Hazem Saghieh

When All This Ugliness Lies Behind Engineered Aesthetics

Watching a North Korean military parade, one is amazed by the blend of precision, alignment, consistency, and symmetry in the movements of bodies and faces, which is part of a bigger scenic painting that depicts a public square that is no less impressive, the audience clapping at the same moment as though they were clapping with the same hands, and minute details like the colors of the costumes and flower arrangements... As for the worshiped dictator, he is, of course, at the center of the proceedings.

This painstakingly detailed aesthetic engineering inherent to authoritarian regimes peaked with Nazism, as did its ideologization.

A frustrated painter in his youth, Hitler was obsessed with artistic form, especially architecture, and he had plans for Germany’s new cities and buildings. This is how Albert Speer’s first project, which had been commissioned by the Nazi government, was born. It was called the “Cathedral of Light:” 152 antiaircraft searchlights that descended on the festival from the sky, creating a setting that combines aesthetics and supreme will, illuminated the party’s festivals in Nuremberg.

His work impressed Hitler, as Nazi symbolism found a visual equivalent through it. Thus, Speer, a novice architect, was granted many generously funded projects, and he built a permanent concrete temple that would be used for Nazi festivals in the same city. And since Hitler had criticized German architecture for its lack of grandeur and monumentalism in his ‘Mein Kampf,’ Speer built him a new Chancellery brimming grandeur. Speer ensured that construction was completed before schedule, and it was thereby inaugurated on Hitler’s birthday in April 1939.

As a reward, the former was entrusted with realizing Hitler’s biggest dream: the complete reconstruction of the capital, which would be renamed Germania, after that large and historical Roman province in northern Central Europe. Speer’s model for the “future capital of the world” had a north-south axis crowned with a dome 16 times the size of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican at its heart. However, the outbreak of the Second World War stopped work on this grandiose project shortly after “the fuhrer” had launched it. When Hitler went to occupied Paris, Speer accompanied him to inspect the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, which Germania would dwarf just as it would the Vatican.

In 1942, Speer was handed the Ministry of Armaments and Military Production and oversaw, among other things, the organization of the slave labor of millions of Berlin Jews, prisoners of war, and citizens of countries that had been conquered by the Nazis.

The late twenties and early thirties, the period in which the Nazis ascended to power, was a time when the media and its influence were exploding. Suddenly, everything could be filmed, shown to others, and broadcast across the globe. Hitler grasped the significance of this novel development because he was aware of images’ power and wanted the world to see Germany as he liked it to be seen.

Here, photographer and cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl was the bat they wielded. Her Nazi-commissioned propaganda films, like “The Triumph of the Will” and “The Victory of Faith,” successfully hid their propaganda behind their artistry. She took what Walter Benjamin called the aestheticization of politics to the extreme, using purely cinematic techniques to depict the Nazi forces with incredible geometric precision.

Her films, which were watched by millions around the world, inspired many Germans to volunteer in the army and drove some ethnic Germans residing outside Germany to return to their homeland and contribute to its “renaissance.”

In 1936, Riefenstahl was tasked with making “Olympia,” which depicted the Olympic Games held in Berlin that year. One of the film’s aims was to respond to the increased objections to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews in Europe and the United States. Riefenstahl, in turn, used aircraft to film from the skies, taking the first-ever “tracking shots,” which focused on the athletes’ extremely healthy bodies and the joy and determination radiating from their faces.

For the first time, these games were televised in full, a decision that was linked to Joseph Goebbels’ staunch insistence on “showing Germany’s muscular strength to the world.” Exactly a year before the Chancellery building was inaugurated on Hitler’s birthday, the film was shown on his birthday in April 1938.

With the start of the Second World War, Riefenstahl turned into a war correspondent, and a troupe called the “Riefenstahl Special Film Unit” was formed for her. It was at this time that she began working on her film “Tiefland”, in which male Romas in the Maxglans and Marzhen camps and their children were forced to act.

More than any other regime, the Nazis were fascinated with aesthetic engineering and sending the message of power they wanted to convey to the world. It was the first regime in history to establish a “Ministry of Propaganda,” and it was also known for taking a particularly strong interest in its military uniforms, which have an immense number of badges and symbols, from the swastika to the black uniforms of the SS (security squadron) with their skulls and crossbones, and the way the SS is written ...

Benjamin was one of the first great intellectuals to concern himself with this phenomenon. He believed that when fascism replaces achievements with images, it grants the masses expression without making any changes to their existing economic and social relations. That is, it makes them feel powerful but does not grant them any power. To this end, aesthetics are thrown into political life, hollowing out the substance and placing the emphasis on appearances and form.

After the fall of Nazism, Riefenstahl completed her mission in Sudan, which she visited for the first time in 1962. There, she filmed the lives of the Nubians, who had not been “corrupted by civilization.” In one of her most brilliant essays, the American writer Susan Sontag showed how Riefenstahl had turned another nation into her fascist aesthetics’ subject, trying to delude us into thinking that she was a “beauty freak,” not a Nazi propagandist.

As for Speer, not much of what he built remains. The massive festival building is eroding near a truck stop, the houses he built for Nazi guards have become public toilets, and the Chancellery was destroyed by the Soviets when they entered Berlin.

Behind these meticulously engineered aesthetics was a lot of ugliness: a leader who presents himself as a demigod, terror being broadcast continuously across the world to people whose intelligence is insulted as they are called “the most honorable of people.”