Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fascists, Socialists, And Other Political Pains In The Artistic Rump

"Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up, Hannah. The clouds are lifting. The sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world, a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed and brutality. Look up, Hannah. The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow — into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up!"-- Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator, 1940

On January 19, 1940, The Three Stooges, a slapstick comedy team not noted for either subtle or sophisticated humor, broke the unofficial code of silence and dared go where Hollywood had not dared go before... 

They released their 44th short, a little gem entitled You Nazty Spy, clearly mocking the German dictator Adolf Hitler (and his Italian counterpart, Benito Mussolini) over the course of seventeen minutes and fifty-nine seconds.  Moe, the so-called "brains" of the outfit, becomes dictator of Moronica after corrupt businessmen install a puppet regime of vicious, inept, and murderous simpletons...
In a departure from the norm, the Stooges
play not only incompetent characters but a
trio of murderous villains.  The short ends
with their noxious characters meeting grisly
deaths after being torn apart and eaten
alive by lions.

You Nazty Spy sneaked onto the big screens of America, more likely than not, as a result of Hays Code enforcers  paying less attention to comedy shorts than it did to feature-length films.  Hollywood had voluntarily begun to censor itself in the 1920s in response to public outcry and legislation meant to curb the film industry's "moral decadence."  A group of producers hired President Warring G Harding's Postmaster General, Will Hays, to rebuild Hollywood's image.  Hays was a Presbyterian elder and a former Republican National Committee chairman who successfully managed Warren G Harding's campaign for the Presidency. He was paid $100,000 yearly by movie-makers to impose small town social values on a big city business...

Films critical of foreign dictators would have to pass a "Fairness Test" which forbade the outright mockery of and/or displays of contempt for another nation's leader.  Additionally, several powerful United States Senators (including Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye) consistently pressured Hollywood to avoid producing anti-Nazi movies...

The Stooges comedy short appeared nine months or so before Charlie Chaplin satirized Hitler in The Great Dictator...

Censor In Chief Will Hays, Postmaster General
under the equally fun and flamboyant President
Warren G Harding, helped Hollywood make sure
flappers didn't flap too much.
 Chaplin began work on a film which is arguably his masterpiece and certainly one of the great movies of the Twentieth Century in 1938.  He and French director Luis Buñuel had attended the same showing of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Buñuel was horrified by the effectiveness of the documentary, which memorialized the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, fearing it would captivate less critical audiences as easily as it had captivated him.  Chaplin laughed out loud, amazed thinking people would take a band of goose-stepping thugs seriously.  Chaplin's second response to Triumph of the Will was to parody Hitler's megalomania by having the great dictator lose out to a poor Jewish barber who believes in a world of justice and love and progress through reason...

Art and Politics have long wooed one another...

The occasional romance between artist and politician should be expected by people who are neither politicians nor artists.  A politician (in his or her most noble form) seeks solutions for society's many problems and looks to find theories and philosophies that can consistently be used to allocate power and resources for the greater good.  The artist works in the symbolic world, employing images and forms to express larger truths...

Adenoid Hynkel, ruler of Tomania, plays with the world as if it
were his little toy in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator

When the artist and the political extremist join forces, rare is a subtle result.  A more likely result is a poster in bold colors with idealized, noble men and women heroically struggling for the earthly realization of The Cause-- be it Fascism, Socialism.  Short slogans reduce complex arguments to simple mantras recited reverently by the True Believer.  Of course, this marriage of image and ideology is not limited to totalitarian minds.  Even in the most democratic society, the artist produces propaganda...

Fascism and Socialism-- the bugbears of the political Left and the political Right-- are, it seems, easily defined by those who do not study them.  One only has to hop on social media like Facebook or Twitter to learn that Democrats are bent on succeeding where Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin failed in planting the red hammer-and-sickle flag over City Hall in Topeka or that Republicans would gladly reinstitute not only slavery but giggle at the thought of poor kids dying because their lazy families have been kicked off welfare...

Political scientists have much more difficulty defining the various totalitarian isms...

Totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union often employ a "cult of
personality" in which leaders become secular gods,  In this 1967
poster, Kremlin leaders resurrect the long dead VI Lenin with the
message "Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will yet live!"
Exactly what is a fascist?  Most people would agree the Axis Powers of World War II-- Germany, Japan, Italy-- were fascist states.  Each government had common traits.  They were dictatorships that allowed little or no opposition to the strong man's party and prone to militarism, expansionism, and extreme nationalism.  Industrialists worked hand-in-hand with the state to achieve the New Order.  Fascist states were marked by hierarchies of power that culminated in an elite ruling class.  Any pretense at democracy in the Axis Powers existed solely to validate the ruling party.  The authoritarian nature of fascism required fascists to despise and fear liberalism, be it political or cultural...

Perceptive readers will notice many of these characteristics also describe the Soviet dictatorship...

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics differed from the fascist states in several key ways-- the government oversaw property and income distribution with minimal input to either activity based on individual labor or market forces.  It leaders, obviously, did not share the fascist's almost paranoid loathing of Marxism.  They were also careful to note the USSR was not a true communist state in which the state owns property and citizens share in the common wealth, each according to his need.  V I Lenin, as early as 1921, had told his fellow Communists small private business enterprises in the Soviet Union and trade with capitalist nations were necessary to stabilize the country as it evolved toward a true communist state...

Messiah of Evil:  The genocidal Adolf Hitler is shown
leading his resolute followers into the future as the very
heavens open to light his way.
But, once we get past the surface, the complexities of defining socialism and fascism accurately have challenged some of the best political scientists.  One school of thought sees fascism as socially radical, another as the epitome of extreme conservatism.  Scholar A describes fascism as irrational while Scholar B argues it is supremely rational in its strategies, goals, and methods...

Disagreements inside the Brain Trust usually happen for good reasons... 

Axis Power states differed in key respects, not only in the theorists who advocated them but in actual practice.  One difference revolved around questions of racial purity versus mere national superiority...

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's rival Leon Trotsky
becomes a devil in this poster whose artist is
careful to point out Trotsky's Jewish origins in a
not very subtle appeal to the anti-Semitism of the
intended audience.

Neither Benito Mussolini nor Hideki Tojo shared Adolf Hitler's genocidal anti-Semitism.  The Italian dictator officially rejected discrimination against Jews as late as 1934, eventually deciding to enact anti-Jewish measures to cement his alliance with Germany.  Although Tojo viewed the Japanese as a racially superior people, neither he nor his government saw any reason to embrace Hitler's Final Solution.  There are some estimates that as many as 24,000 Jews escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to Japan where they were welcomed.  One Japanese official, Koreshigu Inuzuka, avoided trial as a war criminal due to his efforts in aiding Jews flee Nazi Germany...

Another aspect of fascism that proves troublesome to scholars is whether or not it has a relationship to conservative political and economic policies.  Marxist theoreticians assert fascists want to use government to support capitalism and suppress inevitable socialist revolution...

Other analysts suggests true fascism's true goals are anti-conservative: the men behind these movements preach creation of new national cultures.  Social values, behavioral norms, art, politics, economic activity-- all of which are to be integrated into a single and homogenous national community... 

"Do Not Forget The U S Imperialist Wolves!"   North
Korean propaganda depicts American soldiers taking
time out of their busy day of destroying villages to
enjoy drowning babies while helpless parents are forced
to watch.
Tactics for achieving this integration essentially mass-marketed the idea of a common national identity.  Mussolini built stadiums, sponsoring huge sporting events to fill them with the Italian people.  He financed filmmakers and paid artists to create celluloid and stone monuments to values held dear by fascists.  In Germany, the Nazi Party flooded the marketplace and theaters with books, artwork, and movies that pointed the way to the creation of New Racially Pure Man and New Racially Pure Woman...

Neither dictator's behavior came close to embracing or mimicking a basic trait of a true conservative: change is best only when truly necessary and, even then, only when it is slow and carefully considered...

[The increasing ease with which American voters demonize each other is, I suspect, not healthy for the nation's future.  Even a brief examination of the history and/or theories behind fascism or socialism shows neither major political party in the United States can accurately be described as fascist or socialist, despite the wishes of its opponents.]

Jesse Owens, an American, won four gold medals
at the 1936 Olympics.  His performance repudiated
claims of  "Aryan" superiority.

Director Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia leaves
modern viewers with a difficult question: what
do we do with the artist who is clearly a major
talent and who embraces truly odious notions?

Within any authoritarian state or political movement, there is the constant struggle to maintain ideological purity intertwined with a ceaseless need to purge those who deviate from the True Way and embrace the heresy of the political enemy.  As Stalin had his Leon Trotsky to be sent into exile and murdered in Mexico, so Mao had his General Peng who dared ask how great and far forward a leap was The Great Leap Forward...

Artists in totalitarian states must work within ideologically acceptable guidelines but may enjoy a slight latitude not enjoyed by the ordinary citizen.  They are, after all, people not quite like the rest of us, the authoritarian tells himself, but can be quite useful in swaying the masses.  One should require not much more of them than genuine dedication to The Cause, even if that devotion is slightly fuzzy or impure due to the nature of the way the artistic brain works...

Soviet Communists and Red-Hating Will Hays
could agree on one thing: "Stop! You Decadent

Collaboration between Oppressive State and Artist can lead to many difficult questions for those who live in other times or places.  What do we do with the artist who is clearly talented but whose work espouses a truly repulsive cause?  Do we ignore them and let their work disappear into the trashcans of history?  Or should we judge their work on its artistic merits, without regard to the politics it celebrates?  Perhaps we should applaud their talent but deplore their politics?  Director Leni Riefenstahl offers a case study...

Luis Buñuel, we recall, found himself horrified by the power of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.  I share his fear.  Riefenstahl uses her cameras to create a montage of events, carefully editing the footage to show an endless flow of close-ups of spectators and marching party members merging into long shots of the Nazi Party Rally.  The camera zooms in on the symbols of the Party-- massive eagles, hundreds of swastika-adorned flags-- and then places the audience on the reviewing stand with Hitler as he looks out at the crowd.  She creates a sense of inevitable triumph through constantly identifying the viewer with the adoring masses, the steel-willed soldiers, and the dictator himself...

After World War II ended, Riefenstahl found herself first arrested by the Allies and then persona non grata in the artistic world after she was released without being charged as a war criminal.  There is no doubt she was committed to the Nazi cause-- a newspaper article from 1934 quotes Riefenstahl as saying she became a devout National Socialist by the time she'd finished reading the first page of Hitler's Mein Kampf...

When Charlie Chaplin began filming The Great Dictator,
the British government announced the movie would not
be shown in British theaters.  Like many other nations, the
British foolishly thought a policy of appeasement would
curb Hitler's ambitions.  England was at war with Germany
by the time filming was completed and The Great Dictator's
anti-Hitler message quickly found its way to British
movie screens.
Yet there are some hints that Riefenstahl was not totally committed to every aspect of Nazi ideology, despite her 1937 statement to a Detroit News reporter that "Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived.  He truly is without fault..."

Riefenstahl was touring America in 1938 when Nazi hooligans carried out Krystallnacht while German police looked the other way.  The "Night of Broken Glass" pogrom left 91 Jews dead and 30,000 rounded up for deportation to concentration camps.  A thousand synagogues were burned and more than seven thousand Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized.  Riefenstahl's reaction to the news was shocked disbelief and heated denial that Adolf Hitler had any part in such evil acts...

The Birth of a Nation glorified the "heroic"
Ku Klux Klan as it fought to protect White
America and its women from the menace of
the emancipated Negro and carpetbaggers.

Her Olympia, celebrating the 1936 Olympics, had just been released.  Riefenstahl was in the United States promoting the film when Krystallnacht took place and she found herself defending her Fuhrer.  As time passed, some critics saw Olympia as either an entirely apolitical documentary (as Riefenstahl maintained until her death) or a subtle mockery of the very idea that a Master Race existed.  As she had celebrated Hitler in   Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl glorified American Jesse Owens, a black track and field athlete who triumphed over her idol's Aryan supermen...

And what do we do with the legacy of America's own D W Griffith, the director of 1915's Birth Of A Nation, which was both the first film screened in the White House and a powerful recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan.  What do we make of his best known work, based on a novel written by a college classmate of President Woodrow Wilson?  There are those who list it among the greatest American films.  Others say every single print should be burned...           

Paulette Goddard, seen in a studio publicity pose,
co-starred as "Hannah" in The Great Dictator.


Demographer William Frey looks at the often hostile attitude of baby-boomers toward a more culturally and racially diverse United States:


Artwork by Louis R Nugent now available:  For fine art prints and greeting cards, visit:

Featured this week: Portrait of a woman on a downtown wall

Fine Art America now features West Texas painting, drawings, and photographs by Paula Loftin of Ada, Oklahoma, Karen Slagle of Amarillo, Texas,  Linda Cox of Graham, Texas, Suzanne Girard Theis of Houston, Texas, Judi Bagwell of Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, Karen Boudreaux of Houston, Texas, Joe JAKE Pratt of Kerrville, Texas, David Pike of Lubbock, Texas, Ken Brown Pioneer of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, and Louis R Nugent of San Angelo, Texas at:

This week's featured artist: Karen Boudreaux

Fine Arts America now features  work celebrating the mysterious and lovely Bayou State and its unique lifestyle:

This week's featured artist: Susan Bordelon


Note: All photographs and other images for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: "Stop, You Decadent Flappers" from; 1967 Soviet Lenin Lived propaganda poster from; Will Hays: Censor In Chief from

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