The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Review: Fascism and Theater

The first time I watched a political convention to nominate and select presidential and vice-presidential candidates – I forget whether it was a Democratic or Republican one, it hardly mattered then, and does not matter now – I was astounded and not a little appalled by the sheer mindlessness of the event. There they were, hundreds of party delegates from all the states, a great slobbering mass worked up into consecutive bouts of noisy, frenzied rapture over supposedly charismatic nonentities whose platforms and speeches were measures of carefully crafted banality and skillfully inserted buzz words.

There they were, hundreds of adults of both sexes and various ages and sizes, wearing buttons and masks and funny hats and other goofy party paraphernalia, shouting and cheering themselves hoarse on cue in unison, forming conga lines and waving flags and signs, behaving as though they had all checked their brains, dignity and self-respect at the door. Which they evidently had. It was politics as a football game, it was a life-and-death matter of “our team” versus “their team” – all ideational content abandoned and replaced by raw emotion triggered by faces associated with particular sounds emptied of meaning.

The capacity for abandoning one’s mind and for taking orders from delegate leaders has always seemed to be an important qualification for being a convention delegate. On the convention floor a delegate was and is still expected to surrender his “autonomous inner man” or individuality and merge into a smothering, communal gestalt with his party colleagues.

It is well known that television game show guests and contestants are selected for their quotient of enthusiasm and ability to communicate it to and with an audience. By this measure, a political convention has any game show beat by a factor of a thousand. And the prize is not a fancy car or living room set or a Caribbean cruise or $100,000, but the White House and “our guy” sitting in the Oval Office. In such escapist moments, when delegates seem to undergo a kind of mass “out of body” experience, the candidate is reduced to a mere symbolic image, regardless of character or qualification. He is “it.” They become human counterparts of Pavlov’s dogs, able to bark and drool and froth at the mouth on command and at the slightest autosuggestion by an overbearing delegate whip.

This is “democracy” in action. It was and still is stage-managed theater. It has not changed at all from the first time I saw a convention on black and white television. Being caught in the middle of such a phenomenon would be as scary to me as being surrounded by a mob of Muslims carrying signs that read “Behead those who insult Islam.” One would be tempted to strike out at the maddened, sweating fools on the convention floor, only at the risk of being pummeled to death by delegates from Wisconsin and Idaho and Massachusetts and California. They would all plead temporary insanity, and get away with it.

After all, you had insulted their candidate, their Mahdi, their Thirteenth Imam. Their Savior. You deserved to die.

The religious hysteria, as an element of the phenomenon, is not coincidental, or an anomaly, or a fluke. It is part and parcel of modern convention behavior. It clearly was not a governing factor of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Then, delegates brought their brains with them, they brought their principles and rectitude. Can you imagine the Founders wearing funny hats and chanting slogans and forming conga lines to press a point of Constitutional law? No? Is the contrast too ludicrous and obscene to contemplate? Yes. Each and every one of those men, even the villains and fence-sitters, was an exemplar of intellectual and moral decorum. Then look at the baboons and halfwits who are charged with selecting an individual whom they want to “run the country.” Their choices over the last half century or more are reflections of what transpires on convention floors.

Today, the catalyst for the hysteria is not an invisible deity, but a flesh-and-blood human being. With calculated “behavioral” conditioning (à la B.F. Skinner), and a willingness to submerge one’s identity in the collective, the sight and sound of a candidate can reduce these delegates to quivering masses of raw emotion. One almost expects them to fall to the convention floor, wreathing and shrieking in deliverance, and speaking in tongues like any Holy Roller. Call it Political Pentecostalism.

Reading Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925-1945*, I was not surprised to find in this collection of essays similarities between the methods employed by Nazis, Fascists and Communists to create and sustain support for their régimes, and the methods by which the Democrats and Republicans recruit and maintain their hard core, registered voters, activists and especially their convention delegates, the ones charged with nominating their parties’ candidates – that is, the people responsible for foisting onto this country for the last half century or more a succession of fork-tongued demagogues and empty suits.

There are eighteen chapters in Fascism and Theatre, but only a few can be highlighted here. Some deal with the subject more successfully than others, but all discuss the role of “theater” in fascism. The term fascism is used generically in the essays to stand for Mussolini’s Italian Fascism, Hitler’s Nazism, and, to a lesser extent, General Francisco Franco’s Falangist or Nationalist régime, which was a tepid admixture of Fascism and Nazism. (Although Spain remained “neutral” during World War II, Franco approved of sending approximately 19,000 Spanish volunteers to serve in a special division of the German army, to fight exclusively the “Bolsheviks” on the Eastern Front, but not the forces of Western armies. Spanish troops fought with the SS during the Soviet taking of Berlin.)

The term theater as used in the essays means either extravagant mass events such as the annual Nuremberg rallies or the political subornation of high and popular culture, from operas to plays to folk festivals to suit or conform to fascist aims and purposes.

One indisputable characteristic of fascism is that its theater borrowed heavily from Christian and especially Catholic practices and rituals, selectively exploiting the emotional nature of religion. Roger Griffin, in “Staging the Nation’s Rebirth,” introduces this idea which is elaborated on in most of the other essays:

…[F]ascism, if it can seize power, is able to remain true to its core myth and legitimate itself only by generating an elaborate civic liturgy (or a ‘civic,’ or ‘political’ religion) based on the myth of imminent national rebirth. In the two cases where it managed to conquer the State, it rapidly developed characteristic rites and ceremonial, its own iconography and symbology, its own semiotic discourse, aping (but only aping) any established Church. [p. 25]

For Hitler and Germany, “rebirth” meant the resurrection of a Teutonic or Aryan state superior to all, and to rise from the ashes of the Versailles Treaty and the failed Weimar Republic; for Mussolini and Italy, it meant reviving the imperial grandeur of ancient Rome. Hitler and Mussolini, however, had first to concoct and propagate “myths” about the lost greatness of their countries, and then pose as saviors or messiahs who alone had the power to reclaim the greatness and lead their nations to glory. Propaganda ministries and bureaucracies were created in both countries to establish and enforce official party lines about a nation’s past, present and future the subjects of art or in plays, national holidays, and even in opera.

Much of editor Günter Berghaus’s contribution to the collection of essays, “The Ritual Core of Fascist Theatre: An Anthropological Perspective,” is flawed by psycho-babble and sociological semiotics, but much of it also is lucid and on-point. To wit:

Fascist parties rose to positions of power by gaining mass support and winning democratic elections. Millions of people were inspired by Mussolini and Hitler and developed a genuine enthusiasm for their politics, because they promised an answer to a need that was widely felt in different sections of the population. People were fascinated by what fascism proposed in response to a crisis that affected the economic, social and cultural spheres of their lives. Political promises played a role in this, but the emotional appeal of the leaders and their programs was probably stronger. Fascist leaders avoided the rational rhetorics typical of bourgeois politicians, and instead employed performative language that had a captivating force unequalled by traditional means of propaganda. {pp. 39-40. Italics mine.]

Sound familiar? Does that passage hark back to the 2008 presidential campaign and election? Does it not describe the method by which the current occupant of the White House rose to power? However, Berghaus correctly dwells on the relationship between the religious and secular elements of fascism.

This grafting of the Christian redeemer and savior image onto a historical person was a post-figuration technique often employed in the Christian drama of the Baroque period and was ultimately derived from medieval theology. Both Hitler and Mussolini were well versed in the literary traditions of Christian religion and were fully capable of adopting their conventions. Hitler helped the transformation of his own person into the archetypal, divine redeemer figure through his mythological biography, Mein Kampf. [p. 62]

Berghaus quotes Hitler on the purpose of the Party rallies held in Nuremberg and other German cities. From Mein Kampf:

Mass meetings are a necessity because the individual (…) who feels isolated and easily succumbs to the fear of loneliness, is given here an idea of a greater community. (…) When he as a seeker is swept along by the mighty effect of the ecstasy and enthusiasm of three to four thousand others, when the visible success and agreement of thousands confirm to him the rightness of the new doctrine (…), then he will submit to the magic spell of what we call “mass suggestiveness.” The will, the longing, as well as the power of thousands of people are accumulated in every individual. The man who entered such a meeting doubting and wavering leaves it with an inner conviction: he has become a member of a community. [p. 60]

One could also say that this was no less true for Hitler, that he was literally nothing if not the leader of such a community. Without all those chanted “Sieg Heils” and tens of thousands looking up at him on a high rostrum with adoration and worship, he was a vacuum, an isolated and fearful nonentity who assumed an identity only in the presence and eyes of disciplined and attentive mobs.

Many uninvolved contemporary observers were struck by the fact that the public rituals of fascist régimes were “more than a gorgeous show; [they] also had something of the mysticism and religious fervor of an Easter or Christmas mass in a great cathedral.” “Is this a dream or reality?” asked one of the visitors to the Reichsparteitag 1936 after the spectacle on the Zeppelinwiese and concluded: “It is like a majestic church service (Andacht) where we have congregated to find new strength…”

[Albert] Speer said that Hitler canonized the formations, processions and celebrations so that “they were almost like rites of the founding of a Church.” Once he had worked out the right forms, he wanted to fix them as “unalterable rites” that gave him the status of a “founder of a religion.” [p. 53]

Mussolini was of a like mind concerning the religious “experience” possible in the Italian version.

Mussolini stated in 1923 that “Fascism is a religious phenomenon of vast historical proportions” and that fascism was “a civic and political belief, but also a religion, a militia, a spiritual discipline, which has had – like Christianity – its confessors, its testifying witnesses, its saints.” The Fascist Party was often described as “a new Church (La nuova chiesa is the title, for example, of a play by [Virgilio] Caselli) or as a “religious or military order.” [pp. 53-54]

For example, from 1933 on, from Hitler’s assumption of the chancellorship through the next eleven or so years, German playwrights (those who prostituted their talents to the Party) wrote plays that portrayed the past struggle of the German people to assume their “rightful” place in the world. If this meant fudging history or ascribing to past historical persons presaging yearnings for Nazi or Fascist domination and identity, such hacks were perfectly willing to falsify history, submit their work to Party censors and make the requisite changes. As Berghaus notes:

Consequently, fascist playwrights evoked a large number of situations that indicated a return to a united people. They propagated a new ethics that was aimed at overcoming egotism, uniting one individual with other individuals, creating a firm bond between them, making them identify with the aims of the fascist State and submit to the orders of a leader….The conduct of this leader was modeled, of course, on the historical examples given by the Führer, Duce, and Caudillo. Or rather, one should say, on the way those historical figures were mythisised, legendised and sanctified in fascist hagiography. [p. 61. Italics mine.]

Neither Hitler nor Mussolini was ever portrayed in these plays. Some species of false but more likely fearful fastidiousness in Party censors prohibited it; no actor could have been trusted to faultlessly impersonate Hitler or Mussolini, even had a hack written a play that featured them, and probably no actor would have wished to risk the role, either. Hitler and Mussolini were instead substituted with stand-ins or proxies, such as Frederick the Great or Bismarck or Garibaldi or some two-dimensional fictional character, always ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good in the most cavalierly selfless manner, which was the unity of the German or Italian people. Acceptable plays were set in the past, to convey a false historical overture to Nazism or Fascism – or the alleged inexorable inevitability of Nazism and Fascism, which a mere individual was helpless to oppose and whose only recourse was to submit to it.

Barbara Panse, in her essay, “Censorship in Nazi Germany: The Influence of the Reich’s Ministry of Propaganda on German Theater and Drama, 1933-1945,” discusses several of these plays, and cites how one playwright even perverted the American Revolution:

In Hanns Johst’s play [Thomas Paine], Thomas Paine is the ideological Führer of the American War of Independence. He, too, upholds the notions of colonialism and conquest. With the propagandistic slogan, “America needs land,” he seeks to mobilize the exhausted and hungry insurgent army so that they venture to take the path into the unknown, to victory or death. His appeal to faith and comradeship forges the “racially worthy citizens” (volkisch wertvollen Glieder) of America into a nation. In this play, the life of the Führer character also ends tragically, but his mission is fulfilled: the ‘national idea’ has come to fruition. [p. 149]

Johst wrote this play in 1927. He was a career anti-Semite who wrote a play, Schlageter, which extolled Nazi ideology, to celebrate Hitler’s victory and birthday in 1933. It is interesting to note also that Howard Fast, a steadfast member of the American Communist Party, also appropriated the American Revolution as a means to advance the “people’s struggle” narrative (à la Howard Zinn) on the origins of the United States. Citizen Tom Paine (1943) is one of a number of novels he wrote set in that period.

No discussion of the theatrics of fascism would be complete without mentioning Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary, Triumph of the Will. This task fell to contributor Hans-Ulrich Thamer and his essay, “The Orchestration of the National Community: The Nuremberg Party Rallies of the NSDAP.” Writing about the purpose and style of the rallies, Thamer observes about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress:

The heroic style and dramaturgy of the event were fixed on celluloid by Leni Riefenstahl in her film Triumph of the Will (1934). Much more than simply a documentary, this film foregrounded the symbolism and liturgy of the ceremonies and established their pattern for the years to come. At the same time, the film disseminated the mass spectacle of Nuremberg throughout Germany. It was a “production of a production” and thereby a reduplication of the “mass appeal” of National Socialist political aesthetics. Triumph of the Will turned the military parade of the National Socialist movement into a platform for the Führer-cult. [p. 175]

Thamer then takes the reader on a tour of the typical succeeding rallies, all based on what Riefenstahl had recorded in 1934, which acted as a template, and then were expanded in scope and in the number of participants. These rallies lasted for days. Thamer follows Hitler from elevated rostrum to a ceremony of flags and banners when he rubbed shoulders and pressed flesh with rank-and-file, to a ritual of consecration of the “martyrs” that was much like a glorified mass of the dead. Hitler was the focal point of every important event. But, it was all a manufactured show.

Nothing was left to chance in the stage-management of the Nuremberg rallies. Every stylistic device had a purpose. The flags were determined in number, size and position; shortcomings in the urban development and gaps in the old town fortifications were covered up by scenery. Everything was subjected to the meticulous plans of the bureaucratic and technical apparatus. The men in charge of the cult were cool-headed technicians, sons of a rational era. Yet they were also theatrical wizards who knew intuitively how to exploit age-old cultic practices for their political aims. It was exactly this link between atavistic ideology, mystical ceremony and the modern age, which helped to eliminate all critical reasoning in both audience and participants. [p. 186. Italics mine.]

Before the entire length of Triumph of the Will was removed from YouTube for copyright infringement (the full version now can be watched with ads), I watched it twice, and I can attest to the effectiveness of the stage management described by Thamer. I distinctly remember Jimmy Carter’s appearance at the conclusion of the 1976 Democratic Convention, when he and his wife Rosalind appeared on stage before a brilliant blue background. That was calculation.

The typical American political convention is also planned and laid out in meticulous detail, from the flags and bunting, to the timed applause and cheers, to the demonstrations of dancing and chanting, to the bands and choreography and lighting, all the way to the climax of the acceptance speeches. Little during these cattle calls could be called spontaneous, except for the essential emotional character of the proceedings that verges on a mass revival meeting. But the spontaneity is also cued and calculated to advance or obstruct a point of order or dissension. For the typical delegate, a convention is a vacation from reality, from the facts of political and economic life.

I doubt that many delegates, upon returning home from a Grand Gestalt, pause long enough to acknowledge just how much they have degraded themselves and regret having let loose a monster. And the ensuing political campaigns have become more and more shallow and meaningless popularity contests, with candidates stooping to the level of rock stars repeating the most popular lyrics and buzz words. Thamer concludes his essay with:

The Führer-myth as the propagandist core of the rally distracted from the political reality of Party as well as everyday life and became the most important means of stabilizing the rule of the Nazi Party. The dream world conjured up by the events manipulated consciousness and created a second reality, which of course could not change the outside world, but could counteract and control it. [p. 188.]

The Obama/McCain campaigns of 2008 were also products of such dream worlds, the one more masterfully managed and staged than the other. And then the winner encountered the “outside world” and, like King Canute, as the legend goes, he attempted to command its tides to cease. In fact, Canute was making a point for his supporters, that he was only a king and not a miracle worker. Perhaps Obama will be imbued with the same wisdom.

The Republicans, however, seem determined to offer their own Æthelred the Unready to oppose him. Election year 2012 is going to be interesting.

*Providence/Oxford: Berghahn Books: 1996. Edited by Günter Berghaus.


Washington’s Rocket Bombs


Rivals for Your Life: Religious Conservatives vs. Islam


  1. jayeldee

    Another fascinating piece, here! … Only, in reference to your final sentence, I don’t know that “interesting” is quite the right word for what’s in store for us, come poor 2012. Have we ever seen two suits as bereft of content as our current ruler, and the presumptive nominee (Romney)? (Well, the two Bushes were certainly in the same league, I’ll grant you that.) But then, perhaps you intend “interesting” as a sort of euphemism for “nauseating”….

    (PS I’m rather hoping Fat Newt doesn’t continue to self-destruct. Loathsome as he is, I think he, at least, might be able to introduce a note of “interest” into the performances scheduled in 2012. I think I might enjoy watching him lecture our ruler…. But “enjoy”—there’s another word that isn’t quite right.)

  2. Edward Cline

    Jayeldee: I meant "interesting" in an ironic sense. Ed

  3. Anonymous

    An interesting brief expose in the specifics and meticulous theatricality regarding the unfortunate political effectiveness of driving empty, listless mobs into a mindless ecstacy of feeling. Perhaps some effective 'sound bites' from this piece or it's references ought to be included on brochures and flyers for tea partiers, objectivists or the like to distribute at their next local political rally?

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén