Nazi Shakespeare

This topic came up in our discussion of foreign languages last week, and I thought it reduced down nicely to a topic that anybody could weigh in on. Allow me to snip from Wikipedia for a moment:

Weeks after Hitler took power in 1933 an official party publication
appeared entitled Shakespeare – a Germanic Writer, a counter to
those who wanted to ban all foreign influences. At the Propaganda Ministry,
Rainer Schlosser, given charge of German theatre by Goebbels, mused
that Shakespeare was more German than English. After the outbreak of the
war the performance of Shakespeare was banned, though it was quickly
lifted by Hitler in person, a favour extended to no other.

While the Nazis were banning all “foreign influences”, Hitler himself gave Shakespeare a pass, something they did for no one else.

My question is this – how do you feel about that?  Does it say more about Shakespeare, or about the Nazis? Is it possible that there is a germ of something in Shakespeare’s work that reinforces what the Nazis believed in?  Or is the other way around, is there something so universal in Shakespeare’s work that it still managed to touch whatever shred of humanity might still be buried inside them?

I suppose there is a third option, which seems the most likely the more I think about it — that the Nazis were just very, very good at corrupting whatever they wanted to say whatever they needed.  Just because they found idea that they liked in Hamlet does not in any way suggest that Shakespeare meant for them to be there.  Or is that just hindsight, protecting our literary idol?

Thoughts?  Is it even possible to have a rational discussion about Nazis?

8 thoughts on “Nazi Shakespeare

  1. Duane wrote: "…is there something so universal in Shakespeare's work that it still managed to touch whatever shred of humanity might still be buried inside them?

    I think there's something so Universal in his work that it was impossible for them to just dismiss it. I think they saw the power in it and literally "mis-translated" it into whatever propaganda message suited their purpose. It wasn't the first nor the last time Shakespeare will have been"appropriated" in some way to suit some design or purpose. If you think about it, more of the same kind of appropriation (not with the same end purpose of course) actually takes place today, in many forms, which suits the purpose of those looking to feather their own nests somehow by using the genius of Shakespeare as the vehicle.

    And our very own Corporate Nazis have found out long ago how the connection with Shakespeare as a vehicle for charitable educational purposes can make them look a whole bunch better image-wise to the general public than they really are.

    Simply "PR" for the course 🙂 when it comes to selfish appropriation of the Bard.

    Very interesting article from Will. It explains more fully and goes into some other aspects of the whys and hows during the time of the Nazis in Germany.

  2. Wikipedia cred notwithstanding, Anon, I think that the whole "Nazis accepted Shakespeare as one of their own" thing is fairly well documented – see will's independent link for confirmation.

    Re: the authorship thing, I think we're relatively Stratfordian over here. I know I am.

  3. Anonymous wrote: There's a bunch of arguments that he didn't even write the plays

    Yes, I agree that Wikipedia can be doubtful at times as to total accuracy, but not usually as to whole cloth premise entirely. Speaking of which, there are also a bunch of arguments that the Nazis didn't try to exterminate Jews. In my opinion both arguments (authorship and aforementioned) fly in the face of extant facts to the contrary and have only supposition and drawn out theoretical "data" to offer as substantiation for their existence as arguments in the first place.

  4. Of course, I'm only surmising here.

    Firstly. Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, didn't he? Though I've seen it done showing Shylock as a victim (on German television, no less), I'm sure it can be turned into a thoroughly anti-semitic play, and quite easily. Perhaps this is all that Hitler needed, to be persuaded into believing Shakespeare not a foreign influence, but a forerunner in the 'true spirit', who was unfortunately born on foreign soil…

    Secondly, and quite frankly, whether Germany be an assembly of little dukedoms, an empire, a murderous tyranny, or a republic: in Germany, Shakespeare is a German author, and has been a German author for two hundred years. There would be no German theatre worth to be called that name, without SHAKESPEARE. His presence has been overwhelming for ever and ever. Show me the great German theatre that hasn't performed at least one Shakespeare play per season, as long as its history reaches back.

    And if the public didn't love him, the actors most certainly did. It might be difficult to deprive the German actors of Shakespeare, even today. I'm convinced that, in the thirties and forties, it was next to impossible. What? Not play Hamlet, Ophelia, Othello, etc etc any more?

    There were lots of successful actors in Germany who just cooperated after 1933. They were characterless opportunists, for sure, but then their audience was German, and they didn't want to lose it (not to speak of their career, their income, their life). Some of those actors (and directors) were quite influential — Gustav Gründgens comes to mind, who was very much in the good graces of Hermann Göring (Göring, who had married an actress). Gustav Gründgens is reported to have given a superb performance of Mephisto, but even Gründgens couldn't play Goethes Faust from one year's end to another…

  5. The German Theatre started because of the travelling troupes of English players in the late 16th early 17thC. Gradually they incorporated German players into their troupes. The first translations of Sh and other Jacobethan playwrights were into prose German, published in 1620 as Englische Comoedien und Tragoedien. The Germans were the first to have a Shakespeare Appreciation Society. The Romantic period saw many German playwrights deifying his work.

    So yes way before old nifty moustache man came along there was mucho precedent.

    Philosophically of course the Nazis were Humanists. When they raised their flag above the Parthenon in Greece it was the summum of European thought returning to the cradle of Antiquity.

  6. Philosophically of course the Nazis were Humanists.

    To be specific, they were romanticists in that they espoused a certain primacy to emotion and a nostalgia for a heavily mythologized past (even if the myths were of recent origin.) Other humanists take a more rationalist approach.

    We have to keep in mind that Shakespeare, great lover of humanity he was, also portrayed some views that might make many of us in the 21st century squeamish.

    An ongoing theme in his histories is that a nation is always better off when there is a decisively strong, wise leader to unify the people. Simultaneously, there's a general distrust of anything resembling democratic institutions. So for the Nazis, he's politically close enough to acceptable.

    As far as The Merchant of Venice merely editing out the Jessica and Lorenzo subplot (since Jessica converts) and eliminating Shylock's conversion at the end of Act IV, would bring the play in line with Nazi racial theories since the main difference between modern antisemitism and the anti-Judaism of Shakespeare's era is that at least the more "liberal-minded" of Shakespeare's time believed a Jew ceased to be a Jew upon conversion.

    (I touch upon this point over here.)

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