Heinrich, Anselm, Theatre in Europe under German Occupation

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Theatre in Europe under German Occupation by Anselm Heinrich

Lisa Skwirblies, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich


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Theatre in Europe under German Occupation by Anselm Heinrich. London and New York: Routledge, 2018, pp, 274, ISBN 9781138799530 (paperback); ISBN 9781138799523
(hardback); ISBN 9781315756004 (e-book).

Theater unter NS-Herrschaft. Theatre under Pressure by Brigitte Dalinger and Veronika Zangl, editors. Vienna: V&R Unipress, 2018, pp, 317, ISBN 9783847106425
(hardback); ISBN 978373700642-2 (paperback); ISBN 9783737006422 (e-book).

Two recent publications from the field of theatre studies address hitherto neglected elements of the history of European theatre under the occupation of Nazi Germany, and offer new theoretical perspectives on the topic: the monograph Theatre in Europe under German Occupation (2017) by theatre historian Anselm Heinrich, and the edited volume Theater unter NS-Herrschaft (2018) by theatre scholars Brigitte Dalinger and Veronika Zangl.

Anselm Heinrich’s monograph shows an impressive depth of archival research on a broad range of European countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Latvia, and Ukraine. Heinrich illustrates skillfully the attempt of Nazi Germany to influence, shape, and control the cultural sector in the occupied European territories through the means of theatre. He makes the convincing point that the Nazis saw theatre not just as ‘a welcome add-on to its military efforts’, but as ‘essential for the war and, in many cases, even as the vanguard for military action.1 He substantiates this claim through an original approach that combines discourse- and repertoire-analysis with a profound evaluation of figures and numbers related to the institutional structures and cultural policies of Nazi Germany. The author navigates with great ease and impressive precision through a large amount of data, which he unpacks persuasively through the analysis of individual case studies, from both metropolitan and regional theatres in occupied Europe. While his main focus lies on high-profile German language theatres in Łódź, Poznan, Cracow, Prague, Lille, The Hague, Oslo, Riga, and Kiev, it is Heinrich’s versatile account of the rich source material from regional archives, like those of the former Reich Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia, the Sudentenland, Silesia, and East and West Prussia, which offer a distinctively new and more comprehensive insight into the topic. The dramaturgy of the book follows the timeline set out by the scope of the study (1938-1945). The substantial introduction (Chapter 1) is followed by a chapter called ‘Discourses’, which illustrates the compatibility of theatrical and political discourses at the time. Heinrich’s discussion of the scholarship of Heinz Kindermann, who was at the time a renowned professor of theatre studies at the University of Vienna and a devout National Socialist, is especially noteworthy. Heinrich shows how deeply informed Kindermann’s theatre discourse had been by contemporary theories on ‘racial purity’ and how relevant, on the other hand, his writings had been for the conceptualization of the Nazi government’s theatre politics in the occupied territories. Chapter 3, called ‘Origins of German theatre practice’, briefly illustrates the long history of German-speaking theatrical activity and discourses in European cities, and shows how this already existing infrastructure ‘prepared the ground for military expansion, and even provided the justification for it’ by the NS regime.2 The fourth and longest chapter, (“Occupation”), focuses on the time of the actual Occupation. It discusses the co-optation of the theatre by the Nazis by taking into account a wider range of elements of Nazi Germany’s cultural policies: subsidies, benefits, material conditions, repertoires, audience, and censorship. Here, Heinrich’s methodological approach of analyzing the theatre repertoires in relation to findings from his research into institutional structures and cultural policies proves particularly successful. It allows him to map the specific strategies through which the NS regime aimed at establishing the alleged superiority of German culture with the help of the theatre, and to show that these plans largely failed, at least on the level of the repertoire. Very few of the theatres in the occupied territories actually played the highly politicized theatre program consisting of heroic classical drama and völkisch plays that the Ministry of Propaganda had envisioned. Instead, as Heinrich compellingly shows, most of the German-speaking theatres in the occupied territories produced contemporary comedies, farces, revues, and dances. In taking the popular repertoires seriously as objects of scholarly study, Heinrich challenges the scholarly taxonomies that have so far subsumed all theatrical activity in the NS regime as NS-Dramatik (NS dramatic art). Moreover, he thereby prompts us to rethink what we assume to be objects of theatre historiographical scholarship in the first place. The very brief fifth chapter (“End and aftermath”) illustrates the Nazi-regime’s ‘stubborn refusal’3 to accept the new political realities in the years 1944 and 1945. This is followed by a compact conclusion, summarizing aptly the complex findings of this book. The fact that Heinrich does not discuss cases in which theatre functioned as a tool of resistance to the Nazi government (as, for instance, theatre in the concentration camps), is due to the study’s clear focus on the subsidized German-speaking theatre, and is well contextualized in both the introduction and the conclusion. A slightly missed chance is the lack of references to German colonial history, and its intertwining discourses on aesthetics and ‘race’, which might have informed some of the material in interesting ways. To conclude, this fascinating study offers not only new source material from archives that lie off the beaten path of theatre historiographical scholarship, but also innovative methodologies for the field of theatre studies, and will surely substantially inform future scholarship on theatre under German occupation.

The edited collection Theater unter NS-Herrschaft (2018) delivers what its editors Veronika Zangl and Brigitte Dalinger promise in its engaging introduction. It brings together different fields of research that have until now been discussed separately, within one well-curated framework. This includes the subsidized theater of the Nazis, the theater of the Jewish Kulturbund, and the theatrical activities in ghettos and concentration camps. The volume includes contributions in both German and English. It evolved from a conference that took place on the same topic in October 2014 at the University of Vienna, which might explain the many Austrian case studies in the book.

Divided into three parts (‘‘Source Criticism”, ‘Resistance, Adaptation, Appropriation’, and ‘Dramaturgies), the book features sixteen chapters in total. The choice of the editors to structure the book around questions of methodology and theoretical approaches is to be lauded, and is clearly the strongest asset of the volume. The five contributions in the first part have a strong focus on questions of historiographical methodologies. Rebecca Rovit’s and Gerwin Strobl’s chapters address the problem of hindsight, and the challenge to account for the fact that one looks at the past from a very specific standpoint in the present. Rovit’s study on the theatre repertoire of the Jewish Kulturbund and on theatre in the concentration camps clearly stands out. She addresses the question how and why Jewish artists engaged in theatrical activity ‘under duress’ through a focus on ‘place’, which she understands as ‘the shifting “where” of performed theatrical repertoire’4. This approach offers a new theoretical perspective on theatre repertoires of Jewish artists and communities between 1933 and 1944 as transitory and enduring, rather than as ephemeral and vanishing. The contribution of Gertrude Elisabeth Stipschitz uses ‘topography’ as an analytical tool to investigate the until now under-researched source material on Nazi Germany’s aim at building a close-knit network of theatres in Austria after the so called ‘annexation’ in 1938. Brigitte Stocker’s and Rasmus Cromme’s respective chapters suggest rethinking what we consider to be a source of theatre historiographical scholarship. Stocker proposes to utilize a play, namely Karl Kraus’ polemic on National Socialism Dritte Walpurgisnacht (1933), as a source for historiographical scholarship on the ‘annexation’ of Austria by the Nazis. Cromme pleads for a stronger attention to witness testimonies as source material, and discusses compellingly the promises and pitfalls of engaging tools and strategies of oral history in his research project on the history of the Bavarian State Opera (1933-1963).

The contributions in the second section discuss specific case studies of theatrical activity in relation to the phenomena of resistance, adaptation, and appropriation. While Anselm Heinrich offers an in-depth discussion of the repertoire of the German-language theatre in Łódź under the Nazi occupation, Peter Roessler and Dominik Frank explore the extent to which political resistance against the Nazi regime was possible in institutions such as the acting and directing school in Schönbrunn, Austria, and the Bavarian State Opera, and come to the (slightly predictable) conclusion that this was possible only on a small-scale and private level. Birgit Peter investigates the role that the circus played for the cultural politics of the Nazi government. Her discussion on how artistic practices like tightrope walking were appropriated by Nazi discourse as an ideal example of the virtues any (male) Nazi citizen was supposed to internalize (no fear of death, and daredevilry), is especially compelling. Stefanie Endlich and Heather Metje discuss the conditions under which theatrical activity was possible in the different concentration camps and ghettos. Metje’s detailed study of the ‘theatrical landscape’5 of the concentration camp Buchenwald, encompassing both legal (as in permitted by the SS policies) and illegal performances, especially deserves mention. Most notably, her emphasis on the changes in the performances and in ‘the international makeup’6 of Buchenwald over the duration of the camp are insightful, and offer a new theoretical perspective on well-discussed archival material.

The last section, ‘Dramaturgies’, combines contributions that discuss different dramatic and theatrical forms, as well as questions of genre-specific aesthetics. Evelyn Deutsch-Schreiner’s discussion of the works and workings of Reichsdramaturg Rainer Schlösser remains rather descriptive, and misses deeper theoretical findings. More rigorous in this regard is Evelyn Annuß’s reformulation of the Thingspiel’s aftermath in the Austrian context. Through a fruitful genealogical approach and a form-specific analysis of the Weihespiel (a form of open-air theatre) in the small town of Lamprechtshausen, Annuß shows that the National Socialist propaganda theatre Thingspiel not only had an afterlife in Austria, but that it did so in a region-specific form that defies ready-made historiographical classifications. William Grange’s similarly fascinating chapter on comedy discusses the paradox that most of the more successful comedies during the Nazi regime were to a large extent adaptations of works by Jewish authors. These play-texts during the Nazi occupation resembled ‘much of the comedy performed in the discredited Weimar Republic, with the notable absence of Jews but with the comic formulae many of them used almost entirely intact’.7 The last two chapters of the book by Lisa Peschel and Pnina Rosenberg also discuss the genre of comedy, but in the realm of ghettos and concentration camps in the Czech Republic and in France. Especially noteworthy is Peschel’s chapter on the role that humour played as a tool to strengthen self-confidence and a sense of community amongst the inmates in the KZ Theresienstadt. In her innovative approach, she applies theories from the psychology of humor to performance analysis, offering a new and unconventional methodology for the field of theatre studies.

All in all, the edited collection is compelling in its focus on the heterogeneity of theatrical activity during the Nazi regime, and in its call for more scholarly differentiation of the myriad roles theatre played under National-Socialist rule. While some of the chapters with a largely empirical focus could have benefitted from more theoretical depth, the majority of the contributions do strike the intricate balance between introducing new source material and new theoretical perspectives. The structure of the volume supports this balance more than well. In times of an ever-growing right-wing populism in Europe (and beyond), in which theatre and theatre scholarship are again increasingly ‘under pressure’, this volume is highly relevant and timely.

1. Heinrich, Anselm. Theatre in Europe under German Occupation. Routledge, 2018, 225.

2. Ibid., 226.

3. Ibid., 222.

4. Dalinger, Brigitte, and Veronika Zangl, eds. Theater unter NS-Herrschaft. Theatre under Pressure. V&R Unipress, 2018, 18.

5. Ibid., 199.

6. Ibid., 201.

7. Ibid., 263.