TOMORROW an arts festival entitled Deutsche Romantik opens on the South Bank. It is devoted to 200 years of German romantic art, music and literature. For two months London is to be subjected to towering perspectives, wild mythologies, improbable dreams and strange yearnings.
More than any other artistic movement and in common with those odd, romantic outcrops Surrealism and Dada, German Romanticism was concerned with extremity, with the total disruption, subversion or abandonment of the ordinary, the bourgeois or the stable. In Britain the innate instability of Romanticism was restrained by native empiricism, in France by a life-saving mixture of Descartes and cynicism. But in Germany Romantic art seemed possessed by the limits of reason and sanity and, it is cogently argued, ultimately it broke through these limits into the real world to reinvent itself as Nazism.
Nazism, runs this argument, was the authentic political expression of German Romanticism; it was a mad, barbaric attempt to make the world as perfect as art.
Big themes are obviously common to both movements. The Nazis and the Romantics both longed for purity, they were both nihilistic in rejecting the humane European cultural legacy and they both worshipped a kind of primitive sublime, a pastoral or spiritual condition that was higher, purer and simpler than anything offered by the complexities of Enlightenment Europe.
Andrew Graham-Dixon, the art critic of the Independent, argues the case for such connections and has attacked the festival for effectively ignoring the Nazi dimension. "The forest," he writes, "of German Romanticism is much, much darker than the South Bank seems prepared to concede." He insists that art and politics cannot simply be divided and, indeed, that the evil of Adolf Hitler was that of an artist rather than that of a politician - "where almost all the German Romantics dreamt of changing the world, Hitler went about the job of doing so". German Romanticism, he says, shows that "art is not always good for you".
Effectively, this means that we should look at a painting of the early 19th century by Caspar David Friedrich with eyes that have seen the Holocaust. That we should hear Wagner with ears that have heard the goosestep. The peculiar dual nature of Nazism as art and politics implicated the artists and rewrote cultural history as a story that ended at Auschwitz.
That there is a real link between Romanticism and Nazism cannot be doubted. The simplest, most important connection is that both are the product of a characteristically European nihilism. As the energy of the Enlightenment began to falter at the end of the 18th century and its technological products began to transform the world, doubts arose. Cathedrals and saints were fading, to be replaced by factories and drab, mechanical armies of what Nietzsche called "men with no chests".
The extreme Romantics turned inwards in disgust, rejecting the Enlightenment in favour of some primordial community, or of some inner spiritual vision. Similarly, the Nazis despised the weakness and compromise of the modern, enlightened era. Like the artists, they wished to tear down the whole edifice and replace it with something tougher and purer. They wished to use the modernity of industry and technology to blast Europe back to a pre-Enlightenment paradise.
Both were confronting an abyss that appeared to have opened at the heart of rational, scientific Europe and both embraced irrationalism, much to the disgust of those who would keep the Enlightenment alive. Bertrand Russell, for example, saw in DH Lawrence's sub-rational, romantic sexual occultism a clear literary prefiguring of fascism. It had been Lawrence who had first called Russell an "adding machine".
If the existence of the Nazi-Romantic connection is all but irresistible, what to make of it is by no means clear. …