Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

April 22, 2007

The aesthetics of totalitarianism (or what not to say when being interviewed by a German magazine)

Bryan Ferry got into hot water this week (as reported by the BBC) for describing the visual iconography of Nazism as ‘beautiful’.

“My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves,” he gushed to the German magazine Welt am Sonntag. “I’m talking about Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and Albert Speer’s buildings and the mass parades and the flags – just amazing. Really beautiful.”  (Via BBC Online)

While it was a pretty naive thing to say, it highlights the inherent problems associated with attempting to critically analyse the aesthetics of totalitarian regimes.  It also serves to force me, once again, to confront my own reservations about my area of research.  I’m sure a lot of people that I mention my work to, think I’m a little peculiar, and part of me worries a lot about what sort of image they are constructing of me (as a raving Communist or something!).

I’ve written before about the double standards reflected by the rejection (rightly so, of course) of Nazi iconography, while visual references to communism are embraced by popular culture. While I would baulk at suggestions that Nazism was aesthetically beautiful – approaching, as I do, like the vast majority of ‘normal’ well-adjusted people – the subject with a mass of unpleasant and disturbing associations, I find it compelling, even though it makes me intensely uncomfortable.#  Afterall, it was meant to be powerful and soul-stirring.  Goebbels was a master propagandist.  He completely understood the power of film, in particular, to shape public opinion, create a sense of and identification with the ‘Fatherland’, and lay the ground for widespread acceptance of the eugenics programme, which resulted in the ‘Final Solution’.  And it was the films of Leni Riefenstahl that first got me interested in visual propaganda while I was studying for my A Level in European History. 

The furore that accompanied Ferry’s comments immediately put me in mind of the outcry engendered by Crispian Mill’s (the singer in Kula Shaker, a 90s band heavily influenced by 60s psychedelia and ‘eastern’ mysticism.  That was a long time ago!!) when he commented in the NME that the swastika was a Hindu symbol.  Which, of course, it is – though one which was adopted and subverted by Nazism.  The response to what I suspect was a craftily edited version of the interview, not only revealed an ignorance about the historical and cultural life of the swastika*, but an understandable reluctance in society to accept critical analysis of the visual iconography of the Third Reich.  Somehow, while we have dealt with the spectre of facism in the twentieth century to an extent where we can watch endlessly repeated documentaries about Hitler and the Second World War on the telly in, what appears to be a fairly detached manner, we cannot see the swastika, or images from the Nuremberg Rally, without feeling utter repugnance.  These visual symbols, or identifiers, of the Nazi regime have retained their psychological power and menace in a way that communist iconography hasn’t.   And while the meaning of communist visual culture in the west has transmogrified into something else and infinitely less threatening (i.e. high camp Commie Kitsch, or – at the very least – youthful idealism), its Nazi counterpart hasn’t.  Consider two young men, one wearing a Che t-shirt and the other with a swastika tippexed on his jacket.  Who would you prefer to sit next to on the tube?  Okay, that’s probably a bit facetious, but you get my drift.   In the 1970s, the potent symbolism of Nazism lent itself to Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s promotion of the swastika in a sub-cultural context as a form of sedition.  On the surface of it, the wearing of fascist iconography was taken to mean an identification with the far-right.  But intellectually, it was more an act of social transgression.  Though I don’t doubt some were attracted to punk because they did identify with the far-right.  For more on this read Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, or The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol, by Malcolm Quinn.

I’m well aware that I’m rehashing the same old themes time and time again in this blog, but I’m really having difficulty getting to grips with this particular aspect of my research.  Why, when the outcomes of both ideologies were similar, i.e. oppression, death and destruction on unimaginable scales, are Communism and Fascism viewed so differently? 

#Please don’t think I identify with Nazism on a personal – or any – level.  At the last election I did one of those online surveys designed to help floating voters make up your mind who to vote for.  I categorised myself as ‘left of centre’ and answered a series of questions about burning issues like immigration and fox-hunting (broadly for, and against, if anyone is wondering!).  I was slightly bemused to find out at the end that while most people who place themselves in that political ‘zone’ are actually slightly more right-wing than they might admit, I was significantly of the leftist persuasion – even more so than I thought.  Which I guess does make me a raving communist!  😉

*As an aside, I remember seeing a Victorian tea service on display at York Castle Museum, which prominently displayed the swastika as a decorative device.  To its credit, the museum discretely, but directly acknowledged its presence, and the connotations it now holds, while explaining its original function as a good luck symbol.  It could have been so easy to remove the tea set from display and pretend it didn’t exist.  We have to confront the difficult and the disturbing and the uncomfortable sometimes, to better understand the world in which we live.  If we avoid the problematics of history, well, we might as well be Holocaust deniers ourselves.



  1. There are swatiskas on the 1931 mosaic floor of the Porte Doree, the Paris museum built as a permanent museum of the colonies and now being converted into a museum of immigration. The swatiska is intended to illustrate the diversity of religious cultures and practices within the French Empire. When I visited the museum with a group of local teenagers they were visibly shocked by what they saw and were very surprised to learn that the swastika was not just a symbol invented by the Nazis. Since the decor of the whole room in question exists to celebrate the grandeur of colonial France I’m not sure they were entirely convinced either, rereading the floor as evidence of (anachronistically) fascist tendencies in French imperial policy. Nevertheless, it was good that this discussion took place.

    The floor is being covered over as part of the refurbishment, in order to faciliate both disabled access and service provision (cables etc.) [link – in French but there are pictures: Whilst I understand this from a practical point of view I cannot help but think that this also lets the museum off the hook…

    I agree with you as well about how much the iconography of the Third Reich has retained its power. Last week there were pictures in the free newspapers in Paris of swatiskas hanging from balconies along the Rue de Rivoli (a big Parisian thoroughfare, running parallel to the river and behind the Louvre) for a film being made about the Occupation (the German military command was based at 238 rue de Rivoli). Even though the pictures were fake they still, as you said, made me feel sick.

    Comment by Mary — April 23, 2007 @ 8:24 am

  2. p.s. did you mean this: ?
    A (very political) friend of mine swears by it…

    Comment by marystevens — April 23, 2007 @ 2:02 pm

  3. Interesting stuff, thanks Mary. I’ve been thinking about all this, and I wonder if it is simply because the Second World War and Nazism have loomed larger in the Western European psyche than, perhaps, communism, which appears to have always been considered the opposite of fascism and, therefore, the lesser of two evils. Though it’s interesting that that website you’ve mentioned, Mary, suggests that the traditional polarisation of the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ is no longer so clear cut, Communism didn’t ‘touch’ the daily lives of Britons in the way Nazism did. I think we (I mean society) kid ourselves that we have dealt with the legacy of Nazism. When, in reality, I think we only really ever consider aspects, like the Holocaust, like the occupation of Europe. More usually we use the spectre of fascism to discuss resistance and individual acts of heroism or courage in the face of evil and, ultimately, the triumph of ‘good’ (represented by the Allies). Yeah, Stalin was a self-confessed mass murderer, but at least he helped us stick it to Hitler. I really do think that kind of attitude prevails. And, of course, it’s a completely understandable response. These kinds of narrative are the stuff of the mythologies that grow up around victory. However, as a colleague of mine is revealing in her research into disability in museums and her work at the Holocaust Museum in Nottinghamshire, this ‘master narrative’ inevitably places other stories in the shade. For example, the Jewish experience of the Holocaust is privileged – for whatever reason – over the experiences of the others (disabled people, Roma, homosexuals) who were equally used as guinea pigs for medical experiments, incarcerated in concentration camps and ‘euthanised’. So, perhaps we haven’t come to terms with Nazism as well as we think we might.

    With regards to the swastika, perhaps because it was so omnipresent a symbol, so closely identified with the Third Reich and Hitler, that it now stands for or represents the crimes committed under Nazism and the horror we feel in response. It’s faceless and inhuman, unlike the problematic ‘relationship’ we might have with the Nazi leadership. There’s no need to get into the psyche of the swastika. I’m not sure, for example, that the hammer and sickle, or red star are nearly as closely identified with communism. When I’ve asked MA students in tutorials to describe communism to me, they immediately come up the colour ‘red’, but the hammer and sickle is often a little further down the list. I doubt the associations between Nazism and the swastika would be so fuzzy. And that may be something to do with a psychological response to the swastika itself as a symbol. It’s a while since I read his book, but I’m sure Malcolm Quinn talks about the seemingly primeval ‘attraction’ to the swastika or the svastika (in Sanskrit). There’s something about its form that makes it ‘powerful’, regardless of the connotations it has acquired since the twentieth century. Which is why it was chosen by the Nazis in the first place.

    Political Compass wasn’t the website I mentioned before, but I’ve been having hours of fun!! It gives a more subtle result than the previous quiz I did. Though the outcome is broadly the same; I’m a significantly left-wing, semi-libertarian, with a similar personal ideology to Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela apparently! Which is nice. Though it hasn’t helped me to decide who to vote for at the local elections next week – I’m still completely off the scale of the main parties’ radar. :S

    Comment by amyjaneb — April 23, 2007 @ 9:13 pm

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