If Hitler’s artistic gifts were modest, he nonetheless acquired from his hands-on experience an intimate knowledge of the expressive power of art, and it is at least conceivable that, given sufficient encouragement, he might have used that knowledge in innocent ways. He could have become an architectural painter—or, given his passionate interest in Wagner, a stage designer, another discipline in which he briefly dabbled. Instead, he found a way to put his aesthetic bent to more practical and far-reaching use.
As a politician, Hitler had a near-infallible grasp of theatrical technique. In addition to meticulously rehearsing his speeches, he was painstaking about controlling the environments in which he delivered them. Once he came to power, he created unprecedentedly spectacular, large-scale “stage settings” for his performances, frequently designing the key elements himself. “I had spent six years in St. Petersburg before the war in the best days of the old Russian ballet,” one onlooker wrote of a Nazi-party rally in Nuremberg, “but in grandiose beauty I have never seen a ballet to compare with it.” (A latter-day admirer of Hitler’s technique is the rock star David Bowie, who has observed that the German dictator “was no politician, he was a great media artist….He made an entire country a stage show.”)
Hitler did more than use aesthetic techniques for propaganda purposes. For him, the whole point of ruling Germany and conquering Europe was to be able to make them over again in a different image—one in which the fine arts would have pride of place….
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