No, not “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia, although more and more things appear every time I watch it. No, I was thinking about, oh, this.
These are not too bad watercolors. They’re not spectacular, but if you don’t know anything about the artist, you probably wouldn’t mind having a poster of one of them, or buying a postcard with the image. You could probably find similar in local art and history museums, sort of the “Local Minor Masters” type of exhibit.
Except these were painted by Adolf Hitler, when he was still the young starving artist and not HITLER!!!!! I show paintings like these to my students. It bothers them. That individual is a monster, is supposed to be everything evil and scary, probably smelled like brimstone and had hooves inside those brown boots. He can’t be an artist.
But he was, a rather decent one. It doesn’t fit the popular image of the head of the NSDAP, the guy with the little mustache. Which is why I show the paintings, and talk about his life before he became HITLER!!!!
To make Hitler human shakes out a lot of lazy, or just automated, thinking. This guy goes from being the stereotype of everything people don’t like, into a real person with real skills and talents and hopes. It bothers the students, changes how they see things a little bit. How many disappointed artists never became monsters, but instead took other jobs and painted as a hobby, or designed store displays and sales materials? Millions at least.
It is easy to hate monsters. Who hasn’t seen the pastiches from Downfall by now? Adolf Hitler is in danger of becoming a lazy shorthand for evil, or just for someone we disagree with. No one calls someone else a Stalin, or a Pol Pot, or Tamerlane, even though all three of those inflicted amazing levels of misery and destruction on their fellow man. Statistically, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed a greater percentage of the population of Cambodia than Stalin and Hitler managed of their respective countries. But who marches around comparing [politician or pundit] to Pol Pot?
In the seventy-two years since my great-uncle helped liberate one of the death camps, Nazi and Hitler have gone from having real meaning to being symbols, at least in popular culture and popular history. They have lost their historical weight for far too many people, people who minimize what the NSDAP did by comparing politicians they disagree with to Hitler. I’m not a fan of Angela Merkel, but when the Greeks drew her as Hitler, I felt the urge to defend her. I think her policies are lousy to put it mildly, but she is not responsible for death camps, concentration camps, or a lot of other things.
Re-humanizing the leaders of the NSDAP leads to uncomfortable thoughts. What turned a modestly talented painter into a monster? How can an ideology so grip a woman that she kills her children rather than see them live in a different world (although, given what the Soviets were doing, that choice seems almost reasonable.)? How can so many “ordinary, decent” people commit hideous acts of cruelty and sadism, day after day after day? Who else might become a monster? Those are uncomfortable questions. It is easier to show Hitler, Stalin, and so on as one-offs, caricatures, not-human monsters.
Creepy paintings indeed.