I’m reading Hitler’s Dancers, by Lilian Karina and Marion Kant, a history of German Modern Dance and the Third Reich. I discovered it when I was researching for my novel – looking for work that would give me a deeper understanding of dance in Germany and The Netherlands during the 1940s. It’s a compelling and chilling read. I thought I knew my dance history, but this book sheds a new light particularly on the work of Rudolf Laban and Mary Wigman, and raises questions about their collusion with the Nazi regime.
Lilian Karina, born in Russia, was one of the many dancers who had to flee Germany. She made it to Sweden, where though she was badly treated, she managed to survive, and where she lives still. She writes, in brief, of many of her colleagues, who, being Jewish, homosexual, or Communist, were brutally treated, lost their work, their home, often their life. In many cases all documentation is either lost or, even now, suppressed. They were the dancers who disappeared. Those who continued to work, who developed their careers through the regime, cannot possibly have been ignorant of what was going on around them. In all other professions they would have been called to account after the war. Is it that dance isn’t deemed important enough for such scrutiny? Or that the devotees of Hitler’s Dancers conveniently forgot what happened between 1933 and 1945. These are questions Lilian Karina can’t answer.
But without making any excuses, it has made me think how easy it might have been to collude, and how difficult – the cost of one’s career – not to. Times were different then, and it’s easy now to make judgements. Nazi Germany didn’t arise from nothing – there was already a culture of anti-Semitism, and racial ‘hygiene,’ there were many who argued on the side of eugenics, body fascism has always been an uncomfortable aspect of dance training, and in certain factions of modern dance there was already a predisposition towards the occult, dance as spiritual practise – much favoured by the Nazis. Dancers and choreographers – like all artists – are vulnerable to public opinion, and highly ambitious. A choreographer needs dancers, musicians, a theatre, funding, and above all public and political approval in order to continue to create ballets. In Nazi Germany, culture was totally bound up with politics. If you were out of favour, if you disagreed with the regime, it was not only the end of your career, but possibly your freedom and your life. Kowtow to Hitler and Goebbels and your career was made, albeit at the cost of your soul.
Hitler’s Dancers was much criticised when it came out. Many people were angry and disturbed. I don’t know what the truth is, but it’s provided another perspective to this fascinating time. In the end Laban fell out of favour with Goebbels. There are letters to prove how he begged to stay on to complete his work in Germany. He failed to regain approval and had to flee to England. Mary Wigman stayed in German and made her career. We can never know what went on in these dancers minds – is it possible to ‘play the game’ so successfully, or did they wholeheartedly believe in Hitler’s vision? Is it possible to believe in part? Whatever the truth, it’s provided a fascinating and insightful read and much food for thought. I recommend it to anyone interested in modern dance.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.