Germany’s Angst: A Country’s Culture Bumps Up Against Its Nazi Past

An exhibition in Paris and the production of a Wagner opera in Düsseldorf have prompted furious debates about how to interpret the darkest period of German history

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The Richard Wagner opera Tannhäuser being staged at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 9, 2013.

In the 68 years since the defeat of Hitler and the end of World War II, countless movie and theater directors, writers, dancers, poets and sculptors around the world have used themes from the Third Reich and the Holocaust as the backdrop for their work, from artist Gerhard Richter’s painting of his uncle Rudi in his German army uniform to Quentin Tarantino’s movie Inglourious Basterds.

In Germany itself, where the philosopher Theodor Adorno once declared that “after Auschwitz, it’s barbaric to write poetry,” cultural references to the Holocaust are weighed down with especially heavy significance, but that hasn’t stopped frequent allusions to the Holocaust on stage and in art galleries. Yet even today, judging by two current incidents that have sparked raging controversies — a production of a Richard Wagner opera in Düsseldorf and an exhibition of German art at the Louvre museum in Paris — Europeans are still struggling to agree on what is thoughtful representation of Nazism in works of art and what is downright unacceptable. Contemporary European politics appears to be playing a role in this debate.

Germany’s decisive part in the ongoing European economic and financial crisis has made the nation in general and Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular the focus of some ill-tempered attacks, and at times direct comparisons to Nazi Germany, by politicians and the press in countries from Greece to Spain. It has even sparked tensions with long-standing ally France. Germany has long been used to references to its troubled history, knowing it’s an easy target. Still, the fierce reaction to the latest events is surprising, even to some experts who have studied Germany’s attempts to come to terms with its own past.

Norbert Frei, a historian who has done extensive work on Germany’s relationship to the Nazi period, including a study of the Foreign Ministry’s archives, says that Germany’s efforts to come to terms with its own past have continued unabated. “What’s different is the role of Germany itself at present, and how others see it,” says Frei, who is currently teaching at the Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena. He believes the background of the euro-zone crisis and Germany’s increasingly assertive role in tackling it are helping fuel the controversies. “It’s not so much about the past, as about something else — the strength of Germany today.”

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The first of the flash points is a new production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, which was cancelled directly after its premiere on May 4. Opera directors frequently slap a Third Reich setting on Wagner’s works because he was Hitler’s favorite composer and a notorious anti-Semite. Director Burkhard Kosminski inserted into the Düsseldorf production two particularly controversial scenes: one that seemed to depict death in a gas chamber, and another of a couple forced to strip naked before being shot in the head by the protagonist Tannhäuser, who was wearing a swastika armband.

The production prompted angry complaints from some members of the audience, Düsseldorf’s Jewish community and the Israeli ambassador to Germany, prompting the opera house’s general director, Christoph Meyer, to cancel the stage version (although a concert version, with no acting and no scenery, is still on the roster). Meyer’s decision has sparked an ill-tempered debate in Germany about culture, artistic freedom and sensitivity to the nation’s dark history.

On one side is general director Meyer, who says he decided on the cancellation because “some scenes placed such a heavy strain, both psychological and physical, on a number of spectators that they had to receive medical treatment following the performance.” On the other side are numerous critics in the German press who say that Meyer’s decision amounts to crass censorship. “The Germans murdered 6 million Jews, but when you remind them of that, some people these days call a doctor,” wrote Wolfgang Höbel in the newsweekly Der Spiegel. “If this example becomes the norm, we’ll soon not be allowed to see any depiction of Nazi crimes in the cinema, theater or museums.”

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Certainly, even depictions of gas chambers aren’t remotely new on the German stage. Three decades ago, the director Hans Neuenfels killed off the lovers Aida and Radames from Verdi’s Aida in a gas chamber, in a production at the Frankfurt opera that remains legendary — and wasn’t canceled, despite protests at the time.

The Tannhäuser controversy coincides with another contentious cultural event, this one the exhibition at the Louvre of German art. The Louvre show was supposed to be the cultural high point of this year’s 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, which formalized Franco-German friendship after the war.

The exhibition gives a broad overview of German art from the early Romantic period at the beginning of the 19th century up until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, from the yearning landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich to the nightmarish visions of Max Beckmann. But rather than fostering relations between the two countries, the show has exposed lingering tensions. German critics have rounded on the exhibition for what they view as its suggestion that German culture inexorably led to the Holocaust, that even 19th century Romanticism carried the seeds of Nazism. Lending heft to that impression is a particularly controversial item in the show’s last room — two minutes of footage from a film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics that was made by Leni Riefenstahl, whose movies were used by the Nazis as propaganda. And some important antimilitaristic aspects of 20th century German art, such as the Expressionist period and works by antiestablishment Dadaists, aren’t displayed at all.

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At a time when political relations between France and Germany have been showing strains, the fuss surrounding the show has sparked a pained reaction in France. Henri Loyrette, the outgoing director of the Louvre, wrote a letter to one German weekly, Die Zeit, saying he was “surprised and deeply hurt” by the reaction of German critics, which he described as “openly Francophobe.” The interpretation of the show that ascribed to it a sinister vision of German culture was “totally unfounded,” he said, pointing out that the Louvre had worked closely with German art historians while curating the show.

Germany’s ambassador to France, Susanne Wasum-Rainer, has also weighed in on the controversy, saying that the show was “a magnificent gift” by the Louvre to Franco-German friendship. “Since Germany is being frequently confronted by its past at the moment, it’s possible that this might provoke strong reactions among some people,” she said. The Louvre was simply trying to reflect the Germans’ “difficulties in searching for their identity and national construction,” she added, and the polemics about the exhibition “simply reflect the complexity of its conception.”

Which is a diplomatic way of saying that calling the shots, as the Germans seem to be doing in Europe these days, can evoke painful memories and awkwardness across the continent, given the past hundred years of European history.

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