When I took this photograph on my first day in Weimar, Germany, I had no idea what I was looking at. In the moment it was simply a beautiful arcade built in stone relatively recently. I quickly learned that I was standing on the north side of the Gauforum – a huge quadrangle intended for Nazi rallies in Weimar. It was never completed and today is partly used as a shopping mall. Despite its original purpose and associations the building remains beautiful in itself. My concern here is not with Nazi artworks in the form of paintings and sculptures of the period, but more with the principles of art and design underpinning every aspect of how they defined and presented themselves. This is art in the service of Nazi values, art commandeered for the purpose of controlling the public mind.
The Gauforum borrows from the simple beauty of Renaissance arcading. It also owes something to Bernini’s colonnade surrounding St. Peters Square in Rome; that great enclosure where the Catholic Church gathers in its people. Architectural principles of perspective, scale, symmetry and elevation were used to display power and exert dominance. There is a tower on a hill outside Weimar; visible from a distance, a reminder of a very different kind of Nazi structure. This is Buchenwald, one of the first concentration camps built within German borders. A place of extreme brutality, violence and death – the price of the Nazi ideal was exacted in the camps.
The Nazi Swastika
There is not a more potent image than the Nazi Swastika, it remains the most enduring symbol in modern history. From Sanskrit svastika, the distinctive emblem exists in many cultures, usually signifying ‘well- being’, until It became the centrepiece of the Nazi flag. Hitler himself designed it. He may have been refused entry to the art establishments of Vienna, but he understood the basics of design. The hooked cross was tilted at an angle to suggest movement around a fixed centre, its black bars just the right thickness to indicate strength and be visible from a distance. Placed on a white disc against a red background the Nazi swastika is a triumph of design. Markings remain distinguishable whether the flags are massed together or hanging loose on standards, it is equally strong in colour and black and white. The symbol itself became the embodiment of Nazi control, visible on every part of their military machine. We may repudiate what it stands for, but it must be acknowledged that the fundamentals of design have rarely been so effectively employed. The flag of The Third Reich replaced the black, red and gold of the Weimar Republic. Today this position is reversed and the Nazi flag is banned in modern Germany.
The Nazi leadership understood how tailored clothes in good fabric would give an air of superiority to the wearer; authority was stitched into every seam of the SS uniform. In her essay ‘Fascinating Fascism’ Susan Sontag writes “The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent, but supremely beautiful. [ ] SS uniforms were stylish, well cut [ ] tight, heavy, stiff and included gloves to confine the hands and boots that made legs and feet feel heavy, encased, obliging their wearer to stand up straight”. This is style for the purpose of subjugation.
Documentary films and news footage from 1920s Germany show a downtrodden people in blasted environments. But Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will, based on the Nuremberg rally of 1934, presents a very different Germany. Masterminded by Riefenstahl and the Nazi hierarchy this propagandist film presents throngs of happy healthy energetic people. It seems as if the entire German population have gathered at Nuremburg. But only handsome faces appear in the close up shots. And the party youth with their well- formed heads and torsos might be classical statues come to life – perfect bodies seen against clear skies in beautifully composed frames. It’s not surprising to learn that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer. In Triumph of the Will, as in Wagner operas, emotion is raised to fever pitch and sustained unrelenting to the end. Sequence after sequence in this film show ranks in strict formation: soldiers marching, crowds cheering, drummers drumming. It climaxes in Hitler’s impassioned speech, his exaggerated theatrical gestures mesmerizing a crowd already intoxicated on hype.