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Hitler, War, and Why Art Matters

December 9, 2019


Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.

—G.K. Chesterton

Over the recent Thanksgiving weekend, our family stumbled upon George Clooney’s 2014 World War II film The Monuments Men, a cinematic adaptation of Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. Given that my family had never seen it, we figured we would give it a go. Awash with big names (George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville, and John Goodman), the movie revisits the drama of the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program racing through war-torn Europe to find and preserve artistic masterpieces from rampant looting and wanton destruction.

As World War II began to draw toward its bloody and (for the Germans) near-apocalyptic close, Adolf Hitler became increasingly deranged and maniacal in his demands and expectations. Loss upon loss were blamed on traitors. Crumbling defenses were rationalized as a loss of will. Raging to Albert Speer, his Minister of Armaments and War Production, Hitler justified his scorched-earth Nero Decree saying,

If the war is lost, the nation will also perish. This fate is inevitable. There is no necessity to take into consideration the basis which the people will need to continue even a most primitive existence. On the contrary, it will be better to destroy these things ourselves, because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one . . .

And a questionably sourced quote attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, epitomized the Nazi ideology’s brazen sense that a thunderous collective suicidality could make sense:

If the day should ever come when we must go, if some day we are compelled to leave the scene of history, we will slam the door so hard that the universe will shake and mankind will stand back in stupefaction.

This from a Hitler disciple who along with his wife murdered his six children and committed suicide in Hitler’s Berlin bunker during the war’s final days. By leaving utter carnage in his army’s wake, Hitler’s intent was not solely to slow down the advancing enemy; it was to effect cultural annihilation.

But why?

Why go to such great lengths to destroy medieval cathedrals, ornate sculptures, and sublime paintings? What did Adolf Hitler have to fear from Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, and Vermeer’s The Astronomer? To be sure, one could reason that these works were priceless masterpieces whose equity or sale could fund an opponent’s war effort. More cynically, Nazis like Hermann Goering stowed many artistic treasures in his own personal collection recognizing their sublime nature as opposed to the gauche, inelegant Nazi-approved art. But these were not the Führer’s only reasons to order their destruction.

He knew what they represented.

The timeless art and architecture found in Europe and Russia embody eons of civilization and the narrative of the human condition. Religious narratives and stories of mythology, great battles and quiet moments, sublime beauty and frank ugliness, passing fashions and enduring truths. Courtship and marriage. Youth and old age. Parenthood and childhood. Work and play. Community and solitude. Celebration and mourning. The Christ and the saints. Scientists and serving boys. Pastoral scenes and Picasso abstractions. Ladies and gentlemen. Wonder and mystery. Dignity and spoil. Brokenness and grace. Pictures and places worth thousands upon thousands of words.

Art represented something that Hitler detested. A dignity amid brokenness. A freedom called to a holy greatness. An interior integrity that outshines an outward posturing. A beauty that points toward God, not a Führer.

Thomas Merton observed,

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. The mind that responds to the intellectual and spiritual values that lie hidden in a poem, a painting or a piece of music, discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of being that it did not know it could ever achieve.

Pope Benedict XVI once admitted, “To me art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith.”

What Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and the Allies knew (and what we all should know) is that sublime art, stirring literature, edifying architecture, and transcendent music stir a chord within each one us. They speak to who we are as well as who we are called to be. Their beauty testifies to a good which points to truth.

Whittaker Chambers was a former Communist who witnessed the determined efforts of an ideology to subvert and destroy the culture, if not the soul, of humanity. He spoke of the imperative we each have to preserve those things that civilize us:

It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the [embers], and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

Why, in the midst of the blackness of war, did a cadre of men and women seek to rescue and preserve such a thing as art? Because art reminds us of who we are and who we are called to be: beautiful creations of a loving Father.

That’s not a bad mission.

And it is still a necessary one.