Category: Non-fiction

Wolfgang Martynkewicz
Salon Deutschland - Geist und Macht 1900-1945
[Intellect and power 1900-1945]


‘Dear Mr Hitler,’ wrote Elsa Bruckmann in 1925, to let the future Führer, whom she had accompanied to the Bayreuth Festival, know about her premature departure. ‘I will be leaving for home at 4 o’clock and wanted to ask if I should take anything for you or pass on a message. I am at your service . . . There is no way you could dine with me? That would be such a delight.’

Only a few months earlier the two of them had stood face-to-face for the first time in Landsberg prison. When Hitler spent eight months incarcerated there after his failed putsch attempt of 1923, Elsa Bruckmann would visit him and supply him with books, pictures and biscuits. This early-adopting disciple of Hitler’s was a Munich salon hostess from an impoverished Byzantine aristocratic family and the wife of the publisher Hugo Bruckmann. From the beginning of the twentieth century the most renowned artists, literati and scholars had frequented their house.

The writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal once met the man of the world and art connoisseur Harry Kessler here, as well as the racial theorist Houston Stewart Chamberlain. In the salon’s heyday, Rilke also read from his work, and Thomas Mann, Stefan George and Walter Rathenau were regular guests.

Some of these names were no longer on the guest list when Hitler, not three days after his release from prison, returned his patron’s favour with a visit on 23rd December 1924 in the Bruckmanns’ mansion at 5 Karolinenplatz in Munich. From then on he and his sidekicks Alfred Rosenberg and Baldur von Schirach were among the habitués of these fine soirées.

It does not readily suggest itself as likely that a worldly and highly educated woman like Elsa Bruckmann, who was deeply aware of tradition, would along with her equally sophisticated husband become enthusiastic about the boorish arriviste Hitler long before the masses cheered him on. However, the Munich couple were no exception – others in the educated elite such as the Bechsteins and the Wagners were early sympathizers with the Nazi movement and at times even vied with each other to woo Hitler.

Wolfgang Martynkewicz’s study of intellectual history,Salon Deutschland: Intellect and Power 1900-1945, is devoted to the question of the overlap between culture and barbarism. Taking the Bruckmanns as his example, the Bamberg academic presents a gripping and precise history of half a century of German salons, reconstructing the disturbingly seamless shift from a spiritualized belief in culture to a blind cult of theFührer.

Martynkewicz shows that as early as 1900 common ground started to be found between the ideas circulating in the Bruckmanns’ house and totalitarian ideologies. The acceleration of the processes of modernizing society had led to the dissolution of binding structures. The educated classes, whose faith in their handed-down sense of identity had been shaken, met the inexorable changes with a mixture of enthusiasm, sceptical confusion and prophecies.

Guests at the Bruckmanns’ salon understood themselves to be the intellectual and aesthetic avant-garde, who would not bow to either the fashions of the age or mass culture. Searching for new points of reference in the ever more confusing advance of modernity, some turned back to anti-modern, archaic concepts. The cults of sacrifice and suffering were prominent in the visions of the re-birth of a society out of its cultural roots; people dreamed of the saving power of ‘what was authentic’, of the figure of a true ruler, the ‘cultural saviour’ for whom the poet Friedrich Gundolf longed. Other opinions were nevertheless tolerated.

In the years before World War I the Bruckmanns felt bound by the Enlightenment principles of the salon – a multiplicity of discourses and an unconstrained sociability. Harry Kessler could counter some guests’ support of the Kaiser with his open criticism of Wilhelm II. The anti-Semites H. S. Chamberlain and Ludwig Klages were just as welcome at the weekly soirées as the Jewish scholar Karl Wolfskehl.

Not much was left of this social and ideological range after the end of World War I. The enthusiasm with which the war had been fêted four years earlier as a ‘purifying fire’ had now given way to despair at the ‘world-shattering’ events. The old order had been smashed once and for all, the modern appeared more than ever before as a threat.

Elsa Bruckmann lost her enthusiasm at the latest in 1916, when the nephew she idolized, the brilliant Hölderlin expert Norbert von Hellingrath, lost his life when a grenade exploded near him. As so many others, she experienced the defeat as a traumatic shame, she rejected the Bavarian Soviet Republic. She also scorned the turn of many conservative intellectuals such as Thomas Mann from monarchism to ‘sensible democracy’. Near the end of the war her letters are marked by depression and tiredness with life.

When she met Hitler, she found new hope. He arrived with his riding whip and trenchcoat in the Bruckmanns’ salon from the mid-twenties, transforming it into the stage for his own act. His appearances were an open affront to the etiquette and social mores of the upper bourgeoisie. Yet because he was strange to them, these sophisticated people could project onto him their long cherished desires.

They succumbed to Hitler’s ‘elemental power’, how ‘real he was’, his ‘creative will’. His monomaniacal spectacle was perceived less as the gestures of a politician than as an aesthetic genius’ awareness of his vocation. The call for a charismatic ruler seemed finally to have been heard, the hour of the nation’s renewal as a society based on culture had come.

In his stylistically surefooted and thorough portrait of an era, Martynkewicz brings the vague phrase ‘unease at modernity’ into sharp focus. The historical and intellectual panorama of the Wilhelminian and Weimar eras is intercut with a detailed analysis of events in the Bruckmanns’ house – a place where this unease channelled into an unhappy complicity between art, intellect and terror.

Only a single year before the outbreak of War World II had the Bruckmanns ‘had enough of all the celebrations and flags’. Then they expressed quiet reservations about the supposed steps to salvation that the Nazi regime was implementing. After the Nazis took power, as a Nazi party member Hugo Bruckmann had held various posts. He did not live to see the complete collapse of his totalitarian visions. He was given a state burial in 1941. Elsa Bruckmann felt her life’s work had been betrayed, but stayed loyal to her one time protégé to the end. Hitler recognized this as late as February 1945, sending her a package on her 80th birthday.
Marianna Lieder

By Marianna Lieder, 01.06.2010

​Marianna Lieder works as a freelance journalist and literary critic for publications including the Tagesspiegel, the Stuttgarter Zeitung and Literaturen. She has been an editor at Philosophie Magazin since 2011.