They Dreamed Their Words Would Last a Thousand Years: James Reiss on Jay W. Baird’s Hitler’s War Poets

Hitler’s War Poets: Literature and Politics in the Third Reich, Jay W. Baird, Cambridge University Press, 2009

The first three words in the title of Jay W. Baird’s new critical study are, to some extent, oxymoronic. You don’t need to go so far as to define poets as peace-loving “unacknowledged legislators of the world” to see that writers serving Hitler as their hero and their Muse were as anachronistic a species as dodos trying to fly. One of the major virtues of Baird’s book is the way it sheds light on how crucial propaganda from versifiers–-Nazi versions of today’s bloggers and spin doctors—is to any political party. Throughout history poetry has served politics: “The Aeneid” was to Rome what “The Faerie Queen” was to Queen Elizabeth—and Philip Roth’s novel, “The Plot Against America,” was to the Bush administration. If Baird spends an overabundance of time on the life stories of now-obscure verse mongers, it may partly be to illustrate how the devil is in the details of everyday life; how any one of us, enamored of a charismatic leader or an article of faith, could grow up to become a demagogue. All the more power to us if we’re writers as gifted as Milton, who spent most of his career spreading the good word about the satanic Lord Cromwell. Nevertheless, during the Third Reich the pen appears not to have been mightier than the sword; the German writers in Baird’s book may have roused Hitler’s rabble, but they ultimately had less effect on his regime than they may have wished.

The cover photo of “Hitler’s War Poets” shows a bespectacled young man sporting the subtlest Mona Lisa smile and a look that can only be described as “sensitive.” If you ignored his Waffen SS cap and double rune collar tags, you could easily mistake him for a 30-something freundlich guy you might expect to find at a poetry reading.

Truth be told, this innocuous-looking fellow, Eberhard Wolfgang Möller, is one of the half-dozen writers Jay Baird focuses on in his unique, encyclopedically jam-packed, slender tome, “Hitler’s War Poets.” Baird’s central thesis that poets who flourished under the Third Reich were mainly egregious pen pushers may, as I’ve hinted, sound obvious nowadays. At the time, however, the audience for these poets was large, perhaps larger than the audience for American poets today. German-speaking readers flocked to buy copies of books that extolled their Führer and lambasted his nemeses. Seventy-plus years ago the Nazis who placed “Arbeit macht frei” over the entry gates of concentration camps were part of a horde eager to read about lazy Jews, Poles, and gypsies. Given Hitler’s Weltanschauung, it’s remarkable that one of his Third Reich poets is eminently readable in 2010.

In the 1930s and ’40s Möller was regaled, then reviled, as a playwright-cum-poet of the German Volk. The fact that in “Coriolanus” Shakespeare referred to something like the British Volk derisively as “the many-headed multitude” suggests an Elizabethan/Jacobean skepticism, even cynicism, about common citizens (whom American poetaster Edgar Guest sappily referred to as “just folks”), absent in early twentieth-century Germany. Möller and his colleagues were convinced they could revive the moribund Geist of the German people after the fiasco of The Great War by stressing their identity as Nordic warriors and embracing National Socialism as the way out of Germany’s predicament.

But before you mistake Möller, whom Baird dubs “Hitler’s Muse,” for a Luger-toting hack capable of tossing off only jingoist ditties, here are a couple of his opening stanzas from “Der Tote,” which Baird translates as “The Corpse” (1940):

I have soil over my lips,
A big stone is in my mouth.
A gentle mole is moving in my ribs
and is my friend. I am no longer alone.
I lie still and cannot move
and do not know if I am even myself.
But I am not thirsty, the rain soaks me
and many roots are growing through me. (pp. 199-200)

And keeping in mind that Baird’s free-verse translations lose a lot of the musical power of their original’s metrically regular rhyming quatrains in German, here are some lines from “Der Sterbende” (“The Dying,” 1941) that describe a soldier at death’s door:

He lay in a little wagon,
I saw his mouth;
he trembled gently without crying out
like a woman giving birth.

His body was torn and bloody,
it was death that he was bearing,
and beads of sweat
rolled off his mangled hair.

His eyes quietly circled,
as if they were ashamed that he suffered so.
Then a comrade cried over him,
and the whole world cried with him. (pp. 202-03)

Möller may lack the terrific mega-amperage Wilfred Owen deployed in one of the greatest anti-war poems in English, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” but Möller’s close attention to detail, his daring comparison of death to delivery, his dirt-simple diction, and most of all the transcendent sentiment expressed in his last lines all suggest the redoubtable powers of a poet who nonetheless remains forgotten.

To be sure, “Der Tote” and “Der Sterbende” represent Möller at the tag end of his career. During his heyday in the 1930s he’d written his share of anti-Semitic, Aryan claptrap, mainly plays, which were vastly popular. But by the time Hitler’s war cries, echoed in the Nazi anthem, the “Horst Wessel Song,” turned into pitched battles, Möller began to look beyond the swastika. As Baird notes, “More and more he saw the war from the perspective of his own aesthetic vision, less and less from the point of view of ideology” (p. 199). In fact, he survived a virtual death sentence—the German High Command posted him to the Russian front as a war reporter—and lived into his sixties, only to die in obscurity; this is all the more reason why his story needs to be told here.

“Hitler’s War Poets” is apparently the first book in English to deal with Third Reich writers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Germans have not been eager to take up the work of nationalist writers such as Möller, and unlike that of such expatriates as Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Bertold Brecht, American scholars and general readers have ignored stay-at-home German writers of the 1930s and ’40s. Unfortunately “Hitler’s War Poets” introduces no other poet of Möller’s distinction. The work by the five other writers discussed here pretty much conforms to predictable stereotypes. Take the rakish, volatile street fighter with a face scarred from dueling, Kurt Eggers. He certainly must have appealed to the Führer with the following lines from “Ein Feuerspruch” (“A Plea for Fire”) (1941):

You, my brothers,
Take the torch
And lighten the darkness!
Set fire to the rotten world of lies
And light the flame of zeal!
Drive out with light and fire,
The spooks,
The sorcerers and conjurers
The bewitched in the darkness. . . (p. 241)

Although these lines served Nazi ideology in crying out for the elimination of Christianity—as officially detested as Judaism and Bolshevism—even considering the piece as more of a “chorus” than a poem per se, the writing is cliché-ridden drivel. As Baird notes, “The works of Kurt Eggers. . .were characterized more by revolutionary passion than intellectual depth” (p. 229). More than Möller, however, the short, Sturm-und-Drang-tossed story of Eggers’s life is riveting. Baird dismisses Eggers’s writing, focusing instead on how young Kurt, with wealthy parents, grew up on a farm, became an urban urchin, then studied to be, of all things, a Lutheran minister, although, alas, he was not one for long. He renounced his position as a man of the cloth to become Berlin’s man of the world, an officer in the SS Race and Settlement Central Office. While turning out numerous books of Nazi agitprop, he found time to earn his doctorate and serve the Wehrmacht’s Panzer division with Dionysian glee before dying in combat in Russia at age 37.

None of Hitler’s other war poets faced Valhalla as early as Eggers. The others managed to escape the Spruchkammern (post-war denazification courts) and survive as “disappointed old (men)” (p. 95). For that matter, the writers included in Baird’s study were not primarily poets. They mainly wrote fiction and essays, although each of them tried his hand at Nationalist poetry. Perhaps more important than the question of the accuracy of Baird’s title, I find it interesting that they were drawn to write poetry for the Party, as though lyrics and ballads did crucial cultural work that couldn’t be done merely in fiction and essays.

One salient feature of “War Poets,” which could be subtitled “Hitlerature,” is its photographs of each author. If Möller looks like a bookish chum and Eggers appears alternately sinister and innocent in his two photos, Edwin Erich Dwinger, in his double-breasted dark suit and necktie, with his impressive head of blondish hair and classic Nordic features, resembles a movie star or perhaps someone like the world-famous rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun. Sadly, his writing lacks luster. As always, Baird offers succinct précis of Dwinger’s written accounts of his experiences in prisoner of war camps. The irony of Dwinger’s life story is that, with a Russian mother, he spoke Russian and, as a Hanoverian Cavalry teenage enlistee, he survived several horrid long prison stints in Czarist Siberia, only to be liberated by the Red Army during what Baird calls “The Russian Civil War” (except on page 214 when he refers to it as “The Russian Revolution”). After escaping the chaos of Red and White Armies slaughtering one another, Dwinger made his way back to Germany and wrote a sequence of memoirs that vilified Bolshevism. Some of these books were bestsellers, but none, as far as I can tell from Baird’s able summaries, rises above its anti-communist rhetoric.

In contrast, expatriate World War One German veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” was a novel that all six of Baird’s “poets” knew. It rose so far above mere rhetoric, its “message,” that it was made into a superb movie and continues to be read as a multifaceted work of literature today. Hitler’s war poets uniformly denounced Remarque’s book because of its anti-war theme. Wrapped as they were in their mantle of self-pity and disgruntlement about Germany’s loss of the Great War, as young men they observed the decadent whirligig of events—the rampant inflation, corruption and ostentation taking place during the Weimar Republic—and they turned to an Austrian who contended that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by communists, Jews, and papists. Obviously, each of Baird’s writers, in varying degrees, went along with the Austrian. None of these writers, except for Möller at the nadir of his career, openly questioned their Führer, who, by the way, cared far less about writers than he did about artists, musicians and architects. All the same, his writers fell for the ultra-Romantic notion that they could be Führer-blessed Übermenschen. Mistakenly regarding Nietzsche as an anti-Semite, swept away by Wagner, Brahms and Beethoven as though these composers were chanting “Deutschland über alles,” they dreamed their words would last a thousand years.

Thanks to Jay Baird, we can get some sense of their words and mull over their thoughts less than a century later.

Purchase Hitler’s War Poets


As a War Baby, James Reiss remembers trying to grow a Victory Garden in northern Manhattan—while Hitler chomped on veggies in Berchtesgaden.