Beyond Left and Right: The Poetic Reception of Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke, 1933-1945

By Elliott, Mark | The Modern Language Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Beyond Left and Right: The Poetic Reception of Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke, 1933-1945


Elliott, Mark, The Modern Language Review


The reception of Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke in the National Socialist period took place in three distinct realms of discourse: in the ideologically driven world of cultural politics, in aesthetic debates among poets, and in the poetry itself. Significantly, there are major discrepancies between and within each realm of discourse. The issue of cultural heritage, encapsulated in the concept of 'Erbe', was central to the cultural politics of the Third Reich and of exile. Certain traditions were appropriated and programmatically defended, while ideologically incompatible elements were repudiated. This was an integral aspect of a larger battle between two opposed camps seeking to preserve a particular national and cultural identity. The Nazis wished to legitimate theirs by identifying ideological forebears, such as Nietzsche, and to defend it against accusations of philistinism by appropriating canonical authors, such as Schiller and Holderlin. The exile community, by contrast, fought to retain an identity for the 'other' Germany that was untainted by Fascism. Broadly speaking, George was appropriated by the Nazis and Rilke rejected, while the exact opposite occurred in the exile press. Their reception among individual poets, however, was more complex than the extremism of the cultural-political discourse would suggest. While the ideological prejudice of the public debate was sometimes implicitly upheld on this level, it was largely secondary to aesthetic concerns. Moreover, the reception of George and Rilke in the poetry itself did not necessarily correspond to the public discourse or to the individual poet's own statements.

While the reception of these two poets is characterized by polar opposition, this very opposition may also be viewed in terms of continuity. These debates were governed on all levels and across the political spectrum by a gendered paradigm: a hierarchical opposition between 'masculine' and 'feminine' that had been established by right-wing ideologues before 1933. (1) George was largely equated positively with masculinity, discipline, and associated aesthetic categories, such as formal restraint, and Rilke negatively with femininity, decadence, and fluidity of aesthetic form. This aesthetic opposition corresponds broadly to the Nietzschean forces of the Apolline and the Dionysian that were selectively incorporated into this dualistic hierarchy in the period. Within this polarization, George and Rilke provided an established frame of reference against which poets could develop and define their own literary identities and aesthetic aims. Politics and aesthetics were likewise closely linked in this paradigm, given the projection of the 'feminine' onto a whole host of associated cultural, social, and political categories (decadence, pacifism, Bolshevism), which meant that an identification with George or Rilke could implicitly articulate a particular ideological or political allegiance. There were thus numerous interrelated continuities in aesthetic discourse: a richly varied cross-political reception of the two poets on several levels, the mapping of this reception onto a universally shared paradigm, and a diachronic continuity with the masculinized cultural politics of the pre- 1933 period.

The complex interplay between aesthetics and politics has hitherto been obscured and the relationship between writers in the period poorly understood. Writers have tended to be crudely prejudged on the basis of biographical fact, which has precluded the possibility of aesthetic continuities across political and geographical boundaries. The traditional categories assigned to literature of the period ('National Socialist', 'inner emigration', 'exile') are generally viewed as monolithic and antithetical. The categories 'National Socialist' and 'inner emigration' assume a polarization that implies that writers inside Germany were either Nazis or silent opponents, not accounting for a large number of writers that were irresolutely neither. …

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