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Hitler-era critics said Goya’s paintings of the 1808 Spanish uprising glorified the struggle against invaders.

Nazism styled itself as a movement of the future, but was also deeply interested in forging a usable past. In the pages of the party's Volkischer Beobachter (VB), the main daily newspaper during Hitler's regime, Nazi arts critics and journalists schooled the masses in the Reich's view of its own cultural prehistory. In the arts, the party favoured "Volkish" directness over refinement, and gut-level Romanticism over the supposedly more cerebral arts of the Enlightenment. But an artist's actual work and ideas were no impediment, if his presence was required in the Reich's pantheon. American historian David B. Dennis analyzed every issue of the VB's 25 years of Nazi journalism, and distilled the results into his new book Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture (Cambridge UP). Here are five examples of the contortions VB writers performed to make sure their artists' club had all the right members.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler said that "all human culture" was produced by Aryans. To fit non-German titans such as Michelangelo into this statement, the Italian painter and sculptor had to be repatriated to a vague spiritual territory called the "Nordic West." His actual ethnic background was no help, so the VB looked at his works and described them with what Dennis calls "the language of power, competition, and overcoming – particularly overcoming the rational Hellenic tradition by imposing his strong passions." In a word, says Dennis, Michelangelo was a Renaissance Ubermensch, whose later works turned away from classical models toward what the VB called a more "expressionistic esthetic." Contemporary German expressionists such as Emil Nolde, meanwhile, were being denounced as decadent.

Mozart had to be in the Nazi pantheon, but not as a cosmopolitan Classical composer who was born in Austria and wrote Italian operas. VB writers searched his Swabian and Bavarian bloodlines and claimed to find ethnic roots for his "decidedly German style." They declared him a German patriot and "heroic-demonic fighter" who was determined to replace the alien Rococo style of his day with a Romantic, "genuinely German opera." Mozart's debt to Italian tradition was discharged by saying he somehow "violently broke from Italian influence" while writing The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. His letters from Paris were selectively mined to prove that he despised the French and their arts, and his apparently frivolous Cosi fan tutte was blamed on his Jewish librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. The VB celebrated The Magic Flute as "the first truly German opera," and especially adored the Volkish tunes and character of Papageno. The opera's Masonic symbolism were again blamed on the librettist.

For the Nazis, says Dennis, Heinrich Heine was "the most irritating figure in German cultural history." Most cultured Germans saw his poetry as central to the Romantic tradition, and his verses were set to music by A-list composers such as Schubert, Schumann and Hugo Wolf. But Heine was also a Jew, so he had to be thrown out of the canon somehow. The VB obliged by abusing him as a phony, a cynic and a plagiarist. They said he stole his best ideas from Byron, had himself baptised only to help his career, and concealed a Jewish sneer behind every beautiful poetic surface. The fact that he knew Karl Marx in Paris and predicted revolution was a bonus: the VB branded him a "communist agitator" and a "French-Jewish spy."

Gustav Mahler, the last great Germanic symphonist, had to be denounced by the VB because he was born a Jew. Its case against him was typical: He was a decadent imitator who "appropriated the means and techniques" of real German music without the German spirit necessary to make those things meaningful. All his work was thus a caricature of the real thing. The VB also explored Mahler's psyche, diagnosing him as "fundamentally neurotic," dominated by a selfish ego and suffering from an incurable case of "psychopathia musikalis." One wonders what Freud, whose books were burned by the Nazis, would have said of their efforts at posthumous psychoanalysis.

In November 1944, with the Nazi empire shrinking and battle raging inside Germany, the VB pointed to an unexpected source for a "level-headed perspective on the experience of war." Francisco Goya's paintings of scenes from the 1808 Spanish uprising against Napoleon were offered as inspiring images of passionate armed struggle against foreign invaders. Never mind that Goya was court painter to both indigenous and Bonapartist regimes in Spain, and made his retrospective paintings of the 1808 revolt mainly to prove his loyalty to the restored Spanish crown. His Disasters of War series, said the VB, showed what horrors that would result if "Bolshevism and its accomplices" won in Europe. To forestall any idea that Goya was disgusted by slaughter – the usual reading of his Disasters series – the VB insisted that "war was the father of all things for Goya." Within six months, war had proven to be the end of all things for the Nazis.

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