Theatre as Weapon of War: German Language Theatres Across Occupied Europe During WWII

Anselm Heinrich*


The Second World War went beyond previous military conflicts. It was not only about specific geographical gains or economic goals, but about cultural supremacy, about the brutal and lasting reshaping of Europe. In this essay I will explore the part that theatre played in this conflict – both with a view to Nazi propaganda and the reality of German language productions in heavily subsidised theatres across the continent. With the beginning of the war German theatre was seen to be a cultural extension of the military machine and as key to Nazi Germany’s total war effort. Covering theatres in Oslo, Riga, Lille, Łódź, Krakow, Warsaw, Prague, The Hague and Kiev, I look at the history and context of their operation; the wider political, cultural and propagandistic implications in view of their function in wartime; and their legacies. I am the author of Theatre in Europe Under German Occupation (Routledge, 2017) and will draw on this book throughout, as it focuses for the first time on Nazi Germany’s attempts to control and shape the cultural sector across occupied Europe and sheds new light on the importance of theatre for the regime’s military and political goals.

Keywords: theatre, World War II, Occupation, Europe, propaganda, theatre programmes, theatre as institution

In 1943, four years into the Second World War, eminent theatre academic and devout National Socialist Heinz Kindermann outlined the role German theatre was supposed to play during the conflict:

At all those places where German culture now gains a foothold or where the old German cultural soil is newly farmed, it is not only German factories and schools, which are being built, but also German theatres. German actors, directors and set designers travel to The Hague, to Krakow and into the Ukraine, they go from Oslo to Athens. Everywhere German theatre represents German culture, German manners and German language to the outposts of German labour and military force, but it also speaks to Germany’s friends from other nations (Kindermann, Theater und Nation 61).

On the one hand, this reading of theatre’s cultural importance and transformative powers corresponded to a particular central European appreciation of the performing arts. On the other, Kindermann went far beyond this reading and attributed additional qualities to the theatre as advancing Germany’s war effort, even increasing and substantiating Germany’s hold on Europe. The spreading of German language theatre across Europe was seen as crucial for the regime to establish a “foothold” in these areas and make them susceptible to and appreciative of German domination. The Nazis expected that their substantial and continuous investment was valued as a serious commitment to the newly acquired territories and read both as a sign of confidence and a signal of permanence (Abbey and Havekamp 263).

Nazi-Germany Axis Occupied Europe, 1943. Photo: Web

This reading of theatre’s role in war time corresponded to an understanding of the war itself as going beyond previous military conflicts. This war was not solely about specific geographical gains or economic goals; the Nazi “war of ideologies” was a fundamental struggle about Lebensraum, about new territories for a superior and growing “Germanic master race,” and a whole continent turning into “a mere object of German desires” (Hirschfeld 87). The “people without space,” a term Hans Grimm had popularized in his best-selling novel in 1926, justly embarked on a lasting reshaping of Europe (Hitler 732, 740). The cultural campaign the Nazis conducted alongside was part of this total war of annihilation and Germanification.

The Nazi interest in the theatre is not surprising given the influential discourse in Germany of theatre as contributing to one’s cultural education. After the accession of power in 1933, the Nazis were keen to be seen to support an established institution at the heart of the culturally minded German middle classes. The 1930s were “boom years” for German theatres, and funding to the theatre throughout the Third Reich significantly exceeded the support available to the cinema. Regular subsidies rose to unprecedented heights, new performance venues opened and new jobs were created. During the war, the Nazi regime was at pains not to let the war affect Germany’s cultural life. Theatre performances had to continue at all costs, and when Hamburg’s Gauleiter enquired on 1 September 1939 (the day German troops entered Poland) how he should communicate “the probable closure [of all theatres] for the duration,” he received a furious reply within 20 minutes. Rainer Schlösser, leading official and Germany’s National Dramaturge (Reichsdramaturg), made it clear that “the closure of theatres was completely out of the question” (R55/20258, 214–15). Goebbels reacted angrily to suggestions at the end of 1942 that small theatres should be closed in view of the increasingly demanding war effort (Goebbels 1941–1945, vol. 6, 416). Until the end of the war “Hitler was anxious for Germany to retain its character as the leading cultural nation” (Goebbels 1941–45, vol. 7, 608).

The amount of funding available in terms of subsidies and capital expenditure, the speed at which theatres were renovated and opened across occupied Europe, the way in which the infrastructure of performance was improved with added spaces, workshops, costumes and properties, and the general effort in transporting whole ensembles across the continent to perform in the far West in Lisboa, the East in Kiev, the far North in Narvik or the far South in Athens, is simply staggering. In terms of sheer scale alone, the German Theaterpolitik of World War II is unprecedented. However, for Nazi commentators this was not only a question of scale but also, crucially, a question of quality, both from a craft and an aesthetic point of view. Posen’s mayor Scheffler in a typical statement summed up the task of the local theatre as “a space for the fostering of the most noble German art, an agent for Germany’s cultural intentions and for the national socialist ideology in the German East” (Herder Institut Marburg, 34 VIII P120 Z23). The demands on repertoires expressed in statements such as these left theatre makers in no doubt as to what they ought to produce: the classics of the German repertoire (Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, Kleist and Shakespeare), grand opera, as well as nationalistic and völkisch plays by politically “reliable” playwrights.

Photo: Anselm Heinrich

In this essay, I will discuss officially supported (that is, subsidised) German language theatres across Nazi-occupied Europe between 1938 and 1945, with a particular focus on theatres in Poland (Lodsch/Litzmannstadt, Posen, Krakau), the Czech Republic (Prague), France (Lille), the Netherlands (Den Haag/The Hague), Norway (Oslo) and Latvia (Riga). My methodological approach combines research into institutional structures, cultural policy and theoretical debates, with theatre repertoires, and it has been carried out in a range of national, regional and local archives across Europe, but chiefly in the German Federal Archives in Berlin. I have worked with programme notes, season reviews, finance reports, official, internal and private correspondence, press reviews and speeches. The focus on repertoires assumes that their outlook and composition mattered and that they played an important role within a wider framework of cultural history. Research on the topic is scarce and largely assumes that these theatres were a “unique failure” and left no trace, “no legacy of any sort” (Abbey and Havekamp 285–86), and that Nazi cultural policy in general failed because theatres largely refrained from producing the officially supported overtly political repertoire.

Realities of Occupation

Following military action, experts moved into the occupied areas to check on available theatre spaces. In a report provided for the Propaganda Ministry from summer 1940, theatre scholar Heinz Kindermann called for a lasting German theatrical presence on the Balkans. He suggested increased touring activity in Yoguslavia—for example, by the Frankfurt and Vienna opera houses, or the Vienna Burgtheater. Performances should not only take place in large cities such as Belgrade or Zagreb but also in other smaller places. Kindermann detailed that the Berlin Philharmonic would go down well in Bulgaria, and audiences in Sofia would love to see the Burgtheater with Heinrich George (R55/20503, 286).

Once occupied, the Germans were keen to get their ventures off the ground quickly as a string of new or newly renovated theatres opened with grand celebrations amid substantial media coverage. As a rule, these theatres presented a repertoire exclusively in the German language, although this included plays originally written in another language which were performed in German translation. Operas tended to be performed in their original language. The occupiers showed no respect for previously established ensembles if they intended to move into their buildings. Instead, they moved resident companies that had previously performed in them around at will—or disbanded them altogether. The Latvian ensemble of the National Theatre was driven out of the Riga opera house and moved into much smaller premises; the Norwegian State Theatre had to share with the Germans whenever they needed the space; and in the General Government Polish theatre performances were prohibited entirely. In Prague, Generalintendant Oskar Walleck presided over a consortium of three venues covering drama, opera, operetta and ballet (Národní archiv T 5400). Even the comparatively small city of Bromberg got its own opera, drama and dance ensembles performing over two venues. Bielitz in Upper Silesia had a population of only 50,000 but received its own fully funded theatre. And the town of Zoppot outside Danzig was smaller still (population of 30,000) but featured a well-known open-air theatre (with a capacity of 9,000), as well as a fully functional municipal theatre. Audience capacities ranged from 800 (Zoppot) to 1,400 (Lille), and most playhouses offered additional studio spaces seating between 300 and 500 as well.

The Nazi regime was prepared to fund its theatrical endeavours across the continent with astonishing and rising sums of money. Relating to the established Stadttheater model theatres were normally overseen (and managements were answerable to) city councils. Most theatres received additional funding from the Propaganda Ministry in Berlin and, sometimes, also from regional authorities, the German army or “special funds” overseen by Hitler and Goebbels personally. The amount paid out to theatres via the Propaganda Ministry alone rose from RM 9.7m in 1934 to RM 45m in 1942 (Drewniak 39), and state subsidies to the Prague German theatres rose from RM 1.6m in 1939 to RM 2.5m in 1942 (Národní archiv T 5411). The regime was prepared to take a financial hit—making a profit, breaking even, was never an issue. In a pre-season note from early 1941, Lille’s artistic director Ziegler calculated the theatre’s annual budget to be in the region of RM 950,000, RM 900,000 of which were needed as subsidy as he did not expect the box office to take more than RM 50,000 (R55/20513, 249). Similarly, the theatre in The Hague in its 1942 budget note proposed expenses of RM 2.1m against a projected income of only RM 215,000. The sum of RM 1.9m in subsidies was duly received (R55/20545, 2–8).

The importance these German language theatres played for the regime can not only be gathered from the substantial subsidies paid to them but also through rising wages, special benefits and the award of prizes and titles. Even before the German theatre ensemble had actually arrived in Prague, the actors received the title Staatsschauspieler, a title carrying privileges including a higher salary and contracts on par with senior civil servants. In Lodsch/Litzmannstadt and Krakau actors were provided with furnished flats (R55/20389, 221), and in Lille they were put up in a requisitioned hotel and received free rail transport and catering (Abbey and Havekamp 268). The artistic directors of the German theatres in Prague and Lille had their own company cars and drivers (the one in Lille fitted with its own representative flag), and if Prague’s Oskar Walleck travelled by train, he insisted on first class tickets (Národní archiv T 5342; R55/25, 186).

The Nazis were also keen to demonstrate their commitment to the theatre by renovating existing buildings, significantly extending others or by building new ones, to provide the perfect stage for the Nazi representation of power. Relating to the 1940/41 season, Ludwig Körner, president of the Reich theatre chamber, stated that 36 new theatres had opened during the last 12 months (Deutsches Bühnenjahrbuch 3). In Oslo, RM 1.2m were spent on turning an existing cinema into the German theatre and a year later the theatre underwent a further building programme and received a new stack for costumes and properties (National Archives of Norway, RAFA-2188 Hfs, box 28; R2/27717; R55/865). The regime intended to turn the prestigious Riga opera house into “the large representative German theatre for the Eastern territories” (R55/1289, 190). There was not a single theatre in my research which was not in receipt of lavish funds used for renovation, decoration and extension. Investment extended to technical equipment, interior appointment and design. Properties, scenery and costumes were bought or made from scratch, and new workshops had to be built and equipped to produce these. The Germans were keen to use the latest technologies, particularly concerning lighting and stage design, and many theatres received revolving stages.

Photo: Anselm Heinrich

Ensembles, too, were significantly extended. Ahead of its 1941 opening, Posen’s theatre extended its work force to 30 leading artistic staff (managers, directors, dramaturges, and so on), 30 actors, 17 opera singers, 13 operetta singers, 8 administrators, 36 chorus members, 23 ballet dancers and 19 leading technical staff (with an additional significant number of workers, technicians and apprentices), plus a symphony orchestra with 60 musicians (Herder Institut Marburg S 1714; 34 VIII P120 Z23). In the following season (1942/43), staff numbers increased by a further 57%. The number of employees at Prague’s theatres rose from 110 in 1939 to almost 500 in 1943, with a technical department alone employing 140 technicians, tradesmen and workers (Schneider 193, 111).

Rising subsidies and investment had an immediate impact on repertoires. Seasons were extended with more performances and more money spent on signature productions. Prague’s Ständetheater presented 31 drama premieres in its first season alone (Rischbieter 273). In the first 9 months after its opening, the German theatre in Lille produced 8 different operas, 5 operettas and 10 dance pieces, and it gave almost 700 performances (R55/20513a, 657–63; R55/20513, 47–48). The tiny Alsatian theatre of Mühlhausen in 1942/43 produced 48 premieres and reached 445 performances that year (Drewniak 108). In its first season of operation, the Doppeltheater Kattowitz/Königshütte produced 12 operas, 9 operettas and 23 plays, achieving over 500 performances (Drewniak 98–99). The Reichsgautheater in Posen in 1942/43 featured 600 performances; a year later, this figure had risen to almost 800 (Drewniak 95). The Riga opera house performed the entire Wagnerian operatic repertoire with leading guests from Germany. The 1943/44 season was the busiest ever at Danzig with 388 performances (Wolting 173). Even the small theatre in Marburg in Slovenia staged 7 operas and 7 operettas in the first 5 months of its existence (BArch, R55/21761). The theatre in Litzmannstadt offered around 30 new works per season, and the number of performances rose by 60% between 1940 and 1943 (R55/20389, 218, 221). The theatre in Lille put on almost 3,900 performances between May 1941 and July 1944 with total audiences of over two million. Almost everywhere in occupied Europe the statistics were impressive. Until their closure in September 1944 due to Germany’s “total war” effort, the number of productions, the output of new plays per season and audience figures rose steadily and sometimes significantly. However, and although quantity was important for the regime, quality was just as well.

Nazi theatre critic Hermann Christian Mettin’s claim that “the character of the repertoire determines the nature of theatre” rang particularly true in occupied Europe where German theatres were meant to fulfil moral and geo-political as well as artistic demands (29). The Hague’s dramaturge Karl Peter Biltz stated that “[t]heatre repertoires are never random, they have an obligation” (R55/20545, 194), and Heinz Kindermann added that “there was a lot more at stake here than mere ‘diversion’” (Kindermann, Theatres 5). Theatres were required to present a programme of heroic classical drama, völkisch plays and “German” dance/ballet, music, operetta and opera. A repertoire based on entertainment instead of uplift was not what the regime wished to see.

Accordingly, across occupied Europe German language theatres opened with grand productions of the classics in elaborate costumes and expansive settings. Lille featured Kleist’s Prince of Homburg and Goethe’s Egmont in early 1941, and it opened its second season with Wagner’s Tannhäuser (Abbey and Havekamp 272, 276). Posen’s theatre opened in March 1941 with Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Kleist’s Prince of Homburg, Krakau went for Hebbel’s Agnes Bernauer after Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, Zagreb chose Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris and The Hague opened in 1942 with Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Danzig started in 1939 with Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen and Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. The relatively small theatre in Kattowitz/Königshütte began in 1941 with Wagner’s Lohengrin and Schiller’s Maria Stuart, and in 1943 produced Wagner’s entire Ring cycle (Drewniak 99). The equally small Bromberg playhouse produced Hebbel’s mighty Nibelungen in 1942/43, and neighbouring Thorn started with the nationalistic anti-Polish historical drama Anke von Skoepen by Friedrich Bethge, one of the officially supported Nazi playwrights. During the 1941/42 season, Posen produced classical plays by Goethe, Kleist, Lessing and Schiller, alongside Mozart, Donizetti, Wagner, Weber, Verdi, Rossini and Puccini (Herder Institut Marburg 34 VIII P120 Z23). Relating to his statement above, The Hague’s Biltz scheduled 19 operas (including Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner), 16 plays (including classical drama by Goethe, Grabbe, Kleist, Schiller, Lessing and Shakespeare, as well as the highly praised völkisch drama) and 9 operettas for the 1942/43 season (R55/20545, 194–95, 286–87).

Ultimately, however, a closer look at the repertoires over and above the grand announcements, season openers and glossy reviews reveals that attempts at politically reliable programmes of high culture failed and theatres quickly adopted a much more pedestrian fare (Wolting 68). The theatre in Warsaw, for example, hardly produced any serious plays at all and almost entirely concentrated on “the lighter fare.” Of the mighty German classics, neither Grabbe nor Hebbel or Grillparzer were ever performed in Lille. The Prague German theatres throughout 1940/41 largely produced plays which did not support any political reading, with comedies such as Rudolf Kremser’s Play with Fire, Hans Jüngst’s Achilles Amongst Girls, Coubier’s Aimee, Schäfer’s Trip to Paris. Stephan Wolting reckons that during the war the Danzig theatre showed at least one operetta performance every two days (Wolting 193–94).

Even more worrying for the regime, many if not most performances were not only unexciting in their aesthetic but also poorly directed, designed and performed. On occasion of the production of Goethe’s Urfaust at the Litzmannstadt theatre, for example, the local press stated that the actors were “trying very hard to give it their best” (Litzmannstädter Zeitung 24 March 1940). In a production of Max Halbe’s Stream, the actors had excelled particularly in those parts which “did not require too much intellectual depth“ (Litzmannstädter Zeitung, 7 October 1940). Out of all the productions at the Lille theatre, long-standing actress Edith Lechtape only remembered two which she found noteworthy “as offering any intellectual challenge or professional satisfaction” (Abbey and Havekamp 278). At the Marburg theatre in Slovenia, director Falzari’s inexperience in senior management mixed with his ignorance concerning the dramatic repertoire led to a programme which lacked in almost every department, and even the Berlin Propaganda Ministry noted the “embarrassing” quality of productions and his “bombastic” direction (R55/20406, 225, 274).

A concert at the Prague National Theatre. Photo: The Czech National Archives in Prague, shelf mark NAD1322_1726

These failings were all the more significant since for the Nazi regime, theatre was not only an expression of the superior German culture which had rightfully conquered Europe, it was also charged to uplift, encourage and equip German minority populations (and those deemed fit to belong to them in the future) with the necessary ammunition to continue their struggle once the German armies had moved on. The Nazi investment in the performing arts, therefore, reflected a real faith in theatre’s transformative powers (Weber 155). The chief “political goal” of the Oslo German theatre, for example, was the “strengthening of the cultural ties between the Reich and Norway” (R55/155, 5)—quite a task for one theatre. In Slovenia, the theatre was charged to change people’s perceptions of their own nationality and turn them into German citizens. The guest performances by the Lille theatre in Belgium strengthened Flemish nationalism and made the population susceptible to the idea of a separate Flemish state under German “protection” and the German theatre in The Hague persuaded Dutch audiences of the need for a Germanic super-state.

Thus, what the regime wanted was not only for Germany’s supremacy in the theatre to find expression in superbly crafted and expensively produced performances of an established canon proving to the world that the leading theatre ensembles, orchestras, soloists and conductors were German, but also that wherever these prime cultural exports went, they had an immediate effect on even the most stubborn of audiences. Norwegian audiences mellowed after having witnessed the tours of the brilliant Hamburg state opera and theatre in 1940; Hungarian and Romanian audiences were successfully steeled in preparation of the joined offensive against the Soviet Union by Wagnerian opera performed by the Berlin state opera in 1941; and doubts about the progress of the war vanished in late 1943, after having witnessed Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro as performed by the Vienna state opera under Karl Böhm in Croatia (Goebbels 1923–1941, vol. 8, 420; vol. 9, 65). Contentedly, the German embassy in Zagreb reported to Berlin that the population had been reassured by the performances, because if the Germans managed to pull off such a magnificent “visit with over one hundred soloists and their own stage properties” brought over from Germany, military affairs in Northern Africa and on the Eastern front could not be going that bad (Drewniak 131).

This belief in the power of theatre also meant that the German playhouses in occupied Europe made no attempts to engage with local/regional performance traditions, identities and sensibilities, and the repertoire performed could have been seen at any German theatre. Prague’s German theatres displayed a “colonial character” and did not pay any attention “to local talent and expectations” as its repertoire “was decreed from above” (Demetz 255). Even where opportunities existed to relate to local topics, and even where this relation could have been useful for Nazi propaganda, these opportunities were not seized upon. The theatre in Lille, for example, never produced Lortzing’s opera The Flemish Adventure despite the fact that the theatre was meant to play a role in furthering the idea of a Flemish identity. Despite so vigorously celebrating poets and poetry from the Wartheland region before the war, hardly any plays by local playwrights were ever produced in the region after 1939. Instead of growing unique identities, theatres in Lille and Krakau, Oslo and Litzmannstadt, The Hague and Prague, subscribed to a universal “German” repertoire, which was in fact narrow and parochial (Wolting 171–72). These enterprises had taken no roots in their respective communities; a fact which made their demise in 1945 seem logical and inevitable, and a fact which contributed to commentators labelling these theatres “unique failures” (Abbey and Havekamp 285).

Commentators who point out that the Nazi efforts to establish a network of German theatre across Europe “left no traces” are certainly correct when relating these claims to the physical evidence. The former Nazi theatres were turned into playhouses and cinemas, put to other uses or demolished entirely. Ahead of the advancing Allied forces, theatre ensembles moved log, stock and barrel and they often took properties, costumes, machinery and libraries with them. In most places, even their German audiences fled with them. Polish/Czech/French/Norwegian majorities reclaimed and once again dominated local cultures (Leyko “Das deutsche Theater in Lodz,” 146–47).

The legacy of the substantial Nazi efforts, however, lived on for a long time, sometimes until today—in terms of the repertoire produced, relating to some of its protagonists and, perhaps most importantly, concerning a particular discourse. After all, setting up, financing and populating theatres all over Europe was a powerful statement of intent, not least because most of the theatres the Germans moved into were large representative buildings in city centres at the heart of bourgeois life (Carlson 81–84, 88). For the Germans, to take over these proud symbols of civic life illustrated Germany’s supremacy—not only on the battlefield, or economically, but also spatially and as ruling the cultural discourse. Renovating existing theatre buildings further illustrated Germany’s powerful intent as only Germany had the means, the interest and the expertise to turn these stages into modern, professional and well-equipped playhouses (R55/864, 5).

These efforts to stage power were not simply forgotten over night by audiences after 1945. Instead, the ruthless establishment of German theatres across Europe during the war contributed to a slow process of renewed recognition of theatre originating in the country of the former oppressor post-1945. With reference to Poland, for example, Małgorzata Leyko has argued that the wounds were so deep and mistrust so pervasive that the Polish government in 1947 issued a decree stating that eliminating Bach, Beethoven and Mozart from repertoires was unacceptable as the rise of Hitler had not been their fault (Leyko “Das deutsche Theater in Lodz,” 146). Commenting on more recent developments, Leyko pointed to the perception by many Polish commentators today that contemporary German playwriting and aesthetics were once again “colonising” the Polish theatre with Germany being perceived as “taskmaster” (“Museales”).

A reading of theatres in occupied Europe as having left no traces (Abbey and Havekamp) apart “from a few documents” (Drewniak 96) is, therefore, problematic on a number of levels. As we have seen, “traces” are not only left by written documents but also by embodied memories, experiences or trauma. Aby Warburg’s theory of memory as Leidschatz, as subconscious traces which can be reactivated or released on a later occasion, illustrates that remembering occupation, cultural domination and terror does not hinge on the survival of physical evidence (Warnke 113–65). Traumatic experiences “can be neither remembered nor forgotten by the collective. They become part of a collective unconscious” (Assmann 359). The “reach” of a theatre performance, a particular reading of a play, its physicality or aesthetic, does not end with the evening’s performance. The fact that former actors at the German Theatre in Lille, for example, remember so clearly what happened there in the early 1940s illustrates that this venture did in fact leave traces, not the opposite as William Abbey and Katharina Havekamp claim.

Many commentators have, of course, rightly pointed out that the Nazi cultural claims were hollow—but are they, therefore, not worthy of our interest? The fact that theatres in occupied Europe did not for the most part present a programme of works favoured by the Nazis has led many to claim that the regime failed in its attempts altogether. Hans Daiber posited that the repertoire at these theatres was “harmless” and “naive” (Daiber 288), Abbey and Havekamp described the programme at Lille as “shallow and unadventurous” (272), and Wolting branded Danzig’s wartime repertoires as “unimaginative” and “mediocre” (Danziger Theater 173, 197). The uncomfortable truth, however, is that it was exactly this kind of light-hearted repertoire which presented the Nazis with the attendance records they so desperately wanted. We might want to argue that what Kracauer termed the “pleasant splendour of the superficial” was, ultimately, intended with demands for a repertoire dominated by the mighty classics and völkisch drama acting as a smoke-screen (Kracauer 311).

The fact that this kind of repertoire was more or less the same across Europe with only minor variations was intended by a dictatorship keen to streamline theatre repertoires. Producing the same Carl Laufs comedy, Hinrichs farce or Lehár operetta all over Europe—from northern Norway to Greece, from the Atlantic to the Caucasus—seemed a powerful symbol of German might. It is, therefore, problematic to play down the success and usefulness of the popular. For example, Suzanne Marchand, in a 1998 review article, asked whether arts and culture under the Nazis were “banality or barbarism” (108–18). By doing so, she established a problematic dichotomy which seemed to suggest that presenting a banal repertoire featuring light operetta and comedies could hardly been seen as barbaric. In fact, officially sanctioned theatre in occupied Europe seems to be better described as banality AND barbarism. Audiences in Litzmannstadt and Lille, in Prague and Riga, were entertained with an ordinary, brutally trivial repertoire at give-away prices. Hannah Arendt’s dictum of the “banality of evil” never rang more truthful. Her portrayal of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, as an unimaginative and eager career bureaucrat, but not a sadist monster, not even a fanatic anti-Semite, but as “frighteningly normal,” seems to relate well to German theatres in occupied Europe, which during exceptionally brutal times presented a chillingly unexceptional repertoire (Arendt 56–57, 400).

In conclusion, spreading German Theaterkultur across the continent was intimately linked to the German war effort and part of the “rulers’ victory parade” (Benjamin 254). The performances of German Kulturgüter cannot be separated from the context of terror in which they were staged. Culture and barbarism were, therefore, not on opposite ends of the spectrum but at one and the same. No one should, therefore, be surprised at the Nazi efforts vis-à-vis the performing arts as their performance confirmed, legitimised and sanctioned Nazi rule. The performance of a wide spectrum of works, including ones not directly supporting the regime, can never be interpreted as being in opposition to it or as an expression of failure but as part and parcel of its very nature.


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Archival Material

Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archives Berlin (BArch), Propaganda Ministry, R55/20258, R55/20503, R55/20513, R55/20545, R55/20389, R55/25, R55/20543, R55/1289, R55/20513, R55/21761, R55/20389, R55/20545, R55/20406, R55/155, R55/864.

—. BArch, Reich Finance Ministry, R2/27717.

—. BArch, Reichskommissar Ostland/Gebietskommmisare, R91/515.

Herder Institut Marburg, Blätter der Reichsgautheater Posen 1 (1941/42), 34 VIII P120 Z23; S 1714, Die Theater in Posen 1941/42.

Národní archiv/Czech National Archives Prague, Office of the Reich Protector, Office for Cultural Affairs, T 5400, T 5411, T 5342.

National Archives of Norway Oslo, RAFA-2188 Tyske archiver [German archives]: Organisation Todt, Einsatzgruppe Wiking.

Litzmannstädter Zeitung [German language newspaper in occupied Lodz]. 

*Anselm Heinrich is Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Theatre in Europe Under German Occupation (2017), Theater in der Region (2012) and Entertainment, Education, Propaganda. Regional Theatres in Germany and Britain (2007). He has co-edited a collection of essays on Ruskin, The Theatre, and Victorian Visual Culture (2009), and is under contract for a volume on institutional dramaturgy in twentieth-century Germany. He is currently working on a book on theatre in Britain during WW2 (for OUP). He has received fellowships at Harvard, Oxford and Marburg, and is co-editor of Theatre Notebook.

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