Crime fiction, paradoxically, flourished under the nazis. A recent anthology (in French) by Vincent Platini allows us to rediscover these novels today. Le Figaro interviewed him recently, and this is a rather loose translation.
Vincent Platini is a researcher and lecturer at the Freie Universität de Berlin,. He analyzes the reasons that led the detective genre to flourish in the Third Reich. To be sure, the regime was not an undifferentiated bloc: while it maintained a totalitarian grip on cultural life evoking George Orwell's 1984, it also supported a mass culture based on frivolous and stupefying entertainment, reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Platini says that only a few works would have been overt propaganda. Though the nazis were hostile to kitsch culture, the likes of Goebbels realised that forcing political issues onto the public would quickly jade them. They would proceed gradually. However, this supposedly apolitical culture colluded in maintaining nazi power as it held out the promise of a better life. When the war began, mass culture was used for its soothing effect: a novel such as Annex 27, published in 1944, described a prosperous Germany distant from the impending catastrophe. It reflected nazi ideology by denying the death throes of the regime.
Platini uncovers the development of consumerism and Americanism in nazi Germany, and recalls the notable advertisements for Coca-Cola and the craze for jazz. How could the censor tolerate gangster novels and films such as were set in Chicago? Platini points out that the Reich was not viscerally anti-American; indeed, the regime had a fascination for America and the public had a taste for foreign products. Hollywood set the example for German cinema, and crime fiction took on the English style. Admittedly, this leniency only lasted for a period. As censorship became more severe, the regime tried to promote 'good' German crime fiction. This was not an overt success. England and the US remained the trendsetters and German crime writers placed their novels in American settings but with a German footprint. This displacement became liberating: it was easy to pretend that major crimes no longer existed within the Third Reich; it also permitted a veiled criticism of the regime. Here, crime fiction became escapism in the true sense.
Platini mentions 'treasures buried beneath the corpse'. Was there any artistic merit to contraband literature produced in nazi Germany? Indeed, he avers, there was more merit to this than the 'legitimate' culture, if art, among other things, is a challenge to the established discourse. This scorned literature acquired value precisely it was overlooked by the censors. The art that was recognised by the nazis did not perform its critical function. But an author such as Kuckhoff - of the highest intellectual training - deliberately turned towards the detective genre because it gave him a subversive opportunity that was subtle enough to be printed in the largest magazine of the time. Even a work of resistance such as The Open Letter reveals itself a gem of rhetoric, overturning the vocabulary of propaganda. But it remains the reader's responsibility to have a critical sensibility.
Krimi, une anthologie du récit policier sous le Troisième reich», selected, edited and translated by Vincent Platini, Anacharsis, 444 p., 23 €