Break the Ice
Somebody get me my crown cause I'm feeling it now
You might be a lord, but here comes the king
— Snoop Lion, Here comes the king
“They wrote full of hope that in the new Third Reich they would have a chance at last to achieve their artistic visions.”
— Liliana Karina and Marion Kant, Hitler’s Dancers. German modern dance and the Third Reich
I’ve been reading for the last few days the book Hitler’s Dancers (that was first published in 2003), which is divided into two parts — one written by former modern dance artist Lilian Karina, who worked in Berlin in the 1920’s and 1930’s, stands for her personal testimony and research on the fates of her fellow dancers and of dance politics in Nazi Germany after she fled to Sweden. The second part, written by Marion Kant, opens the historic archives and traces stories of collaboration of artists with the Nazi regime, and of cultural production under the Swastika.
The historic archive of the propaganda and bureaucracy of cultural production of Nazi Germany is as an incomplete, yet quite well-preserved, record of artistic compliance to a system that saw art only in terms of its propagandistic efficiency. Choreographers such as Rudolf von Laban, Mary Wigman or Gret Palucca — some of whom are still celebrated today with schools of their names thriving in the Western-European field of dance education — expressed their loyalty to the Third Reich in letters and in dances. The “reactionary, cultish and racist circles” are said to have given both rise to the German Ausdrucktanz and well as to many “Nazi ideas’.
Liliana Karina in her account of the German dance scene, especially after the year 1933, claims that the ideological servitude of the artists was a price some were willing to pay in return for the advancements of their individual careers:
“Political interest of artists often confines itself to the possibilities of economic support, which state or political party can afford. (...) For most of them, I think that the only thing that mattered was the pursuit of their own careers and to that end they tailored their own numinous vision of life and their art to the ideas of the Nazis. They were in the end prepared to support the dreadful policies of fascism with their work.”
— Liliana Karina and Marion Kant, Hitler’s Dancers.
The year 1933 was significant in the history of the development of the Third Reich — by the end of January Adolf Hitler was appointed a Chancellor of Germany and not even a month later the Reichstag was in flames. Literally. In March 1933 the first concentration camp was completed in Dachau, two days later, on March 22nd, Hitler was granted the absolute power by the act passed in Reichstag. Interestingly enough, under completely different historic and economic circumstances, just a few days ago in China the People’s Parliament voted (by overwhelming majority; with only two people voting against) to abolish the presidential term, which gave life-long power to Xi Jinping, current leader of the People’s Republic of China, re-elected for this position just a few months before.
What followed Hitler’s grab on power was the series of laws that directly spoke of “non-Aryans” and initiated “lawful” deprivation of those people (Jews, Roma people,homosexuals) of jobs and property. 1933 further saw eugenic sterilisation becoming legalised, the formation of the Gestapo, and the ban on the formation of all other political parties. By the end of the year Germany, now fully formed as Nazi, announced the will to withdraw from the League of Nations, an international organization formed after World War I whose efforts were to be mainly focused on the maintenance of world peace. I’m not going to directly compare Donald Trump’s year of presidency to that, as it’s a different messed-up man in differently messed-up times, but consider just the proximity of the isolationary politics of Nazi Germany and the brutalization of politics and bio-politics of the Third Reich period, with Trump’s decision to pull out from the Paris Agreement that will probably indirectly result in the further impoverishment of the populations of the world that are anyway hit the hardest by the consequences of the climate change — there will be people dying because of it but we won’t really see it. Not only this, but also the accompanying visions and actual projects of building walls, closing of the borders, deportations, “trade wars”, arming the teachers, arming the allies that wage “just” wars elsewhere. And add to that an indifference or applause of the governing body and the American President himself to the rise of alt-right and the new, but not really new, “racial hygiene” practices that in today’s world are exercised, not in concentration camps, but in police interventions, mass incarceration, humiliating migration laws and impenetrable borders of states and class.
However, what travels at no limits is ideology that awakens the old human need for blood and exclusion. The rise of fascism, anti-semitism, the socio-economic regress into feudalist structures of exploitation, and the separation of the ruling classes from the ruled ones are wide spread, translatable to almost every language and to every “national” history.
The cultural practices we cultivate today, with proclamations of liberated bodies and minds, carry the heavy burdens of their own histories, from the problems of exclusion and ideological servitude, to prevalent ideologies of self-determination. It is there where the pursuit of beauty and harmony remains to be resolved before the next mindful dance session, if we want the world to change. The dominant physical culture of today celebrates the return of athletic bodies fed supplements, creams, weight-lifting regimens, and bio food. There is a pressing need for preservation of certain type of bodies, that are strong (physically and psychologically), trauma-free, and if possible also white. The culture of muscularity that is understood as directly linked to success and health for sure fetishizes non-white bodies, but the ideology of hyper-individualism and fitness of the so-called 1st World, excludes vast majority of bodies from the discourses on well-being. We are experiencing yet again the rise of the White Heroes/ Heroines, as if Greek Gods woke from their graves and spread their (ideological) seed across corporations and industries that generate our obsession with how we look and what we eat, and through that, to which class do we belong. The body associated after World War II with Holocaust horror is rendered invisible, yet those bodies are neglected and pushed into starvation and death on a mass scale today. The culture of eating well cannot cope with the question of starvation, it would rather waste than find ways to share.
Abdulrahman al-Hamdi, a former member of Yemeni Parliament, spoke few days ago about the devastating conflict, which according to activists monitoring the conflict was designed by Saudi Arabia.
"Yemen is being destroyed. A nation is dying,"
Just days before that statement, the crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (who has been called an architect of the war in Yemen) visited the UK, and was warmly received by Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth II. UK is surely in darkness right now, but it takes pictures with a ruler who has blood on his hands, and supports his military invasion which has so far pushed to the brink of starvation hundreds of thousands of civilians. In January 2018, the UN agency reported that 5.000 children were killed so far in Yemen war and 400,000 children is severely malnourished. Unicef reported that 3 million children were born into the war zone, and 2 million of Yemeni children cannot attend school due the ongoing war. The United Nations estimated that 11 million children (plus 7 million adults) in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance and has called the conflict in Yemen both “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world” and “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades”. Those statements accompanied the 2017 Saudi blockade on Yemen that prevented humanitarian organizations from delivering food and help to the starving population. UK is not directly involved but since Saudi Arabia joined the Yemen conflict in 2015, Britain earned over $8bn trading weapons with Saudis. The recent visit of Prince Mohammad bin Salman was followed by the announcement of a new deal that will bring British arms companies $90bn. That’s how UK responds to the overshadowing economic crisis resulting from their isolationary politics that brought Brexit to be. No signs of peace for Yemeni people while money is rolling into Western banks and pockets. Long live the queen.
Here I come a steppin' inna the dance
— Snoop Lion, Here comes the king
“Choreography demands a yielding to commanding voices of masters (living and dead), it demands submitting body and desire to disciplining regimes (anatomical, dietary, gender, racial), all for the perfect fulfilment of a transcendental and preordained set of steps, postures and gestures that nevertheless must appear ‘spontaneous’.”
— Andre Lepecki, Exhausting dance
In March 1933 the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was established with Joseph Goebbels in the vanguard, to spread the Aryan aesthetics of the Nazi agenda straight into the brains of the German people. Liliana Karina writes about life and art making in Nazi Germany as the Hobbesian total war – war all (each) against all, in which the art was for the people, but first it must have been for the approval of the Fuhrer and other higher officials that were then to determine how art should look like in order to serve the ideological and propagandistic purposes. And that was the only art allowed, of course.
“The Ballet Director has removed all non-Aryan pupils from children’s course effective the end of the season. End of season: 7 July 1934. Attached please find the new pupil register.”
The ballet director who removed children from the school institution in the manic pursuit of racial purity was Rudolf von Laban, and that is an excerpt from the letter he wrote himself to express his loyalty to the visions of the New Art Order. Hard evidence on the creator of the still-taught choreutics and Labanotation.
Laban’s choreutics could be translated as an art or technology of moving beautifully. The Greek word khoreia (according to the Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies) translates as dance but dance that implies the multitude and relationality and in this sense is close to khoros (Latin chorus), that was related to a band, a group of dancers or singers and, 'choreography' that derives from it, could be understood as ‘an effect of an ensemble’ that is yet intertwined with the technology of dance, with writing of it - graphein. Laban’s choreography is very much about the movement choir. Both the khoreia of his works as well as graphein worked well on the ideological plane which granted him support of the Ministry Of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.
Choreutics is said to be a practice mostly focused on the spatial organization of movement, whereas the notation developed by Laban serves both the archivization as well as the ordering of movement. Laban claimed to develop his theory based on Pythagorean mathematics, musical scales and geometry to define the harmonious order of shapes and relations. His new dance though was defined purely and entirely as German.
In the program notes for the 1934 dance festival in Theater am Horst-Wessel-Platz (today’s Volksbuehne in Berlin) Laban once more expressed his full complicity with the Nazi regime:
“We want to place our means of expression and the language of our art at its most intense in the service of the great tasks, which our people must accomplish and to which our Fuhrer has pointed the way with implacable clarity of vision.”
Liliana Karina wrote in Hitler’s Dancers :
“Dance history has so far ignored the influence of these doctrines and it plays no part in the history of dance after 1945. Yet for certain forms of dance, concepts like ‘race’ and ‘racial hygiene’ played an essential role and were quite consciously adapted to dance. The figures who represented the reformers and the renewers of German dance adopted these concepts as the sources of their inspiration and molded both their dancing and pedagogy according to them. Racial ideas stamped their imprint on the almost manic cult of the beautiful body, which sought its models in classical antiquity and on the style and aesthetic of body education. Expressions of these views are easily found in many proclamations, monographs, critiques doctrinal declarations and advertisements produced at the time by the important schools of dance.”
The harmony and beauty found in ancient Greek depictions of humans gave inspiration to both Laban’s system and to the racial hygiene doctrines:
“A tall erect posture in its proportions to the norms found in Greek statues. Blonde hair, blue eyes, were described as specifically Germanic in type as early as the eighteenth century and recognized as the ideal type of the culturally developed human being”
— Liliana Karina and Marion Kant, Hitler’s Dancers.
Harmony. Hygiene. And Jazz.
The purity of race was at stake in Nazi Germany and in the US of that period as well. The bourgeois celebration of the old Europeans ideals of beauty and nobility and the wide-spread claim about the supremacy of the white race was enacted in the physical culture of the era — women’s gymnastics and calisthenics.
calisthenics:(plural noun) the science, art, or practice of bodily exercises intended to promote strength, health, and grace of movement.
From Greek: kallos ‘beauty’ + sthenos ‘strength’ + -ics.
— Oxford English Dictionary
The arrival of jazz and new dances such as the Black Bottom to the popular culture frightened the upper classes as they were scared even of the idea of miscegenation — jazz to them was thus perverse and dangerous. The American imagination could easily comprehend the violence and exploitation of the black women who were impregnated by white men during the slavery era, yet it could not allow any vision of the black man impregnating white women. The “disharmony” of jazz symbolized a degeneration and ultimate collapse imagined to be coming along with the new music and its correlating expanded sexual limits.
We already know how Isadora Duncan disliked jazz and its “overly sexualized and degenerate” manner.
Her sister Elisabeth, who accompanied Isadora in her artistic and pedagogic work and ran Duncan’s schools, was married to a German named Max Merz. He was apparently a hardcore Nazi, and in a 1926 booklet “Tanz in dieser Zeit” he described the work of his wife and the importance of it in the following words:
“She conceived of Duncan School as a place where pupils would board and with the advice and cooperation of doctors and hygienist these trends (the artificial postures of the eighteenth-century masters) could be reversed. Its artistic calling, which occasioned its foundation, led inexorably to the recognition of the demands of racial hygiene. It took decisive action against the mindless and automatic transfer of the male way to train the body onto the female sex, which was thereby compelled to deny its essential nature as well as to neglect the physiological laws of the female sex itself. Racial hygiene and artistic demands overlap perfectly in this enterprise, for the body instruction and training of the woman must take place within aesthetic limits, if they are to be true to the deepest essence of womanhood…”
Laban further contributed to such discussions on race by claiming that there are different levels of development when it comes to being a human. And one was born into the form through his or her soil and predetermined to achieve lesser or greater cultural elevation. The supporting Regime was invested in finding a racially pure and true dance. The movement choirs of Laban were to welcome and cherish the rejuvenation of the German Volk.
“It was ‘to baptize the German people in energy and rhythm, which will transmit the inner equilibrium to the experience of community and communion of all the members of the Volk.”
— Liliana Karina and Marion Kant, Hitler’s Dancers.
While Laban was rehearsing the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympic under the auspices of the Ministry of Propaganda, some dancers active in modern dance or ballet in Germany had already fled the country in fear of the Nazi prosecutions of Jews and homosexuals. Some would later die in concentration camps, such as Sascha Leontief, the ballet master of the Vienna State Opera. Another German modern dance choreographer Kurt Joos, shortly after Hitler’s seizure of power, organized a “tour” and managed to flee to Netherlands together with some of his dancers who were also threatened by the persecutions.
Laban was then in charge of the program for the Olympic opening and preparing a new work, "The Spring Wind and the New Joy". Among the invited artists was Martha Graham – an American modern dance reformer. She refused the invitation due to the brutal politics of the Third Reich toward Jews and German support for Franco in Spain, and instead, in 1936, she created one of her seminal choreographies "Chronicle".
According to the program accompanying the premiere of the piece on the 20th of December, the dance was to reflect upon the “advent and consequences of war”. The work was shown in the first year of the Spanish Civil War in which the anti-fascist revolutionaries were eventually defeated by the forces of General Franco. The three-year-long war that resulted in approximately 200 000 deaths didn’t manage to challenge his rule. Graham created "Chronicle" during the time of the Great Depression, which affected not only the United States but also hit Germany hard due to the suspension or withdrawal of American capital, followed by the collapse of banks and industries. In order to “tackle the effects of the Great Depression” the Third Reich Interior Ministry introduced military rearmament, the production of war weapons (that were also sent to Spain to support General Franco) became a recovery project for the German economy. It was a violation of the Treaty of Versailles that after World War I had imposed restrictions on Germany to make their military force incapable of offensive action.
Graham’s choreography was presented in 1938 at the White House by the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the commander-in-chief Franklin Roosevelt. In the same year Hitler annexed Austria and initiated the march of his newly formed and fully subordinate Wehrmacht troops toward the south, bringing the news of war to Czechoslovakia. The Kristallnacht, as a large-scale display of the fully formed holocaust spirit, left almost 100 Jewish people dead and over 25,000 arrested across Germany. Polish Jews were deported in thousands back to their home country but got rejected at the border by Polish authorities. Then, when the war was almost certain the US decided to diplomatically and financially support United Kingdom and Soviet Union to assist the possible taming of the Nazi flood across Europe.
By this point Rudolf von Laban had already moved outside of the Third Reich. He never finished his Olympic project. His Nazi masters lost trust in his dances though he was truly devoted to the Third Reich. Laban’s work was marked “too intellectual”, it was not invested enough in the display of beauty and joy. He never regained trust of the Nazi State and in 1937 left the country pressed by accusations of homosexuality and masonry (in fact Laban claimed to be a member of the Freemasons’ Lodge). He spent the rest of his life in the UK, where he tried to continue teaching and choreographing without a great success. He perhaps never saw what the “pursuit” of racial hygiene and the war machine of Nazi Germany did to Central Europe and non-Aryan people. He wouldn’t have much work in Germany anyways – soon after the war had broken, the theatres were closed and male dancers were drafted into the army. The explosion of violence and the outburst of armed conflict caused the death of millions and the complete ruination of entire cities, countries and communities.
American sociologist and historian W.E.B du Bois in his 1952 text “The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto” recounted his travels across Europe in the early 20th century and talked about how he had learnt about the figure of the Jew and its racial implications, and how anti-semitic sentiment rose into power when he visited Central Europe just a few years before the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943:
“(...) I passed again through Poland and Warsaw. It was in the darkness, both physically and spiritually. Hitler was supreme in Germany where I had been visiting for five months and I sensed the oncoming storm. (...) But in Berlin, before i left, I sensed something of the Jewish problem and its growth in the generation since my student days.”
Some years later, in 1949, du Bois visited Warsaw again.
“I have seen something of the human upheaval in this world: the scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta; the marching of the Ku Klux Klan; the threat of courts and police; the neglect and destruction of human habitation, but nothing in my wildest imagination was equal to what i saw in Warsaw in 1949.(...) There had been complete, planned and utter destruction. Some streets had been so obliterated that only by using photographs of the past could they tell where the street was. And no one mentioned the total of the dead, the sum of destruction, the story of the crippled and insane, widows and orphans.”
* * *
“From the economic and social perspective, the key act of the revolution that Hitler’s Germany executed in Poland was the extermination of the Jews.”
— Andrzej Leder, Prześniona rewolucja ( translation mine)
In his book on Polish identity formed in the years 1939–56, Polish cultural philosopher Andrzej Leder writes about the disappearance of the Jewish community (that before the war counted 3 million people) and the difficulty with imagining their presence now in Polish identity politics as they simply vanished. Leder elaborates on the concept of revolution as something that causes a total transformation of the society, which, as he believes, happens only once in nation’s history.
“Revolution implies not only the change of political system and of the ruling classes - for that we could simply use the word - “overthrow” - but it produces also a vehement, yet fundamental, cut through the social substance, change of economic and cultural hierarchies, as well as massive transformation of the proprietorship. This is usually done by means of mass scale violence.”
The revolution, that changed the entire society, supposedly “was done to and for” Polish people without their active participation. This is a myth if we would wish to examine the transpassive participation in violence - Leder positions Polish people, (mostly framer, rural at that period) as witnesses of the cruelties of SS and NKWD on the invaded land. Still, as he claims, we must consider not only terror being experienced by the witness but also his/her “pleasure”. This is certainly a bitter pill, but Leder presents the time of revolution as time, perhaps, in suspension - in the outburst of mass violence people might be driven to act ‘out of higher necessity’. Though, what the transpassive dissolution in the violence can produce is a historically constructed cocktail of joy and guilt, grievance and blame. The post-war martyrdom of new Polish identities for decades denied anti-semitic spirit that has been haunting society since the Jewish people were brought to Poland in the Middle Ages due to their economic and craft skills.
Leder writes about the incorrectness of the word “multiculturalism” when referring to Polish society of the inter-war period as it would imply the horizontality and co-habitation of cultures. Zizek claims that “multiculturality” obliterates the real political conflicts. The presence and the economic and social participation of Jewish, German or other “Others” fed the feeling of exploitation of the mostly poor and, as Leder writes , “pre-modern” Polish society that only in 1918 was granted independence after 150 years of division and submission to “foreign” states. We might speculate whether the centuries of economic divisions and exploiation of feudalism, separation between country and cities, and the eventual political and territorial disappearance of Poland produced the sense of the nation 'necessarily' derived from the notion of “other’ and ‘foreign” to determine the “us”. However, the fear of the dissolution of self upon the arrival of others was used shortly after Poland had become independent. The anti - Jewish sentiment was used in the politics of 1920’s and 1930’s ( Roman Dmowski - one of the main ideologues and politicians of inter-war Poland - a vocal Anti-semite) to win the votes of the Poles that wanted Poland for Poles only . (Polish government in January 2018 one again refused the accept the EU’s refugee quota, now European Commission threatened to sue Poland over the refusal to host asylum-seekers)
The Jew was a non-Pole therefore to be treated with suspicion and hostility. After they were exterminated on a mass scale, Polish war trauma pushed the very word “Jew” into the shadow, as it was mainly used together with the anti-semitic call for yet another Shoah (Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Żydzi u Kolberga). The inability to speak about the loss and the guilt made Polish society indifferent to the grief of others and let the anti-semitism survive both the war and communist rule.
Polish performer Rafal Betlejewski challenged that fear - in 2015 he photographed an empty chair with a Kippah on it in the places that used to be connected to Jewish community before the war, he also used the city walls to write a slogan “I miss you, Jew” ( “Tęsknię za Tobą, Żydzie”) in, what he himself claims to be, an act of overcoming the symbolic and historic fear .
Anti-semitism is becoming a voice of the masses once again in Europe, though we seem to be already used to it. In Poland new legislation regulates the speech on the German concentration camps on the Polish territory to prevent from any association between Polish people and the extermination of the Jewish community. And though Polish people suffered horribly during the German and then Russian invasion in the period of 1939–1945, polish anti-semitism led to the massacres of Jews committed by Polish people during the Second World War. It’s been a long debate across Polish politics, media and academia on how to approach the moral ambivalence of the nation in the times of unprecedented terror, and how to tell the story of the nation without “mentioning the Jews”. Yet, at the moment when in Poland in the early months of 2018 President Duda signed with a creepy smile the project that would allow the censorship over the Holocaust testimonies and materials on the Polish role in the extermination, Polish private news broadcaster TVN released reportage on how polish neo-Nazis celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday in the forest near Wodzislaw Slaski. How mad has the world gone and how badly have we studied our recent history to be at that moment of the rejuvenation of some sort of identity that makes no sense yet it legitimizes extreme racism as a response to the humiliation and confusion at times of “late modernity”.
We live in times of permanent war, yet many of us are lucky enough to be in a peace zone. Wars for resources and power are fought “in the interest” of our countries, and Western economies profit from exclusionary, racist sentiments all over the world. Plenty of those sentiments, like Polish anti-semitism, are cultural and political constructs with a very long history that in their zombified versions plunder our cities and minds.
Isabell Lorey in “Presentist Democracy” writes about the “true” image of a past that takes place in the present. The political task is then to shape that encounter between past and present for the sake of emancipation from the past. The resistance occurs where the history of the victors is being displaced, when the prevailing ideologies are challenged in the now-time, which Walter Benjamin describes as the time in which struggles take place, which is also the place of the recognition of the construction of History.
In “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Benjamin wrote:
“So we must start from now-time and understand how history is constructed with the strategies of denial of it, and therefore how emancipation is postponed into the future (...) the political present is not only actualization of the past but also and equally one of the future.”
We must make the continuum of History explode. (Lorey)
“Cause, no guns are allowed, in here tonight
We're gonna have a free-for-all, no fights
I wanna get lost in the crowd, in here tonight
I need to hear my thoughts, turn the music up loud”
— Snoop Lion, No guns allowed