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Careers in German Poetry

Lars 6 German Poetry

The man who failed to become the new Tacitus


One does not immediately bring poetry in connection with National-Socialism. It is not easy to imagine the coarse and cynical Nazi’s reading, let alone writing poetry. But actually they did abuse the art to create the most cynical propaganda ever.

Hans Johst was one of the poets to abuse his talents in service of the Nazi-regime. He was envisaged to become a new Tacitus. In imitation of the great Roman chronicler, Johst should write an epic about the rise of the Third Reich. It was not anticipated that there also would be a deep political and personal decline and fall.

A restless life

Johst was born in 1890 in the local school building of the Saxon town Neerhausen. His father was a schoolteacher and lived in the school building, hence the location of his birth.1 The father died when Hans was four and eventually the young child changed his environs from rural Neerhausen to the city of Leipzig. After finishing his primary education, a restless life began. The young man travelled from city to city to attend some university lectures and in his own words: “abstain from anything that would have spoiled my good mood.”2 In between arbitrary chosen university lectures his first poetry was written. It is already full of pathos:

In the dome of my soul
There speaks a source
Words of life
Out of red coffins
Grow sorrows
Like grey bodies
The thorns drink my blood3

And then World War One began. Johst volunteered for service but somehow managed to get on sick leave soon after completing his basic training. He spent the rest of the war comfortably in a military hospital making a name as an expressionist poet. After the war his career would take a flight, but his personal ideals would become increasingly gruesome.

Changing fronts

After the First World War, the political system of Germany changed radically from an autocratic monarchy into a parliamentary democracy. In this chaotic period, communists smelled an opportunity for power and took over the government in cities like Berlin and Munich. The result was sectarian infighting amongst the communists and a situation that was close to a civil war.4 This ensuing chaos put fright in Johst: “the people are a play toy of party politics. My poor and loved language is becoming the instrument of political phrases and lies.”5 He started to sympathize with the many anti-democratic, nationalist and social-Darwinist parties that sprung up in Germany. As the situation in Germany stabilized from 1923 onward, these parties were not very influential. They were regarded by most people as being somewhat on the lunatic fringe of politics and Adolf Hitler was considered to be a rabble-rouser.6 In the 1928 parliamentary elections the Nazi-party (NSDAP) got a meagre 2, 8 percent of the vote and they realised they had to adopt a different strategy to get a more civilized image.

In 1928 the Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur was established to make the party more attractive to the educated layers of society. Under the leadership of the infamous chief-ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, it was their goal “to fight against the powers that the enemies of our people combine to fight the works of our culture.” One of their self-proclaimed tasks was to fight literature that was defined as racially-deviant literacism.7 Hans Johst was on the corollary as a supporting member and was active and ambitious. In the bulletin that the Bund published, he denounced the German writer and winner of the Nobel-prize for literature Thomas Mann for publishing a series of foreign “so-called masterpieces” in Germany and ranted against the influence that the stories from classical Roman and Greek literature had on the German youth.8 And, what else to expect from a Nazi, he raved against the Old Testament and its stories of Patriarchs and “crooks of a so-called chosen people.”9

A new career

One can imagine that the Kampfbund was not very successful in transforming the image of the Nazi-party. It was the 1929 economic crisis that catapulted the party into power. In the parliamentary elections of 1932, they had their biggest electoral success ever. After some political hally-dally, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933 and Nazi-dictatorship started. This was also the beginning of a new career for Hans Johst who started to accumulate laureates and honorary positions. In 1935 he became the president of the Reichsschrifttumskammer that was responsible for cleansing German literature from anything that was held damaging to the people.10

What proved even more profitable for Johsts career was his personal friendship with Heinrich Himmler which probably started as soon as 1928.11 Himmler was the leader of the most barbaric element of the Nazi-regime, the Schutzstaffel (SS) that was responsible for terrorizing anyone not complacent with Nazi-ideology. Johst used his personal friendship to settle some personal quarrels from the past. In one of his letters to Himmler, he addressed him as Heini, he suggested it would be healthy for Thomas Mann to get arrested: “he won’t suffer to much from the fresh autumn wind of Dachau. “ Himmler in reply thanked Johst for the thoughtful suggestion but fortunately Thomas Mann had already left the country.12

Working to become a new Tacitus

In 1940 Himmler became responsible for the “Germanisation” of the recently conquered Poland. “Germanisation” off course meant predominantly one thing: mass murder of Slavic and Jewish people. Himmler and Johst now conceived of a plan to make Johst the heir to Caesar, Homer, and Tacitus by writing a heroic epic of the deeds of the SS in the east. The man who in 1928 cursed the literary influence of the classical writers was now ready to get into their footsteps. In 1940 the first and only work of this ambitious scheme was published when Ruf des Reiches. Echo des Volkes. Eine Ostfahrt (Call of the Empire. Echo of the people. A ride to the east) appeared. In this book, Johst used all his talents to legitimate the genocide that was taking place in Poland. The historian Rolf Düsterberg, who wrote a biography of Johst in 2004, has no other word for it than Pseudo pathos.13 You can judge for yourself:

Poland is no state-building country. Character and culture of its people show its degeneracy. It is a natural law that this morbid organism is beaten. Poland is a colony-country and the German plough will improve its appearance.14

And further:

The age of sentimentality is over. Who becomes weak is already hit by the dagger of hate.15

Trying to bail out

This is propaganda as cynical as can get and we must thank history that this is the only product of the envisaged epic. Modern readers got saved by Stalingrad: when the Third Reich had to get on the defensive in the Second World War, the heroic epic was not a priority anymore. The only other work of propaganda that Johst produced was an obituary to Fritz Todt which remarkably enough is available at the University Library in our provincial town. The name of Fritz Todt still sends shivers down the spines of elderly Dutch people who survived the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Todt was responsible for some very ambitious building projects in Nazi-Germany, and his Organisation Todt recruited forced labourers from all occupied territories to make these projects possible.16 Life was hard and dangerous once “recruited”, but Johst takes another perspective:

We build roads through swamps and bogs
Stiffen with iron, what is weak and muddy
Weld the mould with asphalt and sand
The buttresses and pillars that are rammed
Give the ground a ribbon of streets.17

We can be consoled by the fact that this was the last major work that Johst published. On the 14th of May 1945 he was arrested at his home by American soldiers for being an affiliate of the SS. Soon after his arrest his lawyer pleaded for release for medical reasons: further imprisonment would not be compliable with fundaments of even the most primitive humanism.18 As Düsterberg commented: one can only be a social-Darwinist as long as one is standing on the side of the stronger.19 The Americans were not falling for it though and Johst was detained in the medical unit of a prison. In 1948 Johst had to stand trial for “making propaganda for Hitler and the National-Socialist regime with unprecedented fanaticism.”20 Johst pleaded that he was a naive and idealistic poet, to quixotic not to believe the nice and comforting words of his good friend Himmler.21 How could he have known that Himmler was a villain? His plea does not impress me and it neither impressed the judges. Johst was convicted to a prison sentence of three and a half years and confiscation of half his property. He was also prohibited to work as a writer for the next ten years. As soon as that period enexpired, Johst was naive enough to try and make a comeback.22 He did not succeed and spent the rest of his years in anonymity and loneliness before he died in 1973. That is what you get for wanting to become the new Tacitus.

 

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Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. R.Düsterberg, Hans Johst. Der Barde der SS (Paderborn 2004) 18 

  2. Ibidem, 23 

  3. Ibidem 

  4. For the English reader Golo Mann’s, The history of Germany since 1789 (1958) in the translation by Jackson is most readable and affordable. 

  5. R.Düsterberg, Hans Johst, 64 

  6. G.Mann, The history of Germany since 1789 (1958) 643 

  7. R.Düsterberg, Hans Johst, 125 

  8. Ibidem 

  9. Ibidem 

  10. http://www.dhm.de/lemo/html/biografien/JohstHanns/ site of the German historic museum, last seen 14th of July 2014. 

  11. R.Düsterberg, Hans Johst, 288 

  12. Ibidem 

  13. R.Düsterberg, Hans Johst, 508 

  14. Ibidem 

  15. Ibidem 

  16. http://www.dhm.de/lemo/html/biografien/TodtFritz/ last seen 14th of July 2014 

  17. H.Johst, Requiem für Fritz Todt (Berlin 1943)  

  18. R.Düsterberg, Hans Johst, 323 

  19. Ibidem 

  20. R.Düsterberg, Hans Johst, 341 

  21. Ibidem 

  22. Ibidem, 353