The Clare Spark Blog

December 2, 2014

Academics, artists, and the “Nazi question”

affinity-groupsSometimes I ask myself, why do I read so much about theories of “fascism” and/or Nazi Germany? This blog attempts to answer that question, with some asides on the socialization of academics. My overall concern is why we don’t have a proper education for democracy.

I. First, my apparent “obsession”: Being born in 1937, I was a small child during WW2, and I still remember my anxiety when my father went off to join the Army medical corps; then we followed him around the country as he spent most of his service as a pathologist at various army bases. I don’t remember a time when I did not fear for his life, though he didn’t get in trouble until he suffered life-threatening allergies in Guadalcanal—the one time he (briefly) left the States. I didn’t hear a word about “the Holocaust” until after the war, and then my parents were reluctant to give me any details. It wasn’t until television treated the subject in the early 1970s that I first understood the magnitude of the event. And it was not until 1986 when I heard David Wyman and Deborah Lipstadt lecture on the cover-up of the event. After that, I even asked my favorite professor when Americans first learned about it, and she answered: “1945”—clearly the wrong answer. Thus began my extended inquiry into the character of anti-Semitism and related distorted notions. Before that, I had constantly minimized the power of this so-called “prejudice,” which left me vulnerable to many leftist personalities, many of whom were supposedly “Jewish.” (For some of my unusual blogs on anti-Semitism, see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/14/the-abcs-of-antisemitism/, and https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/. Generally,  “bad” Jews are seen as “rootless cosmopolitans”: the anti-race or the enzymes that accelerate “change.”)

affinity2

Second, because I started studying censorship in the art world in 1969, I came across the interrogation of “myth and symbol” by various artists, both living and dead. This in turn, led me to the power of patronage and the fractured history of Christianity and paganism. Since much of contemporary art was reworked versions of modernism (starting in the nineteenth century), it was but a short step to the art and culture of the interwar period. Thus I was plunged into the controversies over Nazi versus Soviet art, sculpture, and architecture—controversies that had never been resolved. (I should add that the Museum of Modern Art did much to entrance me with the many variants of modernism, but like other museums, their labels were not informative: we were supposed to admire and not think too much about what conditioned the production of these materials.)

Arkady Plastov Threshing on the Collective

Arkady Plastov Threshing on the Collective

Third, as a result of my collaboration with composer and musicologist Joseph Byrd (in the 1970s), I got a grant to provide the cultural context for American sentimental song in the early to mid-nineteenth century. This led to Melville—an arch-critic of sentimentality—and then to graduate school in US history at UCLA, where I convinced (with some difficulty) my dissertation director Alex Saxton to allow me to study two different time periods (I was still obsessed with fascism): the family relationships and politics of Herman Melville (1809-1891) AND the period of the Melville Revival, mostly occurring in the interwar period, which facilitated the investigation of how far “fascist” beliefs had penetrated the US. I am told that had I been in an English department, I would never have been allowed to study a “major figure,” but Saxton had been a novelist in his youth, and though an unreconstructed Stalinist, he never entirely gave up his artistry to the Party—how else to explain his unusual permissiveness in my case?

BigWomanII. In recent weeks, I have returned to my interest in modern European history, filling in books that I had missed. Followers of my blogs will notice older references to George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, and the Frankfurt School, but then to recent readings of Robert O. Paxton, George L. Mosse, and Michael Burleigh.

Yesterday I completed a historiographical survey of all the literature on Nazi Germany by the late French historian Pierre Ayçoberry [The Nazi Question (Pantheon, 1979)], that denies the very existence of a generic “fascism,”  ending with the conclusion that whether Nazi German was unique or continuous with German history remains entirely unsettled. (In a few years, the much publicized and unresolved “historians’ debate” broke out in Germany; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historikerstreit.)

Fabius Maximus image

Fabius Maximus image

What have I learned from this immersion in academic and literary treatments of European and American history? Aside from my oft stated premise that we are all, to some unknowable extent, prisoners of our context (including the access to primary sources), it occurred to me that my reverence for the “better” academic historians was misplaced: that they had been asking the wrong questions of their laboriously collected evidence, for, as the sociologist Stephen Turner has observed, scholarship is subsidized [by specific institutions with an agenda].

The question I should have been asking, but have hinted at throughout the website is this: under what conditions is it possible to have a functioning democratic republic? Has one ever existed? Why talk about scholarship at all, when there is so much pressure from institutions to stay on the narrow path prescribed by family, other patrons, “affinity groups,” and the anxieties of readers? If I have been a maverick, is it not because I am not dependent on a salary, or by anyone’s approbation but my own [possibly flawed] sense of what is reasonable, given the materials at hand? Why didn’t Pierre Ayçoberry raise these issues? Could it be that his ideology and that of Pantheon books–that of an academic “right-wing social democrat” (a term that Ayçoberry loathed)–preclude such tough questions?

Above all, is the “civilized” West ready for an appropriate education for democracy?

R. B. Kitaj, Rise of Fascism, 1975-79

R. B. Kitaj, Rise of Fascism, 1975-79

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