Essay for Lesson 5: Hitler and the Aestheticization of Politics
One of the reasons behind the success of the Nazi Party in taking over Germany is on its extensive use of propaganda. Adolf Hitler, known for his penchant for populism, rendered the strong impact of images, films and other materials attributed to Nazism as essential for the political success of the Nazi Party and its agenda for Germany. As an authoritarian leader, Hitler saw the importance of extracting the patronage of the Germans not through forceful means, but through convincing and motivating measures that enticed their mental faculties. To make such a vision possible, Hitler commissioned the talents of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl – one of the most brilliant at the time, to create a movie that promoted Nazism not necessarily in a critical manner, but more on cultivating their blind adherence towards the Nazi Party. The result, Triumph of the Will, is a documentary film masterpiece that presented the magnanimity of the Nazi Party in a grandiose manner, complete with rich aesthetics enhanced with the latest film technology at the time. While Triumph of the Will has garnered strong acclaim as a magnum opus of its period, critics have assailed it for aggrandizing Nazi politics and its presumed ability to arouse sympathy towards Nazism. Thus, the assertion made by Walter Benjamin on the “aestheticization of politics” under German fascism has stood as an important premise to clarify and consider in understanding the significance of Triumph of the Will (Benjamin 217-252; Riefenstahl).
Benjamin noted one of the most notable characteristics of the Nazi regime – that of the “aestheticization of politics” under German fascism. In the simplest sense, Benjamin underlined that Nazi ideology stood out and became highly convincing for Germans due to the vast usage of film and radio – both being technological breakthroughs at the time, by the Nazi Party for propagating propaganda. The Nazi Party, according to Benjamin, became effective in terms of capturing the support of the Germans through various physical expositions of its prominence. Such includes lavish party conventions and colorful civilian and military parades shown in Triumph of the Will, with the promise – albeit not guaranteed, of delivering revolutionary changes to Germany. However, the explanation of Benjamin becomes vague from the foregoing point; after all, politics has always seemed aestheticized. Critics noted the cryptic nature of the assertion made by Benjamin by emphasizing that politics have since employed aestheticized manifestations, including mass demonstrations, celebratory gatherings and the like. In response, Siegfried Kracauer, a contemporary of Benjamin, clarified the meaning of “aestheticization of politics” under German fascism, saying that by using new media technology, the Nazi Party was able to create a hyperrealistic representation of its image to captivate the Germans towards its ideologies. It is from that point where one could clearly conceptualize the assertion made by Benjamin in light of the agenda of the Nazi Party to command the submission of Germans to its ideologies. Such has emphasized on the charismatic rhetoric of Hitler and his party stalwarts promising Germany of progressive reforms (Benjamin 217-252; Riefenstahl; Spielvogel 121-144, 146-158).
Contemporary Relevance of the “Aestheticization of Politics”
The “aestheticization of politics”, as Benjamin has noted, is highly relevant to contemporary culture, specifically in terms of using technological breakthroughs in media. Although Benjamin and Kracauer - sharing the same view, remain vague in their accounts on the “aestheticization of politics”, they nevertheless helped raise two key contentions underlining the relevance of the statement in contemporary culture. Firstly, changes in media technology make it more susceptible for people to develop new stimuli to certain aesthetic forms. Both Benjamin and Kracauer noted that the success of the Nazi Party in consolidating its German support base has roots from its extensive usage of images and scenes that induce euphoria unto its target audience – the Germans. However, the foregoing is not exclusive to Nazism alone, since the same aesthetic form therein may also appear to represent other political ideologies depending on the stimuli it produces, which in turn may change through the application of new media technology. Moreover, the ongoing debate between ethical and aesthetical choices in art has due application in contemporary culture. The Triumph of the Will, for instance, has attracted divided opinions from critics because it has strong aesthetic appeal and at the same time, has a strong association with Nazism. Other films in contemporary culture that have negative associations attached to strong aesthetic appeal may gain the same problems Triumph of the Will had, particularly in terms of distribution and censorship (Benjamin 217-252; Riefenstahl; Spielvogel 121-144, 146-158).
Conclusion: Is There an “Aestheticization of Politics” Distinct to Nazism?
Aestheticization is a politically powerful way to captivate the attention and interests of particular people in relation to a particular political agenda. At the same time, however, it is not possible to form a kind of aestheticization exclusive to one ideology. Rather, “aestheticization of politics”, as noted by Kracauer in elaborating the assertion made by Benjamin, could only go as far as producing hyperrealism, which could induce the euphoric adherence of a target audience to a political interest – a fact seen in Triumph of the Will. As the argument stands, Triumph of the Will did not use a Nazi-exclusive aestheticization, as such does not exist. Rather, Riefenstahl, Hitler and the rest of the Nazi Party backed Triumph of the Will using the “aestheticization of politics”, which is universally applicable, as it is sanctioned with the use of multifaceted Nazi propaganda. Therefore, one could not deem that the aesthetic techniques used in Triumph of the Will is exclusive to Nazism, as those may also apply to represent other ideologies subject to changes in the stimuli of people and breakthroughs in media technology. After all, what made Triumph of the Will distinctly Nazi in nature is the fact that it used multifaceted Nazi propaganda; the aesthetic techniques used therein – set apart from the propaganda, could also apply to other ideologies.
Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production." Illuminations. Ed. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 217-252. Print.
Spielvogel, Jackson. Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History. 6th ed. United Kingdom: Pearson, 2009. Print.
Triumph of the Will. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. Perf. Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Victor Lutze, various Nazi leaders. Universum Film AG, 1935. DVD.