical novels in past tense (as part of the author's biography) and contextualizes them, for instance, readers may lose track of what they are dealing with: Dwinger's narration, historical context, literary plot summary, or (Dwinger's?) speculative ruminations about history. Occasionally, Baird's crisp narration borders on erlebte Rede, a style that simply leads the reader too far astray from the literary work as such.
With Möller, in turn, the problem seems to be a matter of judgment rather than technical finesse. Enticingly titled "Hitler's muse," Möller is discussed as what, by his own testimony, he aimed to be: a dedicated converter of political ideas into poetic form. Baird's treatment of Möller's "often brilliant lyric poetry" (p. 254), though, comes across as a less convincing mix of understandable irritation and analytical disinterest. For example, Baird quotes one of Möller's tearjerkers about a fallen soldier's appeal to be admitted to heaven ("The Letters of the Fallen" ). While the piece is musically engaging and sentimentally heart-wrenching in the German original, Baird overstates the case: "There were no limits to Mueller's ecstasy when describing this, the signal that mystic reverence once reserved for religious ritual had now been transferred to the state: 'All the bells began to sing their somber song / the moon and stars themselves stand still / and the heavens, which soar high above them, / sob deeply so overwhelmed were they" (pp. 174-75). Possibly confusing the reader further, Baird concludes: "Under what other conditions would foot soldiers be reciting the hymns of Hölderlin, as the flapping wings of angels could be heard overhead?" (p. 175). A basic reading of these lines shows neither state nor religious ritual to be at issue, nor are foot soldiers reciting Friedrich Hölderlin in any of it. Angels flapping their wings were not a sine qua non for such recitation either. Baird himself cites Möller's "The Duty of the Poet" (1941), an emulation of Hölderlin's hymnic style to the point of parody, disqualifying it as "billowy clouds of ... Nordic fantasies" (p. 192). Baird may indeed have been somewhat overwhelmed by Möller's skill. Tellingly, he indulges in the subtly seductive language of mythology himself in (ironically?) referring to Möller as a "modern Icarus who flew far too close to the sun" (pp. 167-168). Whatever Baird's judgment of Möller may be, for a poetically rather more "brilliant" treatment of the folksy prayer-to-heaven motive, one might point to Elke Lasker-Schüler's roughly contemporary "Mein blaues Klavier," (1937), which easily puts Möller in his ideological as well as poetic place.
Finally, some missed opportunities in Baird's findings may frustrate readers with literary interests. Regarding Eggers, "the leading muse of the SS" (p. 208), for instance, we learn of the startling claim that his German teacher taught him "to write in a totally spontaneous and unselfconscious way, and he proceeded to do this at once, never in his life wavering from this premise" (p. 212). If there was a Nazi prequel to Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous prose," it deserves elucidation. Even so, Eggers allows Baird to reiterate his principal point: "in the final reckoning, Eggers and his fellow poets called on heroic imagery in their endeavor ... to glorify the ... National Socialist regime with the gift of their often seductive and macabre lyric" (p. 253).
Although his analysis of literary aesthetics is arguably not the strongest point of Hitler's War Poets, Baird does stay true to his focus on the aesthetic accompaniment provided to a criminal regime by competent, if misguided authors. Justly, he highlights the difficulty scholarship has had with precisely the "literary aesthetics of the German nationalist experience" (p. 4). Inevitably, challenges to the political correctness of scholars interested in this theme will arise to influence their aesthetic analyses. In addressing these questions, a closer transatlantic cooperation between U.S. and European scholars might have been helpful; specialists will notice that the names missing from Baird's bibliography include several German scholars who have worked in this area before, such as Günter Schold, Walter Delabar, and Sebastian Graeb-Könnekker.
Even so, the book does make a foray onto difficult terrain, and Baird's study will arouse the interest of younger scholars. A few points of his merit mention as potential starting points for further work: Baird's repeated claim that as judged by their sales numbers, the works he discusses were indeed influential raises the need for a more detailed analysis of the National Socialist-era book market and of the audience for these works. Discussing reception should prompt scholars to pay closer attention to the chronology of the works, since although autobiographical narratives on "national reawakening" and "dying for Germany" might have been a novelty in 1929, in 1939 they offered predictable clichés. Also, the younger generation growing up in the Third Reich might not have appreciated Wehner's or Eggers' heavily philosophical works, since they also consumed pulp fiction, like the series of Jörn Farrow's U-boat adventures and other popular works that eventually came under government surveillance and occasionally were banned. Likewise, a whole body of popular books on sea warfare turned out by "hero" submarine commanders such as Günther Prien, Joachim Schepke, and Wolfgang Lüth still awaits a proper analysis of how practical issues of warfare could be mediated through romantic allusions, folksy imagery, and even ironic reprises of mythological clichés. In a different direction, future scholars may heed Baird's reminder that Adolf Hitler himself had less interest in literature than music, architecture, and cinema, and thus look more closely at the rather sophisticated hybrid text-image literacies the illustrated wartime magazine Signal proffered. Last but not least, Baird only cursorily touches on the question of women writers, professional or amateur, who had their say on questions of "national reawakening" and war as well. In short, a great deal of work in this area remains to be done, and contributions like Baird's are most welcome.
. On this question, cf. Günter Scholdt, "Literaturgeschichte und Drittes Reich," Kritische Ausgabe 2 (2004): 15-18.
. Cf. Rainer Rutz, Signal: Eine deutsche Auslandsillustrierte als Propagandainstrument im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2007).
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Franz Bokel. Review of Baird, Jay W., Hitler's War Poets: Literature and Politics in the Third Reich.
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