Dance in Nazi Germany

By: Caroline Cox.

Written as part of the course “Dance History: Concert Dance”


In the early 20thcentury, prior to the election of Hitler as chancellor in 1933, Germany built the roots for today’s modern dance style. With the sensation of Ausdruckstanz, or Expression Dance, prolific choreographers such as Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman got their start and began setting a new standard for dance around the world. In mid 1933 when Hitler took complete control of the government, the arts scene changed to be used for government propaganda. This regulation meant an exodus of artists from Germany and a retreat back to more structured and less inventive styles of dance and other art forms from the artists who remained. By the end World War II, dance in both east and west Germany was centered mainly on ballet due to its structure, and the re-development of modern dance styles was forced to restart in Germany and be influenced from the outside rather than being the influencer itself.

In September of 1933, the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) was created to oversee that all the art being created in the new socialist state was conforming to Nazi beliefs and policies.[1]This chamber was initially created under the Ministry of Propaganda, which explains the rigid rules put forth by the Chamber to ensure that Nazi ideals were being taught and shown in all aspects of daily life—in later years the chamber was able to operate more freely from the Propaganda ministry, but held onto the importance of Nazi ideals.[2]Headed by Josef Goebbels, who was appointed as the minister by Hitler, its purpose was outlined by the First Decree, which stated the “fundamental guidelines for the tasks, structure, and membership policies.”[3]Although this Decree put forth the qualifications to be a member, membership in one of the sub-chambers was compulsory for anyone who participated in any part of performing, creating, or disseminating culture.[4]Thus, many artists were tested to ensure Aryan ancestry and no Jewish affiliations—which forced many artists and audiences to escape Germany and find refuge in another country to continue their work and stay safe[5]. The sub-chambers divided culture into seven different arenas: film, music, fine arts, theater, literature, press, and radio.[6]Without a clear definition of where dance would fit in, it fell under the blanket of theater, where Goebbels was able to keep a watch on developments that made some choreographers and dancers fall out of favor with the government.

Any art that was rejected by the Chamber was thrust into the category of “Degenerate art.” One of the largest victims to this fate was modern art in general, a form that was wholly rejected by the Nazi leadership for its freedom and the fact that modernists thought “everything was suitable for art.”[7]This placed modern dance in a bind—with its new prominence in German society, was it going to be allowed to survive or would it become a relic of degenerate art? Modern dance turned out to be the exception to this rule—as long as those in charge agreed with each work. This allowed Modern dance to exist, but removed from it the central idea of emotional and human exploration by enforcing it to adhere to strict, anti-Semitic and Aryan propaganda guidelines. One dance form that was more regulated, in theory at least, was Jazz. This was because “Jazz was considered a danger to the core values of German society because it represented a culturally and racially foreign influence.”[8]Officials were instructed to put an end to anything that was influenced by jazz—a large task that proved impossible to fulfill. Thus, Jazz can be considered a “Degenerate art,” but unlike paintings and books that could simply be burned away, the Nazi officials had a much harder time suppressing this sector of popular culture.

Prior to Hitler’s election as chancellor and the rise of Nazism, Modern dance in Germany was influencing the rest of the world in the form of Ausdruckstanzen(dance of emotion). With dancers and choreographers such as Rudolf Laban, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, and Harald Kreutzberg embracing this new style, Germany was on pace to have an influence in the world of dance—something that they did not have claim to in other dance forms such as ballet and jazz. Unlike other parts of Europe, ballet lacked a strong base in Germany.

Rudolf von Laban is considered the “leader of modern dance in Germany between 1934 and 1937,” which is the high point for the implementation of Nazi ideology.[9]Still a big name in German modern dance prior to 1934, Laban was a dancer and choreographer that more eagerly accepted National Socialism than others who instead fled the country. Known for vast movement choirs with hundreds or thousands of people, his work was particularly appealing to the National Socialist government and their want to “positively influence a large population of people.”[10]Thus, in 1934, when his contract with the Prussian Staatsoper ran out, he was offered the position of Director of the Deutsch Tanzbühne (German Dance Theater) where he would be in control of dance across the entire country.[11]Even before accepting this position that was in direct affiliation with the new government,  Laban had begun adhering to some Nazi ideals completely unprompted by government officials. This included enforcing the removal of non-Aryan children from the Opera Ballet School in 1933 in order to keep modern dance as a distinctively German genre.[12]

One of Laban’s pupils, Mary Wigman, also became an important figure in German modern dance during this time period. Touring America with her company during the 1933 elections and returning after the National Socialist party had taken power, she returned to a different Germany where she was instructed to prove her and her instructors’ Aryan ancestry, and was informed that monetary support for her company would be taken away, forcing her to disband it.[13]Although she did not seem to support Nazi ideals, she remained in Germany and continued dancing and choreographing under the Ministry of Propaganda, who she begrudgingly obeyed when forced to teach ballet at her studio in Dresden.[14]She stayed in Germany throughout the remainder of the Nazi invasion, though she was removed as a teacher in her school by Nazi associates who worked with her, and even opted to stay in Soviet controlled East Germany after the war ended.[15]

Kurt Jooss was one of the influencers of Ausdruckstanz prior to the 1933 change in power that left Germany as soon as new Nazi laws started being instated. When he was given instructions to release all non-Aryan and all Jews from his company, he refused. Two days later, along with his dancers, he crossed the German border into the Netherlands and escaped the influence of the new regime on his company.[16]Thus, his art was able to continue along its own trajectory without becoming Nazi propaganda. One of Jooss’ most important pieces of work to take note of is The Green Table. Jooss himself noted how this dance was perceived in the political climate of Europe at the time, noting that “one side said ‘this is propaganda against Geneva,’ its very good to have it and the other side said, ‘no this is weakening the spirit of resistance and fighting spirit, so it’s a morbid thing and must be banned.”[17]

The Swingjugend (Swing youth) quickly developed as a counterculture to oppose the ban on jazz, as well as the Nazi regime as a whole. A loosely organized movement that was mostly comprised of private meetings to listen and dance to Jazz music, they would also organize dance contests.[18]Simultaneously using their music as personal entertainment and a peaceful protest against their government—their name seemingly mocks that of the Hitlerjungend (Hitler Youth)— the swing youth quickly became a problem, most notably in Hamburg. At a festival in Hamburg put on by the swing youth, police arrested more than 400 for their participation in a degenerate art.[19]Only a year later, “the Hamburg Gestapo created their own department for persecuting the swing youth and arrests piled up.”[20]Mirroring this trend of protest via swing and jazz was the Lambeth Walk dance craze that swept the US and UK in the late 1930s. Charles Ridley, an Englishman, edited footage of Nazi soldiers to make them appear like they were doing the Lambeth Walk—this footage, aptly named “Lambeth Walk Nazi-Style,” spread rapidly and eventually reached German officials.[21]This video placed Ridley on Hitler’s list of notable people to “exterminate” if the Nazis won the war.[22]

Joseph Goebbels realized that enforcing the new guidelines for acceptable dance required more structure and guidance. Thus, he hosted the Deutsche Tanzfestspiele in 1934, which subsequently became an annual event under the regime through the Berlin Olympics in 1936. This dance festival became his way to “advance a homogeneous, unified political and aesthetic ideology” as well as to “introduce audiences to the ‘new German dance.’”[23]This festival was largely based on the previous dance congresses that had been held in Germany annually from 1927-1930. Including works such as Wigman’s Frauntanzeand two new works by Laban, this event brought together some of the biggest names of German dance of the time. One major event that appeared in the congresses that was left out in the Tanzfestspiele was a discussion about the goals of modern dance.[24]By eliminating this from the schedule, the organizing officials, who happened to be government officials with the ministry of propaganda, effectively enforced the idea that following their ideology and rules was the only way that dance could continue to survive. All explanations and written material surrounding the event were read to ensure compliance with and support of the Third Reich—including an essay by Laban that spoke directly in support of Hitler.

The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were put on in an effort to show the world the wonder and power of National Socialism. For the opening ceremonies, both Laban and Wigman, along with another notable dancer Harald Kreutzberg, were enlisted to choreograph pieces that conformed to and celebrated Nazi ideology. Laban’s work, Vom Tauwind und der neuen Freunde (Spring Wind and New Joy), involved a massive movement choir of a thousand dancers covering the floor. Days before the event, at a final rehearsal before the ceremony, Hitler and Goebbels saw it for the first time. After watching it, Goebbels “promptly dismissed Laban’s work as a poorly choreographed piece, one that was intellectual, and had nothing whatever to do with Germans.”[25]From then on, Laban’s work was deemed un-German and too intellectual and he was cast out of favor with the Nazis.

Even though he had been mostly cast out of the German dance scene after his dance was cut, as the head of the Deutsche Meisterwerkstätten für Tanz(German Master Studio for Dance), Laban remained in charge of the dance competition during the games that was held in place of the Tanzfestspielefor the year. One of the choreographers who was invited to represent the United States in the Competition was Martha Graham. She promptly declined the invitation, even with promised immunity for her Jewish dancers, writing that she did not feel comfortable dancing when so many other artists were being persecuted.[26]Graham’s response offers an outsider’s response to the Nazi dance scene in which it is evident that other leaders in the dance world at the time were acknowledging the talent that was being lost in the political turmoil.

Dance in Nazi Germany, while abundant in performance, was heavily regulated to ensure compliance with ideology and to be used as propaganda. As one of the hubs of the development of modern dance through Ausdruckstanz, the rise of national socialism halted this progression quickly with its strict instructions that removed the element of experimentation. In addition to restricting modern dance, the regime imposed a ban on all jazz inspired work, calling it “degenerate art.” Thus, by the end of World War II, ballet had surfaced as the main form of dance due to its structure and simplicity. Hitler’s ideals placed a large damper on art in Germany during his reign, one that severely inhibited the impact that Germany could have had on dance and in many respects led to a regression in the practice of it.

 

Bibliography

Buch, David Joseph, and Hana Worthen. “Ideology in Movement and a Movement in Ideology: The Deutsche Tanzfestspiele 1934 (9-16 December, Berlin).” Theatre Journal 59, no. 2 (2007): 215-239. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 7, 2017).

Dickson, Christine. “Dance Under the Swastika: Rudolf von Laban’s Influence on Nazi Power.” Dance Under the Swastika: Rudolf von Laban’s Influence on Nazi Power. Accessed October 31, 2017. http://www.cornish.edu/dance/writing/dance_under_the_swastika_rudolf_von_labans_influence_on_nazi_power/.

Dörr, Evelyn. 2008. Rudolf Laban : the dancer of the crystal. n.p.: Lanham, Md. : Scarecrow Press, 2008, 2008. Washington College Library Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed November 5, 2017).

Goggin, Mary-Margaret. 1991. “Decent” vs. “Degenerate” Art: The National Socialist Case.” Art Journal no. 4: 84. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed October 29, 2017).

Hanley, Elizabeth. “The Role of Dance in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.” SEVENTH INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM FOR OLYMPIC RESEARCH. Accessed November 7, 2017. http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/ISOR/ISOR2004m.pdf.

Iken, Katja. “Swing Kids contra Nazis: Heil Hotler!” Spiegel, November 20, 2016. Accessed November 5, 2017. http://www.spiegel.de/einestages/swing-boy-uwe-storjohann-hotten-statt-marschieren-a-1120616.html.

Jooss, Kurt. “the Green Table – Interview between Robert Joffrey and Kurt Jooss.” Interview by Robert Joffrey. Joffrey Ballet.

Karina, Lilian, and Marion Kant. Hitler’s dancers: German modern dance and the Third Reich. n.p.: Berghahn Books, 2004. ACLS Humanities E-Book, EBSCOhost (accessed November 5, 2017).

Onion, Rebecca. “The Goofy, Anti-Nazi Parody Video That Enraged Goebbels.” Slate Magazine. December 19, 2014. Accessed November 06, 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/02/12/_lambeth_walk_nazi_style_the_goofy_anti_nazi_parody_video_that_enraged_goebbels.html.

Partsch-Bergsohn, Isa, and Harold Bergsohn. 2003. The makers of modern dance in Germany : Rudolph Laban, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss. n.p.: Hightstown, NJ : Princeton Book Co., 2003. Washington College Library Catalog, EBSCOhost (accessed November 5, 2017).

Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No fixed points: dance in the twentieth century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Steinweis, Alan E. Art, ideology, & economics in Nazi Germany: the Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Taylor, Ellen. “Facing the Music: Jazz and the Third Reich.” Facing the Music: Jazz and the Third Reich. Accessed October 30, 2017. http://aleph.humanities.ucla.edu/2015/07/27/facing-the-music-jazz-and-the-third-reich/.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Culture in the Third Reich: Overview.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed October 26, 2017. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005207.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Culture in the Third Reich: Disseminating the Nazi Worldview.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed October 27, 2017. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007519.

[1]Alan E. Steinweis, Art, ideology, & economics in Nazi Germany: the Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts(Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997), 35

[2]Ibid, 50

[3]Ibid, 44

[4]See note 2.

[5]United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Culture in the Third Reich: Disseminating the Nazi Worldview”, https://www.ushmm.org/.

[6]United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Culture in the Third Reich: Overview.” https://www.ushmm.org/.

[7] Mary-Margaret Goggin, author. 1991. “Decent” vs. “Degenerate” Art: The National Socialist Case.” Art Journal no. 4: 84, 86 (italics in the original)

[8]Ellen Taylor. “Facing the Music: Jazz and the Third Reich.” Facing the Music: Jazz and the Third Reich.

[9]Dickson, Christine. “Dance Under the Swastika: Rudolf von Laban’s Influence on Nazi Power.” Dance Under the Swastika: Rudolf von Laban’s Influence on Nazi Power.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Evelyn Dörr. 2008. Rudolf Laban : the dancer of the crystal. (n.p.: Lanham, Md. : Scarecrow Press, 2008), 160

[12]Lilian Karina and Marion Kant. Hitler’s dancers: German modern dance and the Third Reich. (n.p.: Berghahn Books, 2004.), 16

[13]Isa Partsch-Bergsohn , and Harold Bergsohn. 2003. The makers of modern dance in Germany : Rudolph Laban, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss. (n.p.: Hightstown, NJ : Princeton Book Co., c2003, 2003.), 51

[14]Nancy Reynolds  and Malcolm McCormick. No fixed points: dance in the twentieth century. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.)

[15]See note 13, page 53.

[16]See note 13, page 64.

[17]Jooss, Kurt. “the Green Table – Interview between Robert Joffrey and Kurt Jooss.” Interview by Robert Joffrey. Joffrey Ballet.

[18]See note 8.

[19]Ibid.

[20]Katja Iken. “Swing Kids contra Nazis: Heil Hotler!” Spiegel Online, November 20, 2016. (Translation from German to English is my own)

[21]Onion, Rebecca. “The Goofy, Anti-Nazi Parody Video That Enraged Goebbels.” Slate Magazine. December 19, 2014.

[22]Ibid.

[23]David Joseph Buch and Hana Worthen. “Ideology in Movement and a Movement in Ideology: The Deutsche Tanzfestspiele 1934 (9-16 December, Berlin).” (Theatre Journal 59, no. 2 (2007): 215-239.)

[24]Ibid.

[25]Hanley, Elizabeth. “The Role of Dance in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.” SEVENTH INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM FOR OLYMPIC RESEARCH.

[26]Ibid.

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