Berlin State Theater Under the Nazi Regime - A Study of the Administration, Key Productions, and Critical Responses From 1933-1944

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This study uses semiotic methodology to explain how artists and state appointed administrators at the Berliner Staatstheater created and implemented an aesthetic that fulfilled the political needs of the Nazi Party in Germany from 1933 through 1944. Three propaganda plays, two classic repertory plays, and a resistance play are analyzed to determine how stage designs, costumes, repertory, publicity, and acting choices translated or resisted Nazi cultural policy in production practice.

Analysis of the changes occurring in the Berliner Staatstheater during Hitler’s reign reveals specific production elements used by the Nazis to aesthetically translate their ideology for general, bourgeois distribution. Findings indicate that, while plays written as pure propaganda by avid party members like Hanns Jost dies quickly in repertory, avenues of propaganda remained open through carefully staged NSDAP productions of classic plays by playwrights such as Goethe and Schiller. Casting, character portrayals, thematic emphasis, design elements, and publicity for these productions displayed pointed references to Nazi cultural aims.

The study verifies that theater became a means by which a centralized power structure consciously manipulated public sentiment. Nevertheless, the study also provides a counter approach to the main argument by offering a brief look at the famous Staatstheater production of Shakespeare’s Richard III that attempted to resist and refute NSDAP policy. Conclusions regarding the destructive use of propaganda in current and future cultural endeavors close the report. An appendix includes a fully translated version Joseph Goebbel’s May 7, 1933 speech before German theater leaders. This speech represents a key statement of nazi cultural policy, which criticized the individualism of Weimar theater and proposes a united commitment to use theater as a means to promote “the virtue of community”.


“Hostetter’s compelling analysis demonstrates the power of theatre to promote political values. While this idea is not new, Hostetter’s book is a timely reminder of the dangers of such power in the hands of a ruthless regime. Her study is also fascinating to read, shedding light on the struggles of artistic figures of the time to cope with – or resist – the political web in which they found themselves entangled. It’s a cautionary tale of value to theatre artists and historians alike.” – (From the Commendatory Preface) Professor Suzanne Burgoyne, University of Missouri-Columbia

“Elisabeth Schulz Hostetter’s book….adds to a growing body of literature. Unlike most other studies of theatre under National Socialism, however, Schulz Hostetter takes as her central focus not a particular form of drama, but a particular theatre, namely the Berlin State Theater…..[her]close examinations of specific productions of Johst, Goethe and Shakespeare show it was not just what was performed, but how it was performed. Stressing the importance of the manner in which productions were advertised, as well as of the style and the context of performance (the recognizable presence of Nazi dignitaries in the audience was one element in this context), Schulz Hostetter draws our attention to theatre production as a complex, densely interwoven semiotic system. Only by exploring the various aspects of this system can we truly understand how a play was ‘coded’, its reception as it were preprogrammed by the circumstances of its production…..Schulz Hostetter’s study is succinct, highly readable and underpinned by a convincing belief that especially under a dictatorship context is as much a key as content.” – Bill Niven, The Nottingham Trent University

“From my perspective, Hostetter’s best work appears in chapter 1 in her extrapolation of a “Nazi Cultural Policy” from several primary and secondary sources, most notably from Hitler’s own writings and speeches. Such a policy calls for the idealization of contemporary reality. It urges the glorification of the history of the achievements of Germans and it sweeps all forms of dissent and difference under the carpet of unification (for that is what results from building hatred for non-Aryans). It creates educational and artistic modalities that foster respect for authority. It calls for the manipulation of media to create the illusion of stability and strength. It poses love of country (or Fatherland or Homeland) as an equivalent to or substitute for religion. It brings the force of law and custom to bear on maintaining strict division of labor according to traditional gender roles. It instills a respect for work to the point of making unemployment a sign of worthlessness. It idealizes military power, emphasizes youthful beauty, and establishes a racist “morality” as a basis for national and international policy. Implementation of such a policy would seem to be virtually impossible, but Hostetter demonstrates how it was imposed on an important segment of the German culture, the theatre, in a very short time. She explains how the policy suffused plays especially written to promote the New Germany and she offers extensive analysis of how Nazi cultural policy established the parameters within which every theatre artist in Germany was compelled to work or face sanctions that included cultural isolation or deportation. Plays from the classical repertory were also “stylized” and “conceptualized” to promote these policies. She outlines a few meager efforts to subvert the Nazi machine, especially in the wily stage creations of director Jürgen Fehling. Finally, she explores very briefly the vexatious problem of the culpability of artists and citizens alike who tolerated or supported the Nazi cultural policy…..The book is a remarkably breezy and bright-eyed recitation of the facts of the processes by which a stupendously vicious magician concocted a poison that appealed to the appetites of millions. It is indeed a cautionary tale.” - Weldon B. Durham, Emeritus Professor of Theatre, University of Missouri-Columbia

Table of Contents

1. Historic Positioning and Nazi Cultural Policy
2. Propaganda Plays
3. Classic Repertory Plays
4. Signs of Artistic Resistance
5. Conclusion

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