Nazis and the Classics

Nazi book burning


I’m rushing to finish the theory section of my book on Literature That Has Changed History, which I will road test in my Theories of the Reader senior seminar this fall. Today I share with you my section on Marxist Terry Eagleton’s observations about “the Rise of English.”

Eagleton is interested in how the study of English language literature became the respected discipline that it is. He attributes a lot to F. R. Leavis and his journal Scrutiny:

In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation. Far from constituting some amateur or impressionistic enterprise, English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence—what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital center of the most essential values—were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny.

Although a literary theorist himself, Eagleton is skeptical that literature is this powerful. In his characteristic humorous way, he accuses the Leavisites of elitism:

Was it really true that literature could roll back the deadening effects of industrial labor and the philistinism of the media? It was doubtless comforting to feel that by reading Henry James one belonged to the moral vanguard of civilization itself; but what of all those people who did not read Henry James, who had never even heard of James, and would no doubt go to their graves complacently ignorant that he had been and gone? These people certainly composed the overwhelming social majority; were they morally callous, humanly banal and imaginatively bankrupt? One was speaking perhaps of one’s own parents and friends here, and so needed to be a little circumspect. Many of these people seemed morally serious and sensitive enough: they showed no particular tendency to go around murdering, looting and plundering, and even if they did it seemed implausible to attribute this to the fact that they had not read Henry James. The Scrutiny case was inescapably elitist: it betrayed a profound ignorance and distrust of the capacities of those not fortunate enough to have read English at Downing College.

Then, to further bring his hammer down, Eagleton mentions a notorious instance of people who, even though they read classic literature, did not become better people as a result: Nazi concentration camp commandants:

For if not all of those who could not recognize an enjambement were nasty and brutish, not all of those who could were morally pure. Many people were indeed deep in high culture, but it would transpire a decade or so after the birth of Scrutiny that this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe. The strength of Leavisian criticism was that it was able to provide an answer…to the question, why read Literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps some years after the founding of Scrutiny, to arrest commandants who had wiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.

Eagleton’s cautions are useful for those who expect literature to accomplish miracles, but I want to look closer at his example before conceding his point. I find his Goethe example to be more flashy than substantive.

First of all, there is nothing in Goethe that condones genocide. In The Sorrows of Young Werther and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship one finds more support for those who opposed the Nazis than for fascism. Perhaps some Nazi commandants genuflected before Goethe the way some worship Shakespeare, seeing him as confirmation of national greatness. That would be an authoritarian way to respond to the German genius. But whether they actually engaged with him is another matter.

From what we know of Nazi reading habits, they were probably more likely to be reading pornography, sentimental romances, and shallow war stories than German classics. German scholar Klaus Theweleit, in his book Male Fantasies, analyzed troves of novels read and written by pre-fascist paramilitaries in the early Weimar republic. The books are filled with violent revenge fantasies and self-pitying death scenes.

As far as Hitler’s voluminous reading was concerned, it did not include literature, which he hated. According to his former Press Chief Otto Dietrich, Hitler read newspapers and histories but

ignored on principle theoretical or belletristic works. He had a special antipathy for novels, which he never read, and for poetry; poems were an abomination to him.

Probably the best examples of Nazis coming into close contact with good literature is during the famous book burnings. Among the authors burned were Brecht, Thomas Mann, Hemingway, Dreiser, Jack London, Heine, and Remarque (for All Quiet on the Western Front).

I’m willing to concede that there have been bad men who actually did read great literature and came away unscathed. It’s amazing how the mind can twist a work to suit its own agenda, a point made dramatically in Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto. In it a Nazi actor reinterprets Hamlet to make it acceptable to fascist audiences, but he must edit out Hamlet’s indecisiveness to pull it off.

If a mind opens itself in any meaningful way to Goethe or Shakespeare, it cannot coexist calmly with the gas chambers. Leavis may overestimate literature’s power, but Eagleton’s example does not deliver the coup de grace.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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