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The Masquerade of Death: A Progression of Chaos in Europe (1925-40)

"Hand to Hand Fighting," Otto Dix

“Hand to Hand Fighting,” Otto Dix

There is a popular concept to interpret cataclysmic events as harbingers for Last Judgment. Understandably, looking to the galloping Four Horsemen is a popular motif when events in the world seem out of control. Consider the sketch by Otto Dix in 1917 simply titled, Hand to Hand Fighting, where in orphic cubism soldiers are mangled together in an orgy of violence. Dix had presented this work as a depiction of the cycle of life during the Great War, which had erupted in central Europe during the summer months of 1914. In 1917, as a German solider, Dix would have been deep in the mud and death, surrounded by “lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, fire, [and] steel” (Brose, pg. 81), elements characterized by trench warfare. According to historian Eric Brose, in just 1915, “Well over two million men fell on the western front” (Brose, pg. 81); this is the world in which Dix makes deep and often chaotic brush strokes, mockingly showing us a world of ghastly maiming machines of war (Brose, pg. 77).  From this foundational nightmare a chaotic history unfolds, the history of a post Great War Europe, of Russian Revolution, of Weimar Germany and the road to WWII and ultimately, the Holocaust. And in films as well, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), and post Great War novels, like: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), we can see the hoof prints of an apocalypse that has already happened.

The most interesting notion of the apocalypse are the prophets who foretell impending doom.

In March 1899, composer Richard Strauss was considered to be rather ordinary “elegant-looking man whose odd style matched the polyphony of [his] strange [performance in] A Hero’s Life” (Brose, pg. 38).  Strauss conducted A Hero’s Life in Frankfurt’s Municipal Museum to an audience made up of European aristocracy who sat uncomfortably in their chairs, clinching against a melody that reflected a mood anguished by the birth pains of modernity. According to historian Brose, Richard Strauss’ performance pulsated, not just with disdain for the new social transformation, but also with the rapid growth of industrialization and technological change occurring within a “political structure poorly [suited] to withstand such [a] challenge” (Brose, pg. 51). One of the most curious moments during Strauss’ A Hero’s Life was when, while crouching, he would suddenly stand upright and point toward the brass players hidden on either side of the orchestra, as if with a wave of his baton, Strauss orders a battalion of conjured soldiers in a “forward march.”

But how did the end begin? What was it that set the fuse burning out the colonial world, exploding into a world at war?

"Self Portrait," Otto Dix, 1913.

“Self Portrait,” Otto Dix, 1913.

Richard Strauss, along with his other contemporaries dealing in moral artistic relativism, whose work became obsessed on the fragmented and fractured foundation of the world, seem to have been oddly sensitive to apocalyptic visions (Brose, pgs. 64-65). Modernity was on the move, marching to the trumpet call and the inevitability of war in Europe. According to Brose, several developments had increased this inevitability. Consider, Europe and her long history of discontent and conflict among a growing population squeezed within smaller and smaller country states – each with an unquenchable desire for independence. Or consider the booming industrial and technological revolutions pitted against a system of multiple colonial rivalries, each maneuvering into either alliances or opposing armed encampments. Or perhaps, the escalating urge from these colonial states to purge discontent brought on by dynamism through acts of war. Or even perhaps, heightened anxiety weighed on the shoulders of finite leaders pointing an accusing finger between each other (Brose, pgs. 74-75). Obviously, we can estimate that there was no single factor that ushered Europe into the Great War; but rather was each a deadly mixture in an already boiling pot. There is some debate on the initial spark that set the fuse. Brose among other historians point toward the June 28, 1914 assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. According to Brose, “six Serbian terrorists united in a convoluted and still shadowy conspiracy to…destabilize the Austro-Hungarian Empire and make way for a South Slav state” (Brose, pg.75).

Looking to the ethnic grievances of these six Order of the Black Hand assassins as the ignition that set Europe into a horrifying four year conflict seems plausible, even with its conspiratorial flare. As news of the Archdukes assignation spread, Bosnian Muslims and Croats distanced themselves by firebombing Serb businesses, Vienna threated ultimatums to set loose the “anti-Serb zealots in the army like Hötzendorff” (Brose, pg.75) and sought backing with Germany, while Russian Tsar Nicholas II weighed defending the “honorable” relationship with their fellow Slavic and Christian Orthodox ally Serbia (pg.75) against internal unrest. As established allies, France backed Russia. Armies mobilized. Warning given. Mediation floundered. On August 4, 1914, with German carvery thundering into natural Belgium, London decided on the side of France. The Great War had officially begun (Brose, pg.76).

The Storm of Steel, coined by German solider, writer, philosopher Ernst Jünger, the Great War is considered to be the first in mechanized warfare. According to historian Brose:

“[The] ghastly maiming machines of modern war had changed…the street [of Europe] of 1914, [that were] so full of life and youthful vigor, [into monstrous] defacements, [men with] their lips and jaws blown away, feeding tubes inserted where mouths had been, wads of gauze stuffed in nose holes bigger than silver dollars…and piles of amputated body parts. [The] survivors among these half-men would somehow have to adjust to civilian life” (Brose, pg. 77).

"The Trench," Otto Dix, 1923.

“The Trench,” Otto Dix, 1923.

As the armies mobilized and marched during those late summer months of 1914, the Great War quickly became a war of attrition with each faction burrowing deep within the blood soaked earth (Brose, pg. 78) in an nightmarish zigzag pattern of endless trenches, feebly protected by a mash entanglement of barbed wire. Machine-gun nests and heavy artillery became hellish bloodhounds guarding the killing zones between enemy trenches. In 1915, a “greater horror” was unleashed: “a thick yellowish-green, ground-hugging cloud of poison gas that caught gagging, chocking, dying allied soldiers completely by surprise” (Brose, pg.81). The Great War was the world in which Otto Dix would capture in his paintings and drawings throughout the remaining years of his life, a world where “butchers (artillery) smash the person next to [you] into pieces with one blow and mockingly cover [you] with blood and flesh and guts” (Brose, pg.81). Sacrifices increased throughout 1916 on both fronts with an estimated eighteen million lost by years end (pg. 84).

And so it began. The Storm of Steel, as Jünger had called it, recalling from his own experiences in the trenches, witnessing the old stag of colonialism come crashing down, its legs broken by the sheer weight of mechanization. But how did we enter the war? In an era of progressive-ism, how could the isolated United States ever get involved with something so far away? Well… perhaps the reasons are too convoluted, too precarious, much like that of the countries of Europe, to narrow a definitive answer for why?

Nevertheless, in the early morning hours of April 1917, the U.S. declared war with Germany. Our staunch isolationism broke apart after relations were aggravated with German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann’s “ridiculous ploy to entice Mexico and Japan into a war against the United States” (Brose, pg.97). Leadership within Germany crumbled as her labor force began to strike. Troops would not follow the monarchy into last-ditch battles. “Workers’ and soldier’ councils, formed in emulation of revolutionary Russia the previous year, [spreading] quickly” (Brose, pg.99). In 1918, Russia fallen apart due to civil war and revolution throughout 1917, spreading across Central and Eastern Europe. Austria-Hungary dissolved. The war was coming to an end. On November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed, ceasing the usually thundering boom of artillery fire and ushering unto the land a strange silence among the thirty-seven million dead, wounded, or missing. Upon this queer scene, one can imagine the surviving forces climbing carefully out of the trenches, gazing at the mutilated landscape and asking themselves, “What do we do now?”

Indeed…what do we do now? What happens to the world after she tears herself apart?

As the drum beat of the Great War faded, the galloping march of Pestilence and Famine spread across the postwar landscape. According to historian Brose, “five years after [the Great War] started, almost three million civilians in Germany and Austria-Hungary…[who were] succumbing in great numbers to tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhus, and a deadly new mutated strain of influenza” (Brose, pgs. 100-101). The End Times would have most certainly been a popular motif among the hungry and diseased ravaged villages and cities of 1919. And to make matters worse, the Treaty of Versailles, with its harsh provisions of War Guilt placed upon Germany, gave Europe no real chance for economic recovery – guaranteeing “a war of revenge” (Brose, pg. 103) down the already bloodied path. Further bolstering this season of discontent, on the eastern front, the Red Army forces that grew from the Bolshevik revolutions of 1917 and 1918 had swelled to five million by 1920, spreading communist rule across Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and finally Georgia in 1921 (Brose, pg. 107). Reflecting on the words of President Woodrow Wilson, that the Great War would be a “war to end all wars” (Brose, pg. 107), and in light of the apocalyptic developments throughout Europe, one has to wonder if the end hadn’t already come.

The Battleship Potemkin (1928) is considered to be a masterpiece of silent cinema (Bordwell, pg. 61). According to film historian David Bordwell, “Potemkin seeks to arouse emotion and partisanship [while] aiming at [a] revolutionary pathos” (Bordwell, pgs. 61-62). Commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the uprising of 1905, director Sergei Eisenstein created within Potemkin a film filled with metaphorical motifs and analogies resembling, what he considered the natural process of rebellion (Bordwell, pg. 99). One needs only to look to the scene with the boiling soup followed by the shot of angry sailors, or the scene with the rotting meat filled with maggots and the ship doctor claiming, “These are not worms” (Bordwell, pg. 71), a humorless comparison, or even more blood curdling montage bounded of the Odessa Steps, the massacre, where women and children are mowed down against an unstoppable unreasonable Tsar military force. This, of course, further exacerbates the widening gulf between bourgeoisie and what represents for working class why the Bolshevik revolution happened in the first place.

Though The Battleship Potemkin is based on events that occurred in 1905, the film was made in 1925, serving as an historical record for the time in which it was made. So what does Potemkin say about 1925? Consider historian Brose and his comments on the history of Europe in the Twentieth Century, when he states:

“It was not just that communism had survived, a victory that shaped the next seventy years. Of significance were also the ways that people – party officials, workers and peasants, parents and children – changed. For many years subsequent historians concurred that war and civil war brutalized the population and coarsened public life to the point where much worse atrocities – the mass executions – became all but inevitable” (Brose, pg.166).

Potemkin tells us that The Great War did not win the day for democracy, it further exacerbated it; whilst simultaneously promoting, as Stalin states in his work, The theory of the Proletarian Revolution, “a great popular revolution…which had such an important ally as the vast mass of the peasantry who were oppressed and exploited by the landlords” (Goldstein, pg. 236).  Potemkin used images with the cowardly priest, dominating ship captain, and the relentless firing squad on the Odessa Steps, to remind the people of the corruption of religion, the corruption of the aristocracy, and to remind the people of the unifying revolutionary cause.

"The Skat Players," Otto Dix, 1920.

“The Skat Players,” Otto Dix, 1920.

The masquerade of death was in full swing during Germany’s Weimar era. Recognizable developments were taking place.  According to historian Konrad Heiden, “inflation [had] plagued Germany throughout the first years of the republic, brought on by financing [a] war through bonds…” (Heiden, pg.144) and with the steep reparations demanded from the Treaty of Versailles, beginning in 1923, the republic’s currency was valued roughly 4.2 billion marks to the America dollar (144)! This hyperinflation infiltrated every aspect of life, especially for the working class German, where store food lines took an eternity to move forward and when “you reached the store, a pound of sugar might have obtained for two millions; but, by the time you came to the counter, all you could get for two millions was half a pound, and the saleswoman [would say] the dollar had just gone up again” (144).  By November 1929, Chancellor Gustav Stresemann launched a season of reconciliation with France, Britain, and the United States, finally ending the crippling hyperinflation (though, keep in mind that most of everyone’s savings had been wiped out and the U.S. Stock Market Crash that happened back in October 1929 was on the verge of pulling Europe into another depression); however, despite this period of increased economic stability, those who were effected most would not forget and would effectively blame the Weimar Republic.

Fritz Lang’s cult film M, though seemingly simple, is suspect. Consider how, according to film historian Anton Kaes, “M was not among Germany’s top ten features of 1931 [and] the film received mixed reviews [with] only modest box-office returns” (Kaes, pg.138), yet despite being overshadowed by the eventual collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, M is not only a rich source for historic symbolism in the midst of a chaotic 1931, but also because it represents the emergence of National Socialism.  The history surrounding M, the political and social crisis of the Weimar Republic, cannot help but have some kind of impact on the film. In a way, M captures the surrounding worldwide recession and apocalyptic dreariness during the 1930’s, the mass unemployment and rise of criminality and political discontent that eventually lead to the rise of the Nazi Party (Kaes, pg.140). According to historian Kaes, “the original title [of M] was Mörder unter uns (meaning…Murderer among Us),” which, in a strange way, combines the “explosive atmosphere of Germany two years before Hitler’s assumption of power” (Kaes, pg. 141) and the infamous murder trial involving SA (Hitler’s “Storm Troopers) hit men who had murdered a member of the communist party in the late fall of 1930. Besides using M as an interpretation for one of the notorious Four Horsemen, historian Kaes reflects on the films own history as it represents itself in 1931 and asks if indeed, “were the Nazis ‘murderers among us’” (Kaes, pg.141)?

"Self Portrait," Otto Dix, 1926.

“Self Portrait,” Otto Dix, 1926.

Consider the final scene in M and the row of weeping mothers who plead: “This [trial] will not bring our children back to life. People should… take better care… of their children” (M, 1931) as a literal foreshadowing of the up and coming far right (Nazi party), of the youth being swept up in the momentum of National Socialist revolution. According to Kaes:

“M presents a society at war with itself. Serial murder recalled wartime slaughter, and the heightened state of mobilization of an entire community echoed experiences from the home front…[focusing] on the downtrodden lumpenproletariat, [including] washerwomen and fatherless children, criminals and beggars, haggard prostitutes and slovenly policemen” (pgs. 143-144).

M is a representation of the public’s strange fascination with murder in 1931 Germany, suggestive in imitation murder, which “displaces and shields us from real murder” (Kaes, pg.146), thus, in an ironic twist of things, “murder and its mass marketed representations feed on each other” (Kaes, pg. 146). Basically, murders are covered by the media in noir-esk fashion, thus inspiring future killers to commit asks of violence, which in turn is reported by the media, and so on and so forth; all the while, sitting on the backdrop of current events relating to culture and social n(m)ormality. According to historian Kaes, the Great War was still a “living memory [of] national shame of defeat and [resentment of] the financial and moral burden” (Kaes, pg. 151) embodied in the Treaty of Versailles and the failures of the Weimar Republic.

All Quite on the Western Front, released a year prior in 1929, alongside M, acts as a companion view into the Weimar era. According to historian Modris Eksteins, in his work, Rites of Spring, “All Quite can be seen not as an explanation but as a symptom of the confusion and disorientation of the postwar world” (Eksteins, pg.283). The story of All Quite is about Paul Bäumer and his gang of school friends turned German soldiers sent to the trenches to fight an inescapable futile war, in which the world beyond no longer knows them (Eksteins, pg. 281). As Paul states:

“I stand up. I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear. The life that has borne me through these years is still in my hands and my eyes. Whether I have subdued it, I know not. But so long as it is there it will seek its own way out, heedless of the will that is within me” (All Quite, pg. 295).

"Skull," Otto Dix, 1924.

“Skull,” Otto Dix, 1924.

According to historian Eksteins, in the final scene of the book, when Paul dies “yet strangely [is] at peace with his destiny” (pg. 281), certain axioms “lose their meaning [when people] die violent deaths – patriotism, national duty, honor, glory, heroism, valor…” (pg. 281-282) all become meaningless in the hallows of the destructive nature of war. All Quite was written in 1929 about life in the trenches somewhere between 1914 and 1918; however, this book, according to Eksteins, is not a memoir, All Quite is an “angry declaration about the effects of war” (pg. 282). Alongside M, All Quite had warned of the coming of the pale horse. All Quite wanted its readership in 1929 to journey within themselves and face the realities of the effects of war; however, in 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power, All Quite found itself on top of the pyre, burnt at the University of Berlin for being “politically and morally un-German, [and a] betrayal of the soldiers of the world war” (Eksteins, pgs. 298-299). But despite the warnings in M and All Quite for internal reflection instead of external othering, the pale rider had arrived, and his name that sat on him was Death.

According to historian Susan Tegel, the notoriety of Jud Süss (1940) derived “solely from being an antisemitic film which was [also] a box-office success” (Holocaust and the Moving Image, pg.76).  After the fall of the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich produced nearly 1,100 featured films, of those, only 229 were credited as being propaganda. Of these, according to Tegel, “only 96 were Staatsauftragsfilme (or state-commissioned films), and of them Jew Süss was one of the most important” (pg.76). Why? The early periods during Third Reich cinema, as far back as 1933, featured few Jewish tropes; in retrospect, they were the thundering backdrop to a growing storm. It wasn’t until 1940 when Germany was introduced provocative characters, such as, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. According to film historian Eric Rentschler, in his work, The Elective Other, Jew Süss was:

“Nazi cinema’s most controversial and contested film, just as its director, Veit Harlan, is (next to Leni Riefenstahl) the Third Reich’s most controversial and contended filmmaker [that held the ability to] ignite fierce passions [among the people, insomuch as] it [also] became the central exhibit in [the directors] postwar trial for crimes against humanity” (pg.149-150).

On one hand, the focus is forced at one target, a target that doesn’t, according to Hitler, belong in Germany, and preparing “the German populace for the ‘final solution,’ the deportation and mass murder of European Jewry” (Rentschler, pg.149); while on the other hand, this fabrication of “the enemy” becomes a necessity in creating a complete Gemeinschaft (or gemülichkeit) reality, in other words, the Nazi could not exist without the Jew (pg. 154).

Till the very end, Jew Süss remained Joseph Goebbels’ most effect piece of propaganda manifested in the guise of provocative “historic” entertainment; suggestive in research as it was in the portrayal of, so-called, “accurate” caricatures of the other, “latterday [Dracula’s] who…infect the German corpus” (Rentschler, pg. 156). According the Rentschler, Jew Süss is a monstrous entity in the history of cinematography (pg.150), but for the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss was something much more sinister. The film claims historic accuracy, though generic at best, for Germany. The tale of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was something familiar, though perhaps not easily recognizable. Jew Süss played off pre-established notions of anti-Semitism, which gave historic evidence “that penetrated surface appearances and promised to show the Jew’s ‘real face’” (Rentschler, pg.155), and the fate of a country who allowed Jewry to exist among its population. According to film historian Rentschler, if we can “read this film as a Nazi fantasy, it can tell us how Germans in the Third Reich saw the other and how they defined themselves in relation to that other” (pg.154). It’s interesting to note that there are few German heroes or sympathetic characters in Nazi cinematography; however, apparently the characture Süss (Ferdinand Marian) “received fan mail from [smitten] female spectators” (pg.158).

"Fritz Perls," Otto Dix, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

“Fritz Perls,” Otto Dix, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The nightmarish fantasy of Jewish “machinations [sucking] the Swabian state dry” (Rentschler, pg.156) can be clearly seen in the dialogue between characters Karl Alexander, Duke of Württemberg, and Süss Oppenheimer, the shifty nomad “whose preferred countenance is the masquerade” (pg.155). Towards the end of the film, during an evening of fireworks and entertainment prepared by Oppenheimer, the Duke, in a cathartic moment, asks for Süss to reveal his inner face, pleading, “Ha, what does he really look like, what does he really look like?” (154). Süss replies sarcastically, “How am I really supposed to look?” According to Rentschler, film maker Viet Harlan, in his Nazi propaganda film Jew Süss invites the audience to beg the question: who or what is the Jew? And the above scene illustrates a inferred response: according to Harlan, Jews are sadistic and cruel creatures, masters of disguise and manipulators of image, beastly and equally cunning (pg.155) who offer the German corpus an alternative self, a conjured attractiveness derived from a long “tradition of anti-Semitic projections that accompanied the rise of the German bourgeoisie” (pg.164). Basically, they are to blame for the woes of post Versailles Germany.

I’ve commented on this particular film several times already, but I must continue to press that upon the film’s release to the public, subsequent responses echoed “sentiment [that] Jew Süss was horrible and authentic, fantastic yet…frighteningly real” (Rentschler, pg.155). For the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss presented for them a real and lasting image of the “Jewish problem,” a problem that would need to be resolved through action set in reality, the deportation and extermination of European Jewry. According to European historian Jackson Spielvogel, Hitler was determined to carry his Nazi ideology across Europe, establishing his own brand of New Order. For Germans on the home front, “Nazi domestic policies…were influenced by war conditions, [and] also by Hitler’s perception that Germany had collapsed in World War I because of the home front” (pg. 220). The once revered savior of Germany was becoming more and more tyrannical in his determination in not repeating, so-called, past mistakes of 1918. In September of 1939, there was a notable contrast in how the German people identified with, once again, going to war. According to Spielvogel, “in August 1914, there had been crowds cheering in the streets, a profusion of waving flags, processions, and flowers to accompany German troops marching off to war” (pg.230). But as Hitler reignited the machines of war, the people remained silent. The only sign of enthusiasm was from “devout Nazis who believed the Führer was always right and who were eager” (pg.230) for vengeance.  In the face of lacking total enthusiasm and support, Hitler was even more determined to maintain morale on the home front, than, one could say, winning the war itself. It would seem, according to historian Brose, that the Nazis only had eyes for the Jew (Brose, pg.227).

"Der Triumph des Todes," Otto Dix, 1934.

“Der Triumph des Todes,” Otto Dix, 1934.

Interpreting cataclysmic events as harbingers for the End Times is an understandably popular motif, especially when events in the world seem to be spinning out of control. When we consider life in Europe during the Great War, which had erupted during the summer months of 1914, and the world of “ghastly maiming machines of war” (Brose, pg. 77) the war ushered in, a deeper history unfolds. Much like Richard Strauss, along with his contemporaries dealing in moral relativism, when we obsess on the fragmented and fractured foundation of the world, we can begin to see apocalyptic signs when there are none (Brose, pgs. 64-65). Don’t get me wrong, modernity was certainly moving Europe into an inevitable war. What followed was terrible and frighteningly real. And from here, another history begins to tell the story of a battered society who refused to focus on the internal outcomes of a devastating war and instead on the external excuses and outlets. From here we witness Russian Revolution, the disenchantment of Weimar Germany and her road to National Socialism, and ultimately the Holocaust, the greatest, tragic form of othering. The history, achieved in films, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), along with novels like, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), the progression of chaos in Europe becomes clear in the muddied hoof prints of the notorious Horsemen.The only question that remains: “Where does the story go from here?”