Fascist Control of Theatre in the 1930s & 40s

Der Weg ins Reich, 1935

Control of public space is essential for the existence of an oppressive regime or dictatorship. Political ideas such as fascism cannot thrive unless they are the dominating subject of conversation in public. Fascism and other forms of dictatorship survive by smothering any other political ideas out of the public mind. A very effective way to do that is to control and manipulate public space through the cultural tool that is theatre.

The political idea of fascism in pre-WW2 Europe (namely Germany and Italy) used theatre to rile up citizens into a state of hyper-nationalism required for fascism to thrive. Nazi-sponsored productions in open-air theaters sought to draw in masses of people and were often patriotic in nature. They depicted singing Aryan heroes overcoming figures with names such as “Political Opportunists” and “the Immolator” (Zortman, 1984).

As part of Kurt Heynicke’s Der Weg ins Reich (The Road to the Third Reich), which premiered on the summer solstice of 1935, the 20,000 standing spectators sang the German national anthem “Germany Awaken” as nearly 1,000 Hitler Youth encircled the playing area carrying flaming torches. In the words of theatre historian Bruce Zortman, “[T]his cult play… had a rigid structure and content that was easily repeatable by merely substituting a new title and different names for the characters. The theme was constant, the characters and their conflict were readily distinguishable, the dialogue was exhortative, contrived and prosaic, and the plot was thin, ingenuous and unimaginative. Dramaturgically speaking, it offered little or nothing of value” (Zortman, 1984).

Yet, despite this lack of cultural value, the thousands of German citizens in attendance fervently sang and cheered, and thousands more would attend dozens, if not hundreds more such plays until the fall of Hitler’s regime. This is because of central Europe’s long history of open air “spectacle” theatre. Since the Middle Ages, performances would involve both elaborate performances by actors and enthusiastic cheering of spectators, which even at times affected the plot of the play. Propagandists working for the Third Reich used this rich tradition to not only whip audiences into the patriotic frenzy which fascism thrives on, but to establish an atmosphere of uniformity and unanimity needed to maintain fascism. To German audiences, singing along with the crowd was portrayed as “more fun” or “desirable” than sitting idly by.

Joseph Goebbels, who oversaw Nazi censorship of the theatre community in Nazi Germany.

Where propaganda thrives, so does censorship. Two years before the premier of Der Weg ins Reich, the Theatre Section of the Department for Propaganda was added to the Reich’s Ministry for Enlightenment of the People and for Propaganda (REPP), headed by Rainer Schlösser. The Nazi’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was granted legal authority to intervene in theatrical performances as well in 1934, which gave the Reich complete control over media in Nazi Germany (Berghaus, 1996).

Nazi censorship occurred slowly, but effectively. Any theatre worker, be they playwright, actor, theater owner, or in any other theatrical position, risked losing their job putting on a show which contained political messages inconsistent with the Nazi platform. For non-Jewish, non-Communist, or otherwise “tolerable” people, this simply meant keeping your head low and doing as you were told. However, soon the REPP required theatre managers to share their programmes with Theatre Section workers in Berlin; no one, from the largest Berlin theatre companies to the most remote community troupes, was exempt. Shows by previously accepted and/or tolerated authors were among the first to go, as well as those tied in any way to Judaism. Productions that criticized or contradicted Hitler or his ideals were also excluded. Any theatre manager brave enough to ask to perform a rejected show quickly desisted after receiving a “piece of advice” from Berlin, a thinly-veiled threat of arrest and possible confinement in concentration camps (Berghaus, 1996). After establishing their dominance in this manner, some plays were allowed in certain areas, strategically chosen by the Theatre Section. The REPP also directly contacted publishers and authors with editorial notes for plays, often demanding they omit or rewrite certain passages. Failure to comply, whether on the part of publishers or authors, would result in a forcible removal of the offending play from the market, or in cases of smaller or lesser-known names, a complete ban.

Germany was not the only country to see Nazi-controlled censorship in theatre; in 1942 Greece was occupied by Germany, and all classic Greek plays were banned from being performed. Greece was particularly targeted more so than other occupied countries, as plays, films, and books produced in Greece reflected a deep Greek cultural sense of independence and rebellion. Greek theatre was, and still is, heavily populated by works thousands of years old, written by political figures and thinkers such as Aristophanes. Plays written even thousands of years ago carried messages of democracy, questioning authority, and rebellion, all themes that threatened Nazism. During Nazi occupation, virtually no classical Greek plays could even be held in libraries (Sova, 2004), much less performed, as well as many Greek films. Books, too, were heavily censored and history classes altered in Greek schools. This cultural oppression ensured that the citizens of occupied nations such as Greece felt the presence of the Nazis and contributed to feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness that made occupation easier.

The REPP did not directly censor in every way, however. Often, competing authors, publishers, or companies would exclude certain works or even “rat them out” to the officials in Berlin. They did this to gain favor with the Nazi party, but also to eliminate competition. If a theatre company started to surpass a competitor, the competitor simply had to anonymously tip the REPP or SS to ensure the “mysterious disappearance” of the theatre owners, producers, and/or writers. This created a highly tense, competitive environment in the theatre subculture, with power constantly shifting under the shadow of the ever-increasingly oppressive Third Reich.

Because the REPP worked so much behind the scenes, people did not see this censorship occurring. To them, it seemed that theatre companies were simply putting out material that supported the Reich and Hitler, proof that they were being led in the right direction by the right leader(s). This was the exact goal of the REPP and the Theatre Section. By dominating the public space, they could eliminate the voice of any opposing side and win over the hearts and minds of the people. With no room for opposing arguments, fascism took hold, and its repercussions were felt for generations around the world. Just as theatre can be a tool for free speech by the people, it can be used as a tool to suppress free thought and oppress citizens.


Works Cited:

Zortman, Bruce. Hitler’s Theatre: Ideological Drama in Nazi Germany. Firestein Books, 1984.

Berghaus, Günter. Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925-1945. Berghahn Books, 1996.

Sova, Dawn B.. Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas. Checkmark Books, 2004.