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Fascist Cultural Co-optation: A Curious Example

Now that Ron DeSantis is engineering the birth of the Fourth Reich in Florida in preparation for his nomination for the 2024 presidential election, it is hard not to see the similarities between his all-out war against cultural and educational institutions and the coordinated totalitarian Gleichschaltung perpetrated by the German Nazi party between 1933 and 1935. Yes, you read that right—the Nazis established total control over Germany’s institutions and organizations within the span of two years.

For cultural gleichschaltung, you can use two major strategies: you can ban or you can co-opt. Co-optation takes more effort but in contrast to bans, it is often invisible and can serve as a tool for indoctrination.

Here’s a rather subtle example: a 1943 performance of Robert Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri Op.50, a secular oratorio for soloists, choir, and orchestra completed in 1843. When you take a look at the program—see slides for page 1 and page 2, which I found in a boxed vinyl recording I once bought at a flea market in Germany—and happen to know the libretto, you will immediately see what the Nazis did there.

The libretto is about the Peri, a creature from Persian mythology, who’s been expelled from paradise and tries to regain entrance by bringing a gift that is “most dear to heaven” (here’s a full summary). First, she captures the last drop of blood of a young freedom fighter, which fails. Then, she catches the last breath of a girl who sacrifices herself for her plague-ridden lover; that too fails. Finally, she brings the tear of a criminal, shed in remorse at the sight of a praying child, which finally opens the gates of heaven.

Now look at that program again—the girl who sacrifices herself comes first, which fails; then comes the tear of remorse, which also fails; then the drop of blood of a young freedom fighter—»Denn heilig ist das Blut, / Für die Freiheit verspritzt vom Heldenmut«, which opens the gates of heaven.

That’s how you can twist, easily and with a few strokes of the pen, a piece of your cultural heritage into supporting your fascist agenda.